data from the Fact2000 study
The Ecumenical and Interfaith Fallout
by Scott Thumma
On December 6, 2001, the National Council of Churches’ General Secretary, Robert W. Edgar, met with 70 Muslims, Christians and Jews. They spent some time in dialogue after the traditional Muslim breaking of the fast, the “iftar” meal. Such interfaith gatherings have become increasingly common since the events of September 11.
Whether this pattern of religious interaction will continue is unknown. However, the recent Faith Communities Today (FACT) study of congregational practices provides a window on the frequency of such events prior to that fateful day. Questions about a congregation’s ecumenical and interfaith involvement were asked directly to key informants in 14,301 congregations in 41 diverse religious traditions.
The survey showed that the level of ecumenical interaction—that is involvement among denominations within a single religious tradition (various Christian groups, for example)—was quite high in 1999 and 2000. Interestingly, such ecumenical involvement was even more common than interaction with other congregations within a particular denomination or faith group. The FACT study found that the most frequent ecumenical involvement took place around worship, but more interfaith interaction happened in outreach projects and clergy associations than in worship or other programmatic events.
Although well over a third of the congregations shared in ecumenical gatherings of various kinds, far fewer came together for interfaith activities. If one examines the Christian groups specifically, the distinction between ecumenical and interfaith is even more dramatic. (See Figure 1 at right.)
Catholic and Orthodox Christian congregations, along with Liberal and Moderate Protestants, are the most active Christian participants in ecumenical activities, including participation in local councils. Sometimes the local councils included churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious organizations.
An equally interesting pattern emerges when the interfaith involvement is examined by religious groupings. Liberal Protestant churches, Catholic and Orthodox parishes and “World” religious groups in the FACT survey (Jewish, Mormon, Muslim and Bah’ai) all showed significantly higher rates of interfaith interaction than Moderate or Conservative Protestant Christian groups. (See Figure 2 below)
Interfaith Involvement by Denominational Family
Overall, the FACT data show that some ecumenical and interfaith activities among congregations was taking place prior to September 11. However it is obvious that the recent terrorist events have changed the religious climate in the United States, as Bob Edgar pondered aloud at the December gathering: “If September 11 had not happened, would we be here together, breaking bread and listening to each other?”
The answer is “possibly”—at least judging from the FACT information. One thing is certain, however. In recent months, faithful persons of many traditions and diverse religious communities throughout the nation have sought each other out in interfaith events to show support for and gain moral strength from each other’s religious differences. This shift toward interfaith openness, alone, can be seen as a significant “silver lining’ in the very dark cloud that was September 11.
Scott Thumma is Faculty of Web and Distance Education/Sociology of Religion at Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford (CT) Seminary. He also manages the websites for the Institute (www.hirr.hartsem.edu) and for FACT (www.FACT.hartsem.edu).