Last June during the G8/G20 meetings, here in Toronto, everyone heard a ton about the preparations, the immense cost, the protestors, the reactions of the Toronto Police and, of course, a bit about what was actually discussed and decided upon (if anything). What people likely didn’t hear about this event was that just previous to it there was a pre-summit of the world’s religious leaders in Winnipeg at the Interfaith Leaders Summit. Held at the University of Winnipeg and hosted with the help of the Canadian Council of Churches, the Mennonite Church of Canada and the Salvation Army, this interfaith gathering insisted that the world’s leaders address the fact that, as of 2010, progress on achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were sadly lacking. Not only were (and are) the MDGs nowhere near completion, the G8 and G20 countries are severely behind even their own commitments. Winnipeg’s 2010 Interfaith Leaders Summit was necessary to insist that the progress of completing the MDGs must get back on track. The world’s religious leaders came together to speak with one, global voice about an issue the G8 and G20 countries needed to hear. (For more information on this event, please visit www.faithchallengeg8.com.)
This past May, just before the G8 Summit in Deauville, France, another religious summit happened in Bordeaux, France. Organized by His Eminence Metropolitan Emmanuel, representing the Ecumenical Patriarch at the European Union, Council of Churches of France and the Conference of European Churches, the Bordeaux Religious Leaders Summit was held May 23-24. During this time the participants engaged in a program of events, which encouraged them to dialogue contextually about the issues facing the G8/G20 world leaders in 2011. As in Winnipeg, the purpose of this focused engagement was to be able to present the G8 leaders in Deauville (and in November to the G20 leaders in Cannes) with a statement on an important issue religious people and their leaders felt should be immediately addressed in by geo-political heads of state. The result is the Bordeaux Statement, which is available on the website of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) in both English and French. A press release written by Religions for Peace is also available.
In discussing the development of the Bordeaux Statement, the interfaith engagement leading to its creation, and the need for the statement to be addressed by the G8 and G20 leaders, The Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton, the CCC’s General Secretary of the CCC and an International Co-President of Religions for Peace, insisted that, “Collaboration among stakeholders is growing, but more is needed. Religious leaders are urging the G8 and G20 countries to strengthen and expand partnerships to include other countries and groups, including religious communities. This expanded cooperation should supplement rather than undermine UN processes.” Indeed.
Though it took three paragraphs to get here, this is what I want to talk about: “expanded cooperation” in the context of the public sphere for the sake of human life and dignity therein. Religious leaders, like world leaders, now know that working for change necessitates expanded cooperation. Whether through ecumenical councils, religious and denominational bureaucracies, grassroots initiatives, social networking sites, global conferences or any other means of cooperation, change will come when we work together in an issues-based format. What I mean is this: each geo-political leader comes to the G8/G20 with the values of his or her own context (personal, cultural, national, professional, etc.), which is then used to engage other world leaders on significant subjects which cannot be solved domestically, e.g., war, peace, famine, climate change and environmental issues, the financial markets, etc. Similarly, each religious leader comes to the Religious Leaders Summit representing their context, but instead of a nationalistic priority, theirs is religious. Interfaith gatherings have often been understood as one extreme or another: watered-down, fuzzy-love endeavours whether little is done or decided upon OR unproductive, defensive encounters arranged to argue things which cannot be proven, i.e., the specificities of belief, divine attributes, etc. Neither of these options is useful in a global context where so much needs to be done and people need to come together to make a difference.
I have spent my adult life studying and working in ecumenical environments on grassroots, national and international levels in the area of communications. The product of this decade of experience has been to realize, along with so many of my ecumenical colleagues, that people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds can and will work together productively in order to address a specific issue. The motivation for each person to engage in the process is different, but that is exactly the unintended grace of this situation: people from diverse contexts and belief systems coming together to try and solve an issue they all feel strongly about and, during the process of cooperating with one another, they not only learn from one another’s differences but the treatment of the issue itself is encouraged and enhanced by these diverse contributions. It is this kind of thinking which has led to gatherings like Winnipeg’s Interfaith Leaders Summit, the Bordeaux Religious Leaders Summit and those which preceded and will follow them. This is the voice of ecumenical strength.
A friend of mine, also involved in ecumenical ministry, often reminds me that, “God created imperative diversity.” What she means is that the diversity apparent in creation itself shows us, as creatures, that God purposed diversity and our faithful ability to negotiate it. Expanded cooperation means people working together to transcend all dividing lines for the sake of the care of creation. Acknowledging our diverse, however broken, reality and seeking to make changes with others, for others, is – I think – the essence of religion in the public sphere. With that said, I encourage you to read the Bordeaux Statement and think about ways in which you can activate and appreciate your role in the ‘expanded cooperation’ of honouring and caring for creation. Let's work together for productive and positive change!