Esther Townshend is an Anglican who works as the Toronto coordinator for Student Christian Unity Canada. Photo courtesy of Esther Townshend

Young people are leading the future of ecumenism

  • January 19, 2017

There was a time when Catholics, Protestants and other Christian denominations were largely isolated from each other.

That isn’t the case anymore. Younger generations, who have not seen a time before the ecumenism movement, are taking up the torch with great enthusiasm.

One more indication of that is this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, where the Student Christian Movement (SCM) joins the Archdiocese of Toronto’s celebrations for the first time.

SCM has a large contingent of members of the United Church and the Anglican Church, but there are also many members of Catholics, Mennonites, Coptic Christians and others.

Since the Second Vatican Council published Unitatis Redintegratio (the Decree on Ecumenism) in 1964, ecumenism has grown to become common practice throughout Christian denominations.

Esther Townshend, an Anglican who works as the Toronto coordinator for SCM Canada, said ecumenical work has always felt natural to her.

“I do see it among the clergy and the chaplains who’ve supported SCM over the years,” said Townshend, 26. “They’ve worked hard to promote dialogue and find ways to work across denominational boundaries and that’s made it possible for it to seem so natural to our generation.”

SCM Canada, founded in 1921 as an affiliate of World Student Christian Federation, is a youth-led network that calls together Canadian Christian young people to take action for social justice and activism.

“The social teachings of Jesus that we focus on are things that are found in every wing of the Church for sure,” said Peter Haresnape, who self-identifies as Anglo-Catholic and national coordinator of SCM. “It’s really the idea that the teachings of Jesus should lead us to influence the world in a positive, concrete kind of way. Catholic social teaching is very much aligned with these values.”

Although this is first time SCM’s Toronto delegation is part of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it is not their first collaboration with the Catholic community.

Faith Connections, a young adult ministry run by Fontbonne Ministries and the Sisters of St. Joseph Toronto, joined forces with SCM last year.

Faith Connections director Vanessa Nicholas-Schmidt said the partnership began with an open mic night in March called “Jesus, Justice and Me.” This Lenten season, they are working to collaborate on another event dedicated to eco-justice.

SCM and Faith Connections also worked together on organizing Alpha Canada programs throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Alpha Canada is a youth ministry program for Christians to share and discuss faith teachings in a fellowship environment.

“Ecumenical work is very important because we are called to be united in Christ,” said Nicholas-Schmidt. “We want to work together, we want to be together, we want to stand together in Christ, and yet we are aware that there are differences.”

In those differences, Nicholas-Schmidt said there is potential for growth and learning, especially in a diverse city like Toronto, young people are more open to learning about different cultures and faiths. This natural curiosity, she added, is going to be key to the future of ecumenical work.

Fr. Damian MacPherson, director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs in the Archdiocese of Toronto, said that an essential element toward Christian unity is prayer.

“So the final goal of ecumenism is the prayer of Jesus in John’s Gospel (John 17:21), that they all may be one,” he said. “We are all called and are all responsible for working toward the goal of Christian unity, young and old.”

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