Canadian church leaders want to do something about that word "ecumenical." It is bandied about at conferences, in sermons, and wherever religion is discussed, but its full application to modern church life is hard to pin down.
Representatives of no fewer than 11 religious denominations are to tackle the subject at a consultation to be held at Whitby, just east of Toronto. They hope to arrive at a consensus and so clarify the understanding of the Canadian Council of Churches as to the basic nature of its work, or, for that matter, any groups seeking to cooperate in Christian action.
For several years, but more particularly since Pope John XXIII opened ecclesiastical doors that had been closed for centuries to non-Roman Catholics, the so-called ecumenical movement has forged ahead by leaps and bounds.
Churches the world over are aiming at Christian unity and, within the limitations of social action, have achieved remarkable success. The World Council of Churches, now embracing virtually all communions with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church and a number of fundamentalist groups, exemplifies the Christian social conscience at work through its unified activities seeking to improve social conditions in the world's emerging countries.
In Canada inter-church cooperation in social welfare, stewardship, communications and education has shown marked progress in an ecumenical framework. Only recently radio broadcasting activities of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Roman Catholic Church and the United Church of Canada have been correlated with a member of the United Church as coordinator.
But in the theological sphere the ecumenical nut is harder to crack.
It is true that inter-denominational rivalries and prejudices are in the process of being broken down. Roman Catholic priests frequently participate in non-Roman Catholic services of a non-sacramental nature, pulpit exchanges between clergy of various denominations no longer cause raised eyebrows. Dialogue now is an everyday word in religious parlance.
However, the idea of universality or unity underlying ecumenicity, derived from the Greek work oikoumenikos (the inhabited earth), does not come easy for theologians in their quest for church union. A breakthrough has been achieved by the Anglican and United Churches which have adopted principles of union, but the general commission now busy on the task of translating principles into an organizational structure uniting the churches will find the nature of the church, its ministry and other theological factors tough obstacles to surmount.
The forthcoming consultation to be held under the auspices of the Ecumenical Institute of Canada may be productive of some interesting guidelines for "ecumenists." Delegates will include representatives of the United, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Orthodox, Disciples and Evangelical United Brethren Churches, the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends.