Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture


The 4th International Conference on Receptive Ecumenism will be held at University house, Australian National University, Canberra, from Monday 6 to Thursday 9 November, 2017.

The context, in terms of both place and time, will make the Fourth International Conference on Receptive Ecumenism an extremely significant event.

It will be the first major international ecumenical gathering in Australia since the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra in 1991.

Also, it will come at an auspicious time.  It will commence just six days after the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg – the event that marks the beginning of the Reformation and the consequent divisions in the Western Church.

This conference will be the successor to, and build upon the work of, three similar conferences that have been held in England (2006 and 2009) and in the United States (2014).  Those earlier conferences introduced the basic idea of receptive ecumenism, firstly within the Catholic tradition and then more broadly across a wide range of Christian traditions.  Since its inception, the concept has taken root in many diverse contexts around the globe.

What is Receptive Ecumenism?

Receptive Ecumenism is a fresh ecumenical methodology emphasising receptivity, learning, and listening.  It is about learning from other Christians in order to learn about ourselves.  It is a process of conversion, and openness to the Holy Spirit.

Receptive Ecumenism is summed up in the following quote from the Third International Conference programme notes:

The essential principle is that the primary ecumenical responsibility is to ask not "What do the other traditions first need to learn from us?" but "What do we need to learn from them?"  The assumption is that if all were asking this question seriously and acting upon it then all would be moving in ways that would both deepen our authentic respective identities and draw us into more intimate relationship.[1]

Professor Paul Murray (Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the Centre for Catholic Studies, Durham, UK), the initiator and main driving force behind the receptive ecumenism movement, has described it as "a way of being with each other that is open and vulnerable".  It is "ecumenism not primarily as a task of convincing the other, but as a task of conversion; a task of asking how in the face of the other we are being called to conversion out of ways that are frustrating our flourishing, and into a greater abundance of life, a deeper quality of catholicity".  In other words, the churches "might be able to help each other grow in faith, life and witness if they are open to being transformed by God's grace mediated through each other".[2]

'Reception' has been a crucial process in the ecumenical movement.  If the fruits of the churches' ecumenical engagement are to be transformative, those fruits have to be 'received' by the churches into their own lives.  Dr Gerard Kelly (Catholic Institute of Sydney) has made the point that portrayed in that way, this essential process is being described by a noun or a verb, and "the focus is on something to be received".  However, the idea of receptive ecumenism makes a significant change: "in speaking of receptive ecumenism we are dealing with an adjective.  The focus is on a particular quality of the church, namely its receptivity.  In the method of receptive ecumenism each church is called to be receptive".[3]

Within the Ecumenical Movement

Gathering in Canberra for the fourth of these international conferences will be a reminder of the 1991 WCC Assembly that adopted a statement on Christian unity, The Unity of the Church as Koinonia: Gift and Calling.  In it, the WCC member churches acknowledged "with gratitude to God that in the ecumenical movement the churches walk together in mutual understanding, theological convergence, common suffering and common prayer, shared witness and service as they draw close to one another.  This has allowed them to recognize a certain degree of communion already existing between them".[4]  Receptive ecumenism is a more recently developed ecumenical method, but very definitely designed to help the churches to 'walk together' on the ecumenical journey, and the next conference will draw inspiration from that Canberra Statement as the participants explore how the churches might 'draw closer to one another'.

By its title, the Canberra Statement recognised that our unity in Christ is a gift already given to us by God, but the visible expression of that unity is still a goal to which God calls us: the churches are being called into a koinonia that will be expressed in "a common confession of the apostolic faith", "a common sacramental life", a mutually recognised and reconciled ministry, and "a common mission".  While the walking together in the ecumenical movement may have brought the churches closer together, the Canberra Statement critically observed that the "churches have failed to draw the consequences for their life from the degree of communion they already experience and the agreements already achieved.  They have remained satisfied to co-exist in division".[5]

Five hundred years since the beginning of the Reformation the co-existence in ever-increasing division continues, and the gathering of people for another international ecumenical assembly in Canberra will be a time for deep reflection on how the churches can draw the consequences – can 'receive' – for themselves the fruits of the ecumenical endeavour so far.  Crucial to understanding the failure to do so – which the Canberra Statement honestly recognised – is the nature of decision-making and authority in the various church traditions.  The Fourth Conference on Receptive Ecumenism will specifically address these issues of decision-making that take us to the heart of many of the difficulties and the apparently impassable differences between the traditions.

Therefore, the primary endeavour of this Fourth International Conference on Receptive Ecumenism will be to explore the scriptural and theological underpinning of ecumenical learning.  This will provide the basis for a consideration of patterns, structures and theologies of decision-making and authority in the various churches in the light of the challenge to each church to be receptive.

Following the conclusion of the conference, the proceedings will be prepared for publication.  This will be an important instrument through which the international church community can be offered the insights and learnings from the conference as a further contribution to the ecumenical endeavour.

Call for Abstracts

The deadline for the submission of abstracts is Monday 8th of May, 2017. Papers should be crafted for a 20 min presentation. The desired length of abstracts is 200-300 words. Preference will be given to papers that address the conference theme. Please send abstracts to Dr. Virginia Ingram at the following email address:


[1]     Receptive Ecumenism Conference  III Papers

[2]      RE III Papers

[3]      Gerard Kelly, Paper given at a meeting of the national Heads of Australian Churches,  Sydney, 2014

[4]      Kinnamon, Michael & Cope, Brian, The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices, Geneva: WCC Publications, 1997, p. 124

[5]      Ibid.