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Robert K. Welsh's Unity & Peace Lecture • watch video or read transcript below

The Tasks of Ecumenical Formation for Today’s Church and World
by Robert K Welsh

Disciples Seminary Foundation Dinner, Claremont, CA         

November 1, 2017


It is a real pleasure to be with you this evening, and to have been invited by Jinsuk to share some thoughts on ecumenism in the Disciples of Christ – and then to relate that vision to the Disciples Seminary Foundation today.

It is also a joy to be a member of the DSF board, especially in this important, and critical, and (I believe) creative time of thinking about the future of the Disciples Seminary Foundation. I hope my presentation this evening will contribute to this thinking and discussion and visioning for the future.


And finally, to say how much I appreciate getting to spend time with so many friends and colleagues.  Ben Bohren and I go back to our seminary days at Lexington Theological Seminary in the late 1960s.  And, in my work within the general life of our church, I was privileged to get to know and work with wonderful colleagues, like Belva Brown Jordan and Toni Bynum; Bob Bock and Ann Willard and Laura Bailey, Marilyn Fiddmont and Michael Trice and Jose Morales. And in recent years, I have especially appreciated getting to know and work with Jon Berquist – whom I consider to be one of the most significant voices giving leadership in theological education, not only here at the Disciples Seminary Foundation, but also within the theological community here on the West Coast, and within the whole of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I am honored to be part of this board, and tonight to share some reflections about the ecumenical movement and the challenges to unity and peace in these days.     


As I begin my address this evening I need to confess that I’ve been working on this presentation for several weeks – struggling with how to bring together a wide range of issues and topics related to the ecumenical movement and to our calling to Christian unity. [I would also admit that part of my struggle has probably come from having more time on my hands in retirement; or, perhaps, like many of you, I have been feeling a renewed sense  of urgency around the issues of unity and reconciliation, of justice and peace, both in our nation and world today -- especially over the past 10 months with President Trump and the way he tweets division and bullying, as he  stirs up fear with threats of war -- creating an attitude that fosters exclusion, separation, and isolation – not only in our society, but among nations and peoples in our world. And, regrettably, I often sense this same dynamic has begun to take hold within the membership of our churches where unity and reconciliation are no longer seen to be our “polar star” as we retreat into our own denominational enclaves and congregations, caring more about ourselves and preservation of our church structures and institutions than about the wider church (the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church”) or about our witness as Christians before a society and world that are crying out for signs of hope and healing and reconciliation. 


[I remember an interesting comment made by Dick Hamm in his second terms of service as General Minister and President of our church that: “I am not going to let our denomination die on my watch.” What I remember thinking when I heard that comment was, “And this statement coming from the leadership of a church that was born out of The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery that boldly declared, “We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”]


Well, with all of this as background to my presentation, I have revised the focus and title of my address to explore the topic: “The tasks of ecumenical formation for today’s church and world: challenges to unity, justice and peace-making in the 21st century.”   I will then conclude with some specific reflections and suggestions regarding ecumenical formation of students and ministers in the coming years – both for ministry in the church, and for service in the world.

The Challenges to Unity


To begin, it is important to understand that there has been a significant change in recent years in the life of the ecumenical movement and in the vision of Christian unity and the oneness of all Christians: the agendas have shifted; the goals have changed; and surely, this change has implications for the preparation and theological education of ministers in today’s world. Let me explain. 


When I first got involved in the ecumenical movement over 40 years ago, back in the early days of the Consultation on Church Union (known widely as COCU),  which looked to forming of a united church here in this nation -- and then in my work as the Study Secretary on the staff of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches in Geneva (back in 1974 to 1976) where the focus was in putting the final touches on the major theological text, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry –  a consensus statement that represented over 50 years of  international dialogue and  theological agreement  involving most Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox Churches, and including official representatives from the Vatican and from Pentecostal churches. It was an amazing achievement in the ecumenical movement! 


In those days the vision was clear: we were seeking full visible unity, based upon theological consensus around the core issues and practices of the Christian faith, while looking to a united church that would bring the various histories and structures into a unity where differences were overcome and divisions were healed – seeking a church “truly catholic, truly evangelical, and truly reformed.” 


The Consultation on Church Union captured a vision of unity for a major segment of Christianity in this nation – Methodists, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Disciples, Christian Methodist Episcopal, AME, AMEZ, and the United Church of Christ – involving over 50 million Christians in this nation.   It was a bold and exciting and concrete vision of unity that captured most of the ecumenical energy of churches and church leadership during the 1960s and 70s.


And surrounding all of these developments here in the United States was the initiative in the early 1960s in the convening of the Second Vatican Council that clearly represented a new day for the Roman Catholic Church and its full entrance into the modern ecumenical movement as a major player and a full partner. 


I can remember thinking as a seminary student in 1969 that I really should be preparing to serve in a very different context of ministry than we had known to that time – to be ready and able to serve in a united church which was coming into being within the immediate, foreseeable future.


I’m not sure exactly when that vision began to fade -- somewhere in the 1980s and early 90s.  It certainly began when the proposed Plan of Union was rejected by each of the 10 member churches in the Consultation on Church Union.  No longer were the churches anticipating an easy move into a united church – indeed, looking back, it  is clear what was happening was a major shift both in the goal being pursued and in the agendas that would claim  the energy and attention of the churches involved in the ecumenical movement in the coming decades. 


What was that new vision of unity? 

First, the churches were no longer seeking institutional or organizational unity – that is, putting together the denominational structures – “merger” was no longer understood to be the goal; rather, the goal became a vision (a relationship) of “full communion” in which the churches were seeking a unity (visible oneness) that was focused on manifesting together God’s gift of oneness in Christ in our worship and Eucharistic sharing, and in our common witness and service in and to the world.  Unity would be received as God’s gift to the churches as we enter into new relationships in faith and mission, in service and common witness.  It is a dynamic and growing model of unity that rejects uniformity either in belief or in practice – a unity not based upon our agreement as Christians, but upon a profound humility arising from our shared life in the Risen Christ.  We are seeking oneness in Christ, not sameness in our theologies or worship or structures or practices.


Second, in our quest for visible unity, there has been a reclaiming of the original focus upon the vision of the oikoumene (“the whole inhabited earth”).  A shift began to take place in the ecumenical movement to seriously explore the essential link between the unity of the church and the unity of humankind. The questions were no longer about ecclesial structures or organizations; but rather, “what difference might the visible unity of the church mean for addressing the major issues in our society and world?” -- issues of racism and exclusion; of sexism and the full participation of women in the church and society; of human sexuality and the inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the life and leadership of the church; of hunger, and poverty, and the unequal distribution of wealth and the earth’s resources.  A major challenge to unity was in having to respond to the questions: “What difference would the unity and oneness of Christians make in overcoming the real-life division and brokenness and fragmentation in our communities, our nation, and our world?  And also, in addressing the current situations of conflict and war and hostility between nations and religions in our efforts to build authentic peace, justice and reconciliation?” 


Indeed, looking back, the vision of ecumenism in the 1960s and 70s that was primarily focused on achieving theological agreement and consensus, and on bringing together the structures of our church institutions and organizations – which were really easier issues to address – as difficult as they were! – than the agenda today which is much more difficult and more challenging.  Working to overcome racism and sexism and classism and exclusion, both within the churches and in society, is a much more difficult task, and yet much more faithful to the gospel witness.

[This is what I believe was the key message in Jose Morales’ opening sermon to our church’s General Assembly last summer when he noted that “unity is hard . . . It’s hard!  Unity is difficult, inconvenient.  It is difficult work that rarely materializes fully. Therefore, any attempt at a convenient or safe unity is in actuality no unity at all.”   Unity is hard.]

Unity and Peace-making 

Earlier this evening you should have received two documents that have been produced by the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The first is a statement that I prepared just as I was retiring in which I tried to summarize my learnings about the goal and vision of Christian unity based upon over 40 years of direct involvement in the ecumenical ministry of our church: locally, nationally and internationally. And a second document that sets forth a proposal that brings together the challenge of “Becoming a Just Peace-making Church.”  I’m not going to read these to you – though I hope you might want to review both of these statements as we (the board of the Disciples Seminary Foundation) think about the future of DSF and the challenge of ecumenical formation in the 21st century church and world.


There are a couple of items I want to highlight in each of these documents that I believe begin to provide a framework for our tasks in ecumenical theological education:  1st, from the “Basic Understandings of Unity:”  


“9th - The challenge of Christian unity in our world today is also a call to interfaith
 engagement and dialogue:
learning ways to encounter people of other faiths in order to live in community with them; to learn from them, develop mutual respect, and discover areas of commonality; and, to witness to God’s love for all peoples in breaking down barriers between persons and nations in the pursuit of peace.


10th - The unity we seek in being reconciled to another as individuals and as churches is finally personal, not simply institutional – and it is grounded in a shared passion for God’s justice.  That is, all exclusion, prejudice and division based upon race, gender, nationality, forms of disability, sexual orientation, theology or belief are not simply issues to be addressed or programs to be undertaken, but are experienced personally by individuals -- both within the church and in society.”

And then in the second document -- which I had hoped would become the basis of a General Assembly resolution calling on our church to declare that we are “a just, peace-making church,” and to encourage every congregation to make this same declaration – I would note that when the ecumenical movement speaks today of “peace” and “peace-making,” it is not simply calling for the absence of war and conflict.  Rather, peace is understood to have four key elements:


  • Seeking Peace in the Community . . . so that all may live free from fear (Micah 4:3-4);

To seek to build cultures of peace where prejudice, racism, domestic violence and abuse are addressed, and where all can live safely and feel protected; 

  • Seeking Peace with the Earth. . . so that life is sustained (Romans 8:20-22)

To care for God’s precious gift of creation and to strive for ecological justice;

  • Seeking  Peace in the Marketplace . . . so that all may live with dignity (Isaiah 65:17-23);

To work for equitable and just sharing of resources and to address over-consumption greed, and the unjust economic distribution of wealth;  

  • Seeking Peace among the Peoples . . . so that human lives are protected (Matt. 5:43-44).

To break the spirit and logic of violence that is deeply rooted in human history, to work to end all war and the proliferation of weapons, and to build trust with peoples of other faiths and religions.   


This agenda, these challenges, represent the “hard unity” that I believe God is calling us to as Christians and as a church in these times.  As stated in the closing paragraph of the proposed declaration on Becoming a Just Peace-Making Church, “We know, and lament, that God’s peace and justice have not been achieved.  The principalities and powers of this world, though not sovereign, still enjoy too many victories.  Too often, brave men and women must still take up arms. And so we remain restless until peace prevails. ‘Our peace-making will, of necessity, criticize, denounce, advocate, and resist – as it will also proclaim, empower, console, reconcile, and heal.  Peacemakers will speak against and speak for; tear down and build up; lament and celebrate; grieve and rejoice.  Until our longing joins our belonging in the consummation of all things in God, the work of just peace-making will continue as the flicker of God’s grace.’”


Ecumenical Formation and the DSF


I now come to the final section of this address – to reflect upon the implications of all of this for the tasks of ecumenical formation within the seminaries that are partner schools of the Disciples Seminary Foundation. I want to share some quick reflections related to these tasks:


(1)  A major priority would be to educate students to have a clear theological vision of the church as a community that welcomes others just as Christ has welcomed us for the glory of God  (Romans 15), a church in which one part cannot say to another, “ I have no need of you “ (I Corinthians 12).   Graduates should understand, embrace and insist that the church isn’t simply called to preach the gospel with words or to enact it with service; it is also called to embody the gospel in the character of its own fellowship.  


 Too often the church reflects the same divisions of race and class and nationality and political ideology, the same desire to beat the competition and protect its own self-interest, the same arrogant exceptionalism as the world around it.  Many well-meaning Christians have thought of the church as fundamentally a human creation – which therefore, can be fashioned and divided as we humans see fit. But, if scripture is our guide, then surely we should acknowledge that the church is God’s, and that God‘s church is intrinsically one. Those who are “in Christ“ are not just a new community, but a new kind of  community in which societal barriers no longer divide persons from one another. Seen in biblical/theological perspective, life together is not an option on which Christians get to vote -- because, to put it bluntly, the church cannot play its role in God’s reconciling mission when it is divided. And the more we live in like-minded enclaves, the worse our theology is likely to become.  We need a community of difference, of those who see from other angles in order to understand God more fully.


(2)  I believe that ecumenical formation of students today would produce persons who are inclusive – who understand the biblical affirmation of the oneness of the human family.  All persons are part of God’s family – not distant relatives or persons who simply tolerate one another – not cousins once or twice removed – but accepting all persons authentically as true brothers and sisters and members of the one family of God.  [In Jesus’ prayer for his disciples recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 17, he prays, “May they all be one . . . so that the world may believe.” My question is: What part of all don’t we understand?]


DSF is called to produce persons of courage and conviction; persons of hope, grounded in God‘s promise of life, justice, peace and reconciliation in the face of the world’s despair and injustice and division; persons who would help build sustainable communities that embrace difference and diversity, and truly welcome the gifts of all.


(3)  In developing a curriculum of ecumenical education and formation for today’s seminarians, we should not only be asking “what kind of church do we envision for the 21st-century?”; but also, “what kind of society do we believe that God wants?”  This will mean that we need to be educating students to be bi-lingual – to be able to work in two languages: the language of faith and the language of our culture.  In the words of Michael Trice, “The task of ecumenical education includes both engagement in building up the koinonia of the one church while focusing on the outward expression of faithful and purposeful witness in our communities and society. . . As one of our local Lutheran bishops told me recently: ‘Christ is banging on the doors of the church today, not so that he can come in, but in order to get all of us outside in the blinding light of the needs of the world.’”


(4) Finally,  I want to lift up some thoughts that Michael Kinnamon shared as he reflected on his years at the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University, and how he would describe  what drives an ecumenical school of theology today.  [And in these words, you will no doubt hear Michael’s passion and clarity of vision.]


Such a school will not see itself simply as and educational institution, but as part of a movement to further the visible unity of the church.


Such as school will understand itself to be part of a movement for the church’s renewal. It will affirm the centrality of  the church in God‘s redemptive plan, while also acknowledging that the church today is understandably associated for many people with exclusion, not gracious welcome; with an inward focus, not expansive care for the poor or creation; with corporate-like structures and staid rituals, not passionate worship and difference-making mission. To say it another way the task of such a school is not to educate leaders who perpetuate the church as it is, but leaders who help envision what God is calling it to be.


Such as school will not confuse being ecumenical with being interdenominational. It will not, in other words rest content with opening its doors to Catholics and Protestants of various stripes, but will seek to bring its students into constructive, if sometimes difficult, dialogue out of a conviction that they need one another in order to be the church more fully and to understand God more truly.


Such a school will concern itself less with educating individuals for a career than with forming persons who are animated by an ecumenical spirit whatever their particular mission and task in society


Such a school will refuse to endorse the artificial separation of unity, justice, and peacemaking as if one takes priority over the other. Its mission will be to contribute to a renewed church and a more humane world.


Such a school will ensure that ecumenism permeates its curriculum, both in specific courses and as a dimension of most courses. 


-  And, such a school will affirm God‘s love for neighbors of other religions precisely because of what it affirms about God as revealed in Jesus Christ. It will embrace students of other faith traditions, not just because doing so boost enrollment, but as a reflection of a theological conviction – namely, that God‘s saving grace is far wider than any church or any religion alone can grasp . . .  Religion is not a zero-some game. My appreciation for the truth of other religions’ witness does not lessen my conviction that Christians have Good News to share; and this Good News is not simply taught through verbal proclamation, it is (or should be) embodied in the community that bears Christ’s name. 




I believe that our churches, our society, and our world need “such schools.”  This is the calling to ecumenical formation for the Disciples Seminary Foundation and for its partner schools and programs, now and into the future:


-  educating students to have a clear and vital theological understanding and vision of the church;

-  producing persons who are inclusive, persons with courage and conviction and hope; persons who will build communities that embrace difference and welcome diversity;

-  being a place that sees itself as part of the movement for the visible unity of the church, for renewal, and for forming an ecumenical spirituality; for refusing the artificial separation of unity and justice and peace-making; and for engaging in and preparing persons for interfaith encounter and dialogue.


DSF is a special kind of theological institution within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and within the landscape of theological schools and seminaries here in North America.  And, I believe DSF is uniquely positioned today within the context of the rich cultural and religious diversity of life here on the West Coast to be offering leadership with (and to) its partner schools and programs in preparing students to meet the challenges of the 21st century church: in giving concrete expression to the vision of reconciliation and oneness, healing and building true communities that embodies God’s welcome and God’s gift of unity in Christ.  Thanks be to God!      


* * * * * * *




-  Jose F. Morales, Jr., “. . . All Unity . . . ,” Sermon at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), July 8, 2017


-Michael Trice, “Hey Ho Nobody Home – Taking Up Residence in Theological Education,” Faculty Project, School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University, May 21, 2015. 


- Michael Kinnamon, “The Challenge of Being and Ecumenical School of Theology: Reflections of a Visiting Professor,”  School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University, April 29, 2015.

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