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WCC explores how to adapt to changing religious world

Central Committee discusses ecumenism, interfaith dialogue

February 18, 2011

GENEVA

In twin plenaries Thursday (Feb. 17), the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee took a hard look at whether it can adapt quickly enough to the rapidly changing ecumenical and interreligious realities in the world. If it cannot, one delegate noted, fixation on internal governance and institutional survival may “suck the life out of the ecumenical movement.”

The two morning plenaries addressed “the changing ecclesial and ecumenical landscape” and “interreligious relations and cooperation.” Three speakers at each session led delegates into lengthy discussion.

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

In Sri Lanka, interreligious relations are strong because interreligious dialogue is healthy, the Rev. Ebenezer Joseph, a Methodist, told the session on interreligious relations and cooperation.

“In my country, where four major religions of the world interact – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity – there is an ancient footprint on a mountain that all four claim. Christians say it is the footprint of Adam,” Joseph said. “We don’t fight over the mountain. The mountain exists peacefully.”

Peaceful interreligious relations can be disrupted, however, even in historically harmonious areas.

Christian churches in Indonesia “work side by side with various faith communities,” said the Rev. Margaretha Hendriks-Ririmasse of the Presbyterian Protestant Church in the Moluccas, “and 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 and are more fierce.”

Fr. Gosbert Byamungu of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, co-moderator of the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC, expressed confidence that world Christianity would rise to the occasion now offered 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 called for visible church unity in ministries to migrants, in missionary work and interfaith relations, in facing the challenges of globalization.

That means the WCC is going to have to change dramatically, said the Rev. Jennifer S. Leath of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the USA. Noting that Christianity has grown exponentially in the global South while declining in the North, she questioned whether the WCC will accept the transfer of power and influence that shift implies.

Even in stable countries such as Germany, the shifting landscape is problematic, said Christina Biere of the Evangelical Church in Germany.  A recent survey conducted by the University of Muenster, she said, shows that Germans “are less tolerant of Muslims than their European neighbors.”

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 neighbors,” she said.

Interreligious dialogue happens 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 doctrines or theologies behind them – just positive religious engagement.”

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. And there is what Joseph called “collective engagement,” in which people of all faiths “are just trying to figure out what we could do together,” he said, particularly around issues of peacemaking in the country that recently saw the end to a bitter 30-year civil war.

All six speakers expressed hope.

Christians have received strong support from Indonesia’s mostly moderate Muslim community, Hendriks-Ririmasse said. “They have shown strong support at times of attack, speaking out forcefully” she said.

A local public school-based program --  “Do you know who I am?” – “is producing healthy dialogue between Christian, Muslim and Jewish students” in Germany, Biere said,  “but not enough of these efforts are getting into local churches.”

Ultimately, successful ecumenical relationships and interreligious dialogue – as well as the survival of the WCC – depends, Alemezian said,  “on members of churches to “live the fellowship of the WCC beyond a merely institutional framework” and to participate in “a prayerful movement with Christ at its center.”

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