Felix Wilfred – Asian Christianities

Casting Wider the Ecumenical Net 

Another great contribution of Asia to ecumenical movement is to have widened the concept of “ecumenism” and have included within its horizon the relationship with peoples of other faiths and traditions. It came to be known as “wider ecumenism”.[14] If the Church is a sign and sacrament of the unity of humankind as declared by Vatican II,[15] then ecumenism cannot but be affected by the issues that touch upon humanity and its unity. One such question is the relationship among different faiths. Greater understanding, harmony and peace among religions is the goal towards which all the Churches are invited to move ahead.[16] By fostering relationship with peoples of other faiths, the Churches are contributing to the unity of humankind; hence the importance of their coming together for this cause. As the Sri Lankan theologian, Wesley Ariarajah, notes,

At the global level there is an increasing recognition that the world’s problems are not Christian problems requiring Christian answers but human problems that must be addressed together by all human beings. We know that whether it is the issue of justice, peace and human rights, or the destruction of the environment we need to work across boundaries of religions, nations and cultures.[17]

The involvement with peoples of other faiths through wider ecumenism is bound to help the intra-church unity too. During the missionary epoch this was not possible due to a negative theology of other religions. Asian Ecumenical movement pioneered a more positive attitude towards other religions. Inter-religious dialogue opened the eyes of Asian Churches to see the unity of the Church in a much broader light and led them to include the unity and harmony of the entire creation as part of the ecumenical agenda.   

However, there is a sense of unease, and a feeling of insecurity and threat connected with the use of the term “wider ecumenism” among some purists. The point is well-formulated by Konrad Raiser in the form of a series of questions: 

Can the churches and those responsible for ecumenical organizations agree on a sufficiently firm common base for the understanding of ecumenism? Does ecumenism in the proper sense relate only to the search for the communion among the Christian churches, or should it be opened up to relations with other religious communities – as is frequently advocated in Asia? Should the ecumenical movement reach beyond the churches to make alliances with other groups in civil society? What is the proper relationship between the commitment to church unity and to social justice? Are common witness and evangelism more important than church unity?[18]

Asia has shown how the Churches could cooperate with each other in their relationship to other faiths. Besides what is happening at the grassroots levels in this respect, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) and Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), representing the Catholic and Protestantt-Orthodox Churches respectively, are vigorously pursuing this unique path of ecumenism with numerous initiatives. 

Conclusion –  Asian Theologies and Concilium 

Vatican II was by and large the fruit of the renewal of European theology that was in gestation already a few decades before. The bishops who exerted greatest influence on the Council were from the West. After the Council, the new vision of faith and practice called for fresh re-interpretations of traditional Christian doctrines. This was done collectively by a band of outstanding Western theologians who were also the most significant contributors to the formulation of the sixteen documents of the Council. Some of these theologians expounded the refreshing theology of Vatican II through the International Review of Theology – Concilium­founded in 1965. 

The developments that have taken place in this journal indicate also the positive direction we need to take in theology in these postcolonial times. The theologians in its first phase associated with this journal were certainly not right-wingers and reactionary, but were open to new questions and issues from Asia and other continents. However, their experiences were limited by and large to Europe, or to North America. Hence whenever any theological questions were broached, they were eager to know views from Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. In short, theological questions and concerns were framed and answered in the West, but inputs were sought on these questions from other continents. But it was still a limited and Eurocentric approach. Thanks to postcolonial critique, the Concilium journal has today transformed itself into a veritable global journal. The composition of the editorial board is now truly international. Today theological questions are framed jointly by the theologians of Concilium and answers too are sought collegially. This was a breakthrough from the approach of what I would call a condescending theological inclusion. The new approach is the one in which people hold theological conversation on equal footing and try to search for responses together. There is a sense of common search in understanding faith and its implications in a world where problems have become increasingly common, going beyond all kinds of borders. The Theological journal  Concilium provides Asia a wonderful point of encounter to converse and walk together with others on a global theological pilgrimage in these postcolonial times.


[14] Ariarajah, Wesley. “Wider Ecumenism: Some Theological Perspectives”. In Encounters with the Word. Essays to Honour Aloysius Pieris, edited by Crusz, Fernando and Tilakaratne (Colombo: The Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, 2004). 

[15] Vatican II, Lumen Gentium no. 1 

[16] Cf. Felix Wilfred, “Christianity and Religious Cosmopolitanism”, in Terrence Merrigan – John Friday (eds.), The Past, Present and Future of Theologies of Interreligious Dialogue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017): 216-232.  

[17] Wesley Ariarajah, in The Ecumenical Review, no. 3 (July 1998), 31.

[18]  Konrad Raiser, To Be the Church: Challenges and Hopes for a New Millennium, (Geneva: WCC, 1997):15.


Felix Wilfred is founder-director of the Asian Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies, Chennai. Earlier he was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Chairman of the School of Philosophy and Religious Thought, at the State University of Madras, India.  Since 2007, Prof. Wilfred is the President of the International Theological Review Concilium. He was a member of the Vatican International Theological Commission, then chaired by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He was on deputation by the government of India as ICCR Professor of Indian Studies, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Recently he edited a landmark volume: The Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia, published by Oxford University Press, New York. He is also the chief editor of the International Journal of Asian Christianity (IJAC 2017), published by Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands.

Address: Asian Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies, 40/6A, Panayur Kuppam Road, Sholinganallur Post, Panayur, Chennai – 600 119, Tamilnadu, India.