How does the church interact with a rapidly changing society? On 31 August, members of the World Council of Churches Central Committee spent much of the morning discussing this question in a pair of plenary sessions in Geneva.
The discussion marked 30 years since the landmark Church and Society Conference on Faith, Science and the Future took place in the United States, but Dr Mary Tanner, WCC president from Europe, said the topic remains highly relevant for today.
“We should not just look at it as a relic from the past,” said Tanner, who moderated the plenary, “but see how (it) remains a living, dynamic tradition in today’s ecumenical movement.”
She said “living the fellowship” of churches today begins with listening to one another’s stories and supporting one another. In that spirit, she invited several speakers to share “a tapestry of poignant stories” of struggle within their communities.
For example, Rev. Geraldine Varea of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma talked about a military coup in her country, and tensions that resulted between the government and the church. Through the help of several WCC churches and other members of the Pacific Council of Churches, some dialogue and reconciliation were able to begin.
“They have given new light to the issue,” said Varea, who at 26 is the youngest minister in her church.
Likewise, Metropolitan Mor Eustathius Matta Roham of the Syrian Orthodox Churches of Antioch and All the East said the churches can assist his region by helping people “hear and understand the voices of suffering in the region”. The Middle East, he said, has had to deal with both the instability caused by the ongoing Arab/Israeli conflict as well as climate change, which has sparked both floods and sandstorms.
Two speakers shared stories from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other parts of Africa’s Great Lakes region. Civil wars, large numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, violence against women and children and other issues have caused an ongoing crisis.
Rev. Micheline Kamba Kasongo of the Church of Christ in Congo-Presbyterian Community of Kinshasa compared her hopes for the situation to the book of Esther, who had to “risk to do something for her people”.
“We want to find our Esthers, those who are prepared to stand up against evil,” she said. “I believe the church always has the possibility of intervening to change things.”
Delegates also watched a video message from Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua, a Catholic priest who served as president of the United Nations General Assembly in 2008-2009. A veteran statesman in his home country, d’Escoto has been active in helping the poor.
“The world is in desperate need of prophetic voices” d’Escoto said in the video. “Are we being the salt of the earth as we should be?”
Many other stories from around the globe were gathered from WCC members before the plenary and posted on the WCC website. WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia said it was the biggest response the WCC had received from central committee members on any item in more than a decade.
“Our public witness clearly needs to be rooted in the experiences of the churches in society,” Kobia said. “We can very well be the pulse of society as the church.” Kobia named “mutual learning through deep listening”, accompanying one another, and mutual support and solidarity as “key elements” for the fellowship of churches.
Fernando Enns of the Mennonite Church in Germany, in comments following the stories, emphasized the importance of the topic in the ongoing life of the organization.
The interaction of church and society, he said, looks “not just at a ministry of the church, but what the church itself is. We’re discussing the essence of ecclesiology here. We need to reflect on who we are as churches, and who we are as churches together.”
Listen to interviews on Church and Society with Central Committee members Rev. Bao Jiayan (China), Rev. Frank Schürer-Behrmann (Germany), Rev. Micheline Kasongo (DRC) and Metropolitan Mor Eustathius Matta Roham (Syria)