Monday, November 18, 2013

Week of Prayer Is Nine Weeks Away

With its theme, "Has Christ been divided?" (Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:13), the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2014 is expected as always to be a highlight of ecumenical observances throughout the new year. It may be hard to believe, given we're all preparing for Thanksgiving in the United States, but the Week of Prayer is a mere nine weeks away!
The theme for 2014 comes from the churches and communions of Canada. As with many countries in the Western Hemisphere, Canada celebrates the great diversity of its population. Every culture, ethnicity, language group, church and religion has something to contribute to the whole common good. St. Paul emphasizes the call to unity in the gifts of diversity throughout his first Letter to the Corinthians. 
Diversity is a wonderful gift, but it can not lead to division for Christ himself is never divided. As many of us reflect on the optimism of the recent world Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea, we give thanks to God for the many gifts shared and pray for the unity of the One Church.
So, nine weeks to go. Oh yes, there is Thanksgiving, with hopefully many ecumenical and interfaith services. And then there's Advent and Christmas to think about first, but planning a good Week of Prayer service takes a little time and creativity.
In order to help with this, Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute offers materials for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in English and Spanish. Check out to see what your community may want to use. There are posters, prayer cards, bulletin covers, daily scripture/prayer guides and Ecumenical Services of the Word. All are intended to help us all commemorate the Week every year.
If nothing else, remember to pray "that they all may be one" this coming January 18-25, 2014. Prayer is the soul of the ecumenical movement. Done well, it moves those engaged into an ecumenism of the heart; the desire for unity grows with the experience of common prayer. Pray every day for the unity of the Church. May the Church always be blessed with diversity but may it also be blessed with reconciliation and peace.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Home Again

Just got home over the weekend from Busan, Republic of Korea and here at the office of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute in New York with some time to reflect on the World Council of Churches' Tenth Assembly.
While in my last blog I shared some disappointment with regards to Faith and Order issues, I think it is important to hold up the Unity Statement approved by the Assembly. It states in paragraph 4:
We grieve that there are also painful experiences of situations where diversity has turned into division and we do not always recognize the face of Christ in each other. We cannot all gather together around the Table in Eucharistic communion. Divisive issues remain. New issues bring sharp challenges which create new divisions within and between churches. These must be addressed in the fellowship of churches by the way of consensus discernment. Too easily we withdraw into our own traditions and communities refusing to be challenged and enriched by the gifts others hold out to us. Sometimes we seem to embrace the creative new life of faith and yet do not embrace a passion for unity or a longing for fellowship with others. This makes us more ready to tolerate injustice and even conflicts between and within our churches. We are held back as some grow weary and disappointed on the ecumenical path.
And, in paragraph 15:
In faithfulness to this our common calling, we will seek together the full visible unity of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church when we express our unity around the one Table of the Lord... Above all, we pray without ceasing for the unity for which Jesus prayed (John 17): a unity of faith, love and compassion that Jesus Christ brought through his ministry; a unity Christ shares with the Father; a unity enfolded in the communion of the life and love of the Triune God.
While an exhortation, the Unity Statement does offer a theological vision for the World Council of Churches as to the kind of unity for which it strives. May the WCC be blessed in the Holy Spirit's power to carry through in this vision.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Time to Go Home: WCC Assembly Ends with Conviction and Some Mixed Feelings

Well, it's time to go home. The 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches came to a close today in Busan, Republic of Korea, with its prayer "God of life, lead us to justice and peace." The conviction of the participants and the churches seems genuine; let us pray for the action and vitality needed to bring the earth the justice and peace it needs.
At the closing prayer, the Rev. Michael Lapsley of South Africa, a member of the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM), and a survivor of a bomb attempt on his life that rendered him handless and with only one eye, helped the Assembly recognize the value of listening and coming to a healing of memories, if the world is to experience justice and peace.
He said, "When the disciples were on the road to Emmaus and Jesus appeared, the first thing he did was to listen to their pain, grief, confusion and sadness before he began to help them make sense of their experience. Perhaps all of us, but especially those who are clergy, need to preach less and listen more. As the cliché goes, it is not accidental that God gave us two ears and one mouth. I have discovered as I am sure that many of you have, that pain is transcendent and that it can connect us to one another. Especially when we listen to one another."
That kind of listening requires great gifts of patience and respect as well as openness to ideas with which we may disagree. The unity that is ours in Christ should provide the bond that keeps us willing always to be reconciled to one another.
The Assembly was a great success in achieving the goals set out: to pursue justice and peace in unity. From the prayers in the morning and evening which focused on the themes of the days, yet encouraged by sign, symbol and presence the diversity of the Church; to the Bible Studies; to the Plenaries; to the Ecumenical Conversations and Madang Workshops, all went exceedingly well.
A major highlight of the Assembly was the Pilgrimage of Peace to the border with North Korea that attracted 800 participants.
Referring to justice and peace in Korea, the  Message of the Assembly said it well: "We share our experience of the search for unity in Korea as a sign of hope in the world. This is not the only land where people live divided, in poverty and richness, happiness and violence, welfare and war. We are not allowed to close our eyes to harsh realities or to rest our hands from God's transforming work. As a fellowship, the World Council of Churches stands in solidarity with the people and the churches in the Korean peninsula, and with all who strive for justice and peace."
The life and work agenda of the ecumenical movement was served exponentially well at this Assembly and the churches will hopefully be energized to work in common for justice and peace.
Notably, faith and order was left in the attic.
Yes, there were plenty of Ecumenical Conversations about the Faith and Order document, The Church:  Towards a Common Vision, the single most important work of Faith and Order since BEM, but nothing about it Assembly-wide, not even in any Plenary. This was disappointing.
Also disappointing was a lack of any treatment of the Ninth Report of the Joint Working Group between the WCC and the Catholic Church. This was a downgrading of Faith and Order at a time when the Church needs a strong theological foundation  in order to do the ministry of life and work as one.
That being said, it will be sad to leave Korea as many new friendships were formed, many good prayers were said and much grace filled the hearts of all believers attending.
Many thanks are owed to the Korean Host Committee for such hard work and good organization. Korea is a land where the Gospel is alive. May she be an inspiration to us all.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

WCC Statement on Middle East Calls For Peace but Sidelines Israel

The passage of a Statement Affirming the Christian Presence in the Middle East by the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches meeting in Busan, South Korea goes a long way in making a comprehensive plea for a peaceful life for Christians and all people in that very tense part of the world. 
It is commendable that the WCC stands with all Christians, especially in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Palestine/Israel.
The statement strikes out for justice when it "demands" the release of two archbishops from Aleppo, Syria, who were kidnapped in March 2013, and are still being held.
It's call for humanitarian access into Syria and for the rights of Christians in Egypt, Iraq and Iran are profound and hopefully will get the attention of governments.
When it comes to the Palestine/Israel conflict, however, the statement falls short in its dependence on what seems to be the Palestinian narrative alone. 
Paragraph 3.5 states,"This tension and violence around the Middle East and in North Africa is taking place in the midst of the on-going and longstanding Palestine/Israel conflict in the region, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Arab territories since 1967. This remains a central issue and a major source of concern for all who are working for peace with justice for reconciliation. It also remains the core problem that is fueling the logic underlying many of the conflicts in the region, putting at risk international relations and peace."
No one should take the situation faced by Israelis and Palestinians lightly and this document does not do that. Solidarity with those who suffer injustice anywhere in the world is a mission of the One Church.  But fairness is also a part of justice. A line about the real fears of Israelis in the conflict may have been helpful and charitable to the other side of the story.
As far as this conflict being the "logic" for many conflicts in the region, one wonders if the growing power of Iran and Hezbollah might have a role in the tensions as well as radicalized Islamic groups.
The document's call to Christian churches throughout the world supporting Christians throughout the Middle East is challenging and commendable. Missing however, at least in this document, is a reaffirmation or call for a two-state solution in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and some creative activism such as positive investment in Palestinian business, produce and other aspects of the Palestinian economy. Peace can only be achieved through justice and reconciliation. That is true. But fairness and charity must also play a part.

Building Peace in Today's World Theme of Thursday at Assembly

The Most Rev. Dr. Thabo Makgoba, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, moderated the morning plenary at the World Council of Churches' 10th Assembly in Busan, Republic of Korea today, challenging all those assembled to become true peacemakers. In his introduction he said that this was to be peace based on hope in spite of injustices. Then he invited the audience to observe a "café table discussion" with two speakers, Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Dr. Chang Yoon Jae of South Korea, a professor of theology at Ewha Women's University in Seoul, a member of the Presbyterian Church in Korea and a former officer of the Christian Conference of Asia.
The two told stories of the past and present in their work for peace in two very distinct parts of the world.
Ms. Gbowee spoke of the trauma of the Liberian civil war. She pointed to the fact that Liberian women were the ones who pressed Charles Taylor to the peace table. A film was shown documenting the event. She shared that she herself had a transformation from anger into peacemaking. She said, "Peacemaking is a vocation, not social work."
Dr. Chang spoke of the need for an exodus among the Korean people. First, there was the exodus journey into peace into a divided Korea. But after 60 years there is still no treaty. Koreans don't want to live forever in anxiety. So, there is the second exodus to peace in a reunified Korea that is eschatological in its dimensions. Finally, there is an exodus into the light; away from nuclear weapons and nuclear power. To demonstrate this, Dr. Chang had all the lights turned off in the auditorium, lit a candle, and was joined by all in singing This Little Light of Mine.
Archbishop Makgoba then asked the two of them what challenges they would set forth for the WCC and the world.
Ms. Gbowee said in Liberia they must righten history, end their ethnic divisions and begin to find a place, "where we're not waiting for someone to apologize." To the world and the churches she said we can no longer be bystanders. If we are, "we might as well be with those who are shooting people."
Dr. Chang stayed with the theme of journey or pilgrimage. He noted we need to make peace with the earth and turn away from our dependence on fossil fuels. "We need civilization change, not climate change," he said.
This was followed by three members of an audience that had been set up on the stage: Mr. Stanley J. Noffsinger of the United States of America, general secretary of the Church of the Brethren, a peace church, Ms. Agata Abrahamian, from Iran, an Armenian Orthodox and Mr. Fabian Corrales of Costa Rica, a Baptist. Being deaf, he both signed and spoke his presentation. The three spoke of the struggles of being peace makers, of living in their different societies and of hopes for peace.
The plenary came to a close with those on the stage holding up banners for peace and singing a hymn for peace. The challenge remains: can the churches together demand peace in our world?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Economy, the Earth and HIV/AIDS Dominate Day for Justice at Assembly

The Plenary this morning at the World Council of Churches' 10th Assembly in Busan, Republic of Korea, focused primarily on three aspects of justice: the world economy, the environment and HIV/AIDS as issues for justice.
The program was introduced by a children's choir from Korea, followed by a call to seek justice by the moderator, the Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith of the United States of America, a Baptist pastor and Executive Director/Minister of the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis. She asked the questions, "What kind of world are we living in?" and "What kind of world will our children have in 15 to 20 years?"
She then told the gathered participants that the program would be in the form of a Madang, Korean for   "gathering space," and be something like a talk show.
Her guests were Mr. Martin Khor of Malaysia, Executive Director of the South Centre, who had expertise on the world economy, Dr. Julia Duchrow of Germany, head of the Human Rights and Peace Desk of Bread for the World in Germany, Bishop Iosif of Patara, General Vicar of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires and South America for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Rev. Phumzile Mabizela of South Africa and the Presbyterian Church of South Africa, Executive Director of INERELA+, Interfaith Network of Religious Leaders living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS.
Mr. Khor highlighted the injustices caused by the world economic crises that started in 2008, especially in the realms of government subsidies for larger countries, trade agreements, financial regulation, medical expenses and a lack of will to tackle the environmental issues.
Dr. Duchrow brought up the whole dimension of human an rights imperiled by governments and institutions. 
Bishop Iosif expressed a theological defense for justice as expressed in  God's love for humanity and humanity's reflection of this in love for one another.
The Rev. Mabizela shared her personal struggles with being HIV positive and reminded the audience unequivocally that "we need to distress those who live in comfort and comfort those who live in distress."
The panel was joined by three persons pulled from the audience: The Rev. Tafue Lusama of Tuvalu, Dr. Lukas Andrianos of Greece and Ms. Shyreen Mvula of Malawi, to challenge the WCC and those attending to work for justice.
Rev. Lusama spoke with great anxiety about the future of his island nation in light of global warming and the rising of sea levels. He challenged all to focus on the needs of the earth and the environment as an act of justice for his people and all people.
Dr. Andrianos spoke movingly of the economic disaster in Greece; of homelessness, hunger and suicide. He challenged the WCC to do more to confront governments over the regulation of the economy.
Ms. Mvula is living with HIV and aside from seeking medical care as an act of justice, she reminded the audience that, "AIDS is not a punishment from God. It is a disease." She received sustained applause.
There was much to contemplate throughout the day after the foundation was laid by this plenary. May the word go out from Busan that God hears the cry of the poor.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Unity is Focus of Assembly; Press Corps Goes to Buddhist Temple

Today in Busan the experience of the 10th Assembly if the World Council of Churches from a journalist's perspective, was one mixed between appreciation for the Assembly statement on Unity and a tour to a mountaintop Buddhist temple.
The morning plenary was dedicated to unity and the Assembly Statement on Unity. Dame Mary Tanner, herself an icon of the ecumenical movement, introduced the plenary, reminding all of the prayer of Jesus Christ in John 17:21, "That they all may be one," and that this unity is primarily that unity found in the Godhead himself.
First there were two presentations; one by Metropolitan Nifon of Târgoviste, Patriarchal Exarch for external and ecumenical relationships of the Patriarchate of the Romanian Orthodox Church, and one by the Rev. Dr. Neville Callam of Jamaica, General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance. Both presentations were deeply appreciative of the Faith and Order work of the WCC and called for a deepening of the koinonia/communion of the Church. Metropolitan Nifon stressed the relationship within the Trinity and Dr. Callam emphasized the need to come to a convergence on authority and the sources of authority.
Everyone in the auditorium was then asked to write down a prayer for unity. These were collected in baskets by the Assembly volunteers.
Turning then to personal stories of the quest for unity, Mary Tanner introduced Ms. Alice Fabian, a South African and candidate for ordination in the United Congregational Church in Southern Africa and Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald of Canada, National Indigenous Bishop of Canada, to speak.
Both told very personal tales. Ms. Fabian spoke of the unity of her own church community in overcoming separation by Zulus and non-Zulus. Bishop MacDonald spoke of indigenous issues and the fact that there are lessons to be learned when people are essentially forced together by necessity.
The Brothers of Taizé led the auditorium in singing Ubi Caritas and Laudate Omnes Gentes as the plenary ended.
After lunch, a little over 30 journalists covering the Assembly accepted an invitation to go to the mountains outside Busan for a visit to the Beomeosa Buddhist Temple. It was an outstanding experience as some of these photographs demonstrate.
It was well worth it and followed by an exquisite tea break in the hills overlooking Haeundae Beach.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Mission and Evangelism Highlight Monday at Assembly

Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes, a new declaration by the WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, was the highlight of Monday's deliberations at the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea.
The day began as always with Morning Prayer and Bible Study featuring an emphasis on the Holy Spirit and Witness. This moved the Assembly into its Mission Plenary.
As the plenary opened, there were notable greetings from the Lutheran World Federation by Bishop Munib Younan, from the World Evangelical Alliance by Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher and from the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations by Rabbi David Sandmel.
Following the greetings, the theme of the Plenary was introduced with Dr. Kirsteen Kim moderating, by a WCC video featuring the history of the World Missionary Conference and the CWME. Then it came time to work with the document itself. Roman Catholic scholar and missioner Stephen Bevans, SVD of the United States offered a theological basis for the document rooted in a pnuematology of mission. All mission is God's mission enlivened by the Holy Spirit.
Subsequently the stage was filled with dancers from the Teatro Ekyumenikal of the Philippines' Council of Churches who spread the word that the document was about giving all peoples the fullness of life.
Rev. Cecilia Castillo Nanjari, a Pentecostal from Chile, followed up with an appeal to understand mission as announcing the Good News that life can be lived in its fullness and goodness. Her presentation was cutting edge but controversial for churches which promote teachings on the respect for human life that contradict what she holds as women's rights on reproductive health. Her appeal was for people on the margins.
Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop Geervarghese Mor Coorilos of India, Moderator of CWME, then presented the document itself. It is divided into four sections: the mission of the Spirit; mission from the margins; mission in the life of the Triune God; and the call to witness. He put a great emphasis on the fact that in today's Church we are witnessing evangelization from the margins rather than to the margins.
The plenary ended with a spirited send off by the Teatro Ekyumenikal.
Later on in the day, Dr. Kim, Bishop Mor Coorilos and Dr. Jooseop Keum gave a press conference in which they reemphasized the points made during the plenary.
Dr. Kim highlighted the fact that this is the first mission statement of the WCC since 1982 and that the landscape has changed dramatically. Mission from the margins would be a special feature henceforth of the WCC .
Adding support to the statement, World Evangelical Alliance General Secretary Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher in another press conference said the WEA would not object to anything in the document though it would stress differing emphases. He added that the WEA and the WCC were on excellent terms and in dialogue with one another.
And so another day comes to a close at the Assembly. Together Towards Life will now be received by the churches for comment and review. It may assist in understanding the complexities of the new evangelization and foster yet closer bonds among Christians.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Pilgrimage of Peace

The weekend in Korea was spent being part of a group of 800 who made a Pilgrimage of Peace on Saturday up to the border of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea as well as a trip to Seoul for a Korean cultural night, overnight accommodations and worship in a local Korean congregation on Sunday.
The Pilgrimage of Peace began with a train trip from Ulsan Station in the southern part of Korea near Busan to a little north of Seoul at Haengshin. From Haengshin we took buses to Imjingak Peace Park, right up against the fence of the DMZ.

There we travelled to the the pond for a service of prayer, music and dance to pray for peace.

Following custom, we then pinned ribbons with prayers for peace on the fence itself at the end of the Bridge of Freedom, which is now cut off and ends at the border.
It was a dearly moving experience and allowed the WCC Assembly participants to join with the aspirations of the South Korean people for peace, reconciliation and reunification.
We then boarded buses for the trip to Seoul. Once in Seoul, we arrived at the largest Christian church in Korea, the Myungsung Presbyterian Church, for an unbelievably festive dinner and a Korean Cultural Night that was outstanding from the Fan Dance to the Drummers' Dance to the singing, the children 's choir, the pantomime of Korean history and the the singing of opera to the accompaniment of the KBS Symphony Orchestra. It was truly amazing and ended with a heartfelt rendition of the Korean folk song "Arirang" as well as Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.
The Roman Catholic group was then bused to a hotel for the night. The next morning, we had the privilege of attending and concelebrating the Mass at the Cathedral of Seoul, called the Myeongdong Church, which barely survived the Korean War and has been beautifully restored.
The Catholic hosts then took us to a local restaurant for a great meal and we were off to the Seoul train station for our trip back to Busan.
The event would not have been possible without the intricate planning of the Korea Host Committee and its legions of volunteers. It was a remarkable encounter and experience.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Excites Debate in WCC Assembly

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, Chairman for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, excited the floor of the Business Plenary this afternoon at the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea with the question, "will Christian civilization survive at all?" In his address he wondered aloud if the WCC was ready to commit itself to a more cohesive role in standing up against what he termed "militant secularism" and "radical Islamism". 
The message of the second part of his presentation on the discrimination and oppression of Christians in some Islamic societies may have been lost in the reception on the part of many in the room to the message of the first part, that is the unity of the Church in the face of "militant secularism".
He stated, "One of the main directions of (militant secularism's) activity today is the destruction of traditional notions of marriage and family. This is witnessed by a new phenomenon of equating homosexual unions with marriage and allowing single sex couples to adopt children. From the point of view of biblical teaching and traditional Christian moral values, this testifies to a profound spiritual crisis. The religious understanding of sin has been conclusively eroded in societies that until recently thought of themselves as Christian."
The Metropolitan then went on to cite examples in the Western world of how same sex unions have become accepted as marriages. His challenge for cohesion among WCC members on this point did not go over well. A good number of Western communions are debating this very issue among themselves and some are moving or have moved to legitimate same gender unions already in which homosexual partnering is not considered in terms of sin. Russia's recent passage of restrictions on public expression of gay rights may have also been on the minds of many. 
Yet the Metropolitan made a good point in that such divisive issues are tearing at the fabric of the One Church. His church and many other communions see this as an erosion of the notion of sin in a secularized world; others see it as a question of religious liberty and basic human rights. A middle ground on the issue seems very hard to find. It all made for a rather expressive and exciting afternoon in Busan.
The morning preceding it was a bit more harmonious with an experience of Morning Prayer and Bible studies together, followed by an exuberant morning plenary dedicated to the Church in Asia. At the beginning of the plenary the Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, greeted the Assembly and reminded it that, "We cannot be satisfied while there is a lack of visible unity." There was also a breakthrough and bridge building in the greeting of the chairman of the Pentecostal World Fellowship, the Rev Tan Sri Dr Prince Guneratnam.
The morning plenary then went on in song and dance and in presentations by various speakers from different countries in Asia who spoke of the struggles of Asian societies and the need for the unity of the Church in those countries and throughout Asia for the sake of justice and peace.
In the early evening there were Confessional Gatherings. I attended the Catholic gathering with about 50 Catholics who are here in Busan. The Vatican delegation, headed up by Cardinal Kurt Koch and Bishop Brian Farrell led in a discussion of introductions by everyone present, the work of the Council and its relationship with the WCC, a Korean Catholic produced presentation on the Catholic Church in Korea and some questions from the floor. There will be another such confessional gathering on November 7. 
Tomorrow it's off to the border with North Korea and to Seoul for many of us on a Pilgrimage of Peace.