Ecumenism and interfaith ministry: what’s the difference?

The Anglican
 on September 28, 2022

Over the last year as I have talked with many different Anglicans, a question continues to be asked: what is the relationship between ecumenism and interfaith ministry? It’s an important question that invites exploration.

On the surface, the distinction between ecumenism and interfaith ministry seems clear. Take, first, ecumenism. At its first assembly, convened in Amsterdam in 1948, the World Council of Churches adopted a resolution that identified its member churches as those who “acknowledge Jesus Christ as God and saviour” and “find their unity in him.” The resolution went on to declare, “They do not have to create their unity; it is the gift of God. But they know that it is their duty to make common cause in the search for the expression of that unity in life and work.”

Ecumenism is the work that different churches undertake to visibly manifest their unity. This does not mean that churches aspire to eliminate all their differences, ultimately becoming a single global church. Instead, ecumenism involves different churches strengthening relationships between themselves, facilitating cooperation on joint projects, reaching consensus on theological statements, and striving for mutual recognition and acceptance of each other’s ministries, such that clergy from one church are able to officiate sacramentally in another. An example of this is the 2001 Waterloo Declaration that brought the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada into full communion.

If that describes ecumenism, then interfaith ministry would seem to be something quite different. From the patristic era until the 20th century, the doctrinal phrase extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church is no salvation”) determined how most Christians related to those of other faith traditions. The imperative of evangelization and baptism was the chief motivating factor in such relationships. But the upshot has been largely disastrous: harmful roots of Christian self-superiority have set in, the depths of which churches today are only beginning to fathom. Consider the enduring genocidal impact of the Indian Residential Schools, which Canadian churches operated to “civilize and Christianize” Indigenous children, “killing the Indian in the child.”

Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the exclusivist theology behind the phrase extra Ecclesiam nulla salus has fallen under criticism, even as calls for a “new evangelization” have been raised. An important outcome of the council—the effects of which have impacted Anglicanism considerably—has been a call to dialogue with other faith traditions. Without dialogue, the inevitable alternative, as history has demonstrated time and again, is violence. Interfaith ministry is thus best understood as a form of peacemaking. It has to do with Christians reaching out to their neighbours of other faith traditions, to learn from them and understand them better, and to help them understand more clearly who Christians are without any ulterior intentions of proselytism. Even more, it involves cooperating on joint projects, fostering friendships and living side by side in peace.

If all that is helpful in grasping the distinction between ecumenism and interfaith ministry, in recent years the lines have become blurry. Case in point: in 1987 the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto established its ecumenical and interfaith affairs office. Ecumenism and interfaith ministry, while distinct, were pursued separately in the same office. That changed in 2020 when Archbishop Thomas Collins established two departments: an office for interreligious dialogue and an office for promoting Christian unity and religious relations with Judaism. This development marked a deliberate attempt to expand the work of ecumenism to include reconciliation with Jews. It also complicated the relationship between ecumenism and interfaith ministry.

Bringing together ecumenism and Christian reconciliation with Jews surely makes good theological sense, and Anglican dioceses would do well to pursue a similar tack. On one level, as St. Paul argues, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Jews participate in salvation, even when they are loyal to their own faith tradition and do not confess Jesus Christ as God and saviour. But on another level, Judaism remains its own faith tradition, distinguished from Christianity as much as from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and other faiths. The quest for reconciliation with Jews is rightly an extension of ecumenism, but churches must also pursue relations with Jews that affirm the distinct integrity of Judaism. This is a point where ecumenism and interfaith ministry collide, even overlap.

There are those who argue that this overlap pertains only to Christian-Jewish relations, for Christian existence itself is altogether dependent on Judaism. But Christians and Jews are not the only “People of the Book”: Islam rounds out the Abrahamic tradition. In the document Nostra aetate, an important declaration of the Second Vatican Council, Muslims are esteemed because they “adore the one God.” The declaration then calls on Christians and Muslims “to work sincerely for mutual understanding.” This language opens the door for relations with Muslims that are an extension of ecumenism, in much the same way that reconciliation with Jews is a deepening of the ecumenical task.

Does the overlap of ecumenism and interfaith ministry extend beyond the Abrahamic tradition? Might Christians discover ways to relate ecumenically to Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and people of other so-called Dharmic faiths? The answer really depends on how much mutual understanding is first achieved through interfaith ministry. In the course of careful listening, deep learning and friendship building, Christians may find that assumed differences on major issues of belief and practice are mere misunderstandings. In the end, perhaps Christians stand in more theological agreement with, say, Buddhists than is typically acknowledged.

If this is so, then the importance of interfaith ministry cannot be overstated. It is a ministry that beckons all dioceses, parishes and individuals. The call is to each of us. As we reach out to our neighbours of other faiths, learn from them and extend our own hospitality, we might discover that we are verging ever closer to the work of ecumenism. Perhaps Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one” (John 17:21) can be heard in our time as a prayer for the whole world in all its religious multiplicity.


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