The squabbling among the churches engaged in missionary work to Africa and the Far East was recognized as a serious obstacle to their respective work. The passage of John’s Gospel: “that you may be one … that the world may believe” (Jn 17:20f) was being verified in reverse. There was often minimal belief because of lack of unity. Greater unity was imperative.
That Congress, in fact, had been preceded by two years with the call for unity from the Graymoor Fathers, recent American converts to Catholicism from the Anglican tradition, who had established the annual Church Unity Octave in 1908. For the Graymoors, it was about truth, not only courtesy.
It is a matter of historic note that Catholics, with whom Protestants had major theological differences, were not invited to Edinburgh. The resounding presence of Islam throughout those mission fields was a matter of serious concern, and it was felt that Protestant Christians needed to be united in confronting that reality.
A hundred years later great strides have been made in Christian ecumenism, but we still find ourselves attempting to find the right tone for genuine dialogue with our Islamic neighbors. We also have learned that the truth matters in ecumenical dialogues as partners listen carefully to each other’s understanding of God’s truth and its implications for our world.
I often wonder if a major area for healing today might not be more needed for divisions and factions within each religious tradition rather than between the diverse Christian churches or traditions.
Catholics of my vintage in particular are very sensitive to the shift toward a more conservative devotionalism and belief in recent decades. This is often merely ascribed to a post conciliar retrenchment. Admittedly there is some of that taking place within our Catholic tradition. But even in the larger American context younger generations across the board are becoming more conservative, both because of the current economic climate which seeks greater certainty in most areas of life, and because of a reaction against their parents who were not able to give them what they perceived as a more solid basis for their faith and identity. I read some of this in confirmation letters.
But, at least as I see things, there is also a still larger context for the current movement toward more traditional religious attitudes within the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council invited the cultures of Asia and Africa to the table, and insisted that they were partners in the transformation of the modern world. The mission areas took that invitation seriously and found places at the ecclesial table. Like their missionary ancestors 100 years earlier, other parts of the world found the secularist attitudes of Western culture and the churches imbedded in those cultures inadequate if not downright unacceptable.
The responses of African Christianity to recent Anglican and Episcopalian changes have been negative, and a new chasm of division has developed between the more progressive factions in each church (often totally westernized) and those more concerned with maintaining a solid traditional foundation for their faith.
Writers like the west African Gambian theologian Lamin Sanneh published a book in 2003 titled, “Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West.” Or again, Eliza Griswold, the daughter of a former presiding bishop in the Episcopal Church, this year wrote “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam.” She insists that what happens religiously along the line south of the equator passing through Nigeria, Sudan, Indonesia and the Philippines has immense repercussions for Western Christianity. The Anglican Communion has been confronted by those very voices.
The Second Vatican Council attempted to bridge the past and contemporary culture. It may well be that a new “Missionary Congress of Edinburgh” needs to find new healing between West and Far East, or North and South … over the issues of so called modernity. Each has something to offer and something to learn.
The more extreme among us from either right or left often come off arrogantly as if each had nothing to learn. Each is stuck in a notion of church which is passing away, and they don’t even know it, so busy are they lamenting the intransigence of the other!
As a very young priest present in St. Peter’s for the opening session of the Council back in 1962, I promised to be faithful to the teachings of the Council “whatever they would be.” Not everything was clear from the beginning. I now wonder if some of today’s more traditionalism isn’t what newer churches insist on bringing to the table as expressions of their convictions. It may well be that the Council is still working and some new signs of the times seek our attention.
“That they all may be one … so that the world may believe ….”
Perhaps, much to our surprise, we do need another Missionary Congress of Edinburgh!