Rev Sandy Boyce on ecumenism
September 6, 2022
Rev Sandy Boyce
What is your role and what do you do? What are some of the key pieces of work?
I’m the Executive Officer of the Victorian Council of Churches.
The VCC has at its core a commit to deepen relationships with each other in order to express more visibly the unity willed by Christ for his church, and to work together towards the fulfilment of their common mission of witness, proclamation and service.
This year is 70 years since the 1952 Third Faith and Order Conference held in Lund, Sweden. Delegates worked on the principle for ecumenical relationships: “Should not our churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other churches, and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?” Of course, that was in the context of post-war rebuilding. People had been separated by conflict and war, and experienced pain, loss, grief and disappointment. They needed to create space to share their hopes for the future and renew a commitment to strengthen relationships and work together.
But the Lund declaration resonates today with the experience of so much vulnerability and brokenness, distrust, schisms, decline in social cohesion and global challenges. So, rather than do occasional ecumenical activities, Christians and churches should give a priority to doing things ecumenically, to do things together which are already a part of their normal life, that is to share a common life. The heart of the ecumenical movement is premised on that commitment to work together rather than be apart. It’s not essentially institutional or even doctrinal, but much more dynamic and relational.
The ecumenical project is a prophetic witness in a world of schisms, fractured relationships, distrust and loss of morale we see within the churches - and in the global community. There is something incredibly robust in actively partnering with churches from other traditions in missional activities, learning from and with each other, working together, building relationships of trust and respect, as a witness to the Gospel. We orient our communal lives towards seeking the unity of the church, and of humanity through reconciliation and renewal. And the same can be said for building interfaith relationships that have integrity and substance.
The Victorian Council of Churches is closely connected with the VCC Emergencies Ministry which recruits and trains volunteers as chaplains for disaster response. It is a brilliant contribution to the broader community.
We also work to amplify local ecumenical efforts and grassroots ecumenism where communities share activities and engage together in outreach.
The VCC will be working on supporting congregations with resources in the lead up to the proposed Referendum, and to continue to raise awareness of matters arising from the Statement from the Heart, and the Yoorook Justice Commission in Victoria.
What’s your understanding of ecumenism as part of the identity of the Uniting Church?
The ‘Statement to the Nation’ in 1977 at the inauguration of the Uniting Church, and in 1988 for the Bicentennial, are absolutely captivating descriptions of the DNA of the UCA. At its best, the ecumenical project parallels the commitments to the dignity of all people, to care for creation, to reconciliation with First Peoples, to justice and peace, solidarity and advocacy, to dialogue in times of conflict, and to speak truth to power for the greater good and for the ‘common wealth’. We live in a world where racism (and other isms) and gender inequality and violence need to be named and addressed by the churches.
The Uniting Church needs to continually discern what God is up to in the world in order that we may join in with the movement of God’s Spirit. We must also make reference to our history as we discern new ways to work together on the common task of mission and evangelism. This means working together with churches of different traditions, as well as building authentic relationships with people of other faiths.
Amidst all this ‘activity’ there is also the profound nature of prayer that draws us closer to each other, and to God, and to God’s world. Prayer is foundational to the ecumenical project. It enlivens our commitment to unity and reconciliation, and to justice and compassion.
What’s the future of ecumenism? How will it continue to be a part of the life and identity of the UCA into the future?
There are so many committed and faithful people who have carried the ecumenical torch for decades. Even so, one can see that ecumenism has lost momentum, if for no other reason than the lack of younger adults who see the potential for engaging in ecumenical activities in its current form.
Having said that, it’s also true that younger adults have built other kinds of networks across denominations and diverse faith traditions. Denominational and institutional loyalty is often seen as less of a priority, with more attention given to seeking authentic expressions of Christian faith in relation to ministry, mission and evangelism. The contribution of younger adults is to be valued. Such voices may well be seen as ‘disruptive’ from our usual patterns but may be the catalyst for seeing the new things that God is doing in our midst, and what God is calling our attention to and inviting us to join in.
The ecumenical project invites us to see the champions of ecumenism as the great cloud of (living) witnesses cheering on younger adults as they discern fresh ways forward.
As well, there is a growing swell of connection with churches that have in the past stood aside from the formal expressions of the ecumenical movement. This will be explored further in the spirit of receptive ecumenism where instead of asking what other church traditions can learn from ‘us’, we ask what our tradition needs to learn from them. In this way we learn from each other and recognise we all have gifts to share.
Henri Nouwen speaks about creating “a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found. The movement from hostility to hospitality is hard and full of difficulties. Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude, and do harm. But still - that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest, and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced”.
It’s a grand vision, and one that is at the heart of the ecumenical project. It’s also at the heart of the UCA as a ‘uniting’ church.