Christian unity a matter of discipleship—and of increasing ‘urgency,’ says Sharman

31 August 2023 • Persistent link:

This article was the seventh instalment of Hearing the Lambeth Calls, a 10-part Anglican Journal series on the calls to the global Anglican Communion made at the 2022 Lambeth Conference.

Ecumenism and the search for Christian unity are no mere niche interest, the Anglican Church of Canada’s lead animator for ecumenical and interfaith relations Canon Scott Sharman says, but rather “an essential part of being a disciple of Jesus today”—and ecumenical agreements between churches in countries like Canada may soon become more common.

Sharman was responding to the Lambeth call on Christian unity, one of 10 statements drafted by committees of Anglican bishops from around the world, laying out priorities for the Anglican Communion. Each call is expected to be shaped in response to feedback: an earlier version of the calls served as the basis for discussion at the 2022 Lambeth Conference, a gathering of 650 bishops from across the Anglican Communion; this spring, an updated version was released based on that discussion. Now, Anglicans worldwide are invited to share their own feedback through a series of webinars.

The Lambeth call on Christian unity in its 2022 version urged the Anglican Communion to renew its “commitment to an urgent search for the full visible unity of the Church”; and for Anglicans to build relationships with other churches in their provinces, working with them to proclaim the gospel and respond to the needs of world. It asked Anglicans to learn from other Christian traditions and seek dialogue to overcome theological and ecclesiological differences; to speak up for those suffering persecution; and to establish relationships of communion with other churches.

The 2023 version includes these but also calls on Anglicans to seek unity and reconciliation within the Anglican tradition itself—recognizing divisions within the Anglican Communion that have led to the establishment of separated churches and groups.

Sharman said he was encouraged by one of the Lambeth calls being devoted to Christian unity, viewing ecumenism as a key part of following the teachings of Jesus.

“In a world that is used to people pulling away from one another [and going] their separate ways, a commitment to seek unity with those who think and speak and pray their faith in Christ ‘differently than me’ is a powerful witness to the gospel and the call to reconciliation,” Sharman said.

“The importance and urgency of this is likely only going to increase in the decades to come. I think the fact that the Lambeth Conference gave ecumenism the attention that it did confirms this.”

In the global North and West, Sharman said, a point may be approaching when the focus for Christians will be less on how to maintain the presence of specific denominations such as Anglicanism or Lutheranism, “but rather how we best encourage and support the presence of a vibrant and active community of Jesus followers at all.” For that reason, he said, various forms of “full communion agreements, ministry-sharing covenants and collaborative mission partnerships” between previously separate denominations will become more frequent and common in the future. Sharman cited the recent agreement of full communion between the Anglican, Lutheran and Moravian churches in Canada, reached in Calgary this summer at the joint Anglican-Lutheran Assembly, as an example.

The Assembly also saw the celebration of Churches Beyond Borders—a cross-border, four-church relationship in which the Anglican and Lutheran churches in Canada have expanded full communion to include their U.S. counterparts, the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—with speeches followed by an exchange of communion cups from each church.

Sharman said the Lambeth call on Christian unity benefits the Anglican Church of Canada’s ecumenical work by providing “touchstones” that have been discerned and articulated by the broader global church, helping give focus and guidance to local and national churches.

“We are in a time as a church where many priorities of the church national are being reassessed, and where our resources and energy need to be carefully directed towards those things that can make the greatest difference,” Sharman said. “This is equally true with respect to our ecumenical initiatives.”

‘Ecumenical emergency’

Last summer’s Lambeth Conference also saw Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Roman Catholic Church’s lead on ecumenical affairs, highlight, in a message read out by a representative, what he called an “ecumenical emergency” after decades of progress in bringing different Christian denominations together.

Koch contrasted the dominance of postmodernism—a school of thought that denies any single overarching account of reality and instead raises pluralism to a principle—with traditional Christian thinking that found meaning in unity (the word “catholic” comes from the Greek word katholikos, meaning “universal”). This postmodernist mentality, Koch said, has found its way into ecumenical thinking, “expressed in an ecclesiological pluralism … according to which precisely having multiple diverse churches is regarded as a positive reality and any attempt to regain the unity of the church appears suspicious.”

However, these divisions in Christianity have turned out to be a strong barrier to evangelization, Koch said. He cited the 2013 apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis I, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which spoke about how divisions among Christians, particularly in Africa and Asia, had become a serious problem.

Implementation at the Communion level

The Lambeth call on Christian unity states that responsibility for its implementation lies mainly with the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), working through the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO) and the Anglican Communion Office (ACO). It calls on the ACC and secretary general “to ensure that adequate resources are available to enable this task.”

Sharman said the ACC and IASCUFO are critical to Anglican work for Christian unity, since “most if not all our ecumenical dialogue partners are, like us, part of global denominational communions of families of churches.” The most direct way that the Anglican Church of Canada receives support for ecumenical work, he said, is through forums for discussion.

Christopher Wells, director of the Unity, Faith and Order department—the ACO branch that supports the work of IASCUFO—called ecumenism “from the beginning, a centrepiece of the ACO’s work.”

Wells said a considerable part of the ACO’s budget goes to support ecumenism at Unity, Faith and Order through staffing, organizing, and financially supporting the Anglican Communion’s bilateral dialogues by covering costs such as airfare, accommodations and travel visas.

“To be sure, proper financing of this work has been and remains a challenge, but we are in no way backing away from any of it,” Wells told the Anglican Journal in an email.

The Anglican Communion, Wells said, is currently engaged in bilateral dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, the family of Eastern Orthodox churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Methodist Council and the Pentecostal World Fellowship, as well as with the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. It is also engaged in exploratory discussions with the Assyrian Church of the East.