On Friday, I was invited to participate in an ecumenical symposium put on by the National Council of Churches in Australia, Faith and Unity Commission. Held in Canberra, the event celebrated 100 years of the ecumenical movement, which traces its origins to the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. Its goal has been a vision of a united church in mission and, to this end, visible unity.
Although i have been involved in various ecumenical events, i have not been a participant in formal ecumenical dialogues or World Council of Churches and Faith and Unity Commission forums. In this i am typical of our movement and my invitation to the event in Canberra to speak for Pentecostalism provided the ‘novelty’ factor; the strange pentecostal academic amidst the traditional churches!
This is not to say that Pentecostals have been against ecumenism, as is sometimes assumed. It is noteworthy that global Pentecostalism traces its origins to around the same point in history as the ecumenical movement – to a series of revivals that occurred throughout the world in the first decade of the twentieth century which were ecumenical in spirit. The early history of Pentecostalism involved the pursuit of revival, believing that the Holy Spirit was capable of breaking down the divisions that plagued the church. Pentecostal revival, thus, brought together black and white, poor and (occasionally) rich, women and men and people from diverse church denominations. There was a strong desire to reject ‘tradition’ and ‘creed’, since these were understood as being both stultifying and divisive. The founder of Australian Pentecostalism, for example, a women named Sarah Jane Lancaster, had as one of her driving motivations the goal of ‘non-doctrinal unity’- a unity in the Spirit that transcended creeds. Half a century later, the charismatic movement, with its roots in Pentecostalism, elicited a similarly ‘spiritual unity’ – a unity that set aside the formalities of doctrine and church structure, a unity that was informal and grassroots in its orientation, a unity that was grounded in the pursuit of the Spirit whose work it is to bring diverse people together.
Of course, i should not paint to much of an idealised picture. Pentecostalism has been far from perfect in its pursuit of church unity. As is well known, the movement has become as denominationalised, as doctrinal, as divisive as any other. It also tended to avoid the ecumenical movement, and few Pentecostal groups became members of World Council of Churches. I have my own opinions as to why this was so – but i am interested in any suggestions.