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NewsKarlsruhe: “An ecumenism of the heart”

Karlsruhe: “An ecumenism of the heart”

By Martin Hoegger

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By Martin Hoegger

What do I remember, more than a month after the remarkable event that brought together more than 4,000 Christians in the Karlsruhe Congress Centre from 31 August to 8 September? I am referring to the eleventh General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Three words come to my mind: love, pilgrimage, and unity. Let’s talk about the first in this paper!

Certainly, the theme “Christ’s love leads the world to reconciliation and unity” is original, when placed in the history of these assemblies. It was at the 2018 WCC central committee (during the visit of Pope Francis to the WCC) that the then general secretary Olav Tveit proposed this theme, based on Paul’s reflection on reconciliation: “the love of Christ embraces us” (II Cor. 5:14-15).  (See here)

This theme of “the love of Christ”, so central to the Christian faith, had in fact never been thematized in the WCC. Some had doubts about the relevance of such a theme. Others rejoiced. After the theocentric themes of the last three assemblies – influenced by openness to inter-religious dialogue – it focuses on the kerygma: the risen Christ. [1]  The time has now come to “give an account of the hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15): if we want to meet all, it is because Christ died and rose for all!

Grounding the search for unity in the Trinitarian love revealed in Christ’s death and resurrection provides a solid foundation for ecumenism. But will the language of love be understood in a secularized context? Jerry Pillay, the newly elected general secretary, said at that time (in 2018) that this theme would renew the commitment to unity. To work for the unity of humanity, we must start with the house of God.

Pope Francis asked in his message to the Assembly: “how can we credibly proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation without also being committed, as Christians, to promoting reconciliation among ourselves? Reconciliation among Christians is the fundamental prerequisite for the credible mission of the Church. Ecumenism and Mission belong together and interrelate”. https://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/message-of-his-holiness-pope-francis-to-the-11th-assembly-of-the-world-council-of-churches Tveit discerns the influence of the “spirituality of communion” in the choice of this theme which emphasizes the importance of relationships. [2].

This theme inspired WCC president Agnes Abouom to coin the phrase “ecumenism of the heart”. In her presidential report, she writes: “churches will be challenged to seek to overcome their divisions through an “ecumenism of the heart”, i.e., an ecumenism in which we look at other churches first of all with the eyes of communion in the love of the compassionate Jesus; with the eyes of common commitment to God’s kingdom; and only within the solid foundation of that unity in Christ do we look at what separates them in matters of faith, ordained ministry or ethics.” (§45). https://www.oikoumene.org/sites/default/files/2022-08/A01-Report-of-the-Moderator-ENG.pdf

At the initial press conference, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the United Methodist Church in the USA, vice moderator of the Central Committee of the WCC, echoed this: “I hope that this assembly will enable us to be more perfect in love. We want to live an ecumenism of the heart. We want people to be able to say, like the first Christians, ‘look how much they love each other’”.  

Romanian Orthodox Fr Ioan Sauca, the acting general secretary of the WCC,  states in his report that this ecumenism of the heart is translated into a respectful attitude of welcome and dialogue: “As followers of Christ, we were entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation, and the theme of the WCC’s 11th Assembly reminds us all that the love of Christ moves the world to reconciliation and unity. It would be very easy to use the language of the politicians, but we are called to use the language of faith, of our faith. It is easy to exclude, excommunicate, and demonize, but we are called as the WCC to offer a free and safe platform of encounter and dialogue, to meet and listen to one another even if and even when we disagree. (§53).  This is how he responded to calls for the expulsion of the Russian Orthodox Church from the WCC fellowship. https://www.oikoumene.org/sites/default/files/2022-08/A02-Report-of-the-Acting%20General-Secretary-ENG.pdf

The WCC’s new moderator of the Central Committee, Lutheran Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, preaching on the words of St. John “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (I John 4:16) asked: “Shall we be witnesses of this beautiful and eternally faithful love in this wounded world?

This “ecumenism of the heart” was the golden thread of this assembly, which wanted to affirm that the search for Christian unity is rooted in the love of Christ, who died and rose for all.

Love is also at the center of the beautiful final message adopted by the assembly. Its last words are: “In Christ, all things will be made new. His love which is open to all, including the last, the least, and the lost, and is offered to all, can move and empower us in a pilgrimage of justice, reconciliation, and unity”. https://www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/message-of-the-wcc-11th-assembly-a-call-to-act-together The challenge is to work together, brothers and sisters, despite our differences, to witness to Christ together. As behind divisions there is a lack of love, only the Holy Spirit has the power to heal and to unite. It is a call to take Christ’s “New Commandment” seriously, to live it among Christians and to extend it to all. 

It is precisely this love that impels us to be ambassadors of reconciliation and unity, as the Apostle to the Gentiles forcefully announced: “It is in the name of Christ that we are ambassadors, and through us it is God himself who is in fact calling you. In the name of Christ, we beseech you, be reconciled to God” (1 Cor 5:20).


[1]   The themes of previous assemblies were: Harare 1998: “Let us turn to God in the joy of hope”. Porto Alegre 2006: “God, in your grace, transform the world”. Busan – Korea 2013: “God of life, lead us to justice and peace”.

[2] Tveit in the Epilogue to Chiara Lubich, My ecumenical journey, New City 2020, p. 127 wrote “It might well be that it was under influence of Chiara and her charism for Christian unity that the WCC was inspired to choose (this) theme for the eleventh WCC assembly”.

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