Tuesday, June 27, 2006

WCC Day 1

When I finally awoke this morning and took a shower, John and Margaret informed me that Charlotte, who was arranging my visit to the World Council of Churches, had scheduled my first meeting for 11AM. She had told me that she would schedule them for this afternoon so I had to pick up the pace so we could get out of the house and into town in time to drop me at the WCC headquarters and then Margaret could get to her appointment. John, who worked for the WCC for many years in charge of the Muslim-Christian dialogue and then interreligious dialogue in general, coming out of retirement to help with the assembly this year in Porto Allegre, accompanied me to the offices to drop me off and then headed off to the United Nations where he has been working with the newly formed Human Rights Council.

My meeting with Simon Oxley was incredibly informative for thinking about ecumenical theological education and formation. My primary question upon entry was about how to address conflict through ecumenical formation. What Dr. Oxley encouraged me to do was to reconceive my question in order to realize that some degree of conflict is inherent to the formation of a truly ecumenical consciousness, even as the success of an ecumenical community is a function of how it conceives, engages, and resolves that conflict. While for many churches faith is a function of certainty, confidence, and conviction, Dr. Oxley framed the ecumenical vision of Christianity as being more fluid and self-critical. He also made an important point regarding distinction and distance. Often Christian communities conceive their identities by creating distance between themselves and the other in the cause of preserving their particularity. Dr. Oxley made the case for more closely aligned distinctions such that particularity is not lost but enriched and refined by coming into contact with difference, something that I have noticed in my globalization studies but that has yet to become internalized by many identity formation processes.

I had an excellent discussion with the Rev. Jacques Matthey regarding ecumenism and mission and was encouraged to hear that he is working on may of the same issues that we covered in my course on ecumenism and mission this past spring. He indicated a two track program for mission over the coming years, the first being reconciliation and the second being healing. The notion of reconciliation brings in many of the issues of justice that the WCC has historically been known for championing while adjusting the paradigm to help conflicting parties live together in peace as opposed to focusing so much on one group overcoming oppression by another. Reconciliation is understood as reconciliation amongst groups, between individuals, and in the relationship of humanity and God, the last of which brings in the theme of evangelism which the WCC has been accused of neglecting in the past. The healing side of the mission movement takes a holistic approach to the wellbeing of the person, both physical and spiritual. It also brings in the pentecostal experience of healing which is more highly spiritualized than the more secularized western approach. The most interesting thing about these two tracks, from my perspective, is that they lead to a greater integration with what are classically defined as issues off faith and order, namely that of ecclesiology. If the message of the church is reconciliation, then the movement toward ecclesial unity becomes central because the message is eviscerated by the lack of reconciliation within the church. The only coherent response to the churches would be to say "Doctor, heal thyself!" Nevertheless, church unity can never be other than a unity in diversity, and so the tension is really walking a knife edge. We concluded our discussion talking about the changing ecclesial nature of the churches in general and the move to more localized expressions of church as opposed to the large denominational institutions. Rev. Matthey lamented that the WCC has been unable as yet to embody this developing reality even as he predicted the final fall of the institutional denominations in about 15 years or so, making it of central importance to my generation of theologians and church leaders. Clearly, I am in the right place in the Lindisfarne Community since our spirituality is so ecumenical while we express a glocalized church structure.

After that meeting I met up with John and we decided to get some lunch at the WCC cafeteria. On the way we ran into Tamara, an Georgian Orthodox friend of John's who works in the faith and order side of things, and invited her to join us for lunch. She was excited to hear that I am from Boston because she is working on bringing a workshop to Boston to discuss the newly adopted ecclesiological document approved by the general assembly last February. We talked about local Boston theologians to be in contact with and I hope my new position as facilitator of the International Mission and Ecumenism Committee of the Boston Theological Institute might be helpful in making this happen. Our conversation turned to some of the tensions amongst Protestant and Orthodox theologians and I expressed my own identification with Orthodoxy as a way to mitigate the sometimes less than positive effects of the western Enlightenment without falling into a postmodern relativism. Our meeting just went to prove that the chance encounters are at least as important as the scheduled meetings.

After lunch John took me on a brief tour, pointing out the library and taking me into the assembly hall and the chapel. The assembly hall is a warm space with a green tapestry embroidered with an image of Christ surrounded by symbols of the various regional churches and framed by a covenantal arc, a fig tree, and a vine. They are set to have translators into six different languages and generally to conduct business much as any international organization, but with the focal point definitely being Christ at the center of the tapestry. Upon entering the chapel there is a ramp down that is carved with symbols pointing to the water of baptism. There are chairs set up around a central alter with a low, wood carved iconostasis such that worship from virtually any denomination could occur there. There is a beautiful organ and a grand piano for music and there are worship and music books from many denominations and from around the world. Beautiful icons adorn the walls. The chapel too is a warm space, but much lighter than the assembly hall. Perhaps some day I will have the privilege of worshipping there with an ecumenical body of Christians.

We returned to L'Echapee via Nyon so that Margaret could pick up her glasses and John and I went to poke around an old castle and some Roman ruins in the town that dates back 2000 years or more. From Nyon we stopped by to visit Bossey Ecumenical Institute, a center for training the next generation's ecumenists run by the WCC, which now offers both masters and Ph.D. programs. The buildings are classic Swiss architecture and the chapel, similar in style to the one at the center in Geneva but smaller, is in a large stone tower. We walked around for a few minutes and noted the view down to the lake. After returning to L'Echapee we have taken a spot of tea and conversed about the problems and promises of the ecumenical movement and the church in general.

As I sit here on the patio, looking down toward the lake while rain clouds roll in, I am struck how the light haze the clouds bring make the Swiss country side stretched out below us look exactly like the paintings I have seen hanging in galleries in North America. Even as some of the most important international work in the world, including the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Red Cross, and the WCC, amongst many others, is being done in Geneva, it is only a few short kilometers away that one can find cow pastures and vineyards. Somehow Geneva has been able to find a delicate balance between intense and pressing global concerns and the more pastoral life of the spirit. Where better to explore and to practice ecumenical community?

1 comment:

Andrew said...


We pray for you each day. We fly on Sunday, after Sam and Kara's wedding Saturday.

God's goodness to you and your wonderful trip,

+Ab. Andy