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If you think relations between Christians and other religions can get sour, you should hear the family squabbles pitting Christians against one another. The Anglican Communion’s (un)civil war over gay rights is just one example. Especially “in other parts of the world, there are terrible conflicts between Christian denominations that are causing strife,” says Anne Hillman (STH’15).
She and the Rev. Soren Hessler (UNI’08, SED’11, STH’11,’18) are part of a global corps of 150 theology students invited to South Korea to ponder the state of ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity. The World Council of Churches (WCC) is sponsoring the two-week gathering, which begins on October 25. This Global Ecumenical Theological Institute will focus especially on justice and peace. The institute overlaps the WCC’s 10th assembly, a gathering held once every seven years, where member churches set WCC policy.
Hillman and Hessler are Methodists, chosen for the conference in part because of their interest in ecumenism. Hessler worships at a multidenomination church in Brookline, Mass., wrote a master’s thesis on how Methodism navigates ecumenism’s shoals, and is Marsh Chapel associate for leadership development; Hillman studies religious pluralism and ecumenism’s role in it. She hopes for a career in social justice work and as a college-level professor, while Hessler wants to work in church administration and training young clergy. Bostonia spoke with them about the conference and the state of Christianity.
Hillman: The weeklong class we’ll be taking before the assembly is about ecumenism in South Korea, and part of that is about religious diversity. There are strong shamanistic roots there, there’s Buddhism, Confucianism. So Christianity in South Korea looks quite a bit different. I’m excited about learning how Christian churches are dealing with religious diversity.
Hessler: Helping people think about what it means to be a large, institutionalized, religious, nonprofit organization is a significant interest. It’s not just about “what’s worship like?” It’s how you support an infrastructure that supports discipleship, fellowship, and helping people figure out the big questions in life.
Hessler: A lot of the work of the World Council of Churches is about how you strengthen Christian communities to do the work of the church, which is feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, and educating those who don’t have access to education. I’m not sure that it’s one particular project for me, but thinking about how do we do this, not as individual denominations, but as a collective.
Hillman: You need to learn how to communicate, how to create relationships with people across religious differences, ethnicity, class. My heart lies more in issues around gender inequality and in poverty issues. But all of these issues are interconnected. People are poor because of economic issues, environmental issues, race issues, gender issues. Dealing with one means dealing with all of them.
Hillman: That tradition of the Roman Catholic Church is one that I absolutely love. It’s connected to the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, fabulous Jesuits and Franciscans who do tons of work among the poor. For me, it’s a great sign that he is trying to build up the social aspects of the Catholic Church, because there are wonderful teachings. I do have some issues with the Church, on sexuality and gender particularly, but that doesn’t mean we can’t come together on issues of common concern. As popes go, I think he’s pretty fun. I like him.
Hessler: Any time a religious leader who has significant influence over a body of people has a social concern and helps the church rally around it, that’s important.
Hessler: I think inter-Christian relationships outside of the United States are a much more significant issue than they are for us. From the material we’re receiving from the institute, it’s very clear that this is very difficult for some people to even come to the table together.
Hessler: But a lot of major denominations have significant resources to do things. It’s important, as a lot of people aren’t concerned about their denominational affiliation, to think how do we as a global network of Christians with concerns about the needy take advantage of those resources that are fractured and split up? If we work ecumenically, we can take advantage of those resources.
Hillman: There are the New Atheists, who are radically antireligion and feel that religion is the root of all evil in the world. That to me is indefensible. Yeah, religion can lead to violence. But there are also elements that lead to peace. It’s time to emphasize those elements of the Christian faith. Secularism doesn’t have to be a threat. It’s more of a reaction against the parts of religion that can cause oppression. You deal with those parts and work against it.
Hessler: Boston University is a great example of how secularism is not a threat to the church. The University was founded as a Methodist institution. It ceased to be a denominationally affiliated school; that didn’t prevent the School of Theology from retaining its status as a leading seminary for the denomination.
Hessler: The church is called to tell the Gospel story. We’re followers of a carpenter who had radical care for the poor. To live out that story is the call of the church in the 21st century. For the better part of the last 2,000 years, the church has not been very good about living the story. The rest of the world is like, “You don’t practice what you preach.” Actually practicing what we preach is what has to be done.
Hillman: I don’t care if the market share is going up or down. I care if people are living that kind of life. For me, I live that life because of this carpenter who cared for the poor. If you’re a Muslim living this life because of what Mohammed said, that’s fine with me.