Much of the work of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) today is reflected in its two commissions: the Commission on Faith and Witness, and the Commission on Justice and Peace. Where the former promotes theological reflection to improve mutual understanding between denominations, the latter focuses on efforts to foster peace and social justice in Canada and around the world.
Certain issues, such as the ordination of women or same-sex marriage, may be of both theological and social importance, and can find very different views reflected within the council.
In such cases, CCC President Alyson Barnett-Cowan said, “We try two things. One is we will have exploratory sessions where we try to get the sense of where different people are coming on different issues, and that would be one of them … But then on other matters, where we think there might be a consensus, we work hard to articulate what that consensus might be. So for example, protection of refugees, that’s kind of a no-brainer for the members of the council.”
Refugee protection is a major focus of the CCC at the moment, having joined with the Canadian Council for Refugees and Amnesty International to mount a legal challenge to the designation of the United States as a “safe third country”. Other priorities include challenge the reduction of anti-poverty initiatives, engaging in interfaith conversations and showing solidarity with those under threat from anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and promoting peace and nuclear disarmament through Project Ploughshares. The council is currently preparing a document, Principles of Peace, to serve as a policy statement for peace and the reduction of global tensions.
The future of Canadian ecumenism
The two appointed Anglican representatives to the CCC governing board, Bishop Michael Oulton and Canon Mary Conliffe, are currently nearing the end of their three-year terms. Due to personal issues, Oulton will not be returning to the Canadian Council of Churches following the end of his term, while Conliffe is uncertain whether her term will be renewed after May.
Whatever the future may bring, their time on the council has provided insights into the evolution of Canadian ecumenism and where it may be headed next. Looking back over recent decades, Oulton perceived a gradual movement away from “organic institutional unity” as the central focus of ecumenical work.
“That certainly was a huge topic of conversation in the ’60s and the ’70s, and probably even into the ’80s,” Oulton said. “Now it’s, how do we rejoice in the differences that we have and the different expressions of who we are as Christian churches, and find the common ground to address issues of common concern?”
Particularly when it comes to justice issues such as confronting human trafficking, Oulton believed ecumenism would find renewed strength as churches work together to speak prophetically to challenge power structures.
“The first thing we should ask is, ‘What are our ecumenical partners doing about this? What do we want to say together?’ Because when we bring more partners around the table, there’s a better chance of having our voice heard in terms of how to approach these situations.”
Conliffe pointed to the growth of shared ministries as a likely ecumenical trend in the coming years.
“In rural places or under-resourced areas of the country, it doesn’t make sense to have a small Anglican church and a small Methodist church and a small United church and a small Presbyterian church,” she said.
“It might make better sense to have a church where there’s shared ministry between all those denominations, and learning how to create that environment and allow it to flourish will be one of the hallmarks of the future for the Christian church, I think.”
Summing up the ongoing work of the CCC, Oulton referred to a quote by Christian writer and activist Jim Wallis: “We can find common ground only by moving to higher ground.”
“Twenty-five member churches—our polities, our theologies, how we order ourselves—are all so dramatically different, one from another,” Oulton said. “But it’s a place where we can all stand together on higher ground for a time, and look at our vocations as disciples of Jesus Christ together. And that’s a huge gift to be able to do that.”
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