Evangelical and Ecumenical? Rev Heather Morris, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and 4 Corners Stories with Belfast Church Leaders

morrisCan a Christian be both evangelical and ecumenical?

Rev Heather Morris thinks so.

Yesterday’s Irish News featured an extended piece by Morris, currently serving as the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, on her experience preaching at a service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January) in the Cliftonville Moravian Church in North Belfast.

The article bore the headline, “That would be an Ecumenical Matter,” but one aspect that impressed me was Morris’ insistence that she is not only an ecumenical Christian, but an evangelical one.

Northern Ireland, of course, is a context in which the Rev Ian Paisley has for years railed against ecumenism, and claimed that no self-professing evangelical could ever be engaged in ecumenical matters.

My own research over many years has confirmed that many evangelicals, like Morris, disagree with Paisley on this matter (as reported in my books Evangelical Journeys and Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland).

As Morris writes:

“I am evangelical, I believe that Jesus died for all people and that all people need and are invited into a living relationship with Jesus.

My experience is that that relationship with Jesus changes everything.

I believe that faith should be lived out – that Christians are not meant to huddle in clubs called churches but are meant to make a difference in their communities. I am also ecumenical.

… For some, “ecumenical” is an insult because for them it implies compromise or the watering down of essential truth.

Others use it meaning a hope for a visible, structural unity in the Church; they look for a day when there would be no more denominations.

For others, and this is where I stand, ecumenism describes a commitment to work for a different type of visible unity; a unity between Christians that is more like a multi-coloured coat, in which there are different denominations and traditions but we are one in a common commitment to God and a common commitment to each other.”

The emergence of ecumenically-minded evangelicals in Northern Ireland is important, representing as it does a challenge to their own tradition’s hostility to ecumenism and a commitment to working with other Christians for the common good —  without expecting or requiring agreement on every theological matter.

Morris will be sharing more of her life story and her ecumenical vision on Monday 27 January at 7.30 pm in an event organised by the 4 Corners Festival: “4 Corners, 4 Stories with Belfast Church Leaders” in South Belfast Methodist Church, Lisburn Road.

The event builds on the 4 Corners Festival’s storytelling and storylistening theme and centres on the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: “Is Christ Divided?”

Morris will be joined by Anglican Bishop Harold Millar, Presbyterian minister Rev Dr Norman Hamilton, and Fr Ciaran Dallat.

In the article, Morris went on to explain that one of the most important aspects of her involvement in ecumenism, as an evangelical, has been establishing deep relationships with Christians from other traditions.

For her, relationships are the basis for a Christian activism that can effectively challenge the sectarianism that is endemic on this island. She said:

“I have no doubt that a way forward towards peace demands a Christian response and more than that a response from Christians across the Churches.

In the language of this article, peace-building demands an ecumenical response.

… In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis writes: ‘I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion. Let everyone admire how you care for one another and how you encourage and accompany one another.’

I can’t think of better words on which to end.

Building peace may, after all, be an ecumenical matter.”

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