Why do we need to do ecumenical work? Why is it important?
Dr Abuom: These questions you are raising, come at a very critical time in the life of the ecumenical movement and also at an opportune moment to look back at where we are coming from, where we are and discern the future direction for the ecumenical fellowship. Why is ecumenical work important? Remember, ecumenical work and the WCC in particular is response to the call and prayer of our Lord Jess Christ, “that they may be one”. A glimpse back to the context of humanity in 1948 and the prevailing trends, it can be argued that there were periods, when there was peace, when there was harmony, but most of the time and even now many a nations and communities were wounded and broken. A look at church life, indicate schisms, whose impact remains unabated, although I must state that churches have come more closer to each other as illustrated by inter and intra confessional dialogues, thanks to the work of WCC and other partners.
When the World Council of Churches was founded, one of the popular concepts at the time was “reconciliation,” and that is why a European reconciliation committee was formed and still exists. One may ask why? This is due to the fact there was needed for healing, reconciliation and hence dialogue between and within communities and nations. People who had been separated by conflict/war, by natural disasters, needed to gather together to share their narratives of their pains, their sorrows as well as their joys, hopes and their creative resilience strategies.
Given the context of humanity and state of our Christian fellowship namely conflict/war, fractured relationships, high demand for humanitarian support and forced movements of people as migrants and refugees among others, which in many ways resonates with the situation during post world war II, you can agree with me that ecumenical work and ecumenical fellowship remains important, as long as we continue to seek unity of humankind and the unity of the church; moreover creation groans due to abuse, misuse and mismanagement of natural resources that demand concrete actions by the ecumenical movement in collaboration with other religions and people of faith.
What are your greatest experiences with the power of ecumenical work, both locally in your own country and within the World Council of Churches?
Dr Abuom: Let me start locally, in my own country. The most effective faith organization since the 1920s has been the National Council of Churches of Kenya, which comprises of all the Protestant, Evangelical and African Instituted churches. My experience was and continues to appreciate how the council has over many decades moved forward in a deliberate manner, the agenda of justice and peace, moving that forward, as well as the issues of democratization, child rights, women’s rights and dignity. It had to take an ecumenical forum, like the national council of churches, to test our theologies, to test our faith post-colonialism and now. The council platform has been very critical in addressing questions such as: ordination of women. Are women supposed to be servants of God? All these discussions have taken place within the national council members. When it comes to the formation of clergy, the national council is a key member of ownership and governance of the St Paul University, formerly St Paul United Theological College, a space that introduces and nurtures students, future clergy and church leaders to ecumenical cooperation and fellowship. Economically, the National Council of Churches of Kenya has pioneered innovative, creative projects for sustainable agriculture, for ecological wholeness, invested in health through church-owned organizations. Thus, from a national level, I would say that ecumenism for me is one that affirms the dignity of people, one that seeks to unite people, one that works, believes and promotes nonviolence and dialogue to conflict situations, one that endeavors to broaden political space for people's engagement, one that calls powers to order and account, speaking truth to power. Ecumenism and ecumenical fellowship is about discerning God’s will at historical moments; ensures that people are rooted in their faith as they engage with men and women of other faiths; in other words open to interfaith work as they continue with the task of mission and evangelism.
Regarding my experiences at the regional level, the All Africa Conference of Churches—of which I’m a member of the eminent persons for Peace, has over years been a key player in mediation/negotiations, peace building etc. The All Africa Conference of Churches has an important role in ensuring that churches engage in different aspects of justice and peace through building capacities of churches in peace building, in negotiations, and reflecting on their identity and role in the given national situations. The All Africa Conference of Churches has a number of national councils whose full membership includes the Roman Catholic Church. With such a broad fellowship of churches, the All Africa Conference of Churches is able to facilitate encounter with governments, inter-governmental bodies at sub regional and regional levels such as the African Union.
Globally, all the regional experiences, challenges and lessons converge with the intention of sharing, learning, solidarity and further enhance and wider participation. You can begin to imagine the privilege and honor of being afforded the chance and space to listen, to and learn from wide range of narratives and experiences from Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America, Middle East, Pacific and Caribbean, obviously my engagement is enriched and informed by different realities. This is the sacred space and privileged position the World Council of Churches affords individuals like me to grow, ensure informed actions, learning and ecumenical interaction and fellowship that can never be quantified in any material ways.
Let me offer a couple of case studies that inspire other churches and countries; during the human rights abuses in Latin America—the World Council of Churches was very much at the heart of documentation and ensuring that the files are in safe custody. This is an experience that opened my eyes to the vital role and need of a global body committed to safeguard the history of a people—we learned a lot as the files were given back to the relevant organs after so many years – WCC a trustworthy partner, reliable, dependable and committed to the dignity and rights of people. When Germany was seeking to reunite East and West, it later inspired South and North Korea churches as they also share a divided history. What happens at the global level many a times impacts what happens at the local level. In this case the work of advocacy while it is done at regional and national levels; history has shown us that there is always need for global advocacy because at times my church, my council may be seriously constrained from speaking by the forces of darkness and this is why complementarity and ecumenical discipline is at work. In other words, authority is given to the global ecumenical body to speak on their behalf, so these linkages are integrated, they're interrelated and they are coherently informed.
What is your most important role as WCC central committee moderator?
Dr Abuom: Allow me to say that my role as the central committee moderator, is a very interesting, exciting and humbling role in as much as it has been my most important role in life. I am sincerely grateful and I would like to thank those visionaries who worked hard to put in place a consensus model of decision making, because it is not simply making decisions; rather the group and individuals are encouraged, facilitated to continuously seek a common mind and understanding of issues; by discerning the will of God on a matter. Consensus decision making approach has in some ways changed the ambience of vicious competition.
The new decision making model allows the moderator to facilitate central committee members to take decisions, having sought the will of God. That spiritual journey together seeking the guidance of God, on crucial issues, we have to listen to each other very carefully, as we no longer are in the parliamentary competitive system, and I thank God for that. It makes the role of the facilitator, the moderator, very important because the moderator has to be spiritually connected to the people and to God, so that what you are hearing is not your voice. What you are lifting for decision is not your thoughts—it is what the people are saying. The moderator has a chance to test the feeling or will of the people in order to find out if they are ready to move on.
My role is to make sure the different voices, particularly the dissenting ones, those voices not warm to the decision are properly heard and if needed accurately captured/documented. A key idea is to have all participants on board/included.
What is personally, for you, the most important aspect of your Christian faith?
Dr Abuom: First is the ability to show compassion, and to constantly express God's love in many ways/actions towards other people, especially those people I don't agree with, the people who may not like me or may not appreciate who I am. Just to illustrate, we live in a world where racism and other isms still prevail; we live in a world of gender inequality and violence, and it affects us individually and collectively Therefore, my most important priority is, how I live out the compassionate love of Christ. Second—something that we constantly remind ourselves as a council and a central committee is prayer. My prayer life and how it affects my daily actions matters. Through prayer I connect to the creator and owner of the earth and all that is in it which in turn sets my compass and connects me to source of power—for without prayer I have no power. Without prayer, my compassionate love will not be alive, and that is why our prayer life has become very much our spiritual life together.
Another aspect is to appreciate the different church traditions and cultures. As you know we come from a Christian history that makes some of us tend to look down on other traditions. The diversity of God’s people is important, and that diversity should be expressed in our faith, form, structure, and institutions. Inclusively and dignity would be my final words: compassionate love means to me that I ensure inclusivity and dignity for each other.