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Mission in one's own home town

Interview with George Mathew Nalunnakkal
By Friedrich Degenhardt *

 

The countdown has started for a conference that will comprise something new: in six months representatives of Pentecostal and other evangelical churches will meet as equal partners with women and men from WCC member churches and the Roman Catholic Church. At the World Council of Churches' Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Athens, Greece (9-16 May 2005), these participants aim to draw up some common visions for the future of Christian missions. "I am excited about the unique possibilities of interaction with Christians from all these other theological and church traditions," said the Orthodox theologian George Mathew Nalunnakkal from India.

Dr. George Mathew Nalunnakkal is vice-moderator of the WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, which is preparing the World Mission Conference in Athens. Dr. Mathew, who directs a programme for mentally disabled children at the India Centre for Social Change, in Kottayam in the southern Indian state of Kerala, is a priest in the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, India, and author of the book Green Liberation. Towards an integral ecotheology (New Delhi 1999). He gave the following interview during a consultation in preparation for the World Mission Conference, held in the Mission Academy at the University of Hamburg, Germany. At the consultation he gave an introductory lecture on the theme of the World Mission Conference: "Come, Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile! Called in Christ to be healing and reconciling communities".

You came from India to Hamburg especially for this consultation. Was this long journey worthwhile for you?

Yes. I was glad to accept the invitation from the The Association of Protestant Churches and Missions in Germany (EMW) to give the keynote speech at this consultation. For me, as one of the organisers of the World Mission Conference in Athens, it was a good opportunity to get an overview of preparations in Germany. I am quite impressed by the seriousness of the preparations here. It is very reassuring for our work. The next preparatory consultation at which I will participate will be in Bangalore, for Asia and Africa, and I hope many other member churches will hold such consultations as well.

Besides, for me personally, the trip to Hamburg was a good opportunity to really go into the Conference theme theologically, to study the issue. Through my own study as well as through the discussions in Hamburg, I am much clearer about the subject now. I have listened to responses to my paper and become aware of important aspects of the theme which it did not cover. As someone from the Syrian Orthodox tradition, the responses of Christians from Pentecostal and charismatic traditions really widened my horizon.

At this consultation there was a lot of talk about Germany having become a mission field. What do you say to that, from your Indian perspective?

I am very concerned about the changed situation in which we now find ourselves world-wide. What strikes me is that you can stay at home and still be a missionary. That is a new concept of mission which hardly existed before. "Mission in one's own home town", being a home missionary, is an important consequence of the changed global context in which we live.

In India, the challenges are actually similar to those here in Germany, with very advanced secularisation. My Syrian Orthodox Church is unfortunately not interested in mission. In my context, mission would mean having discussions with the Dalits, the outcasts, and accepting them as members. The Dalits long for liberation within Indian society. That should challenge my church.

The Holy Spirit as the theme for a World Mission Conference: what does that mean to you?

As I said in my paper on the theme of the World Mission Conference, as an Orthodox I always see the Holy Spirit in the context of the Holy Trinity. That can become a problem, especially in dialogue with Charismatics. We heard it said at this consultation that "dogmatics don't matter". But I do care! Dogmatics are very important to me.

If you isolate one aspect of the Trinitarian God, you will have a very narrow idea of God and thus be in danger of Christian triumphalism. The Holy Trinity always tells me, your understanding of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is always limited. There is always more than just Christ or the Holy Spirit in the Godhead.

In the Indian context, that helps me in a very practical way in interreligious dialogue; the Spirit is good for dialogue. It makes it possible for me to welcome other understandings of God. On the other hand, in other religions they have no concept of Christ. But the Holy Spirit is a concept which people of other faiths can also relate to. When we speak of the Holy Spirit it's not a question of using sexist language or being anthropocentric, but about opening up an ecological perspective.

What are you especially looking forward to, in regard to the World Mission Conference in Athens?

I am excited about the unique possibilities of interaction with Christians from all these other theological and church traditions. There has never been anything like this before. Not only the WCC member churches and the Roman Catholic Church will be represented, but also Christians from Pentecostal and evangelical mission organisations. And they will all participate as equal partners in the World Mission Conference; all together as pilgrims. That has not happened before, in this form. It will be happening in a country where an Orthodox Church is the host church. That is a breakthrough and a big challenge for the Orthodox Church.

* Friedrich Degenhardt is a journalist and a curate from the North Elbian Lutheran Church (Germany) currently seconded to the media relations office of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

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