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Ecumenical diversity heightens mission conference experience


Ecumenical diversity heightens mission conference experience

May 19, 2005

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

United Methodists attending the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism found the diversity of participation inspiring, but the need for healing and reconciliation also was evident.

Meeting May 9-16 in Athens, Greece, the 13th such conference of the World Council of Churches had a wider variety of participation than ever before. Besides representatives from various WCC churches, a 42-member Roman Catholic delegation attended as full members, along with others from non-affiliated Pentecostal and evangelical churches.

For the Rev. R. Randy Day, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, that diversity, along with the Athens setting and its Orthodox context, contributed to the richness of the experience.

“It is my hope that the conscious emphasis on less confrontational approaches among the participants will carry over into the general tones and specific programs between Christians and the millions of people who are in other faith groups,” he said.

The Rev. Larry Pickens, chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, noted that reconciliation is obviously a priority, and he hopes the conference “will challenge us to return to our places of ministry and allow the Holy Spirit to heal and reconcile those with whom we are in ministry.”

Conference participants recognized that divisions remain among Christians but also pointed out that global changes present a challenge to Christian mission and witness. A formal letter from the conference to the churches was drafted and referred to the WCC’s Commission on World Mission and Evangelism for completion.

Participants spent a week living in close community and sharing stories from their own particular backgrounds. Some of that sharing came through small “home groups” that fostered bonding on an individual level.

Each morning, the groups gathered for Lectio Divina, or “sacred reading,” as a spiritual preparation for the day ahead. The more informal evening group meetings offered a chance to reflect on the day’s events.

Anne Marshall, a United Methodist participant and former staff executive of the Commission on Christian Unity, found an opportunity to form deeper relationships through her home group. “It offered time for us to share insights into daily Scriptures and views of spirituality from varied perspectives,” she explained.

“The memories that we take away from this event will strengthen us as we engage in our ministries at home. There will be reflection on this time together whenever faced with disappointment, frustration and discouragement. We are not alone in the ministry of healing and reconciling.”

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The Rev. R. Randy Day

Day said his conversations with others about mission included the need to address poverty and development. “Ecumenical energy today is not limited to important tasks of dialogue but flows forcefully into acts of justice, peace and healing among the poorest of the poor in the global community,” he added.

A plenary session on violence reminded participants that the church cannot remain silent on that issue, according to Pickens.

“Today, we admit that there is an ambivalent relationship between violence and mission,” he said. “The gospel has not always been received as the liberating Word of God. It has supported racism, oppression and even torture. These failures must be confessed.”

Near the end of the conference, on the evening of May 15, participants joined members of local churches on the Areopagus—sometimes translated as “Mars Hill”—in downtown Athens. That historic setting is where, as noted in Acts 17:18-34, the apostle Paul proclaimed the gospel of Jesus and his resurrection to first-century Athenian philosophers.

“The Holy Spirit does indeed heal and reconcile,” Pickens said about that worship experience. “But what we learned is that healing does not necessarily mean a cure. It can mean equipping people to live into a new reality despite the physical and mental challenges with which they are confronted.

“Much of the healing in our world calls the church to respond to the brokenness of violence that is waged against the weak and the vulnerable. Our churches and communities are challenged by this reality,” he continued.

“The HIV/AIDS crisis is also calling our churches structures to change as we confront this silent killer,” he said. “United Methodists must take seriously the impact of HIV/AIDS on the entire world and the role that we should play in healing and reconciliation.”

Dealing with such issues is a spiritual challenge, according to Marshall. “One critical question raised is how we coexist with our enemy when he or she is our neighbor,” she said. “This was a question that was raised particularly in relation to Rwanda.

“In some ways we deal with healing and reconciliation in the abstract because we do not face the real life situations that are evident in other settings,” Marshall said. “There is a need to forgive but to always remember. As we heal the trauma, the memory serves as momentum toward reconciliation that has no time limit.”

During his sermon on the Areopagus, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, a Methodist from Kenya and the WCC’s chief executive, noted that Paul went there “to confront the clever and the wise with the truth of the gospel of Christ.” That message, he added, “lived on to transform the lives of millions.”

At the mission conference, he pointed out, the more than 600 participants from 105 countries prayed the Lord’s Prayer in their own languages and shared experiences from diverse contexts.

The unity of the church, Kobia noted, “is based upon an understanding of who and what God is and has done, is doing and will do in our lives, in our churches, in our countries.”
He encouraged participants to use the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to see the idols of today. “At a time of economic globalization, money has been elevated to the level of an idol—without it you are nothing, and for it, even human beings are trafficked and sold.”

Kobia prayed that the Holy Spirit would “bless our young people with understanding and make it possible for another world to emerge, another possible world that is more just, more caring, more participatory, more peaceful.”

The standing cross that was brought to the conference’s opening worship, a gift of the Christian churches of Jerusalem, will be taken to Porto Alegre, Brazil, for the WCC’s 9th Assembly next February. After the assembly, the cross will be returned to Athens and preserved by the churches in Greece.

Pickens said he was struck by the symbolism of the cross. “It was made from the wood of olive trees which were unearthed to make room for the construction of the wall that divides Israel from Palestine,” he explained. “This symbolizes the broken world in which we live and the call of the church to respond to brokenness with healing, compassion and direction.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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