By Susan Kim*
Sit beside Bishop Mary Ann Swenson for five minutes, and you see that she is constantly nurturing people to learn more about each other, walk together, and become more unified, no matter their differences.
Her sentences generally begin with phrases such as: “Have you met…? Did you know about the work of…? How can we think together about…?”
A retired United Methodist Church bishop, she currently serves as vice-moderator of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee.
Traveling the world, or riding her tandem bike to church with her husband, her positive energy, spirit of unity and willingness to hear each person’s story are a gift to the World Council of Churches, and the world.
Through recorded interviews, Bishop Swenson shared her thoughts on the ecumenical movement.
Early ecumenical years
Q: What is the earliest ecumenical experience you remember?
A: As a little girl in Mississippi, I had a girlfriend across the street, a Catholic. She went to a Catholic school, and I attended a public school. We were great friends. And I had Greek Orthodox girlfriends. We grew up and shared together. One of them became my college roommate. We had icons in our dorm room. So, I began early to learn about my brothers and sisters in the ecumenical community. My commitment has long been there.
When I was a young pastor, I was, for a while, the chairperson of our Greater Vancouver Association of Churches - our ecumenical group. In the early 1970s there weren’t women in ministry. Attending meetings of pastors at the funeral home there would be 800 people and perhaps only three women in the group. So, it was overwhelmingly men then! An opportunity arose as a young pastor when the Catholic priest invited me on Good Friday to lead stations of the cross worship with him in his parish. I thought, what an amazing ecumenical moment of hospitality, for someone to reach out and welcome in this way. So, my heart deepened there.
Ecumenical life has always been a part of me. Before I retired as an active bishop, I had many concerns, worrying about United Methodist congregations, and if people were happy with their pastor; if churches were wanting a change, or not; or people fussing about things. It was wonderful to retire and to start again in a new and strengthened way, all those ecumenical relationships.
The world as a parish
Q: Has your ecumenical work changed your United Methodist identity?
A: I see myself as a granddaughter of Methodist movement founder John Wesley, who would say: “I look up on all the world as my parish. If your heart is as my heart, take my hand.”
All of us living and working together: that’s the joy of my life. Let us walk together to become more perfect in love of God and neighbor.
I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing Christian churches uniting in Christ, differing Christians who can come together in an ecumenical world and try to work together. That gives me joy - because I see the ways we work together. Then I go into my own denomination and I find my heart breaking because I see us arguing and struggling with one another trying to find a way: can we stay together? Are we so different that we can’t?
I see Christians of denominations and traditions who do things differently. For example, the Orthodox do not ordain women. They are not going to ordain women in my lifetime. The Catholic church is changing, but who knows what will happen in my lifetime? These are Christian communities different from ours and, yet we can manage to work together for the common good. It breaks my heart when I see our own denomination struggling to work together for the common good. I believe we can.
All denominations have their internal struggles. Getting to know each other better in the ecumenical world, I see that. In some ways, it’s easier for us to come together when we don’t have to get too close to our problems, and we can see the things we can really work on together. That’s easier than really looking at the sin that’s inside each of our communions.
But we can influence each other so that what United Methodists do well, we can encourage other groups that may not do that well to look at themselves differently and get new ideas about improving their own work.
Deeply moved in Trondheim
Q: Is your heart still warmed by ecumenical experiences? When do you experience the spirit anew?
Last year our Central Committee went to Trondheim, Norway. It was a great meeting in a lovely setting. I had some experiences that moved me deeply there.
One I had, was seeing that we could worship in different churches while there. In one church, we worshipped in what seemed a Norwegian Lutheran setting. The next day, in the same church, it was completely Orthodox. Everything that the Orthodox have in their worship - was there. The church could make the transformation and be in relationship with both communities. I was moved by that.
I was also deeply moved by our United Methodist witness and our little Trondheim United Methodist congregation. I met people who have been there for many years. I talked to one of our dear Methodists, a lay leader, Dr Peder Borgen. His brother had been a Methodist bishop years ago. A young Dr Borgen was at the very first meeting of the World Council of Churches. For him to see the WCC come to his community was fun.
We learned at the little church, that it had been the place for the indigenous people of that country and of northern Europe, the Sami. It was the host church for them, had worship for them and was with them, a part of that community. When I worshipped there, someone from the Sami community came and sang, and someone from Ethiopia sang, and a Methodist from Latin America came and was a part of the worship, and a violinist from the local orchestra played!
I also learned that during World War II our little church was a hidden synagogue for Jewish people who were not safe in their own country. And so, we had opened our doors for the Jewish community. We were able to truly celebrate that history and honor that congregation. It meant so much to me.
The next generation of ecumenism
Q: In what ways do young people represent hope as the next generation to lead the pilgrimage of justice and peace?
I think our young people are growing up in an ecumenical culture with a greater openness than earlier generations. That’s real joy and hope. Yet, this cannot happen unless we are attentive to young people having experiences where they can develop that awareness and those relationships. Ecumenism is about relationships. That’s a sign and symbol of hope.
One of my real concerns is that the US right now is struggling with racism, injustice and the oppression of people. We really need to address racism and find a way to be a more inclusive society.
Recently I was in Geneva at a hearing on racism. We had some great speakers, and I feel we are working at it, but if you looked at the pictures of Charlottesville, you could see that the white supremacists were young people too. The issue is real for our next generation.
Q: Do young people inspire you?
A: I recently went to the Bossey Ecumenical Institute, where I get to see the students. Last year, for the first time in many years we had a student from my tradition, a seminary student, studying there. Getting acquainted with her delighted and inspired me.
In my local church, I try to relate to young people, get to know them, and share ideas. A young woman in my church who is at high school asked to follow me for a day for a project. The day she joined me, we were having a Southern California Ecumenical Forum meeting. She met the ecumenical leaders, fully participating. After that, we talked about it for the entire light rail ride back!
WCC Executive Committee envisions future for unity, justice and peace (WCC press release of 27 November 2017)
WCC hearing on racism: “The work of truth-telling has to happen” (WCC press release of 28 September 2017)
WCC pilgrims remember atom bomb’s deadly destruction 70 years ago in Hiroshima (WCC press release of 6 August 2015)
*Susan Kim is a freelance writer from Laurel, Maryland, United States.