17.02.11 19:48 Age: 1 yrs

Central Committee discusses world Christianity’s changing context


Rev. Dr Margaretha Hendriks-Ririmasse reflected on inter-religious relations in Indonesia at a morning plenary session of the Central Committee.

As the World Council of Churches (WCC) takes new steps to promote Christian unity and inter-religious harmony, will the challenges of organizational governance and re-structuring drain “the life out of the ecumenical movement”?


These were among the key questions raised on Thursday 17 February in morning plenary sessions of the WCC Central Committee in Geneva. The discussions were devoted to “the changing ecclesial and ecumenical landscape” and to “inter-religious relations and cooperation: the search for just peace.”


The historical and cultural “landscape” surrounding churches is always changing, observed the Rev. Dr David Thompson of the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom, adding, “The question is: how will we respond?”


“What economy weaves us together in this structure of ecumenism?” asked the Rev. Jennifer S. Leath of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the USA. She was alluding to the Greek root of both “economical” and “ecumenical”: oikos, meaning “house” or “household”.


Will the WCC accept the same influence and domination from the northern hemisphere that shapes global economics, or will it insist on respect for the marginalized? To accept the former model, she argued, is unacceptable. Speaking on behalf of women, the young and groups newly incorporated into the traditional ecumenical movement, she insisted: “We will not be the charismatic showcases of this council” at the expense of full partnership; instead, “the oikos of God will rise.”


Fr Gosbert Byamungu, co-moderator of the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC, expressed confidence that world Christianity would master the situation before it. Over the past half-century, he said, Catholics and the WCC have moved from a relationship in which “distrust and animosity have been replaced by trust and friendship.” Now, “our challenge is to transform agreement in matters of doctrine into common witness and service.”


Archbishop Nareg Alemezian of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, in Lebanon, spoke of his experience in the Middle East and elsewhere. He called for visible church unity in ministries to migrants, in missionary work and interfaith relations, in facing the many challenges of globalization. Above all, he called for church members to “live the fellowship of the WCC beyond a merely institutional framework” and to participate in “a prayerful movement, with Christ at its centre.”


Many members of the Central Committee took this opportunity to celebrate closer ties that are being developed between the WCC, the Catholic Church, Christian world communions, Pentecostal associations and evangelical world bodies.


Speakers from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Germany shared the effects of inter-religious dialogue and cooperation on their ministries.


Rev. Ebenezer Joseph, a Methodist from Sri Lanka, spoke of the benefits he had discovered in working with people of other faiths.


Inter-religious gatherings with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims happen at every level of church and society in Sri Lanka, Joseph said. “There is the dialogue of life, with lots of public expressions of faith,” he explained. There are no ulterior motives in such encounters, “just positive religious engagement.” This is what Joseph calls “collective engagement” in which “we just try to figure out what we could do together,” particularly around issues arising from the 30-year civil war that has recently drawn to a close.


There are also formal interreligious dialogues in Sri Lanka, but they involve scholars and clergy and “have no impact on the lives of the people,” Joseph said.


Rev. Dr Margaretha Hendriks-Ririmasse, a vice-moderator of the Central Committee, reflected on inter-religious relations in Indonesia where she is a minister of the Presbyterian Protestant Church in the Moluccas, Working side by side with other faith communities, she reported, “generally we face no major conflicts within these relationships, though certain prejudices are present because each considers itself to be the best.”


But interreligious relations have worsened in Indonesia as a result of the United States-backed “war on terror,” she added. “Because Christianity is considered an agent of the U.S. and the West, groups of hardliners have formed among Muslims. Attacks on Christians and churches are growing.”


Still, Hendriks-Ririmasse said she sees many signs of hope, including good relations between the Communion of Churches in Indonesia and other religious groups. Christians have received strong support from Indonesia’s mostly moderate Muslim community. “They have shown strong support at times of attack, speaking out forcefully,” she said.


Christina Biere of the Evangelical Church in Germany said that in the European context inter-religious relations often involve migrant communities. Citing a recent survey conducted by the University of Muenster, she noted that Germans “are less tolerant of Muslims than are their European neighbours.”


Biere attributed the country’s religiously-tinged immigration debate to the dearth of interreligious dialogue in the country. “We have not had an honest and intense debate about Muslims and immigration, unlike our neighbours,” she added.


As in many other contexts, hope lies with younger generations. A local public school-based initiative sponsored by her church, “Do you know who I am?”, she said, “is producing healthy dialogue between Christian, Muslim and Jewish students. But not enough of these efforts are getting into local churches.”


The Thursday morning plenary sessions were co-moderated by the WCC president for Europe, Dame Mary Tanner of the Church of England, together with Omowunmi Iyabode Oyekola of the Church of the Lord (Aladura) Worldwide.


More information on the Central Committee meeting


Photos of the meeting