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"God, in your grace transform the world": looking to Porto Alegre

By: Keith Clements, general secretary of the Conference of European Churches

The guiding light for us all is the assembly theme "God, in your grace transform the world." I've been invited to say whatever I like and how I like about the theme and the assembly. I don't pretend to be able to do more than share some of my personal reflections, and questions, which will carry no more weight than your own. Whether or not they ring bells with you, I hope that even in disagreement they may help in some way to stimulate your own thinking.

A sermon

First of all I'd like to preach a sermon. The text is the last two chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, 27 and 28. But don't worry, this is an unusual sermon since it's much shorter than the text. Acts 27 and 28 is the account of how Paul was brought as a prisoner by sea to Rome. For the last two and half years it's been running through my mind as a kind of parable of our ecumenical witness, from the time we warned against going to war on Iraq. Paul's ship is berthed at the island of Crete, and the military men and the merchants are eager to get on with the journey. "Paul advised them, saying, ‘Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.' But the centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said." The word of the apostle was ignored by the military and the business world, and the ship set sail. Then the story goes on, how after an apparently favourable wind, there came shock and awe from an unexpected quarter and soon they were literally all at sea, lost in the storm, pounded by the waves, totally disoriented and eventually in despair. Yes, they should have listened to Paul. I like the next touch in the story, when Paul can't forbear to tell the centurion and sailors "I told you so" - even he couldn't resist the temptation to gloat a little. But he's more concerned to bring hope into that apparently hopeless situation. He can't pretend he's not in the same boat as those who made the mistake. He is. But now he's the one who points to another possibility of hope. And he does so not because he's an expert navigator, which he certainly isn't, but because he has a specific experience of the God of grace. He's been conscious of the angel of the Lord assuring him that while there will be shipwreck, they will come through. His message is "Take courage. Eat, keep up your strength. There is a grace that will see us through."

Last week while in England I was reminded again of this when I drove through the village of Olney, past the church where John Newton had been rector in the 18th century: John Newton who gave us the hymn "Amazing grace.", and whose own life-changing experience from being captain of a slave-ship to a disciple of Christ came during a night of peril in an Atlantic storm. It was an experience that echoes in a line of one of his other hymns. "With Christ in the vessel I smile at the storm."

It's the specific experience of the grace of the living Christ, present even in the storm, which sustains Paul and in turn enables him to strengthen others. The final drama comes as the ship is wrecked on an unknown island, but remarkably all those aboard reach shore safely. Then comes that beautiful moment, as the writer of Acts says: "After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it." Another moment of grace, in an unknown land, shown by people who were complete strangers. Grace: as so often, unexpected, not designed or planned for. Grace is always amazing. I once heard the late, great Byers Naudé of South Africa towards the end of his life reflecting on his own long experience of prophetic resistance and struggle and the eventual end of apartheid. He said that the story of the end of apartheid had taught him, that we need a more childlike faith in the possibilities of the coming of God's kingdom when we do not expect it. Like Paul in the ship, the witnesses to grace must go on believing in grace even when their message is not heeded, accompanying those who have lost their way, bringing hope in alternative possibilities and awaiting the time when grace will carry the day, perhaps in ways they themselves cannot even imagine.

Sermon ended! With this story as background I'd like now to share with you my own hopes for Porto Alegre and the inspirational possibilities of the theme "God, in your grace transform the world." I do so under three headings.

1. Celebration

At Porto Alegre I look for a real celebration of God's grace. I'm sure there will be much celebratory music, singing and dancing too. That will be great. But I hope I don't sound too basic or even naïve, when I say that I look for a celebration of the grace that we have already received in Jesus Christ. "God, in your grace transform the world." I'm sure that it is not the intention behind this theme to suggest that God's grace has yet to begin its transforming work, but sometimes our ecumenical rhetoric can give the impression that transforming grace is only what we hope for in a suffering and bleeding world. Of course it is our hope and prayer, and meeting in the context of Latin America we shall hardly need reminding that the kingdoms of this world have yet to become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, that the principalities and powers manifested in economic injustice and oppression have yet to be overthrown. We live in the tension between the "already" and "not yet." What I am concerned about is that we do justice to the "already" in Jesus Christ.

By way of example, let me refer to the excellent set of bible studies produced in preparation for Porto Alegre, Springs of Living Water. The first of these, by Milton Schwantes and Elaine Neuenfeldt, is on Luke 4:16-30, the story of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth reading from the prophet Isaiah about the Spirit of the Lord anointing the prophet to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour, release to the captives, the year of the Lord's favour, and so on. The writers rightly and eloquently affirm the need to see this against the whole Old Testament background of prophecy: God's concern for the oppressed and the rebuilding of the community of Zion. This too is to be the scope of Jesus' ministry, and thereby also of us his followers today. There is however an element in the gospel story that I miss in this exposition. The crunch point in the gospel story is when Jesus says: "Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." What is Jesus saying here? He is certainly reaffirming the prophetic agenda, he is underlining what Isaiah is saying about God's liberating compassion for the poor and imprisoned. But he is doing more than reiterating Isaiah. He is claiming its actual fulfillment in his own ministry and in his own person.

Grace is more than a hope, or rather it is a hope because it is already real and has come in Jesus Christ. "The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father's only son, full of grace and truth . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:14-17). It is perhaps not fair of me to question one particular chapter in Springs of Living Water since no single bible study can say everything, and the centrality of Christ and the gift of the Spirit is most certainly affirmed in other studies in the book, notably for example those by the late Sergei Hackel and my brother REO-Gen Sec Israel Batista. But it is crucial that we do not lose sight of the Christ-centred, and Pentecost-inspired, ground of our prayer "God, in your grace, transform the world." I read this as an abbreviation of" God in your grace that we have already received and know in Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified and risen, transform the world." This is the grace to be celebrated at Porto Alegre.

I may seem to be labouring a too-obvious point, but I believe it is quite crucial for our present stage in the ecumenical movement, and for two reasons.

The first concerns the churches that will have delegates at Porto Alegre. What do we want those churches to become as a result of the assembly? The worst-case scenario is that they will be churches that, in the cause of being "challenged" by the daunting issues confronting the world, will be dispirited and demoralized to the point of becoming dysfunctional as regards any creative engagement with those issues. To paraphrase the prophet Amos, the message will be "Come to Porto Alegre and be paralysed by feelings of total inadequacy and guilt." Ecumenism will be seen as a recipe for condemnation as failures. The ideal scenario is that they would be churches casting all caution to the winds and uniting both organically and in action will give their all to bring in the reign of God instantly. But we need be neither pessimists nor romantic utopians. A properly hopeful goal is that they will be churches with increased confidence to pursue the kingdom of God together, a kingdom that is already being realized in their own experience of the fulfilling work of Christ in word and sacrament, in the forgiveness of sins, in the new community where barriers are already being broken down, where new life is being received to live in fellowship and to follow Christ in daily life from Monday to Saturday as well as in joyful worship on Sunday. This needs to be shared, celebrated and deepened at Porto Alegre in community-building and worship.

The second concerns the issue of "widening the circle" of ecumenical life. Not only in the WCC but in other ecumenical bodies we are asking how we can be more inclusive in our membership. Specifically, there is the question of the involvement of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pentecostals and evangelicals. But the question of widening the circle is bound up with that of the centre of the circle. If the centre is not clear and definite it is not surprising if some at least of these others are hesitant about joining the circle. This is not primarily a matter of such communities being put off by the ecumenical social agenda. In Europe, for example, the social agendas of both the Roman Catholic bishops' conferences and the Evangelical Alliance are in fact broadly very similar to that of CEC. It is rather a hesitancy about whether the ecumenical movement, as presently embodied, is sufficiently clearly grounded in the good news of Jesus Christ as distinct from generalities about justice and liberation. Porto Alegre should offer an opportunity for clarifying this.

2. Seeing it whole

As some of you know, one of my enthusiasms over the past few years has been to be the biographer of that great pioneer of the modern ecumenical movement, J.H. Oldham. People here need continually to be reminded that he is commemorated on the small sundial just outside the library, on which is inscribed the tribute to him: "Missionary Statesman: Foremost Pioneer of WCC; Friend of Africa." I'm sure Joe Oldham would be amused - perhaps he is amused - by our debates today about "reconfiguring the ecumenical movement", for in many ways he foresaw the issues even as he was designing the WCC and helping to bring it into being. Lesslie Newbigin once told me that when one day he was visiting Oldham on his on his sick bed the great old man cried out: "Only the grace of God can save the WCC!" What Oldham lamented from the beginning was what he saw as the tendency for proliferating programmes and departments in Geneva, in contrast to what he believed should be its real role of assessing and coroidinating ecumenical work being done at national levels. Indeed, he once told Wim Visser't Hooft in a letter even before the 1st assembly, Amsterdam 1948, that if he had his way over the entrance to the offices of the WCC there would inscribed the words of St Paul to the Philippians: "This one thing I do . . ."

Now of course there are answers to all this. For one thing I think Oldham was unrealistic about the degree to which, at that time at any rate, the work could be sustained at national (or even regional) levels. But he had a point that could well be re-visited at this time of increasingly scarce resources. And if we find it hard to put into words the one thing that the WCC should be doing, we should at least be trying to envision a wholeness or coherence to which our diverse departments, desks and programmes are contributing. An assembly provides both the necessity and opportunity for doing this, even if only because few of the assembly delegates themselves can be expected to have any idea of the precise structures and differentiated tasks of the WCC or any of our ecumenical bodies. But they will want to take back to their churches some idea of the main thrust of the ecumenical endeavour and how the particular emphases that appeal to them relate to that one endeavour. This is indeed not easy, but it can be helped if we as staff ourselves attempt to see how our particular work relates to that of others, to identify the connections that may not at first be obvious. Going back to Amsterdam 1948 again, it was in fact one of Joe Oldham's modest but highly significant gifts to introduce, via Wim Visser't Hooft, the phrase "the responsible society" to encapsulate what the ecumenical witness was about. It was a phrase of and for its time, but it carried much of the WCC's work for over two decades till the 4th assembly at Uppsala in 1968. I'm not advocating a search for another such catchphrase but we do need some binding concept to give coherence and help ourselves and our churches locate themselves in the common task. We are, after all, talking about grace transforming the world, not just this or that bit of it. The theme itself challenges us to think whole.

So let's use this opportunity to trace and highlight connections and relationships in a differentiated agenda. To give one example of the kind of thing I mean, take the issue of overcoming violence that must certainly be a high priority at Porto Alegre. To me, one of the most illuminating ecumenical studies in Europe in the past few years has been the work on sectarianism in Northern Ireland undertaken by Cecelia Clegg, a Roman Catholic sister, and Joseph Liechty, an American Mennonite. Their findings are found in Moving Beyond Sectarianism published under the auspices of the Irish School of Ecumenics. Of course there have been many studies on sectarianism and the violence that it breeds, but Clegg and Liechty widen their focus from the overt conflict and violence to a view of Northern Irish society as a whole (we need to bear in mind that they were writing in the situation of a few years ago that we hope has changed somewhat). Sectarianism they see as a system that encompasses all of society, albeit in different ways and at different levels. They view it as a pyramid. At the apex are the extreme perpetrators of violence, the "wild animals" who are accountable to no political or religious authority but only their own criminalized interests. Next come the paramilitaries who are certainly politicized, seeing violence as a necessity for their political ends whether republican or unionist. Beneath the paramilitaries come those political and religious leaders who disclaim any connection with violence but are deeply committed to confrontational politics and religious identity on a win-or-lose basis with no compromise. At the base of the pyramid is a majority of people who identify themselves with one or other community but say they leave politics to the politicians, "live and let live", and certainly are repelled by the violence. But as Liechty and Clegg point out, all these levels are in fact connected. All people are somewhere or other on the grid of sectarianism. For the way the system works, is that each level justifies itself and feeds on the level below it. The wild animals at the top in effect say to the paramilitaries, "Well, you've introduced violence for your political ends, we may as well use it for our gangster-like ends too." The paramilitaries justify their armed campaigns by saying to the political and religious leaders below them, "We're just putting into effect the only realistic means of achieving the ends you yourselves want, means you daren't use yourselves." Those political and religious leaders in turn say to the relatively uncommitted people beneath them, "You say we're dogmatic political and religious sectarians, but we are simply coming clean and making explicit what it means to be Protestant or Catholic, nailing our colours to the mast while you just keep those colours in the cupboard." 

As Clegg and Liechty point out, the most interesting group is the so-called uncommitted majority at the base of the pyramid. For while in terms of consciousness they may indeed be at farthest remove from the people of violence or indeed the preachers of sectarianism, they are often unwittingly providing the ingredients that will be fed into the chain that leads up towards the apex of the pyramid. One symptom of this is simply the practice of "overlooking" those of another religious tradition. As when Catholic leaders make statements about the eucharist that imply that for non-Catholics have no doctrine of the sacraments. Or when Protestants quote the Bible in ways that suggest it has not been heard of in Catholic churches. The opposition to systemic sectarianism and violence has to be begun at the very immediate and basic levels of noticing, of opening doors outward, of building relationships of giving and receiving, of active, mutual learning. In other words, ecumenical formation and education, Faith and Order work, even if they are not explicitly dealing with violence as a topic, are crucial to the overcoming of violence. It is an especially challenging issue to church and other religious leaders, not least in Europe, who are eager to dissociate themselves from violence committed in the name of their religious tradition, but who are less willing to examine why it is that their own people are so susceptible to being led towards violence and what their own responsibilities are in this regard. 

Or, or still on the subject of violence, let me refer to acts of terrorism. Last week I was in London for the first time since the bomb attacks there in July this year. Much has been made of the fact that those who evidently carried out these suicide attacks were young Islamic people. But traveling on the underground in the morning rush hour, it was pointedly brought home to me that so many of the victims were also young people, for in any of our big modern cities today, the population commuting to work in offices and shops are mainly young. When we think of violence today we must think of it as a specially tragic issue for young people, whether those seduced into violence as a reaction to alienation and despair, or as the easily targeted victims. And in turn when we think of youth we must resist the temptation to think of them primarily as either problems or exploitable commodities for the churches, but as people with a particular vulnerability in an insecure age and therefore a group to be listened to with special attention.

So, let us use the opportunity of an assembly to trace and uplift connections in our own staff work so that we and all participants can discern a wholeness in our witness to a world-transforming grace. 

3. Transformation: what's new?  

In September we had the annual meeting of secretaries of REOs, hosted this time in Washington and New York by the National Council of Churches in the USA, and ably facilitated by Yorgo Lemopoulos and Beth Ferris. It was a very good meeting, with some extra highlights thrown in. One was a presentation by the radical evangelical Jim Wallis on his new book God's Politics. Another, for some of us, was to take part in the massive peace rally that marched to the White House. But I must make a confession. For me a yet extra highlight on my last evening in New York was to take myself to see that splendid musical Chicago live on Broadway. As some of you will know, it's a spectacular feast of singing and dancing, but in the pretty grim setting in and around a prison. That's what gives it a special poignancy. Just about all the characters are embodiments of lust, greed and murderous violence - if I might use the politically incorrect language, each of them is either a bitch or son-of-.a-bitch. Yet, the music and the dancing throughout combine to convey the message: These people are made for grace and to be graceful, even if they're not. That's why at the end I wasn't sure whether I was crying or laughing. I was certainly clapping as I've rarely clapped before.

Chicago depicts a microcosm of a grace-less world: a world where people look upon others only for their own benefit, for what they can get out of each other, summed up in Matron "Mama" Morton's song "When you're good to Mama, Mama will be good to you." The only character for whom we might feel an immediate sympathy is the naively innocent Amos who couldn't see what his wife was up to right under his nose, and moreover is unnoticed by everyone else, the "cellophane man", perhaps representative of all the unnoticed and overlooked people in our world. And yet, as I say, all these people are already being offered the chance to be grace-filled and grace-giving in music and dance.

If that is a grace-less world, a world only of mutual exploitation, what would a grace-transformed world really be like? That I think is what Porto Alegre will really challenge us to say. And here I want to share with you a question that has continually tugged at me as long as I've been in ecumenical work. We are good at saying what's wrong with the world. We are good, so we think, at diagnosing ills. We have on occasion been courageous at protesting against injustice. But so have many other people, outside the ecumenical bodies and beyond the churches. What genuinely new possibility do we have to offer? Let us be honest: so often when we think we are being "radical" we are basically being reactive to what we see is wrong in the world, and when we see new challenges and threats coming upon the world our response is to oppose them in a kind of conservative, restorationist way. But if we truly believe that God's grace has actually been incarnated in Jesus Christ and poured out through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, shouldn't there be more than that? Where is our imagination, or - perhaps better - our "visionation"? What genuinely new initiatives can we generate? From about the time of the Uppsala assembly 1968 there was in vogue in the ecumenical rhetoric the phrase "let the world write the agenda" and there was good reason for that. But does that mean we should simply accept the world's own critique of itself, or even the world's own assessment of the possibilities of mending what's wrong? It's the gospel in dialogue with the world that must write the agenda. I will be glad, and grateful, if at Porto Alegre even just one possibility emerges, however modest, that says to our churches and to our world, "Try this, as a new way of living by grace and grace-fully, as an embedment of the transformed world God wills to bring in." 

These are my questions. I admit I don't have answers to them as yet. But to look for answers is in company with others is what being ecumenical is all about, and so also is to share other people's questions. My own hope, in the end, is based on the belief that grace is real because Jesus Christ was, is, and ever shall be real. It is also conditioned by the reminder that grace is not something we can finally plan, programme or control. As with Paul in the storm-tossed ship, and on the cold wet beach of Malta, it will come in God's own surprising ways for which we must ever and modestly be alert.

Rev. Dr Keith Clements is the outgoing general secretary of the Conference of European Churches (CEC). He offered this reflection in an address to WCC staff on 31 October 2005.