Dr Elizabeth Joy

Dr Elizabeth Joy, director at Churches Together in England and the first woman shortlisted as a nominee for the general secretary of the World Council of Churches.


How did you get involved in the ecumenical movement?

Dr Joy: As children we were exposed to ecumenical celebrations, though we didnt  understand that they were ecumenical then! My father, as a Lutheran priest, raised us as children that way, so at Christmas and Easter, at the ages of 6 and 4, we would attend ecumenical celebrations.

My father believed in ecumenical conversations and the ecumenical life. We children remember the first time when he took us to the Catholic church just opposite from our church, and we saw statues and other things. From the Lutheran background, there were a lot of questions! We thought my father was not a real” Lutheran, and we asked him, How can you take us to that church?”

He said, “We worship God in different ways but the way we honor God ultimately is the same.” That took quite some time for us to think about. When my father was doing his masters work, he went to a Hindu temple and sat at the foot of the priest to learn something about the Hindu philosophy. We couldnt believe he could enter the Hindu temple. But we live in a multi-faith, multicultural, multilingual context. Living our faith in such a context instills ecumenism.

Recent scientific studies of these post-modern days say our human minds can grasp information at the conscious level at 40 bits per minute—but at 11 million bits per minute unconsciously. So I feel our context—the life in which we grew up—very unconsciously was rooted in our relationships with people around a global or interfaith context.

When were you introduced to the WCC?

Dr Joy: I think I was introduced to the WCC when I was age 22 or 23. When I was studying at the United Theological College, it was my father who used to guide us as to the optional subjects we would choose. For example, a certain prophet was offered in Hebrew and another in English, or even Sanskrit and English. He would always say, Choose Hebrew, or choose Sanskrit.” I was furious when I came home—I was arguing with him; I said, "Why are you forcing us to do all this? It is enough that we do it in English! That is easier for us!” I asked: Why does a women who has to stay in the kitchen and take care of the fire need an education?” My father told me to let that proverb continue to be used. Let them continue to say that,” he said. You continue to keep the fire going. Let it keep burning—but I want you to do with in the World Council of Churches.”

For me, standing here today was in honor of the history of my father. We dont go on blowing the fire just to see the fire burning but, when we know it is going down, we keep the fire going. I am sure there will be people who will follow me and do that.

You are also living ecumenism—you were born Lutheran, and married an Orthodox priest. Do you have a sense of unity in your personal life?

Dr Joy: Ecumenism has always been filtered into my life. That filter was other faiths to some extent, the content in which I was brought up. When I received the Orthodox faith, I think I received it through the filters of the Lutheran faith ecumenically, and then built amid many cultural contexts. It took a little while for me to get the Orthodox liturgy, worship and faith from my head to my heart, even though t is a small distance—hardly a feet and half! I was not used to the bells, I was not used to the incense, I was not even used to making the sign of the cross. Everything was new. It took time but I am very glad to say that my firm foundation in the Lutheran faith, along with the ecumenical outlook, allowed me to embrace the Orthodox faith in a very lovely matter. I am very proud of my church, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. They have become  a role model for the other member churches here in the WCC. inspiring them to send women.

You serve as a role model to other women around the world. What would be your main message to the WCC?

Dr Joy: I was very grateful to God and to the WCC for being shortlisted. Of course I expected the process to end very soon but the pandemic played its role; nobody can be blamed for that. Particularly, I found it very difficult to apply anywhere else, because I knew how much organizations and ecumenical bodies spend on this process, so financially and ethnically, it wouldnt be fair for me to do that. So that wait was long but it was quite a positive one for me because I thought, when I had come to this level, we are there. But yesterdays election sent a very clear message that the churches are not ready for a woman to lead them. So that is really sad. But then I am sure the churches will learn as they go along. If, at any point, my candidature was seen as not Orthodox enough” or the other candidate seen as not African enough,” that also makes me very sad—because then I would say, we are not WCC enough.” But the journey that the WCC has taken, the bold step, its really, really beautiful and I would say I feel very happy, and very sure I will be the final stepping stone. For any woman who comes back, this stone of failure is a final stepping stone to success. I see it in the very near future, and I will be happy to see that happen.

Will you continue your ecumenical journey?

Dr Joy: I live it out day after day. I will do that like breathing and I wont be able to live if I dont continue my ecumenical journey.