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The World Council of Churches Central Committee meets at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland from 15 to 18 June 2022.

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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, womens 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 Im 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.

 

 

 

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23 August 2018, Amsterdam, Netherlands: WCC staff Owe Boersma (left), Dr Agnes Abuom, moderator of the World Council of Churches Central Committee (middle), and Prof. Fernando Enns (right). A “Walk of Peace” on 23 August in Amsterdam gathers hundreds of young people and religious leaders who, as they stroll together, celebrating the ecumenical movement and challenging each other to accomplish even more. The walk offers moments of reflection and prayer at several houses and buildings - including a synagogue, the Sant’ Egidio Community, the Armenian Church, and many others - all of which carried stories of blessings, wounds and transformation.

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Did you grow up in a Christian home? When did you start believing in God?

Dr Abuom: Yes, I grew up in a family where both my parents were baptized Christians. I vividly remember my own maternal grandmother refused to go through traditional rituals when she became a Christian at 16 years of age. She refused female genital mutilation, and she raised my mother and her siblings in a very strong, spiritual, Pentecostal tradition. Because of refusing to undergo female genital mutilation, my grandmother was initially marginalized by community which meant marrying outside her immediate community.

Because she believed in reaching out to those who had not heard the gospel /Christianity, she as an evangelist together with two others went to preach in another community which did not go well with leaders resulting in their excommunication for some time. I come from a very strong Christian family and my grandmother and grandfather decided to initiate their son—my uncle—in a new Christian-based initiation and not the traditional one. This action prompted community elders composing songs to describe my grandparents’ action and so there are songs about this by the local community.  However, I dare say that with migration and younger generations the songs are slowly dying. My parents and grandparents believed in education as a liberating force. As a small girl I went to Sunday school and after confirmation and upper primary, I was a committed Christian who joined others for evangelism. I look back to my early years of exposure to Christian faith with gratitude as who I am is largely formed by this faith.

What is your greatest hope for the future?

Dr Abuom: World history has shown us that there will always be crises—but that there will also be room for doing many good things and doing Christ's work in the world as well. The question is how we navigate the challenging contexts, how we face the crises together, individually, and knowing as well as acknowledging the basis of our encounter with crises. The Christian faith provides us with key principles of how to relate, to act, and to live out our faith and related values during the good and the bad times. I recently quoted to the WCC executive committee the letter of James, the text where James says to take trials and temptations as a mechanism to grow. They should not swallow us; rather we should face them without fear, because we are not alone, rather God is with us.

We will slowly keep unfolding what God desires for us in future. I think we need to look back to our forefathers and foremothers, i.e. how they managed through some of the worst crises of their time and to learn from them, and to draw lessons that must be adapted to our historical moments.

What do you think will be the most important function of the WCC 11th Assembly?

Dr Abuom: To begin with, we gather after such challenging times largely due to the impact of COVID-19, to celebrate and thank God for how far the fellowship and movement has come. Due to the pandemic, many individuals have not met for almost three years. So worship and celebration in form of thanksgiving!

The whole question of unity—unity of the church may not be a heated, mobilizing theme, but it is very much an indicator of how and where we are at in responding to the cry and the prayer of the people. Why is unity so important? When the German churches invited us, one of the things that the president of the Protestant Church in Germany raised was the issue of migrants and refugees and their integration in the new countries/communities. It is not only a European issue—it happens to be a very hot European issue—but it is increasingly a concern in every many countries/society: how can we as human beings live together in harmony?

The unity question is not just the unity of the church—also begs answers from us on how we seek to have a common mind on saving the planet? We are still making the same mistakes destroying the earth, so we should be united in addressing ecological injustices in saving and restoring the wholesomeness of the earth and thus the wholesomeness of humanity. It is an urgent issue, but economic powers, political powers are playing with it, and if we do not unite in Karlsruhe on this question, we leave a legacy of destruction and a dark future for next generations. Yes, God said to Noah, I will not destroy the earth again,” but humanity is about to destroy the earth, so it is an urgent call for a united action. When I talk about unity as a critical issue,  it is the unity by all humanity in discerning those paramount areas of common concern that require our united action climate justice is a major one that we must agree to face  together? United, we must address the issues of poverty, dehumanization, discrimination. Let me urge us to be strategic. Yes, some agendas are important and yet if we sink the boat, those issues evaporate!
Even issues of human sexuality, which will be on the agenda—what is our united position? Even the Russian and Ukraine war, we don't have a united voice that can bring just peace. We  all have different  and scattered interests, some very destructive some very constructive.

How many years have you been involved with the World Council of Churches?

Dr Abuom: When I joined the ecumenical movement, I was a steward distributing the assembly newspaper in 1975 in Nairobi. I have since that time believed in the vision of the fellowship and in the importance of the movement.

You have lost a dear friend and colleague with the passing of Metropolitan Gennadios. Have you been able to grieve together with your colleagues?

Dr Abuom: Yes, I attended his funeral in Thessaloniki, Greece on 3 June, where I shared a tribute on behalf of the WCC. He was a profound and creative theologian, a sensitive pastor, a professor, a leader in the ecumenical movement—he was so many things! Most of all he was a devoted friend and colleague who I trusted and respected. At truly difficult moments in the WCC, he remained kind, open, and creative as he offered solution after solution. I will miss his authority and his warmth, his determination and humour. I still cant imagine the WCC 11th Assembly without him. But that is the reality!

Would you like to comment on the humanitarian needs associated with the war in Ukraine?

Dr Abuom: Of course, war and conflict divide people. This has created unnecessarily high demand for humanitarian work.  Our team has just been out to see the situation, and one of their observations is that there is such need.to work together with churches to address the plight of internally displaced people. Humanitarian issues are perhaps the one big agenda for churches in a context of declining resources and increased needs. The second big agenda, of course, is reconciliation of its people, the healing of wounds and transforming lives of people.

People have lost loved ones, there is so much grieving, many maimed loved ones; people are hurting spiritually and physically, so care and healing becomes critical as an agenda for the church. An aspect of this task is undoubtedly reconciling and uniting divided families, addressing the pain of loss and the wounds.

Conflict/war creates trauma, a lot of wounds and addressing these effects is a mammoth job. In fact, I'm reminded of post-Second World War Europe. And exactly what the World Council of Churches did in Europe at the time together with churches, the Russian churches will be doing, the Ukrainian churches will be doing similar work.

We also cannot overlook the food insecurity across the world that has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

How will the war in Ukraine affect ecumenical work?

Dr Abuom: The war will affect in many ways. The Russian Orthodox Church is a major member of the World Council of Churches, and has been an important actor over decades.

The current situation is painful. It's tragic, because it interferes with the contribution of this church to the work of the fellowship. You will note that particularly after the post-Communist era, it had become a key actor both within the pan-Orthodox family, and also within the ecumenical family. It had become a critical actor and was becoming an actor in Africa—in my own region. For instance, the Russian Orthodox Church was beginning to develop local churches, together with the Greek Orthodox Church. At this juncture, in the ecumenical pilgrimage, this political, military conflict affects the ecclesiastical engagement, and it affects our relationships.

Having said that, it is also an opportunity for us, as the ecumenical movement, to revisit discussions of just war, just peace.”

There has been a debate whether the Russian Orthodox Church should be still be a member of the WCC or not. What is your opinion on this matter?

Dr Abuom: I have seen write-ups and I have heard voices, some from key church leaders, calling for suspension of the Russian Orthodox Church. That would make the key function of the WCC obsolete because WCC provides a global space for dialogue.

And we do believe, as long as people have safe space to dialogue, the possibility for resolution of conflict or differences is higher than when you shut people out.

We have heard these voices, and we will need to discuss these concerns when we meet in Karlsruhe, but it is not the mandate of the WCC to suspend a member church; rather it is our task to call ourselves to order to listen to one another, to pray, and to seek God's guidance as we discern God's word. So, as an organization that believes in just peace, in dialogue, and in justice, we must, whatever the circumstances, offer safe space for discussion

 

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About the WCC Organizational Structure

WCC Central Committee Leadership meets for final Assembly preparations