Monday, September 13, 2021

Rosemarie Wenner: Changing Christian Landscape – Opportunities and Challenges for Mission and Ecumenism

Today's post is by Bishop Rosemarie Wenner. Bishop Wenner is a retired bishop in the United Methodist Church, having led the Germany Central Conference, and is currently the Geneva Secretary of the World Methodist Council.

Ecumenism is my daily work. Currently I serve as Geneva Secretary of the World Methodist Council to connect the World Methodist Council (WMC) with the World Council of Churches (WCC). In this blog and a following one, I will explore two topics that I am involved in: new expressions of ecumenism and migrants, mission, and ecumenism.

The World Missionary Conference 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland was a landmark in the ecumenical movement. The meeting was chaired by John R. Mott, an American Methodist layman. Although only nineteen out of 1200 attendees were non-Western Christians, John R. Mott flagged a change when he said: “The evangelization of the world… is not chiefly a European and American enterprise, but an Asiatic and African enterprise.”

His words came true. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity indicates that in 2018 66% of Christians lived in the Global South. In its 2021 report, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity states that 47 % of the missionaries are sent from the Global south, versus 12 % in 1970.

The United Methodist Church often uses the motto introduced by the Board on Global Ministries: “Mission from anywhere to anywhere!” This is an exciting concept, and it is a challenging reality. Speaking of my home country Germany, established churches expect that pastors, missionaries and worshippers who come from the global south quickly adopt to a European way of (church) life. Despite paying lip service to decolonialization, we often do not realize how much our mindset and our theology are shaped by white privilege and a sense of superiority embedded in Western cultures.

In October 2019, the World Methodist Council and the Organization of African Instituted Churches met for the first time to start a dialogue in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Listening to the partners from the African Instituted Churches, I learnt a lot about the missionary history with its power imbalance between churches with official links to the colonial powers and the indigenous churches. I realized not only the deep wisdom expressed in African cultures, but also my uneasiness with spiritual practices that are unknown to me. I now better understand how unfamiliar worshippers from abroad might feel themselves when they come to Germany.

Regarding ecumenical encounters, we must admit that the conciliar way of engaging is hard to accept for many churches around the globe, especially for many of the fast-growing Pentecostal, charismatic or evangelical churches.

Carefully negotiated attempts to create places for encounters to foster Christian unity for a broader variety of churches are an important step to give credibility to the Christian witness. Since 2018, I am a part of the Global Christian Forum (GCF) Committee. It is composed of about 25 representatives of the four so called pillars of the GCF (WCC, Roman Catholic Church, World Evangelical Alliance, and Pentecostal World Fellowship), and of several World Communions, global Christian organizations, and mega churches.

At its first Global Gathering in 2007 in Limuru, Kenya, the Global Christian Forum developed the vision “to create an open space wherein representatives from a broad range of Christian churches and interchurch organizations, which confess the triune God and Jesus Christ as perfect in His divinity and humanity, can gather to foster mutual respect, to explore and address together common challenges.”

Sharing of personal faith stories is the hallmark of the Global Christian Forum. It is an eyeopener to many to recognize that no matter how different the theological perspectives and the cultural and economic situation of others might be, they are siblings in Jesus Christ.

The Global Christian Forum affirms time over time that it is not an institution, but an open space with an invitation to all Christians to come to the table. This is its strength and its weakness at the same time. No one is a member, no one has made formal commitments, there are no attempts to create programs that over time might lead to systemic changes. Yet the encounters within the Global Christian Forum help to build trust, to discuss hot bottom issues like proselytism and to create openness to engage with one another in dialogue, service, and advocacy.

Just to mention one example: At the moment, a broad alliance of communions and institutions like WCC, Lutheran World Federation, World Vision International, ACT Alliance, World Evangelical Alliance, Micah global, Mennonite World Conference, WMC, and others work on a campaign towards World Food Day October 16: “Weekend of Prayer and Action against Hunger – Give us this day our daily bread”. Regarding advocacy, these diverse partners even join hands with interreligious organizations.

As I engage with rather unfamiliar fellow Christians, I am challenged to listen carefully, to invest trust, and to make myself vulnerable because I express my theological convictions and my personal faith journey. This is an exercise in community building, which enables me to reach out also to interreligious neighbors and to those who are in “camps” distant from where I am in this polarizing world. Ecumenism is not an aim in itself; Jesus prays that we may all be one “so that the world may believe.” (John 17:21)

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