Athens world mission conference:
a safe place to explore deep differences
By Hugh McCullum (*)
Ruth Bottoms will miss milking cows and feeding chickens when she sits in the moderator's chair at the 9-16 May Athens Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, where she will try to ensure a balanced and representative exchange of views among nearly 500 participants from almost every slice of Christendom.
In May, the British Baptist will leave her rural Pilsdon Community in remote Dorset, three hours "by fast train" to London, for the Mediterranean atmosphere of the Agios Andreas Centre, 30 km north-east of the crowded urban sprawl of Athens, the Greek capital.
In Bottoms' leap from a rural to an urban setting, from her role as a community member to that of a church bureaucrat and from story-teller to theological analyst, and in her efforts to keep a balance between these contrasts, she will be relying on her sense of the deep need for a "reconciled community".
A Baptist pastor for 16 years, the last ten in an ecumenical congregation, Bottoms has been active in leadership of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, and since 1991 in the World Council of Churches (WCC). Since the Harare Assembly of 1998 she has been a member of the WCC central committee and Moderator of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism.
"I know my way around the bureaucracies and institutional life and work at national and international levels, but I began to long for more balance, to return to the Jesus of the margins." That yearning led to Pilsdon where, one year ago, she became one of the core members of the 46-year-old community.
A community of sharing
There are no vows at Pilsdon and not a lot of rules (the main one being no alcohol or non-prescription drugs). In addition to the members, there are guests who come from all walks of life, usually facing some kind of crisis - homelessness, breakdown, addictions. Referred by pastors, physicians, or probation officers, they stay a number of years to have the time to "sort themselves out".
The community, started in a 17th-century manor house, is Anglican in foundation but fully ecumenical in outworking. It keeps various animals and a large vegetable garden in whose care and maintenance guests are involved, "and everyone gets drawn in to muck out the cows' winter quarters".
Bottoms is one of the current five community members, who are not salaried and share with the community in what she calls a broad spirituality. There are prayers including a eucharist four times daily, but attendance is voluntary. Everyone does chores, with the members setting an example by cleaning the toilets.
"I guess it is here in Dorset that the academic papers of the mission conference come to me in reality," Bottoms says.
Bringing diversity together
More than anything, Bottoms emphasizes her commitment and belief that the whole experience of life is what, in a profound sense, links the theological and academic papers being prepared for the Athens world mission conference and mucking out the cowshed at Pilsdon. "The preparatory papers are academic in most cases, but there are also stories behind those papers."
Because of the unprecedented breadth of representatives of the Christian faith participating in Athens - from Roman Catholics, Orthodox and mainstream Protestants all the way to Evangelicals, Pentecostals and charismatics of all shapes - questions will be raised that undoubtedly will cause significant controversy.
"We will have a wide range of points of view on theology and mission, healing and reconciliation. It may be very tense. Imagine the row that could be generated over proselytism for example," she says. But with profound appeals to reconciliation and healing, Bottoms thinks there is the capacity to bring diversity together.
"The conference must be a safe place to explore deep differences. The witness of the church in this terribly dangerous and vulnerable world is fractured. I hope the participants will go away opened up and with a bigger capacity to proclaim what the world needs to hear - the possibility of healing and reconciliation."
There is a sense that Athens may encourage the reconciliation and healing of churches in a "very modest" sort of way. Linking healing to reconciliation to the "good news", she says, can start the stages towards reconciliation.
That requires justice and truth-telling. "Justice is a very complex thing. All sides of the horror of Rwanda, for example, tend to demonize one another. When we talk about restorative justice, that doesn't necessarily take us forward . But if we can talk about transformative justice, without in any way cheapening the atrocities, perhaps the victims can move on - transformed."
Words like holistic, integrity, and wholeness pepper her speech, and we are back to Pilsdon. People there have been terribly traumatized, and they must try to face that. But there comes a time when they cease to be victims and survive beyond that victimhood. "Christ was a victim when he hung on that cross, but when he was raised, he stopped being a victim."
The Western medical model of health with its obsession for pills and technologies appears to be failing. The modern level of stress is clearly unhealthy. How does Athens help achieve a holistic and life-giving sense of rhythm, balance and right relationships when not all can go to places like Pilsdon?
"God made a good world, a world to be enjoyed. But we also have choices, and sometimes we make bad ones. That is where the theme of Athens - Come Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile! - really comes in. It is not simply a slogan. Healing will perhaps give us space for relationships, rhythms and balances that are life-giving." [939 words]
(*) Canadian author and journalist Hugh McCullum is a member of the United Church of Canada. Former editor of two large-circulation church publications and host of a national television programme in his country, he also lived in Zimbabwe and Kenya. McCullum has had a long association with WCC Communications. Among his books are "The angels have left us: the churches and the Rwanda genocide" and "Radical Compassion: The life and times of Archbishop Ted Scott".
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