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Moderator’s Address: Praying, Walking, Working and Remembering Together

Dr Agnes Abuom, WCC – Executive Committee, Uppsala, Sweden - 1-8 November, 2018

03 November 2018

Moderator’s Address

Praying, Walking, Working and Remembering Together

Dr Agnes Abuom

WCC – Executive Committee

Uppsala, Sweden - 1-8 November, 2018

 

Preamble

Sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ, on behalf of the leadership of the World Council of Churches (WCC), welcome to the executive committee meeting and to the city of Uppsala. We are grateful to our Swedish member churches and ecumenical organizations for their words of welcome, for hosting this meeting as part of our 70th anniversary celebrations, and of course for their generous hospitality that we have already partaken of. We come here also to commemorate the WCC 4th Assembly, held fifty years ago in this same city in 1968 and whose theme was “ Behold, I make all things new!”

Uppsala is a significant stop on our long ecumenical pilgrimage as a fellowship of churches; for it was here that Archbishop Nathan Söderblom of the Church of Sweden spearheaded the Life and Work movement, which has over the decades become the justice programme pillar of the WCC. For me, Uppsala evokes many good memories, as I spent a number of years here, making me call it my second home. In fact it was from this country that my serious walk and work in the ecumenical movement began many decades ago. You are welcomed to continue praying, walking, working and remembering together as we continue to celebrate the 70th anniversary.

I. A Brief Recap of the Gobal Context in 1968

When the 4th Assembly met, the global context was charged and characterized by a number of events that shaped the assembly and whose impact I submit still haunts us as a fellowship of churches. What were the events of the day?

  • The decolonization agenda, where the countries in the global South were clamoring for autonomy for their colonizers;
  • A growing civil rights movement in the USA led by none other than Martin Luther King Jr as well as  the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and racism;
  • The Vietnam war, which affected most American families;
  • Student activism was felt all over Europe;
  • The United Nations implementation of the first Development Decade;
  • The cold war was gaining currency as those new nations of the south also aligned themselves accordingly.

From the WCC and fellowship perspective, there was growth in the membership, especially after the 1961 New Delhi assembly. Matters of Church and Society following a 1966 conference took on a wider perspective than just the northern hemisphere. It is here in Uppsala that racism was named as a sin and a violation of the scriptures. These challenges informed deliberations and programme directions of the WCC in the ensuing years. Some of the decisions were later to create cracks in the fellowship. Yet the fellowship chose to affirm and commit to work for the dignity and human rights of all people.

II. Some Global Trends and Issues Today

A number issues and global trends continue to inform our prayers, pilgrimages and actions, and they will form part of our reflections and possibly action during these coming days together:

1. Xenophobia, racism and populist nationalism: although they were lowkey for a while, they have resurfaced in a forceful manner and are rearing their ugly heads without shame. The global nature of the manifestation should be a serious concern for all of us.  Indeed the global consultation organized by WCC and the Vatican not only illustrated the worldwide phenomenon but the need for us as Christian organizations and churches to do our own introspection in order to root out the tendencies. Waves of populist nationalism pose threats to human life and dignity; but they stand also to erode democratic and human rights gains so far achieved and for which WCC has been an advocate for many decades. Further, democratic leaders are slowly pushed into the back seats as conservative ones take over. This trend seems to generate and unleash forces fea,r making it increasingly difficult for people to have constructive space for the “other,” since the other is profiled as an enemy.

2. Raging wars unabated: Current wars in Syria, South Sudan and Yemen, just to mention a few, are a rude reminder of the war in Vietnam of the 1960s. On the other hand, mounting militarism is concerned mainly with the so called “war on terror” and the architecture of peace and security. The people in the war zones wonder and ask: Whose peace and security? The weak and vulnerable sectors of communities, for example, women, children, the elderly and people with disability, suffer most. Current statistics show that half of the world’s poor are children, nearly 700 million face adversity every day (2018 Multidimensional Poverty Index). UNICEF also reports that 2.6 million babies die before they are one month old. Of these, 1 million die a few minutes after birth; prior to this, 2.6 million will have died even before they are born. One out of four children dies in conflict, while 2.5 billion face poverty and violence. What is so sad is that, according to UNICEF, 80 percent of these deaths are easily preventable.

3. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV): Sexual and Gender Based Violence is perhaps the most rampant pest as it increasingly becomes a global phenomenon, with very minimal, if any, serious governmental and nongovernmental action. In conflict spaces, rape remains a weapon of war and a passtime for the men in military and nonmilitary attire. But in general violence, whether domestic or in the public space, is on the rise. The question is why?

There are movements like “#MeToo” and “Thursdays in Black” seeking to draw attention to the problem and to create awareness. But who is listening to Rachel crying for her children and herself? Think of the millions traumatized today and of the children born out of these violent circumstances. It would seem as if there is a correlation between the reversal of democratic values, as well as religious values and ethics, and the heightened incidence of violence and moral decadence in society.

The WCC has a long history of work by, with, and about women and gender, but are our voice and message as clear and loud on this matter today? Yes, we have statements, but how can we lift up more clearly that this is a matter of life and death? And that unfortunately the victims and survivors of violence have had no choice? We have heard narratives of the commodification of human life, about transactional sex and all forms of violence taking place. How can we come to understand the depths, heights and implications of this disease on our present and future?[1] Stop for a moment and think:. A girl child of ten years wakes up one morning and is told, you are a widow because your husband, 90-plus years old, is dead. Is he a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather? What does widowhood mean to a ten-year-old? What is her future? What are her dreams and hopes for life?  What would you do as a pastor, church worker, parent, aunt, or uncle?

The stories of SGBV from around the world should provoke anger and ignite a sense of urgency in all of us.  Here at Uppsala the WCC discussed difficult and troubling issues of the time.  It was a time when the faith of our leaders was tested. It is my considered submission that the matters related to SGBV, which so deeply dehumanize the dignity of children, women and even men is a test of our time. This issue of SGBV is at the heart of how we relate with one another, how we perceive the “other,” and how we use or abuse scriptures.  Today SGBV is a pandemic in the world which, to use the phrase of the English writer Charles Dickens, is “a bleak house” for many whose voices are drowned by the mighty, whose tears are ridiculed and whose identity and dignity are denied. Indeed, we stand on a cliff, and  the common humanity we ought to share  is in my view aptly captured by the words of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe when he writes, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” Women as caregivers, carriers of life and nurturers life are themselves threatened. Thus a major pillar of society is shaken to the foundation by forces of death. How then can the house stand? How can the community of women and men be just and remain healthy and wholesome with the rise of SGBV unabated?

III. Review of Programmes

As we review our programmes, take note that this meeting of our executive committee has a lot on its plate, namely, to think through: preparing the upcoming assembly, which will be facilitated by APC; ensuring a smooth and constitutionally compliant leadership transition; and, above all, ascertaining that programmes remain aligned to the mandate given in Busan. This year 2018 has been a year of praying, walking, working—and also remembering and celebrating how far God has enabled the ecumenical movement to register achievements and overcome difficult moments on the journey. This year also presents us an opportunity to project into the future, of course, informed by the dynamic and ever-changing contexts of the member churches. May I humbly request us to review programme work in light of the WCC transition and reduced numbers of staff and to strategize on how to engage churches further in the work?

IV. Transition Moment

Organizational management tells us that transitions can be challenging if not well planned, carefully navigated, and ably managed. As people of faith, we plan and, more important, we allow space for us to discern God’s movements in our midst. Our transition phase begins already in 2019 as we prepare to hold the 11th Assembly and to hand over leadership of the governing bodies of the WCC.  It is essential that as the executive committee we begin to think of:

(a)   The milestones of the current governance. How has it worked and what are the gaps? This is necessary because our present governance structure and its responsibilities were the outcome of the review of our constitution and by-laws. And as you recollect, a small team was appointed by the last central committee to look at the constitution and by-laws and propose any amendments.

(b)   The team. Another issue to consider is, what are we leaving or bequeathing to the next team that we can be remembered for? It may require personal and collective reflection and documentation. I am not engaging the end-term evaluation of the entire WCC but of us and our responsibilities.

(c)    The challenges. In the history of the ecumenical movement, there have been ups and downs, as in any organization and movement. What challenges do we as the WCC have and continue to face, and how can we overcome them?  It is known that what makes the difference in addressing challenges is how the leadership of the particular time discerns and handles the challenges.

(d) Consensus decision-making. As we prepare for the next meetings, we are encouraged to reflect on how the philosophy and practice of consensus decision-making has worked. How have we engaged such key terms as discernment, common mind, listening to one another and hearing minority voices?

Conclusion

This executive committee meeting is expected to receive reports and to give guidance on decision- making on the assembly theme, which the central committee did not do because of time limitation; the venue and time for the next central committee meeting; review the status of the Search Committee membership, ensuring required balances; review finance, e.g., risk management of the Green Village; and review the programmes themselves. The general secretary’s report will provide us with more details.

Thank you for listening, and may our meetings be fruitful and allow your memories of the ecumenical journey to be jogged while here at Uppsala. May we be encouraged and assured in our work by this biblical verse:

“I will appoint peace as your overseer and righteousness as your taskmaster.” (Isaiah 60:18b)

 



[1] On SGBV: Consider a few testimonies about gender violence, from my note:

Rape cases are among the most serious, and if not addressed, they can ignite a big fire in concerned communities… If my sister is raped by a young man, and I have not [avenged] her, I will live in shame forever… if another youngman provokes a sister, rapes and/or beats her,it is always considered a challenge against her brother, and it is always a duty and responsibility of a brother to avenge by fighting the culprit.
Sometimes the conflict between individuals escalates into a fight between groups and creates long lasting animosity between them. Young women and girls are harassed in their offices and organisations…[and] there isno complaint mechanism in place. Policies and procedures are not being created by the government [to handle cases of harassment].

Domestic abuse was also raised as a serious concern among Abkhaz youth. As stated by one
young person:

The gender question has been very current of late… in relation to the growing number of cases of domestic violence, including murders. If we stay silent and do not react, we allow this problem to continue. If you look at our parliament, among the deputies there is only one woman. Many consider a woman’s place to be at the stove in the kitchen – this is a very old-fashioned point of view. Women and men do not have equal access to many resources, especially in politics.

For me when there is no firing and shelling, it is peace. When children do not become victims of mine blasts in my village, it is peace. When I seemy mother going to the fields to collect wood and graze animals, it is peace. When I see children playing in the common fields or grounds then I consider it peace.