US churches continue to seek unity in social justice and witness

By Episcopal News Service
November 17, 2008

Celebrating 100 years of inter-church cooperation in the USA, the National Council of Churches (NCC) and Church World Service (CWS) annual general assembly convened 11-13 November 2008 in Denver, Colorado, and the Episcopal Church's participation was highly visible.

Bishop C. Christopher Epting, the Presiding Bishop's deputy for ecumenical and interreligious relations, who was among the Episcopal Church representatives at the meeting, said, "Two highlights for me at this Assembly were the presence of young adults from the "New Fire" consultation and the wonderful new balance between substantive Faith and Order work - including interreligious relations - and our ongoing work for justice and peace. General Secretary Michael Kinnamon deserves much of the credit for inspiring both."

"The NCC plays a vital role in bringing the communions together to explore the possibility of the visible unity of the church, and to encourage and support one another as we seek to be faithful disciples in the world," said the Rev. Lyndon Harris, an Episcopal priest and executive director of the New York-based Garden of Forgiveness, an educational non-profit organization that teaches about forgiveness as a strategy for both personal healing and wellness. "I will take away from this general assembly not only the resources shared, but also an excitement to share this ecumenical experience with the congregation I serve."

Harris, a member of the NCC faith and order commission, was one of approximately 20 participants from the Episcopal Church who attended the general assembly.

The theme of this year's assembly was based on Luke 9:50 -- "Jesus said ... Whoever is not against you is for you" -- a response by Jesus to his disciples' complaints about a man they didn't know who was casting out demons in Jesus' name. "The words invoke the brokenness of a world in which suspicion and distrust govern our relationships and create obstacles to church unity," an NCC news release said.

Topics addressed at the general assembly, which focused on the universal obligation to be good neighbors, included immigration reform; the meaning of Christian unity in a pluralistic era; and the "phobias" that stand in the way of ecumenical unity, racial justice and interfaith dialogue.

A special highlight of the assembly, Harris said, was the celebration of one of the Episcopal Church's "seasoned ecumenists," the Rev. Dr O. C. Edwards, Jr., who was given the 2008 Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Award for his longstanding and faithful leadership in the NCC, as past president, co-chair of the faith and order commission, and one-time member of the executive committee.

The 100th anniversary of the National Council of Churches, which traces its origins to the founding of the Federal Council of Churches in December 1908, was celebrated at the closing gathering on November 13.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Dorrien, an Episcopal priest, professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York and professor of religion at Columbia University, addressed the assembly November 11 on "Remembering 100 years and anticipating the future."

Dorrien offered a historical and theological interpretation of the crucial role of faith communities in shaping and guiding the ethics and moral initiatives of the United States in the past, and the need for them to fulfill this calling again both now and in the future.

The ecumenical movement, he told delegates, has a "historic opportunity to change."

Tracing the history of the social gospel movement, Dorrien said that the recent election of Barack Obama as President of the United States opens the door to new possibilities and suggested the global economic crisis creates a new scenario for churches whose original response to modern economic globalization was the social gospel. The full text of Dorrien's address is available here.

Other presentations at the 2008 assembly included Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, who spoke about current U.S. immigration policies, the need for their reform, and the role faith communities must play in promoting these reforms; the Rev. Otis Moss, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, who spoke about "Reclaiming our Focus on Racial Justice"; and a panel discussion by four distinguished leaders of NCC/CWS member communions describing "phobias" that block movement toward "visible Christian unity."

The NCC's member faith groups -- Anglican, Evangelical, Orthodox, Protestant, historic African American and Living Peace churches -- include 45 million people in more than 100,000 congregations throughout the U.S.

A young adult gathering, "New Fire: Young Adult Ecumenical Formation Days," preceded the assembly and featured keynote addresses by Kinnamon and the Rev. Deborah DeWinter, program executive of the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches.

On the eve of the general assembly, the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, who was elected as NCC general secretary one year ago, addressed the organization's communication commission and began what he said would be an ongoing conversation with ecumenical communicators about the theology of communication and the way the NCC story should be told.

The Rev. Dr. Alfred A. Moss, an Episcopal priest from the Diocese of Virginia and an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, said that the chief focus of the 2008 assembly had been on building a "heightened consciousness" between member denominations "of their calling to proclaim individually and together the Lordship of Jesus Christ in prayer and worship; through redemptive actions of social service; through political advocacy for those who are voiceless, victimized, exploited, and forgotten; and by challenging the U.S. and other first world nations to behave in ways that promote the coming of the Kingdom of God and the Beloved Community."

Repeatedly, participants heard the message that the NCC and the CWS "are instruments of the member communions for conveying these messages to the U.S. and the world verbally, in print, and by example," said Moss.

Harris said he had been inspired "not only by the quality thought-provoking presentations … but also by the opportunities for cross-denominational fellowship.

"It was exciting and encouraging to spend time comparing notes with delegates from all over the country and hearing their stories of faithfulness and courage."

(c) ENS and Matthew Davies. The author is editor of Episcopal Life Online and Episcopal Life Media correspondent for the Anglican Communion.

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