What are some of your fondest memories from your years at the WCC?
Dr Pedroso Mateus: When I was student at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, back in 1981, we used to visit the headquarters of the WCC once a week to have lectures on different WCC programmes. I remember vividly the day Michael Kinnamon told us of an imminent theological agreement on ancient divisive issues such as baptism, eucharist, and ministry. That day I dreamed of serving the WCC. I joined the council in 2007, after seven years of intensive ecumenical work with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), three of them editing WARC’s theological journal “Reformed World.”
Two years later, travelling for the WCC Living Letters programme in Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil, I had an appendicitis that turned into a dangerous peritonitis just a few hours after I landed in São Paulo under heavy abdominal pain.
In a hospital room, following surgery and two days on intensive care, the telephone rang. “Hello Odair, this is Sam Kobia calling from Nairobi. Don’t worry. We will take care of you.” That phone call in days of great vulnerability helped me so much to recover! I remain very grateful to the former WCC general secretary Rev. Samuel Kobia for his care for people working under his leadership.
Three years later, in 2012, the Commission on Faith and Order met in Penang, Malaysia, to deliberate about the new version of a text on the common understanding of the church. I remember the moment when the decision was taken by consensus that indeed that document expressed a significant convergence among theologians from different traditions. Taken by great joy and gratitude, we all stood and sang Taizé’s Laudate omnes gentes.
I will never forget faces and eyes of Dalit children I met and pictured in the outskirts of Bangalore in September 2011, during the preparations for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2013.
The light they shone contrasted dramatically with the tragedy of casteism that would later prevent their flourishing. Built in the resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2013 was the condemnation of discrimination based on skin, social status, gender, etc. In the WCC we have learned since the 1960s—better: since the days of the German confessing church struggle against Nazism that lie behind article 1 of the WCC Constitution—that the search for Christian unity that isolates itself from radical solidarity with the vulnerable may end up in ecclesiological idolatry.
Nor will I ever forget, early in August 2022, children, their mothers, and grandparents standing silently on the road to Kyiv, waiting for coffins coming from the war front. Driving by them, I asked myself whether our ecumenical theology deserves the respect of the children on the road to Kyiv.
Colleagues of mine—serving the WCC in other areas such as those working on HIV and AIDS in poor countries or protecting Palestinian children who grow up under the daily humiliation of a brutal expropriation of their lands and future—would certainly tell you even more moving stories.
Many are those today who are sceptical if not cynical about the search for Christian unity, but the biblical, spiritual, and moral values and virtues that undergird the modern ecumenical movement embodied by the World Council of Churches are very timely and desperately needed in times of climate emergency and sacrifice of the weak.
What are some memories from your years at Bossey?
Dr Pedroso Mateus: I have many. Let me share a few, on the Bossey chapel, Christmas Eve, and classes of ecumenical theology.
When I was Bossey student I enjoyed very much attending vespers led by the sisters of the Community of Grandchamp. The Bossey chapel is a fascinating place.
As you enter, at the ground floor of an ancient tower, it puts you in touch with the church of all times and places through its icons, Bibles in different languages and hymnbooks from churches around the world. At the same time, the communion that grows among students as they live and study together cannot express itself in the chapel, the heart of Bossey life, in the common celebration of holy communion.
One of my joys was to prepare morning prayer for the first and second weeks of Advent and help students to appreciate the joyful Protestant hymnody of Advent and Christmas. This brings me to Christmas Eve in Bossey.
I remember the joy and gratitude of Bossey students leaving my house after midnight on Christmas Eve, year after year. Some of them had nowhere to go during those days or did not have the resources to travel.
They missed their families while bearing with the grey, cold, sometimes foggy, and very silent days that fall on Bossey during the Christmas break. I used to invite them to come to my place after 10 pm on Christmas Eve for a fireplace, carols, and friendship, after my family had finished its own celebration.
My daughters had the privilege of growing up experiencing that sort of “catholicity” that teaches you to resist to xenophobia, racism, and discrimination in general.
I will not forget, thirdly, the benefits that ecumenical role playing brought to students of the class of ecumenical theology. A Methodist student had to present Orthodoxy to her/his classmates so that Orthodox students would recognise themselves in the presentation, and feel respected and understood. A Catholic student would be invited to do the same for evangelical churches, and so forth.
The search for Christian unity, a receptive ecumenism, requires the spirituality of the footwashing which, not by accident, replaces holy communion in the fourth gospel. That is why the WCC 11th Assembly in 2022 called the churches to an “ecumenism of the heart.”
What in your mind stands out as the biggest achievement of the Faith and Order Commission?
Dr Pedroso Mateus: I wrote recently that “throughout the 20th century, no other movement or institution embodied with comparable longevity and persistence the service of theology to the search for Christian unity as the 1910 movement on Faith and Order and its successor after 1948, the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order.”
Faith and Order, and after the 1960s a wide range of bilateral dialogues whose results are regularly gathered in the series “Growth in Agreement" (available for free downloading in the Faith and Order digital library!), have addressed virtually all controversial issues that in the past or in the present threaten church fellowship, from the formula of Chalcedon of the fifth century to contemporary issues of human sexuality. This is a great achievement.
A reader would then ask: but where are the concrete results of all this? Are the churches closer to visible unity after one century of ecumenical theology?
The first answer is that there is no common measure between a division inherited from the past and its healing centuries later or even a few years later. It’s not difficult to divide. It is much more difficult to overcome division. This requires not only theological work but also ecclesial willingness.
What I mean, using traditional theological language, is that the achievements of ecumenical theology are not ex opera operato. In other words, an outstanding ecumenical theological achievement such as “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” does not produce visible church unity just because it exists. The efficacy of those ecumenical theological achievements depends on what is called “ecumenical reception” by the churches that have mandated those dialogues.
Thus the question is “are the churches receiving the results of the dialogues that they have mandated through Faith and Order or through other forms of dialogue?” The second answer is “not much.”
An example. WCC member churches, with their different doctrines of the church and understandings of church unity, called for a study on the fundamentals of a common understanding of the church. The purpose was not to replace the different doctrines of the church, but to put in evidence their fundamental commonalities in continuity with Scripture and traditions, so that churches may realise it and express concretely in their common life in the WCC their growth in their real though imperfect fellowship.
The study was done and published in 2013 as “The Church: Towards a Common Vision.” The WCC central committee received it in the same year and transmitted it to the member churches for study and action. Some of the WCC churches have officially responded to it. Many were asked to do, but they didn’t. Several Faith and Order publications of the past two years facilitate the reception of its results.
The question remains: how can the churches express in their common life in the WCC the fact that their doctrines of the church have a lot in common? Don’t we need more of what the statement on unity from the recent WCC assembly called “ecumenism of the heart?”
What message would you like to leave with the next generation of young theologians?
Dr Pedroso Mateus: If your passion for ecumenical theology drives your scholarship, then don’t conform yourself in the future to traditional methods of ecumenical theology. They remain helpful but they need some decolonisation.
Young theologians may break new ground. One way forward, I suppose, may be to do more ecumenical “archaeology.” I mean to “excavate” under the official normative texts of the churches in order to earthen elements of church life that don’t find their way into the written documents which are the basis for ecumenical dialogue traditionally confined to the confrontation of truth claims like in an old quaestio disputatio.
A language dictionary defeats its purpose if it limits itself to proposing similar meanings to words taken as equivalents across two languages. Ecumenical theology is like a language dictionary. It provides semantic equivalences where symmetric words may be absent. The fact that churches do not speak languages with symmetric words should cease to be an obstacle and appear as an ecumenical promise hidden in the search for semantic equivalences that connect in different ways asymmetric lexicons.
Would you like to say a few words about how you are looking forward to the 1700th anniversary since the convocation of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea?
Dr Pedroso Mateus: The WCC is a “council” (in the weak sense of counselling) of churches. Faith and Order studied for several years the significance of the councils of the early church for the ecumenical movement. The WCC 4th Assembly in Uppsala went as far as evoking the dream that a future universal council would one day speak for the whole Christian world. Faith and Order once described visible unity as a global “conciliar fellowship” of churches locally in communion with each other.
This means that conciliarity is an important dimension of the churches’ journey towards visible unity. But there is more. The early councils, called “ecumenical” in the sense of councils of the whole church, made important doctrinal definitions that remain indispensable for Christian unity. In the particular case of the Council of Nicaea, the churches agreed that the Father and the Son share in the same divinity and adopted a Creed stating it. They also approved a method for fixing the date of Easter.
The celebration of the 1700th anniversary of that council is therefore a meaningful ecumenical opportunity to take stock of and advance the search for unity in faith. It is also an opportunity to face together the challenge of making sense of catholic faith today and tomorrow both in post-Christian contexts and in contexts of emergence of new denominations and new ways of being church subsumed under the notion of world Christianity.
Is there a particular Bible passage, quote, or poem that is on your mind these days?
Dr Pedroso Mateus: Throughout the preparations for the last assembly of the WCC, I kept in front of me the scene depicted at Matthew 9:36: “When he saw the crowds he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless…”