May 2012

Does ecumenism matter?

As the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (May 20-27) approaches, Good Samaritan Sister Bernardina Sontrop asks “Does ecumenism matter”?

BY Bernardina Sontrop SGS

For seven years I had the privilege of being the Pastoral Mission Co-ordinator for the Catholic community at the Seaford Ecumenical Mission in South Australia. My understanding, experience and appreciation of ecumenism makes me want to shout from the rooftop: “Yes, ecumenism does matter!” There is so much more we Christians can do when we work together to bring the Gospel of Jesus alive in our words and deeds.

There are many different understandings and interpretations of the meaning of ecumenism. Our understanding is influenced by the church to which we belong as well as our experience in ecumenical activities. The primary focus of ecumenism centres on people witnessing together to work towards the unity for which Jesus prayed, “that they may all be one” (John 17: 21).

In mainstream Christian traditions today, particularly for member churches of the National Council of Churches in Australia, ecumenism is about exploring relationships with one another and coming together in dialogue and practical co-operation.

One very interesting and little known endeavour, hidden away in the southern vales of Adelaide, is SEM, the Seaford Ecumenical Mission.

In 1989 as the southern suburbs expanded, members from various Christian denominations in the local area came together at the invitation of the State Government and the Heads of Churches New Towns’ Committee to explore how best they could work together to serve the well-being – spiritually, physically, emotionally and socially – of the people of Seaford and beyond.

The Anglican, Catholic, Church of Christ and the Uniting Churches and, some-time later, the Lutheran Church, joined with the State Government Noarlunga Health Services to plan and build the integrated building which locals know as the Seaford Ecumenical Mission.

On Sunday August 4, 1996, the dream that began in the minds of a small group of dedicated Christians, became a reality in the blessing and dedication of the new facility.

To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus and honour and grow in its own tradition, each Christian community gathers its own members at SEM for Sunday worship and provides opportunities for worship, pastoral care, community, faith formation and pastoral outreach.

SEM is also the hub where people work together in a variety of pastoral outreach activities. Though not all denominations share the same beliefs and practices, all share a common life experience that they can bring to prayer.

Regular ecumenical activities focus on a variety of common religious and life experiences. Tuesday mornings find ministers and members of the pastoral teams gathered in prayer, reflection and sharing on the readings from the common lectionary used by all SEM churches. Faith is linked to life through ecumenical services celebrating national and local events in song, scripture, prayer and reflection. These services celebrate in a meaningful way what the Christian communities hold in common and invite us to pray together for the community and wider world.

A small chapel provides a sacred space for denominational and ecumenical prayer groups, scripture and ecumenical study programs to explore matters of faith and how they are understood and experienced in each of the member traditions.

SEM provides an avenue for volunteers from all walks of life, SEM partner churches, community and government programs such as the Centrelink Work for the Dole program, to work together to make a difference in the lives of those who use its services, giving practical expression to the command of Jesus to love and care for each other.

A café staffed by a paid co-ordinator with church and community volunteers, is a popular gathering place for meeting friends. At the Tuesday Night Café, led by volunteers, patrons enjoy a home-cooked meal and social interaction for a nominal donation.

Most days of the week SEM churches and volunteers host a variety of social activities, including the ecumenical Friday night Kids’ Club and Youth Group, the Wednesday morning Music for Pleasure Group, the Monday craft group, holiday fun days and Sunday afternoon concerts.

An op shop, established with a government grant, gathers an enthusiastic crew of church and community volunteers who welcome patrons and sell recycled goods, raising funds to support the combined activities of the SEM community.

Volunteers take great pride in maintaining the beautiful SEM community garden, a place of quiet reflection for visitors. A community vegie garden offers a welcome space and meaningful activity for people at risk of isolation in the community.

As this brief snapshot reveals, SEM helps to build relationships in an increasingly secular world, bringing Christian people together to reflect on and share their faith. Not only does this coming together enrich an understanding of different Christian faiths, but as people reflect and share together, their understanding of their own personal and communal faith is enriched and tolerance and acceptance of people of different Christian faiths grows.

At SEM, the pastoral outreach achievable by individuals and small Christian communities working separately expands enormously when there is an opportunity to work together and share facilities, resources and people skills. Many people who might be lost in the community have an opportunity to come together and with dignity find the help they seek.

At SEM, working together enables the churches to provide spiritual, social and material support for young people in the community.

As we approach the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (May 20-27) we might well ask ourselves, “Does Ecumenism matter?” For partner churches in the Seaford Ecumenical Mission and the wider community it certainly does.

Why not join a local group during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and experience something of the richness that prayer and dialogue with Christians from other denominations can bring to your own faith and prayer?

Bernardina Sontrop

Good Samaritan Sister Bernardina Sontrop has a background in education and parish community ministry. Last year she finished a six-year term on the leadership team of her congregation. This year she is enjoying a well-earned sabbatical, and is studying at Heart of Life Centre in Melbourne.

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