Christian pluralism is not a passing phenomenon. Some division among Christians will be with us until the end of time. What is God trying to tell us through these divisions? Ecumenism means that we listen to God speaking to us through other Christians, it means seeking ever greater areas of collaboration.
The Church is not destined simply to save men for heaven but also to humanise man's social life.
A common effort in confrontation with the industrial world must aim at conveying a deep understanding of what our earthly existence means.
IT is not easy to make general remarks about the ecumenical situation on the African continent, since conditions vary from country to country and each part has its own particular history.
It is nonetheless possible to spell out certain common factors which, in varying proportions, influence the mutual relation of the Christian Churches in Africa.
Africa is a continent of mission territories or, as m-ny prefer to put it today, of young Churches. While the missionary movement in the Protestant world was the cradle of the ecumenical movement and the Edinburgh Conference of 1910 is regarded by many RS the starting point of an organised ecumenical effort, the missionaries themselves were, in the past, not particularly interested in ecumenismThey were overwhelmed by the amount of work at the local station and hence often unwilling to spare the time for ecumenical conversations.
In recent years, however, the ecumenical movement has made rapid progress among the young Churches. There are several reasons for this. These young Churches do not feel the weight of history. Catholic bishops and Christian leaders in general are today often African-horn conscious of their vocation as Africans, and they react against Christian divisions as an importation from European culture. They do not wish to be burdened with the conflicts of long ago; what counts for them is the present. Once ecumenical conversations begin, these men have fewer inhibitions, they are held back by fewer prejudices. For this reason we find that in Africa, in contradistinction to the European and, perhaps, the America scene, the ecumenical movement is sponsored first of all by the hierarchy. It is not so much a movement from below as from above. In many countries it was the Episcopal Conference that appointed specialists to study ecumenical problems and arranged for contacts and meetings of various kinds with other Christian Churches.
What are some of the common factors that influence the African ecumenical movement in a positive way?
1. The Missionary Factor. In the past the missionary character of the African Churches was a handicap for the growth of an ecumenical spirit, The mission of one Church tended to look upon other missions as competitive movements; and since they all regarded the missionary movement as a conquest of souls, there were occasions when they worked against one another and did not avoid open conflict. This age is now basically gone. In the first place, Christians have come to understand the missionary drive of the Church in different terms, not as a conquest of souls hut. rather, as a witness and service offered to human society. In the second place, Christians of the ratholic Church and other Christian Communions have come to realise that they faae together a non-Christian world of vast pro portions. Understanding the mission of the Church in such terms has helped, as we shall see below, the advance of the ecumenical movement.
2. The non-Western Factor. The division of the Churches is regarded by Africans as an importation from the European nations, and they begin to react as strongly against it as they do against other harmful imported goods. Especially in the newly created countries do Christians of all Communions want to collaborate. In some eases, the national unity of the new State depends on the co-operation and friendship among the various Christian groups, and it is not surprising that this social pressure makes Christians impatient with the divisions of the past.
3. The Factor of Underdevelopment. The African continent is mainly composed of underdeveloped countries or, to use a more polite expression, of countries of rapid social and economic change. For this reason the social services which the Churches offer to society arc of the greatest importance. In the past this provided occasion for strife and argument. For some time now, the spirit of competition has been replaced by the willingness to co-operate, and since these social services have acquired great importance, even in government planning. there have been many occasions for the Churches to meet to discuss their common social aims. In several countries, Christians of all Churches stand together on questions regarding schools and hospitals, and a single spokesman represents their interests before the national government.
4. The African Factor. While it is difficult to generalise about the particular trends of a people, especially when this people is
spread over a whole continent. it may be said that the highest value in the life of the ordinary African is good human relations. Much of his behaviour and many of his reactions are determined by the desire to establish friendship with his neighbour. In the past this effort to build human relations was confined to his own community and generated an enormous attachment to family tribe and group. and for that reason impeded the ecumenical movement. Africans did not easily leave their community to find friendship with outsiders, But today, thanks to the new nationalism, this intention of building good human relations is a strong factor in favour of ecumenism.
5. A Factor of Ambiguity. Christians of the young African Churches have little interest in doctrinal matters. What counts for them is the Christian life and the pastoral problems of the community. Africans often are not interested in the fine points of doctrine over which the Churches have fought in Europe for many centuries. This attention to practical and immediate matters is of great advantage for the ecumenical movement, but it also has its bans that one day they will all dangers. It can be a stimulus for greater collaboration, but it can also present a new obstacle. Syncretism in any form will always harm the spread of the Gospel and hinder the movement for Christian unity. 6. The Colonial Factor. African Christians, more than their Asian brethren, are' strongly marked by the culture of their former colonial lords. The Francophone Churches, i.e. the Churches in which the clergy received their edhcation in French, reflect the strength and perhaps some of the weakness characteristic of French Christianity. and the Anglophone Churches, where the clergy has been educated in English, reflect what is most characteristic of British and / or Irish Christianity. For this reason the ecumenical movement in these respective areas reproduce, to some extent, the forms and methods of ecumenism in the French and in the English-speaking world.
After this rapid survey of the main factors influencing the present situation of ecumenism in Africa, I wish to present some personal reflections on the nature and role of ecumenism in the future development of the African Church. I would like to point out from the beginning that these personal reflections were horn in the atmosphere of the African epostolate, which obliges us constantly to confront the message of the Gospel with the hard facts of reality and to rethink the meaning of the Church's mission. The fundamental problem in our reflection on the Church's mission —and on ecumenism. which be
longs to that mission lies in the theological meaning of the fact of religious pluralism.
Religious pluralism We used to think that the Church was sent into the world to gain the adherenceof all men to Christ. and that her missionary effort was destined to convert all men to live as brothers in a single Church. While we realised that this aim was not to be achieved in our lifetime, we did feel that through our missionary effort we hastened the coming of this happy day. Today however, we are faced with the realisation that pluralism, and specificiallv religious pluralism, is established in most parts of the world, and that the forces of history will eventually make it a universal phenomenon.
Sober statistics tell us that Christians represent a smaller percentage of the world population in every decade. With the shrinking globe, moreover, we can no longer speak of any uniformly Christian area or country, in the sense that the Christian Church and national culture are co-extensive. These patterns belong to the past. It seems that religious pluralism is part of God's plan. Can we still assert that the Lord has sent his Church into the world to gather all men in the unity of faith? We are forced to ask ourselves the serious question. What is the theoligical meaning of religious pluralism? What is God attempting to tell us through the multiplicity of religions?
There is a second equally uncomfortable question: it deals with the divisions of Christians into separate communities. As Catholics we believe that Christ meant all the baptised to live in a single Church founded upon the Twelve with Peter, and in the past we used to imagine, or accept as an ideal, that the Church's missionary drive may become so strong among non-Catholic Christians that one day they will all come back to us. For practical reasons, if not for deeper theological ones, this dream has come to an end.
"The Little Flock" Christian pluralism is not a passing phenomenon, not a temporary illness to be healed by an avalanche of conversions or a series of successful mergers. In a sinful world there will always be, against the will of God, tensions and strife. The movements for unity may be blessed with happy fruits, but after each union new trouble may provoke other divisions; this is the situation of our fallen race. Christians are certainly destined to seek the unity which is Christ's will for his people, and, as Catholics, we believe that the unity of faith, liturgy and ecclesiastical communion is indefectibly present in the Catholic Church; and yet it appears that the division of Christians will be with us until the end of time. We must rather daskistihoensq?uestion: what is God trying to tell us through these iv As we read the Scriptures to find answers to our questions we notice that in the New Testament Christians are compared to a leaven destined to leaven the whole dough, and to a light meant to illumine the entire world. If Christians are called "the little flock", one may well wonder whether the Church is not meant to remain in the diaspora situation in which she lived in New Testament times. There is no assurance in the Scriptures that the Gospel which .is to be preached in all parts of the world will actually bring the Christian faith to all men and make them members of the Christian Church, Is not, rather, the Church meant to he a minority in the human family?
Social climate If this is so, then the missionary task of the Church must be understood in a deeper fashion. It cannot be equated with the conquest of souls. Its aim is not defined by the maximum of unbelievers to be brought to the Christian faith. If the Church is "light" and "leaven" in society, then her mission is a work of witness and service offered to the human community, and it is up to the inscrutable wisdom of God whether this effort will result in conversions to the faith or more especially in the transformation of the social climate.
The Church is not destined simply to save men for heaven but also to humanise man's social life, to inspire a sense of personal responsibility in all men, and to foster a social order that sins less flagrantly against divine justice. In other words, the mission of the Church is to bring the peoples of the world into the redemptive plan of God, to lead them to play an active part in the fulfilment of this plan for humanity, but we have no way of knowing whether this plan, at this particular moment of history. foresees their conversion to the Christian faith.
Regarding the Church's mission not as a conquest of souls or territories, but as a humble witness and service offered to society, gives us a new confidence and keeps us from discouragement; we do not see the success of