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"We must be open to other expressions of Christianity" Interview with WCC president, Rev. Dr Ofelia Ortega

05 September 2006

By Manuel Quintero (*)

The first woman to be ordained by the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba, Dr Ofelia Ortega has a long and fruitful ecumenical career to her credit - a career that climaxed at the World Council of Churches' (WCC) Assembly in Porto Alegre in February 2006, where she was elected as one of the Council's eight presidents, from the Latin American and Caribbean regions. In this interview, Ortega reflects on the ecumenical movement, its difficulties and challenges, her personal commitment to the ecumenical endeavour and the situation of the churches in her home country.

How do you assess the ecumenical movement today?

The ecumenical movement is experiencing a crisis. This is partly due to the increase in fundamentalism, and partly because of a growing trend towards denominationalism. It seems as though many churches' ecumenical enthusiasm has diminished to some extent. We are also facing the challenge of neo-Pentecostalism that continues to grow around the world, with neo-Pentecostal denominations not being too disposed to dialogue.

At the same time, there are new phenomena and challenges bringing churches together, and I see a positive force for ecumenism there. One is globalization: more and more churches today see the need to join forces to face the problems that globalization is causing, particularly inequality and poverty.

The growing deterioration of the environment is also uniting us as we discover, each church by itself and then in dialogue with one another, our common responsibility for the care and preservation of creation.

Recently, some issues, such as human sexuality, seem to have become stumbling blocks for the ecumenical endeavour.

Human sexuality is a very complex issue that I would say is still taboo for some churches. Anybody can see that it has the potential to become divisive, as illustrated by the recent debate within the Anglican Communion. It is an issue that causes suffering in those people and congregations affected by the division.

There are no simple recipes to deal with this challenge. Discernment is a process that takes time and demands much reflection and dialogue. I believe that the pastoral perspective is a good starting point - a perspective that presents the church as an inclusive community.

In any event, the theological debate should continue in the same direction as that followed by the World Council of Churches in the ecumenical conversations on the topic at the 9th Assembly in Porto Alegre, that is, moving away from any a priori exclusion or discrimination.

Over the past few years, the WCC has intentionally sought relations with churches which have traditionally been reluctant to become involved in the ecumenical movement. Is there any tangible progress as a result of those efforts?

Here again, we are dealing with a process that needs time so that deeply rooted prejudices can be overcome, mutual trust established, and very complex biblical, theological and ecclesiological issues dealt with.

Personally, I believe that ecumenically oriented churches ought to continue this initiative, because we have not always been sensitive enough to the problems and needs of our people, nor been sufficiently humble and open to what other expressions of Christianity can contribute.

How do you envisage your own particular contribution as one of the Council's presidents?

Following my election, I received several invitations from Latin American and Asian countries to participate in various events; also to write articles for newsletters, and even to write a chapter of a book. And the Latin American Council of Churches did me the honour of nominating me as an advisor for its theological commission.

As WCC presidents, we do not represent a particular region, but the Council as whole. I would like to work in this perspective. When I am in contact with a local church, I am aware of being an instrument to bring the WCC closer to the life of that church; and to bring its concerns to the life and work of the Council. At the same time, I am fully aware that my own contribution is nurtured by Latin American and Caribbean spirituality and theology.

If we're talking about nourishing roots, we should discuss Cuba. How do you see the situation of churches on the island?

Some people think that churches in Cuba are just victims of the system. They do not know our reality of unprecedented spiritual and demographic growth, as well as the extraordinary diaconal efforts of our churches. Diakonia is a fundamental ingredient of church mission.

Twenty-five out of the 49 denominations registered in the country are members of the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC). Over the past fifteen years - during the so-called "special period" produced by the disastrous impact on our economy of the collapse of the Socialist bloc - those churches have undertaken several very meaningful diaconal programmes: for sustainable development, promoting organic agriculture; for the production of alternative herbal medicines; for people with disabilities, among others. In addition, the CIC's Bible Commission has distributed over two million Bibles, benefiting even churches not affiliated with the Council, like the Roman Catholic Church.

Today, we live in a unique situation due to the illness of President Fidel Castro. As the leader of the Cuban Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, said recently in a pastoral letter: whatever route the country takes, it will be the responsibility of the Cuban people who live here. We reject any foreign intervention: it is up to us to decide our own destiny.

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(*) Manuel Quintero, from Cuba, is the director of Frontier Internship in Mission (FIM), headquarted in Geneva, Switzerland.

Biographical information and a high resolution photo of Rev. Dr Ofelia Ortega is available in the WCC Press Room