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Healing and reconciliation theme: a first for WCC

world mission conference in Edinburgh (1910)

By Hugh McCullum (*)

For the first time since world mission conferences began in 1910, the trilogy of the Holy Spirit, healing and reconciliation will be at the core of the 2005 Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) to take place in Athens, 9-16 May, with the theme "Come, Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile - Called in Christ to be reconciling and healing communities".

"During the last decade, reconciliation became one of the major preoccupations of missiologists," says Jacques Matthey, the Swiss theologian who is one of the persons responsible for the conference at the World Council of Churches (WCC). This development responds to a changed world context - such as the events of September 11, 2001 - as well as a renewed approach to conflict resolution.

Human rights abuses and attempts to reconstruct societies in the cases of such horrific events as the genocide of almost a million people in Rwanda in 1994, and the ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, also played a role in bringing reconciliation to the forefront in the ecumenical movement.

Peace-making in such situations of racial, ethnic or national violence means re-establishing relationships between groups who must coexist no matter how terrible the deeds that may have taken place. For them, reconciliation becomes a vital issue.

Matthey says that reconciliation as a theme is also a consequence of lessons learned from the truth and reconciliation commissions set up in various countries, in particular South Africa and Latin America.

Against this backdrop, Athens is expected to take up the challenge and focus on the significance of reconciliation for an ecumenical mission theology and strategy. 

Linking healing and the Holy Spirit

The theme of healing (tied to reconciliation) builds on what has always been a main focus of mission "since the ministry of Jesus and the time of the early church".

Matthey explains that one of the challenges at the Athens conference will be the relationship "between healing and the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit".

While Western health care seems to rely more and more on modern technologies and pharmaceuticals, there is a quite different approach among many churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as in the growing charismatic movement. In this approach, traditional and spiritual healing rely on faith as an integral part of returning to health and wholeness - sometimes called "divine healing".

Stressing the importance of communities in both reconciliation and healing, the Athens conference will link the two themes to the role of the church.

"WCC thinking on mission in the 1960s moved to focus almost entirely on God's work in the world outside church boundaries and neglected the role of the worshipping and witnessing community," Matthey explains.

The double theme of Athens relates both to God's overall mission of healing and reconciling the broken creation, world and humanity, and to the specific calling of the church to do that. The result, he says, could be a change in thinking about mission.

From Edinburgh to Athens: 95 years of mission

The first world mission conference held at Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910 is considered the symbolic starting place of the contemporary ecumenical movement, although it was exclusively Protestant and did not include the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. The conference emphasized the colonial concept of proclaiming the gospel to "heathens" and spreading the values of "Western civilization." It also laid the foundations for the creation of the International Missionary Council (IMC), formally constituted in 1921.

The next conference, in 1928 in Jerusalem, had to swallow the triumphalism of the first. The first world war, which had been provoked by "Christian" countries, profoundly challenged the notion of "Western civilization" as coming from the gospel. The communist revolution in Russia in 1917 also challenged the Western dream of evangelizing the entire world "within one generation".

The third conference was held in 1938 near Madras, India on the eve of the second world war, in the midst of the rise of fascism in many of the so-called Christian countries. It saw the beginning of dialogue with other faiths while defending the "ultimate truth" of Christianity.
Madras also insisted strongly on the role of the Christian worldwide community as a source of hope in a time of growing hate and violence.

After the shock of the war and the need for rebuilding countries and relations between peoples, the WCC was formed in 1948, and in 1952, the mission delegates at Willingen, Germany, were faced with a revolutionary world. China, the traditional mission field, expelled the missionaries. While realizing that world events had an impact on mission, the conference moved to understand mission as being God's mission, not ours - starting what is known as the missio Dei paradigm.

In 1958 in Accra, Ghana, an IMC and WCC merger was decided, but it did not become effective until the WCC's third assembly in New Delhi in 1961, where it was called an "integration of church and mission." By this time, Orthodox churches had joined the Council and the Roman Catholic Church was sending observers. The IMC ceased to exist and CWME took over.

The first CWME was held in Mexico City in 1963 under the theme "mission in six continents" . It was a time of positive appreciation of secularization and non-religious formulations of Christian faith and action, especially in the West.

At Bangkok, Thailand in 1972, context and culture emerged specifically for the first time, and delegates were forced to struggle with injustice and exploitation between the Third World and the First, and between churches. A temporary "moratorium" on sending money and personnel for mission from the North to the South was proposed by African churches.

Influenced by Latin American liberation theologies, the 1980 Melbourne, Australia conference insisted on the special role of the poor and oppressed in God's mission, and underlined the radical aspects of the gospel message. The church as a healing community was stressed, along with challenges to power in political, church and mission life.

San Antonio, United States in 1989 became famous for a consensus statement on the relations between Christianity and other religions. "We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot put any limit to God's saving power."

The last mission conference of the 20th century took place in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil focusing on the relationship between the gospel and cultures. The conference insisted on the richness of cultural variety as a gift from God, and that mission should link the affirmation of one's cultural identity with, and openness to, other identities. It also faced the growing proselytism taking place in Eastern Europe with the collapse of the Soviet empire, and reaffirmed the WCC's opposition to proselytism, along with the need for cooperation in mission.

This brief account shows that understandings of mission have never ceased to evolve in response to changing contexts. And so, the upcoming world mission conference in Athens, where reconciling and healing come together at the centre of reflection, will play a crucial role in defining mission for the 21st century. [1,161 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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