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"Today, the dominant note in Faith and Order is hope" Interview with David Yemba

22 July 2004

By Juan Michel (*)

The voice sounds kind and humble on the phone and does not reveal that the owner is just recovering from a touch of malaria. The Rev. Dr David K. Yemba, a United Methodist minister in the Church of Christ in Congo, and currently Dean of the Faculty of Theology at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, gave this interview just a few days before the world's most representative theological forum for Christian unity gathers for the first time this century. As moderator since 1998 of the World Council of Churches' (WCC) commission on Faith and Order, which is to meet in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 28 July to 6 August, 2004, Yemba seems to be the right person with whom to talk about such a gathering. He speaks confidently of hope and of churches growing together in communion.

On various occasions you have insisted that Faith and Order (F&O) will make its call to visible unity "more audible to the churches." Thus my first two questions are: What are the causes of the churches' seeming deafness? And how is F&O going to overcome that phenomenon?

The causes are numerous and differ from one place to another in the world. The main cause is the strong attachment to denominationalism, especially among the new churches in the so-called third world, which came into being as a result of the evangelization of the 19th century. In many of them, the faithful do not distinguish their denomination from the Church, the body of Christ. Very often there is some confusion between their own denomination with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that they confess every Sunday at worship.

F&O will continue to take into consideration the numerous obstacles to church unity and address them with the only tools it has: its studies and supporting services to the churches and Christian World Communions. One of the specific ways in which we are addressing the problem of denominationalism is, for instance, our study on ecclesiology, in which we deal with the issue of the church as a reality both local and universal. But since denominationalism is combined sometimes with other non-theological factors - for instance in some African countries denominations coincide with tribes - we also address it in our study aboutethnic identity, national identity and the search for the unity of the church.

Historians of F&O have said that at the outset of the movement expectations were high. The belief that the goal of visible unity was really attainable added a note of expectancy and optimism, noticeable for instance at its first meeting in Lausanne in 1927, even if it took place in the middle of a continent ravaged by the first world war. What is the dominant note in a F&O gathering today, at the beginning of the 21st century, in a world struggling with the effects of economic globalization and the so called "war on terror," among other issues?

It is interesting that to a certain extent there are similarities between the atmosphere in the world when F&O was born and today: war and fear, for instance, are present now as they were then. Within the F&O movement one difference is that churches at that time did not have the experiences we have today in terms of study processes and convergence documents. Some of them, like Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM) at the beginning of the '80s, were accompanied by a very optimistic mood.

Today, I would say that the dominant note in a F&O gathering is hope. I personally have hope in face of current developments like the church union processes. And I know that this hope is totally shared by those who are most involved in the F&O movement.

It has been said that BEM is the most successful work done by F&O to date and also the best example of the contribution that theological dialogue can make towards church unity. What would be the equivalent of BEM in the 21st century?

BEM was a great achievement in the history of F&O and of the ecumenical movement as a whole. It was a step towards full communion. Today we look forward to the time when churches will have more convergent views on the nature and purpose of the Church of God in our broken world. So I would say thatat the beginning of the 21st century the main contribution of F&O could be in the field of ecclesiology. What is the church, its nature and purpose? It is when the church is united, speaking with a prophetic and united voice in a country and in a region, that the churches can address effectively those issues you mentioned before, such as economic globalization, "war on terror" or HIV/AIDS.

What are the main challenges the commission will face in its meeting in Kuala Lumpur?

The challenges will be several. Among them, to interpret the theme of the gathering - "Receive one another, as Christ has received you, for the glory of God" (Romans 15:7) - in the light of the fruits of our previous and current studies, and to make the discussions of the commission meaningful for the visible unity of the Church. The Muslim-majority context of the meeting will also be a challenge.

Will the fact that the commission meets for the first time in a Muslim-majority country have a particular influence on the meeting?

The context of Malaysia as a Muslim-majority country will be taken into consideration, without of course losing sight of the mandate of F&O. The question of the "plurality of religions" has been discussed in recent meetings of the F&O Standing Commission. This is new ground for F&O, since so far we have concentrated on the issue of Christian unity. But some of our studies, like those on theological anthropology and on the unity of the church and the renewal of human community, are showing us that we need to address the issue of plurality of religions with a theological approach. I would not be surprised if it becomes a new study.

What are the main outcomes you expect from the meeting in Kuala Lumpur?

I believe it will be an important ecumenical gathering in many respects: it will be the first F&O plenary commission of the 21st century, the first meeting after a number of changes introduced by the WCC central committee in both the Council's and F&O's structures, and it is going to take place just a year or so before the ninth Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Our expectation is that Kuala Lumpur will come up with specific steps to help churches to grow together in communion within our changing world.

Why is the unity of the church relevant for the life of the world?

The unity of the church is relevant for the life of the world because Christ prayed for this unity "so that the world may believe" (John 17:21). God's plan is "to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head" (Ephesians 1:10-11). This is what the F&O movement and the whole ecumenical movement are all about.

(*) Juan Michel is WCC media relations officer.

Additional information on Faith and Order and the Kuala Lumpur meeting, including a detailed agenda and a form for media accreditation, is available on the meeting website at

www.wcc-coe.org/kualalumpur2004.html

Media coverage: An ecumenical media team will provide daily feature and news stories in English, German, Spanish and French, as well as photos. All material can be viewed and downloaded free of charge from the meeting website.

Kuala Lumpur features: Although written according to the usual journalistic standards of accuracy and balance, since this article is intended for the general public it should not be read as a formal academic or theological text, nor should it be considered an official statement of the Faith and Order commission.

Opinions expressed in WCC Features do not necessarily reflect WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.