Great communion, not minimalist agenda
The newly-elected Moderator of the World Council of Churches (WCC) central committee speaks in this interview about the beauty of the ecumenical vision and the enthusiasm it engenders, the scandal of divisions between Christians, and his dream of churches which allow themselves to be renewed so as to experience the unity of the Christian family.
Theologically, I draw my inspiration from Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Luther. I studied for my doctorate in Hamburg, Germany (1969-72).
I worked as a parish minister in the south of Brazil until 1974, and I was then appointed professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in São Leopoldo.
A particular interest of mine has been to seek convergences between the theology of the Reformation and liberation theology. In the 1970s, and up to 1982, I was a member of the Catholic-Lutheran Bilateral Commission in Brazil. From 1995 to 2001 I was president of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI).
In 2002 I was elected pastor-president of the Evangelical Church of Lutheran Confession in Brazil (IECLB).
I am married and have four daughters and two grandchildren.
On the other hand, theological dialogue with the Catholic Church, for example on the part of Lutherans in Brazil, was initiated in 1957, thus predating the Second Vatican Council.
In the 1970s, at the time of the military dictatorships in Latin America, there was widespread close ecumenical cooperation in the field of human rights, with a significant contribution from the World Council of Churches.
We are also seeing an increasing number of individuals who describe themselves as "non-religious". Many of the new churches reject ecumenism and campaign against it, particularly if the Catholic Church is involved. The greatest challenge is to find ways to overcome these divisions and hostility.
I believe that it was an assembly that combined in a very significant way the sharing of ecumenical experiences (in the Mutirão and in the ecumenical conversations), celebration of the faith (in worship and Bible study) and the debates and decision-taking in the business sessions.
It thus contributed to a new way of living ecumenically, which is so necessary at this time.
As moderator of the central committee, and as a theologian and church leader, how would you define your ecumenical vision and the purpose of the ecumenical movement?
The constant motivation behind the ecumenical movement has been the desire to achieve full unity between the churches, and on that basis to become more faithful and efficient instruments of God's love in the world. In God's love, the oikoumene extends far beyond the frontiers of the churches and embraces the whole of humankind and the whole created universe.
For the churches, the ecumenical movement is based on the gift of unity that is ours in Christ by faith and baptism. As we journey on, with that as our foundation, we are already practising and experiencing unity in all sorts of ways. We worship the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit - perfect unity and communion.
I find it natural that for all of us, our faith, spirituality and action are deeply rooted in our respective churches. But I have always felt that our divisions are a flagrant denial of all that we believe, a scandal that is a result of human sin.
I therefore have a dream, and I strive for our churches to be renewed in all that stands in the way of unity within the Christian family, following a common path of communion, witness and service. The ecumenical movement has a deep longing for ever greater communion and cannot rest content with a minimalist agenda.
What do you see as the main priorities for the WCC in the coming seven years? What are your own personal hopes for this period?
We are at the stage of setting priorities for the life of the Council. The Assembly has laid down basic guidelines, and based on them, a new programme structure will be presented to the coming central committee meeting.
Precisely at this time of reduced resources, the large number of challenges makes it difficult to determine priorities, particularly also because needs vary from region to region. But we need to concentrate resources on what is most essential and on what the WCC can uniquely do to assist the churches.
In practice, however, some issues have a permanent place on the WCC agenda:
the search for new ways of understanding and cooperation between the churches in a religious situation that is increasingly plural and dangerously divided;
tireless striving for peace;
the quest for justice in international relations;
unity, both in matters of doctrine and of ethics; promoting effective inclusion of all persons in the life of the churches; and
a deeper and more holistic understanding of mission.
Ecumenical bodies are experiencing difficulties at the global and regional levels. What do you see as the main challenges facing the ecumenical movement and the WCC in the current period?
In parallel with the trend to globalisation, we also at present have the phenomena of fragmentation and individualism. There is today a greater religious diversity, even within Christianity, than when our forebears saw the need for an ecumenical movement. Moreover, considerable forces are driving hitherto ecumenically committed churches outside traditional ecumenical organisations.
Therefore, these trends, and the very diversity in our world that is at once increasingly globalised and conflict-ridden, cannot but make ecumenism all the more necessary and urgent. The greatest challenge, however, consists in keeping alive in our churches their passion for ecumenism and in finding creative ways for their renewal on our common ecumenical journey.
This interview will be published on the eve of the first WCC central committee meeting. What is your message to the WCC member churches as you start your mandate?
The ecumenical vision is a thing of beauty that has immense attraction. It holds together legitimate diversity and commitment to unity. It is thus in itself a powerful witness in our globalised world that excludes people in so many ways. There are multitudes of hungry people, both physically and spiritually. We owe it to them to give credible witness to the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), a hope that comes to us from Christ.
Our calling is not to lose heart but to persevere.
The ecumenical movement is going through a time of change, but it is enduringly valid because its inspiration is the Triune God.
The first meeting of the new central committee of the World Council of Churches (since the 9th Assembly, in Brazil, in February) will be held from August 30 – September 6, in Geneva, Switzerland. This meeting of the WCC's main governing body will decide on programme plans and a renewed organisational structure, and will appoint a series of advisory bodies. In the early part of the meeting and again towards its close, testimonies on what it means to live within a Christian community in pluralistic societies will enable committee members to gain insights into each others' contexts and concerns.