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The few are not out in the cold

A peep at the handful of people who turned up to prayer meetings and other functions organised during the recently completed Week of Prayer for Christian Unity could indicate that the ecumenical movement in Hong Kong is going nowhere fast.

However, despite the seeming lack of interest, not only in Hong Kong but in many other parts of the world, it remains one of the longest-running revolutionary calls in modern Christianity, being celebrated each year since 1908, pre-dating the foundation of the World Council of Churches and the first ecumenical world conference on mission held in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910.

The modern ecumenical movement has had its ups and downs during the past century. In the northern hemisphere, the week of prayer it is celebrated in January, timed to coincide with the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.

His move from persecuting Christians to becoming one of the persecuted is seen as representing, to some degree, the huge chasms that have to be crossed in mending the centuries-old fences of division among Christians.

While the week of prayer has seldom been an event that has captured the imagination of the average Christian, it has survived and even prospered through what a former archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Robert Runcie, dubbed as an ecumenical winter in 1989.

Although the movement received a shot in the arm during both World War I and II, as desperate times forced people to learn much about each other’s goodness, it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that Christianity entered into anything that could be described as an ecumenical spring, when Vatican II put the Catholic Church squarely into the picture and the World Council of Churches began to broaden its membership.

However, seasons changed quickly. Catholic-Anglican dialogue got bogged in discussions on ministry, Eucharist and authority, and in 1975 the Anglican House of Bishops squashed plans for an Anglican-United Union.

Anglican Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, from Unity, Faith and Order for the Anglican Communion, said, “Hard realities set in and institutions moved more slowly than perhaps people had hoped for.”

However, while the Anglican canon admits that we are still a long way from full unity, she is adamant that valuable ground has been covered. She says that although the fanfare may not exist today, the period of quiet has enabled valuable work to be done behind the scenes.

However, possibly a new enemy has crept into modern day ecumenism. The death of denominational rancor has certainly promoted social acceptance, but may have also bred an indifference that has led people to believe that we are either all the same, or that the differences do not matter.

However, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, what can often appear to be only small differences in belief or teaching, can have vast consequences in terms of moral outlook and especially direction setting for future movements.

Nevertheless, small numbers taking part in official events may not be a reflection of another ecumenical winter, as the quality of dedication, determination and persistence of those who are vitally interested has a far stronger impact on overall attitudes and longterm progress than indifference.

It is said that in the face of the indifference of the many, as few as seven per cent of the population can pull off a successful revolution. JiM