Desert Pilgrimage


Over 270 ecumenists gathered around that theme in Phoenix, Arizona, April 27-30 for the 2009 National Workshop on Christian Unity. Often described as a “network of networks,” the NWCU combines business meetings of the various communions’ local ecumenical officers with keynote speakers, seminars, and lively worship.


Former Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA and current President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, preached at the Opening Worship in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Basilica. He emphasized that, while many experience the ecumenical movement as in a “desert time” in these days, renewal and new life has come precisely in the desert for God’s people. The opening worship was an interesting blend of traditions including choirs from both the Orthodox and African Methodist Episcopal churches, a Mariachi band and hymns sung in Spanish, and energetic praise from a Sudanese Episcopal Church choir.


The keynote address was delivered by Metropolitan Gerasimos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of San Francisco. His Eminence stressed both the challenges and the hopes of Orthodox involvement in the ecumenical movement. Acknowledging that there are “anti ecumenical” voices in all our communions, he counseled the patient listening of the Desert Fathers as a model to follow. Recognizing the great strides made recently between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches around issues of Christology, he suggested prioritizing those communions with whom we share the greatest similarity and history as places to start in ecumenical engagement.   


Morning Bible studies were conducted by Dr. Margaret Mitchell, a Roman Catholic professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her rich presentations on the various images of unity used by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians showed how he drew upon ancient Greek and Roman models familiar to his original readers.


Seminars included “Ecumenical Implications of Post-Modern Thought” presented by the Very Rev. Nick Knisely, dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Phoenix; “Common Words Among Christian and Muslims” presented by Dr. Lucinda Mosher of Religions for Peace – USA; a panel from the historic Black Methodist churches discussing “Racism as an Impediment to Ecumenism;” and a discussion based on the World Council of Churches’ document “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry” by Dr. Louis Weil of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific; among many others.


The lively closing luncheon speech was given by Dr. Cecil “Mel” Robeck, Jr., professor of Church History and Ecumenics and Director of the David J. DuPlessis Center for Christian Spirituality at the Fuller Theological Seminary. As a Pentecostal ecumenist, Dr. Robeck was able to trace the increasing involvement of Pentecostals in the movement toward church unity in recent decades ranging from their contributions to Faith and Order discussions to the worldwide Global Forum.   


Various ecumenical officer networks from the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal and other churches held business meetings in conjunction with the NWCU. The National Ecumenical Officers Association welcomes a new such network, the United Methodist Ecumenical and Interreligious Trainers (UMEIT). Next years National Workshop on Christian Unity will be held in Tampa, Florida April 19-22, 2010.

2 Responses to “Desert Pilgrimage”

  1. Jamie Says:

    Sounds as if it was a great gathering. I will have to ask Fr. Nick for his essay. I am very interested in the Pentecostal piece. Were there any other representatives from that tradition, or any of the independent or ‘evangelical’ churches present at the gathering? I know that there have been challenges at engaging them in the ecumenical movement at the international level, and would be curious as to how we fare here in the United States.

  2. ecubishop Says:

    Thanks, Jamie. Nick did a great job at the NWCU…

    Well, of course, the pentecostals are just now coming into the ecumenical movement, as you know. Mel Roback has been a real hero, and even martyr (he was once brought up on trial in the Assemblies of God for being part of the ecumenical movement!).

    He has mentored many, and there is a new generation of pentecostal scholars who I pray will seriously engage the rest of us in the search for Christian unity. After all, I think the Holy Spirit will have to have something to do with this if it’s ever going to happen!!

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