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Ecumenism in the 21st century

Lecture at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, on 17 November 2006, by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches.

17 November 2006

Common witness in a gobalized, but deeply divided world

Lecture at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary
17 November 2006
by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary
World Council of Churches

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, dear friends,

Let me share with you how much I longed to come to this place, where "Spirit, Virtue, Knowledge, Health and Community" are upheld together with the three-self principles. I was impressed to hear how students and theological teachers together are searching for the most appropriate ways to serve our Lord Jesus Christ and His church in China. Nanjing Union Theological Seminary is known far beyond China and recognised for the quality of the education provided to future pastors and church workers.

During the groundbreaking ceremony for the wonderful new campus of the seminary in January 2005, the world-wide highly respected President of the Seminary, Honorary President of the China Christian Council and Honorary Chairperson of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, Bishop K.H Ting underlined that Nanjing Seminary will be devoted to training more highly qualified workers for the Chinese church who are able to resonate with and respond to China's changing society, church workers who are not only well educated theologically, but also well-versed in fields of the humanities such as literature, poetry, philosophy and arts. The new campus will serve as a beautiful new base for Chinese theological education.

I am deeply moved by this commitment to embrace the rich Chinese cultural heritage. We have seen in many other places of the world how devastating the consequences are when local cultures are disregarded or even destroyed because of the wrong identification of Christianity with Western civilization. At the same time, pastors and church workers who are and will be educated in the seminary must develop the capacity to face the future and to respond to the rapidly changing context. Nobody can ignore the challenges that come with the growing integration of the Chinese economy into the so-called world market and the new role China assumes as a nation in global politics. Increased power must always signify increased accountability and increased responsibility. This is the background for the choice of my theme and the emphasis I give to it when I speak of the common witness of the churches in a globalized, but deeply divided world.

Ecumenism in the 21st century refers to the future of the fellowship of Christian churches working together in the ecumenical movement: the context they encounter, the witness and mission to which Christ is calling them here and now, and the shape their fellowship will take. These are the thee basic dimensions that require our attention. We want to approach them with the best analysis available, clear theological discernment, and the readiness to realign and reshape the instruments at our hands for common witness and action.

I will reflect briefly on these three dimensions of the theme focusing on a global perspective. This part of my speech will be followed by some remarks regarding the changing context in China. When I point to growing inequality as a consequence of China's integration in the international trade and financial systems and also to the changing geopolitical perception of Chinese presence, especially in Africa, I share with you concerns that are in the hearts and minds of people who look at China with great expectation, who want to see China flourish, and who are in solidarity with the people of this great nation. My remarks are meant as an invitation for discussion so that together we come to a better understanding of the mission that is required of us here in this country and word-wide at this point in time.

1. A rapidly changing context

Some describe the 20th century not only as the "age of extremes" or the "most violent century in history", but also as the "ecumenical century", since it was then that churches began to discover each other and committed themselves to work together in response to challenges they were confronted with. The World Council of Churches was founded right in the middle of the century in 1948, although the process leading to its inception began in the early years of the century. Churches committed themselves to work for unity among them, for peace and justice against the background of two world wars, and for solidarity with those struggling for political emancipation and with the poor. In their journey together, the churches actively rejected racism and the evil of apartheid. In recent years, they were also moved by the suffering of creation as a consequence of environmental destruction, a commitment best signified by establishing in 1983 a conciliar process for justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

The ecumenical movement has become a reality that involves churches all around the world with the World Council of Churches as the common platform and a privileged instrument. At times, the ecumenical movement has been a force to reckon with in public, at times it has accompanied churches in difficult situations through silent, but effective presence.

What are the tasks ahead for us in this 21st century that has just begun?

A response to this question needs to draw on reflections on

  • geopolitical realities,

  • the threat of growing inequality within and between countries,

  • increasing violence at all levels of society, and the threat of nuclear proliferation,

  • the influence of increasing interdependence, modern media, new technologies and consumerism on cultural and religious traditions and environments,

  • the growing challenges of climate change and loss of biodiversity,

  • and, of course of high importance to us, the changing face of Christianity in the various regions of the world and the re-emergence of religion as a critical factor in international relations.

We are living in an increasingly globalized world, but this very fact has even further exposed and accentuated the still existing divisions within humankind and our misuse of the gifts of creation.

In the given time, I can point only very briefly to some of the major trends and dynamics. The geopolitical arena is in constant flux. On the one hand we have seen growing US hegemony and militarisation of politics at the expense of the multilateral co-operation of nations in the UN system and other fora. On the other hand, the US claim for imperial power that was put forward especially after 9/11 2001 has met its limits: internally with the recent elections in the US, externally with the emergence of new forms of regional co-operation, especially in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Agreements for mutual support in facing the danger of financial crises, such as the Chiang Mai agreement, with new relationships between China and its neighbours through an instrument like the Shanghai-Five process (with Uzbekistan now including six nations), with some regional trade agreements or the rapid economic growth of China and India, but also the economic development of Brazil and Southern Africa show that new power dynamics are evolving. With these trends it is more than likely that before the end of the 21st century the uni-polar world will be increasingly replaced by a multi-polar one.

There is, however, also a downside to this trend. Growing competition for resources, higher pressure on the environment, competition in international trade and volatility of the financial system are all factors that might increase dangers of armed conflicts and war. Just to give one example: We cannot understand what is happening in the Middle East if we do not see the growing demand for energy and the strategic importance of this region for possible future conflicts in neighbouring regions. It is obvious: We need to focus more on economic relationships and peace in the coming years, because these problems affect people and their lives and livelihoods. It is not unlikely that in the 21st century resource-based conflicts will increase. Oil and water will be foremost among such resources.

The scandal of still growing poverty in some regions and increasing inequality everywhere is a major concern that is closely linked with the geopolitical developments. The World Council of Churches has made this concern a major programme emphasis. With a project on Poverty, Wealth and Ecology, we are exposing the close link between increasing poverty of the many and growing wealth for a few. We will also raise the question, where and when is there enough of economic growth and accumulation of wealth. The Chinese people should be asking this question even at this point of the country's economic growth. Growth that does not mature is the destructive growth of the cancer-cell. Over-consumption and excessive wealth are a burden for all: the human community and nature.

In the work on ecological concerns, we have identified the concept of the ecological footprint, which is a measure for the just use of ecological resources and space. We should also identify something like a greed-line. The so called plimsoll-line marks the level to which ships can be loaded without being in danger to sink. The greed-line marks the level at which accumulation of wealth and consumption become destructive and undermine life. I will come back to this later with some remarks concerning China and its role in international relations.

I will not go more into detail regarding the relationship between the expansion of the global economy and the impact of new technologies and the media on the social coherence of communities and local cultures. You all experience this very clearly in your own context. I am also convinced that you know already much about climate change and the loss of biodiversity as the most important ecological threats to the future of life on planet earth.

Instead, let me express my concern very clearly concerning the degree to which religion has also come under the influence of these dynamics and is instrumentalized by powerful actors for other purposes. It is one of our main tasks to resist all efforts to fragment societies and to fuel conflict on the basis of religious identities and between religions. We need to become much more engaged in inter-religious dialogue and co-operation.

To be well prepared for such inter-religious encounters, however, we also need to give much more attention to shifts in World Christianity that are already evident. For the first time at a WCC Assembly, a representative of the Pentecostal churches was invited to speak in a plenary. This happened at the 9th Assembly in Porto Alegre in February this year when a Pentecostal representative spoke in the Unity of the Church plenary. The time had come for the WCC to recognize the changes in the ecclesial and ecumenical landscape occurring with the growing number of Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians. Another factor that must be taken much more seriously by the World Council of Churches is the shift of world Christianity's "centre of gravity" towards the South. At the dawn of the 21st century, Africa is the region where Christianity is growing fastest in the world. Christianity is growing very fast also here in China: small in percentages of the overall population, but the numbers of Christians are increasing rapidly over the years. Another factor to note is that the churches are being more and more recognized as important actors in the society. With a massive increase in migration, the influence of these growing churches and their spirituality is also felt in Europe and North America.

Yet another characteristic of the changing ecclesial landscape is the post-denominational proliferation of forms of Christian community, for instance in my home country Kenya, but also in South Korea and in other places. These attract especially young people in many parts of the world, persons who are tired of hearing about the doctrinal differences between the churches but want to belong to lively and active communities.

These remarks lead me to the second section of this first part of my speech.

2. An urgent need for ecumenical and faith formation

Mere analyzing of this changing context is in and of itself not enough. We also need to ask ourselves what this means for the churches and the kind of ecumenical and faith formation required for Christians who are called by Christ to live their faith in the midst of these new realities. Ecumenical formation for pastors and church workers that is responsive to the context must be the task of ecumenically conscious education.

When we speak of ecumenism, we refer to the modern ecumenical movement that grew out of the mission and youth movements of the 19th century. We have started preparations for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1910 Edinburgh World Conference on Mission, which was the common starting point of the different movements that later became the World Council of Churches.

The ecumenical dimension of our Christian faith, however, is much more important than institutional ecumenism. The Greek word oikoumene refers to the whole inhabited earth, to our planet as our common home. Psalm 24 says it clearly:

The earth (i.e. the oikoumene) is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.

In our faith we confess the Triune God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, as creator, redeemer and sustainer of all life. The ecumenical dimension of our faith compels us to take the risk and to announce God's presence in the world as a whole. We are there to discern and follow God's calling in all dimensions of our life. We need to recognize that we can never be fully church if we are not being church ecumenically. God is not limited to an individual church, nation, gender or race. God's love is at the origins of creation and God's grace is a power that transforms all according to God's will and purpose.

This is also the reason why we urgently need to embrace the presence of people of other faiths among us and to co-operate with them very deliberately. We cannot confess the Triune God if we do not live a relationship of neighbourly love with all fellow human beings irrespective of their individual faith. This insight challenges the narrow understanding of mission and conversion. We must be ready to discover God's presence in the world that he loved so much as to sacrifice his son, Jesus Christ, to live on earth and die to save humanity. Our new understanding of mission calls us to discover new ways of living with and relating to our neighbours in celebrating together God's gift of life to all.

The ecumenical dimension of our faith is both deeply spiritual and practical. The Christ whose presence we celebrate in the Eucharist is the same who is among us in the least of our sisters and brothers. The way we live our faith as churches ecumenically ought to inform our common witness, just as our failure to act together and to give a clear witness to the world reflects our failure of being the church. Ecumenism cannot be separated into spiritual or justice-oriented ecumenism, in church-based or world-open ecumenism. These different aspects belong together just like the Chinese Ying and Yang.

This insight must inform ecumenical and faith formation in the education of pastors and church workers. The curriculum of a theological seminary as a whole and of the individual models must reflect our commitment to God who calls us to unity, common commitment and costly discipleship. There should not be a course on ecclesiology that neglects the ethical challenges, or a course on ethics that does not reflect what it means to be church together. Nor should there be a course on church history that neglects the political and social context, etc.

3. A new departure

If these are some of central insights that guide us in our common journey in the ecumenical movement, they need to inform also the future shape and work of the World Council of Churches and related ecumenical organizations. This is already well reflected in the new mandate for the work of the WCC.

The new mandate that was given by the WCC's Central Committee following the guidance by the Assembly holds together the dimensions that I mentioned earlier:

  • it speaks of the role of the WCC to provide coherence and leadership to ecumenism in the 21st century;

  • it includes a focus on unity, mission and spirituality;

  • it identifies priorities for the public witness of the churches, e.g. overcoming violence and inequality;

  • it offers to accompany churches in their work on justice and diakonia;

  • it takes ecumenical and faith formation seriously; and

  • it strengthens the capacity for inter-religious dialogue and co-operation.

These are not separated departments, but closely inter-related programme areas that are meant to serve the holistic mission and mandate of the WCC.

We hope that it will also provide a basis and instrument to support the future development of the ecumenical movement not for its own sake, but for the sake of people and our common witness to a deeply divided world.

In focusing on our work on Poverty, Wealth and Ecology and its relevance for the Chinese context, I want to give but one example what all this means in very concrete terms.

4. Eradication of poverty

Addressing the scandal of poverty in the midst of global wealth is an issue of justice as far as the ecumenical family is concerned. For the ecumenical movement God's "preferential option for the poor" is the basis for all efforts to eradicate poverty. It is the guiding principle. The UN has just ended the first decade of eradicating poverty on 16th July 2006. Yet 24,000 people die daily due to poverty-related diseases and hunger. This problem is, therefore far from being resolved. The more it persists, the further we are from building sustainable global peace and social harmony.

The realities of unjust extraction of wealth from the South to the North must be taken into account by any methods used in addressing issues of poverty. That way it will be possible to move beyond the narrow focus of poverty as it relates to income. A multi-dimensional view on poverty in the light of strategic notions such as empowerment should not focus exclusively on economic growth. The nomenclature of the development discourse is useful to the extent that it is accompanied by changes in policies and actions. Organizations involved in supporting development work will increase their credibility vis-à-vis their development partners if they heed such advice.

While powerlessness - together with vulnerability and voicelessness - is seen as the institutional root of poverty, the effort to change this implies a confrontation with the powers that are and the need to overcome inequality in all its aspects. Hence poverty eradication requires much more than just appropriate analysis combined with good will. It is an issue of justice and the fulfilment of the economic, social and cultural rights of the people. The United Nations Development Programme concludes that the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will probably be achieved only by 2157 if the structural aspects of poverty are not addressed - which means a total failure of the prevailing development approach.

In our work on economic justice, we have followed with keen interest how China eradicates poverty:

"If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people".

This is an old Chinese proverb. The far-sighted way in which China plans her economy based on the people while determining the role of this huge economy and seeking a niche in the global market is key to the rapid growth in recent years.

One of the goals of the Millennium Development Goals is to reduce the proportion of the world's population living on less than $1 a day by half by 2015. China's remarkable economic growth has made a major contribution to meeting this target by reducing the proportion of the Chinese population who are poor from 64% in 1981 to 17% by 2001. Was growth the only reason? Poverty reduction has not progressed in the same rate in the developing world despite some having increased growth. The World Bank's estimate of a reduction of 200 million in people living below $1 a day in the world since 1980 is less than the reduction made in China in the same period.

We are impressed by the way in which China eradicates poverty with positive results and wonder how this example could be used and replicated in the countries whose efforts are less successful. But to what extent is China interested in eradication of global poverty just as it is interested in eradicating domestic poverty? How does its foreign trade policy contribute to poverty eradication in Africa, in the rest of Asia and in Latin America?

In maintaining its growth, China has a booming energy demand and sees Africa's oil and other resources as crucially important. Trade between China and Africa, which was worth about $10 billion in 200 increased to $32.17 billion ten months of 2005 (BBC, 2006e), making China Africa's third largest trading partner ahead of Britain. Africa is becoming economically strategic for China as a source of the raw materials needed by the Chinese manufacturing sector. By June 2004 Chinese investors in Africa had set up 674 businesses in mining, textiles and construction.1 China extracts oil from Sudan and Nigeria and is exploring possibilities elsewhere in Africa. It is essential to research and see how trading and investments between China and Africa lead to poverty eradication. For many years the West has been trading with Africa, but evidently Africa has continued to remain poor2. How can China deal with Africa in a different way that will lead to a genuine eradication of poverty in that continent? It is critical that the Chinese address this question because many Africans are keen to see that China's increasing economic involvement with Africa should avoid the pitfalls that have characterized that continent's relationships with the economies of the West.

Let me close my speech with the following question: Could churches in China raise the issue of poverty eradication both within China and with regard to China's role in global trade? This question is, of course, meant as an invitation to the China Christian Council to participate in this programme - we do believe you have an important contribution to make. We need you and your involvement in the ecumenical movement.


The Case of the Quandong and Qinxin district: Anti-Poverty programme

Provincial government officials involved in the anti-poverty programme from Quandong accompanied my colleague to Qinxin district in 2005. This is one of the 9 counties of the province. It has 700,000 people living in 240 villages. 610,000 of the people are farmers cultivating rice in more than 430,000 fields. The per capita income is RMB 3,488 ($400). Out of the 240 villages, 86 of them belong to the poverty line defined as having a per capita income of RMB 1500 and lower. 9047 farmer households belong to this category. In other words about 45,000 people were categorized as poor. They are identified by the kind of the houses they posses, the available infrastructure like roads, market access, energy, schools and hospitals. 3,922 households had very poor buildings.

The Anti-Poverty Programme had the following measures:

  • Reduce tax for the poor people for 9 years.

  • Support them in constructing good brick houses to improve household living conditions for 3,922 households.

  • Construct vocational schools for young people.

  • Promote agricultural techniques and skills.

  • Fighting unemployment: Encourage and support in the process of diversification from agriculture to manufacturing in order to promote employment. Solve market access bottlenecks.

  • Improve working and living conditions for poor people by encouraging them to move from poor areas to much richer areas. About 200,000 people have been moved from poor remote areas to rich areas in Qinxin district.

  • Subsidize school fees.

  • Provide health service care for only RMB 20 per year per person for poor people.

Achievements: In 1990 there were 210,000 poor people. Now there are 40,000 in the district.

The Anti-Poverty Programme was impressive. My colleague had a chance to talk to villagers who were beneficiaries of the programme. He was amazed to find out that each household had a brick house, could educate their children and possessed a motorcycle or tricycle as a means of transport. The farmers expressed satisfaction with the programme and appreciated the role of the government. We see poverty addressed in a comprehensive way here contrary to policies of the IFIs.


1 The Dependency Syndrome: Can Africa Produce Its Own Wealth, Paper by Prof. Olude Akinloye Akinboade, AACC August 2006. P.21

2 See Walter Rodney's book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, National Publishing House, Dar Es Salaam, 1972