Busan and Ecumenical Space ~ Guest Post by Anders Göranzon

Anders Göranzon is Honorary Lecturer at the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

One of the students, in the module: Ecumenical Perspectives, asked:

“Why do you only focus on the World Council of Churches (WCC) http://www.oikoumene.org/en in this course? Why not other ecumenical movements?”

I was happy for the question and the more I have come to know the students I have understood why it was asked. They come from Zambia, DRC, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and a few other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. They are Anglicans, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Congregationalists, and Lutherans. Some belong to denominations I have never heard of – supposedly to be categorized as Evangelical or Pentecostal churches. If at all it is needed to label them. It became clear that the focus on the WCC was questionable.

The reason for spending so much time on the WCC is of course the fact that from 30 October until 8 November the WCC will meet for its 10th Assembly in Busan, Republic of Korea. http://wcc2013.info/en The Assembly will gather up to 3000 Christians from all over the globe. Maybe that is not so many but they represent millions of believers all over the world. If one takes into account that also churches and denominations that are not members of the WCC will be there, the hope and expectation is that the Assembly will influence the lives of a majority of Christians worldwide.

In the preparations for this Assembly there have been discussions about expanding the space, so that more denominations can take part. There have also been talks about combining the WCC Assembly with the Assemblies of the Lutheran World Federation http://www.lutheranworld.org/ and the World Communion of Reformed Churches http://wcrc.ch/. This idea was dropped at an early stage, though. It would have created a situation with a protestant domination which had not been for the benefit of the ecumenical movement.

A concept like Ecumenical Space, which was introduced by Konrad Raiser, General Secretary of the WCC 1994-2004, helps us to reflect on the physical reality that the WCC is. At Assemblies like the upcoming one in Busan, Christians from different traditions and contexts meet physically. In Busan the Korean concept Madang will be used to form an open space where people can interact. (Madang is the court yard in a traditional Korean house.) It is supposed to be a symbol of the whole movement as an open and yet inclusive space.

But the notion of being this space is also a challenge. When the WCC in the future wants to expand the space, the question can be asked: for whom? It goes without saying that the difference in theology and ethical standpoints between the different member churches is vast. Even within denominations there is disagreement over important and central issues.

I am not going to discuss this in depth. It is a reality from the evening when Jesus prayed “that all of them may be one”. But allow me to just say a few words on the relation between the WCC and other major ecumenical bodies in the world. And on this note I want to thank the students for helping me to see that other Christian traditions also have a contribution.

One interesting trend in the ecumenical movement on international level is the way Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal churches and even the Roman Catholic church in some respects get closer to another. Of course there are major disagreements on issues like human sexuality and gender equality. Some would claim the authority of the Bible in ways that others would not feel comfortable with. The question of the relation between Christian faith and other faiths is also a burning issue. But there are also other areas, where churches do agree. Let me take a few examples.

If one reads the new mission document from the WCC, by the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME): Together towards life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/wcc-commissions/mission-and-evangelism/together-towards-life-mission-and-evangelism-in-changing-landscapes and compares it with for instance the Cape Town Commitment http://www.lausanne.org/en/documents/ctcommitment.html of the Lausanne Movement http://www.lausanne.org/en/  there are some interesting similarities.  When the Cape Town Commitment says that “…scattered peoples can be both recipients and agents of Christ’s mission …” I hear an echo of the CWME document which says that “[p]eople on the margins have agency …”

And my reflection from the class is that the students from different African countries, belonging to unknown denominations, in that situation were marginalized or scattered. But they forced me to see, that they have agency.

Another similarity is this. The CWME document says: “Authentic evangelism is grounded in humility and respect for all, and flourishes in the context of dialogue.” The Cape Town Commitment responds: “As a legitimate part of our Christian mission, such dialogue combines confidence in the uniqueness of Christ and in the truth of the gospel with respectful listening to others.”

One reason is of course the work with the historic document “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct” http://www.worldea.org/news/3578 which was released June 28 2011 by the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) http://www.worldea.org/ , the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID) http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/. Together these three organizations represent over 90 percent of the world’s total Christian population represented.

I want to believe that something new and healthy can come out of the 10 Assembly of the WCC, where also other ecumenical bodies will be present. As we live in this world, there is still a long way to go, but it gives me hope that respect and dialogue are valued and that people on the margins are seen as agents. Let’s pray and hope that the Ecumenical Space becomes real and physical. Let’s hope that every person in the Christian family is respected and included. I will try to do my very best together with the students I have the privilege to teach.


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