Asian churches commit to prophesy, reconcile and heal
“The task ahead is challenging and daunting,” according to the head of our regional ecumenical organisation. “We know ours is a costly ministry. It is thus imperative to stay united, persistent and hard working as we follow Christ’s way.”
Reconciliation with justice and the need for the Church to be a movement in solidarity with the poor and not just an institution of the “Empire” were threads running through the 13th General Assembly of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA).
The Assembly met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 15-20, under the theme, “Called to Prophesy, Reconcile and Heal”.
CCA is the regional ecumenical organisation with member churches and councils of churches from almost all nations within Asia, including the Uniting Church and the National Council of Churches in Australia.
The Uniting Church was well represented at the Assembly, with President Alistair Macrae and General Secretary Terence Corkin and others among the 164 voting delegates and over 200 participants from ecumenical organisations, special guests, media, friends and observers.
Other prominent Australian presences were NCCA General Secretary the Rev. Tara Curlewis and the Most Rev. Roger Herft, Anglican Archbishop of Perth.
Retiring CCA General Secretary Prawate Khid-arn described the regional context: “Deep-seated differences over political and economic systems, ethnicity, gender, religion/beliefs and cultural traditions have prevented the countries from seeking and working towards a shared destiny.
“Asian people continue to have difficulties and there is crisis in almost all aspects of human life — socially, economically, politically and ecologically. The prevailing international economic and political models have failed to address injustice and inequality. Therefore, people living around us are crying out for justice, peace and a sustainable society.”
Archbishop Herft later reflected, “The burning of several churches a few months before and the location of the offices of a vocal Malay rights group in the very hotel in which the meeting took place, provided a context which highlighted much of the tensions present in Asia today.”
The gift of tears
The Assembly schedule was tight and hectic.
There was worship with dance and drama, Bible studies, lectures, program reviews, elections, testimonies, regional and topical meetings, a fellowship dinner and cultural show hosted by Council of Churches in Malaysia, and reports from pre-Assembly forums on youth, women, peoples, and HIV and AIDS.
During the Assembly there were forums on bioethics and the challenges of new technology, nuclear disarmament, mission and missionaries in Asia, Indigenous peoples and minorities, the culture of violence and impunity, rights of the Asian migrant worker, climate justice, and healing of memories — reconciling communities.
The assembly theme served as a platform for the identification of urgent tasks for Asian Christians as prophets, reconcilers and healers.
Opening worship began with community singing and dance. There was a procession of symbols from each delegation’s culture and thanksgiving for CCA’s ecumenical journey.
Archbishop Herft preached, saying the prophet Ezekiel and the apostle Paul in his Letters to the Corinthians reminded the Church that “to be called to prophesy and to reconcile we must know what it is to grieve. To be called to heal we must experience the confusion that comes with seeking the causes that bring about illness, brokenness, disease, the demonic within individuals and society.”
He said, “As Christians in Asia, we who seek the call to prophesy must first ask God to gift us with tears that wash our eyes and burn our hearts to see the suffering and pain of the world in which God has placed us.”
The call to prophesy, reconcile and heal was addressed to the church. But he said, “The sad and sinful reality is that our history is one of competition and rivalry in which we refuse to see in each other the image of the reconciling son of God.”
He asked, “How often do we find that our assemblies, synods and church gatherings are places when we speak, act and engage with each other in ways that reflect and attitude that proclaims, ‘I need thee not’?”
New hearts, new future
In his lecture, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, urged churches to be critical but not “destroy, deteriorate or diminish the dignity of others”. He said the prophetic witness of churches was a “ministry aimed at healing” which creates “new hearts and a new future”.
He said religion had the potential to give strength and courage to people to speak out for justice and noted examples of how religion had inspired the fight for justice and peace.
But he warned that religion could also be used terrorise innocent people and legitimise oppression.
Asked about a decline in many churches, particular with regard to young people, he said, “Don’t say that the church is dying. The Church of Christ will be judged not by its numbers but by the quality of its mission.”
Young leaders share vision
Participants at the Asian Ecumenical Course, youth delegates and stewards bonded together to provide a rich diversity of worship that included drama, song, dance and music — which many delegates said was the highlight of the Assembly.
A two-week intensive course prior to the Assembly, the AEC was a turning point in the faith journey of 22 young ecumenical leaders. They shared life stories and social realities as they developed their formation and ecumenical vision.
They were given theological direction by the Rev. Dr Joseph Komar, Director of Institute of World Religions at the Malaysia Theological Seminary, and received artistic direction from Dr Rommel Linatoc from the NCC Philippines. Dr Linatoc continued to work with the AEC participants during the Assembly.
Reconciliation entails justice
The need to keep justice included in efforts for reconciliation was raised in Bible studies, lectures and forums.
In one Bible study, Metropolitan Geevarghese Mor Coorilos, of the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, said there was a dangerous trend in some quarters to de-link justice from the discourse on reconciliation and healing.
In the new globalised world it was claimed not all issues were justice related, but Metropolitan Coorilos said economic globalisation had made global problems worse. It had broken down some walls, but still others remained and new walls were being erected; new barriers of exclusion, exploitation and domination.
In her D. T. Niles Lecture “Reconciliation and Healing in the Midst of Conflict and Brokenness”, Dr Ruth Manorama focused on the experiences of her struggles for the rights of India’s Dalits.
She said true reconciliation meant recognising the root cause of a problem and having the courage to say things that the state would not entertain.
Reconciliation, she said, entailed justice and even reparation. She was critical of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which she said led to no action.
She spoke of the influence the early ecumenical movement had on her as an Indian, Dalit, Christian; how it provided a forum for other movements to network; and how it gave her courage and confidence.
Dr Manorama said building movements was a witness to Christ and that the church needed to recognise that God used other people.
She said, “The best of the missionary enterprise is solidarity with the poor … The church must recognise those at the forefront of the struggle and give up its status of empire.”
Movements and institution must prophesy together
Dr D. Preman Niles, in the first D. T. Niles Memorial Lecture, said, “In the conflicts that flare up between church as institution and church as movement, the ecumenical movement has either taken one side against the other or attempted to go it alone without the support of the churches.
“Neither option is desirable if the ecumenical movement in Asia is to grasp and sustain the challenge of prophetic ministry and costly discipleship as a call to the churches.”
The Rev. Dr Hyunju Bae, in her Bible study on “The Prophetic Challenge to the Church in Asia”, said the call for the church to respond to the prophetic calling derived from its discernment of the times and from its firsthand experience of all the layers of accumulated problems in Asia.
However, she said, “It is sometimes the case that prophetic Christian individuals do not receive the spiritual and moral support from the church, rather finding themselves misunderstood and even mistreated.
The true miracle that the Holy Spirit performed, she said, was found in the building of the first faith community that lived up to the alternative prophetic vision which covered economic and politico-cultural dimensions of the communal life.
The report from the People’s Forum, held in Kuala Lumpur April 12-13, accused the ecumenical movement of becoming empire-building and ecclesial-techno-bureaucratic.
Absence of the poor in the ecumenical movement questioned its very nature, purpose, meaning and existence and it needed to redefine itself, the forum said.
CCA had lost its engagement with basic communities and people’s movements and should reclaim its involvement with transformational grassroots organising.
Dr Niles said the church needed to embrace an understanding of its position as scattered communities, to understand its place among the nations and view itself as the people of God in the midst of all God’s peoples.
He said the church should have a positive appreciation of plurality as within God’s plan for creation and its place and mission within it.
Then it would understand the call to prophetic ministry as an imitation of the example of Jesus, who confronted the empires of the world with the Empire of God, which had the expendables, the least, as its centre of concern.
He said, “We have to abandon the debilitating confrontations between church as institution and church as movement. On the one hand, church as institution is primarily a community of worship that besides other things is able to spiritually support and sustain the church as movement.
“On the other, the church as movement is called to manifest the prophetic ministry of the church with all the marks of discipleship.”
Revisioning the Church
Uniting Church President the Rev. Alistair Macrae participates in a hypothetical hosted by Caesar D’Mello, Director, Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism. The session focused on challenges arising from issues such as interfaith dialogue, the place of women in church and society, evangelising and the call to be the salt of the earth.
Each evening there was a testimony of living faith.
Berlin Guerrero, a United Church of Christ pastor unlawfully jailed in the Philippines, spoke of how God used that injustice for him to become a witness to many prisoners.
He told of a gross violation of fundamental human and civic rights, brutal torture, intimidation and death threats. He said his experience was but one of many thousands of such incidents within Asian political scenarios, demonstrating that the call to prophecy was costly.
He quoted Nelson Mandela’s saying that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails; a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest but it lowest.
A Senator of the Malaysian Cabinet described his role in the Borneo revival and his current witness to God who makes the impossible possible. An elder from the Church in Myanmar described the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis and the sense of being lifted up by the prayers, messages and support from the rest of the Church.
Mr Sokreaksa Himm from Cambodia described his conversion from a person filled with hate, seeking revenge for the butchering of his entire family, to one who had, through the power of forgiveness in Christ, brought grace, mercy and peace to the villagers responsible for their deaths.
A woman and a man suffering from HIV/AIDS spoke of the “life” given to them by the Christian Church in Malaysia.
New members, office holders
CCA has members in 22 countries. New member churches and councils are the Lutheran Church in the Philippines, the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church in Iran, Synod of the Oikoumene Christian Church in Indonesia, the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Sydney and Affiliated Regions and the National Christian Council of Bhutan.
Its new presidents for 2010 to 2015 are from the Philippines, Nepal, Cambodia and Indonesia.
The new General Secretary-elect, the Rev. Dr Henriette Hutabarat Lebang from the Toraja Church, Indonesia, is the first female General Secretary of CCA.
As Archbishop Herft euphemistically put it, the process of elections requiring national representation governed by a balance of male/female and youth/laity/clergy proved to be a challenging time for the delegates.
Despite having one slate rejected and asking again for a full complement from each national delegation, the nominations committee said still only a few gave a list encompassing all categories. Australia obliged, however, and was described as “very courteous” when others were not.
Tong Wing-sze from Hong Kong said there was a wide gap between what delegates said and did; between theology and practice. She asked male leaders to liberate themselves from their lust for power. “Try to release your power to youth and women so we can have ecumenical leadership in the future.”
A significant challenge to the process was brought young Australian Anglican Svenja von Dietze, who stood and spoke against the committee nominations.
She later said, “I don’t feel it was a big deal. I grew up in a country where it’s acceptable to speak up if you think something is wrong, and that’s what I did.
“I saw the Assembly was about to violate its constitution and I pointed that out. After I sat down I realised I’d made waves.”
She said she was very surprised by the overwhelming gratitude that many people showed her. “I think I accidentally caused a cultural change in the room, allowing a lot of other people to empower themselves and stand up for what they believe is right, but my aim was to point out a procedural problem.”
Three young Australians were eventually elected to CCA committees: Ms von Dietze to the General Committee and executive; Angus Brownlie (Anglican) to Ecumenical Formation, Gender Justice and Youth Empowerment; and Ms Tess Keam (Uniting Church) to Justice, International Affairs and Development.
A review group presented recommendations calling for changes in CCA structures. Most were accepted by the Assembly for immediate action or for consideration and implementation by the incoming General Committee.
Relationship with churches and councils and the sustainability of programs were among key reference points in the report of the CCA review.
It said churches and councils wanted to see changes in the structures so they would be effective, accountable and responsible to the members, transparent, confidential where necessary, fully participatory, professional, and above personal and political interests.
It said CCA needed to increase information sharing, capture the needs of Asian churches, plan regular church visits, introduce and encourage Asian churches to host CCA programs, and facilitate the leadership development of member churches.
For their part, CCA member churches also needed to take their membership seriously, integrate their financial contribution to CCA in their annual budget, facilitate information sharing to cultivate ecumenical understanding and support, and develop strategic leadership.
A lunch hosted by the Prime Minister of Malaysia, His Excellency Dato Seri Mohammed Najib Abdul Razak, and in the presence of five key cabinet members, provided an opportunity for Archbishop Herft to call upon the Malaysian Government to provide sanctuary for minority religious groups.
He said, “In several parts of our world we are aware that zealous religious conviction, which leaves no room for difference, can lead to bitter division, dissension, hostility and conflict.
“At its best religion and religious people are called to offer sanctuary to the stranger and the alien — to protect and safeguard the vulnerable.
“In the part of the world that I come from many churches have made a decision to stand by groups of other religious, cultural or ethnic traditions, often in minority situations, who find themselves facing denigration as well as subtle and open attacks. “All people of goodwill are called to be a living sanctuary for those who are threatened with violence by those whose religion and ideology has made them bankrupt of compassion.”
He said, “The mandate of the CCA is to accompany local churches in proclaiming God’s good news in Jesus, building communities of peace and harmony irrespective of race, religion, colour or creed.”
More news related to the Assembly can be found at the Christian Conference of Asia website.
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