World Council of Churches (WCC) deputy general secretary Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri reflected on the recent Global Consultation on the Decade of the Churches in Solidarity, and what the insights gathered there might mean for the ecumenical movement.
Q: In one sentence, what for you is the key message that is coming out of the gathering in Jamaica?
Dr Phiri: The clear message was that we move from reports to action for a just community of women and men at a personal, congregational, denominational, global levels.
Q: It was said towards the end of the Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women that, in fact, the churches were not in solidarity with women, it was women in solidarity with women. Where are churches – and the men in the churches – now?
Dr Phiri: There have been mixed reactions and thus we are at various stages. We heard testimonies of churches who have excelled in increasing the participation of women in leadership positions. Local examples came from the Jamaica Council of Churches which has, for the first time, a woman president. The WCC also shared its progress in having four presidents who are women and four who are men. The upsurge in church-implicated sexual and gender-based Violence in the media is a clear indication that in general, we are not where we need to be. The WCC move toward transformative masculinities and femininities demonstrates our awareness of the problem and our intentionality in addressing it.
Q: What was identified as the major achievement of the Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women?
Dr Phiri: In Harare (1998), participants acknowledged the power in community and in voices lifted together to speak to their churches, councils and theological institutions. They shared through tears the stories of violence in women’s lives in every corner of their communities and their churches around the globe. And in some moments they also found courage to admit the cracks in their solidarity – the stories resisted or not heard – complicity in racism, their struggles to speak of sexuality, the oppressions of heterosexism.
Q: Recently, movements such as “MeToo” have become high-profile platforms for women to break the silence of suffering violence and confront their abusers. We have also seen a backlash against some accusations and accusers that charges are fake, or too long ago, or not serious enough. During the consultation as well, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two people whose work and witness denounces sexual violence as a weapon of war. All these major movements seem largely secular. What can churches learn from these “signs of the times” – and where should the churches be?
Dr Phiri: While it is unfortunate that the church seems to be taking its cue from society; we are also conscious that we operate within cultural and social constructs. One of the key signs facing us today is that silence is not an option on the issue of gender-based violence. This however, is not an indicator of the church’s ignorance or apathy, as the world church, in particular the WCC has set the agenda for some of the transformational shifts established by the UN today. And, across the world, women, men and non-binary persons who are affiliated with the church have been active behind the scenes in addressing, agitating and advocating for change in spaces of abuse and threat.
We are not where we need to be; but it is our goal to begin with those who are presently committed and subsequently expand our frame of reference into the wider society toward a truly Just Community of Women and Men
Q: You were looking back 20 years to the end of the Decade – and also looking forward. Young people from schools in Kingston also joined you. What are the young people saying about their experiences, and about the future that they want?
Dr Phiri: The core cry was for an end to violence - in any form. The young people from the schools in Kingston expressed confidence in society's ability to prevent violence and reduce the current levels of violence. They all believe the home environment and the wider society needs to demonstrate more compassionate care toward children and those children will grow into compassionate caring adults. They also posited that the church has so far been failing them in being a welcoming place to all persons. They feel the church has been too judgmental and rejects people, and such rejection causes harm and cannot help in curbing violence because we are pushing people away instead of embracing them and teaching them how to make better choices.
Q: What did participants highlight as priorities to address to achieve a “just community of women and men”?
Dr Phiri: At the 20th Anniversary Consultation on the Decade, women from around the world identified and named an increasing global backlash against the forward strides that have been made in recent decades on issues of gender justice in the church and the world. Backlash is certainly not a new phenomenon and the history of the World Council is filled with women’s experiences of backlash for their prophetic work in speaking out on behalf of justice for women, people with disabilities, LGBTQI people, children and youth. Nevertheless, the rising political fundamentalism that is evident across the globe matches our experience of an increasing backlash against women’s leadership in the church and the world, particularly the leadership of ordained women. We feel called to identify this moment in the church and the world as marked by a dangerous backlash against the progress that has been made on gender justice, racial justice, and human rights for many groups of marginalized people in the 20th century.
Additionally, the increase of extreme neoliberal economic principles shaping the global economy have intensified the global divide between the rich and the poor. The increasing impoverishment of the poor has had a disproportionate impact on women across the globe. This has contributed to the backlash in multiple damaging ways including fueling increased racism and xenophobia, disabling and disrupting the vibrancy of people’s movements and locally based economies. The silencing of dissent is furthering the diminishment of civil society as a space for resistance and transformation. All of these circumstances have contributed to the decreased capacity of many people to survive. As Christians, we seek a world where people thrive, not just survive.
Christian theology and history, to a large extent, have played and continues to play a damaging role in fueling and furthering the global backlash against women. Theologies that diminish the image of God in women are killing women across the globe. Women’s health, safety and well-being is threatened by policies and laws in our countries that fail to support women’s physical, medical, and mental health needs.
We recommend the formation of a Women’s Global Solidarity Reference Group who will take the mantle of giving voice to the backlash in our churches and society with particular attention to an intersectional analytical lens. Their mandate will include monitoring what is happening around the world and to develop strategies to address this backlash.
Q: Where do you see signs of hope?
Dr Phiri: Signs of hope for me, were evident in the presence of so many strong engaged youth and a tireless resolve in the recommitment of women in particular who have been fighting these issues for decades, are somewhat disheartened that we haven't gotten much further at the structural/situational level but who recognize that they cannot simply quit and that the journey ahead needs the historical memory, wisdom and the support of stalwarts and the openness and fresh bursts of impatient fire from the younger women who might see things and each other’s role differently. I saw in this group sufficient willingness to make the intergenerational approach work. I also saw renewed hope among those who felt let down by their church in expressed expectations of the outcomes of the consultation being actionable not just heading for a shelf somewhere.
In summary, our youth’s involvement in the now and thus taking the reins for the future, the (re)-commitment of the gathered community, the desire to move from talk to action, and strategic structures and programmes being put in place in addition to reports are signs of hope.
Q: What is the role of the WCC in helping women and men in church and society achieve equality and justice?
Dr Phiri: I got the feeling that if there's a deliberate effort to help promote and facilitate connections for greater sharing of resources that a lot can be accomplished from this consultation that touches several other programme areas especially because Intersectionality was such a big issue.
So there's potential impact on racism, xenophobia, migration and environment and of course violence and abuse.
The participants also talked about training, accompaniment, transformation, representation at various levels, and reinforcement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Q: How do we make sure that this wasn’t just another consultation with a report, but that individually and collectively, this has an impact on our “Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace”?
Dr Phiri: We’ve moved toward inviting participants to commit to involvement personally, congregationally and denominationally to effect the strategies outlined. We have sought to locate the strategies within the three programmatic structures of the WCC: Unity and Mission; Ecumenical Theological Education and Public Witness and Diakonia and also with ecumenical youth engagement and children. We have gotten buy-in from the participants regarding mobilizing our contexts to be more inclusive in policies and strategies; while recognizing that we are at various stages on the journey.