The contrast between Athens 2005 and Edinburgh 1910 speaks volumes. In Edinburgh at the beginning of the last century, the participants in the first International Missionary Conference (a founding event for the modern ecumenical movement) were mostly white, male, clerical, Anglican and Western. In Athens, at the thirteenth Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) from 9-16 May, there were 600 people from 300 churches and agencies across 105 nations and six continents.
The intervening 95 years has seen the massive growth of Christianity in the South, the advent of the World Council of Churches, Vatican II, the growth of Pentecostalism, numerous conflicts and two world wars, decolonisation and globalisation, the decline of the church in the West, the rise of Islam, the shift from secularisation to pluralism, and a continuing gap between rich and poor on a planet whose ecosystem is stretched towards breaking point by post-industrial consumerism.
Quite properly, the way we think of mission has changed radically over the years too. No longer “from the West to the rest”, Christian witness from a broken church to a broken world means seeking God’s grace through global partnership in the Gospel. It embraces justice, peace, service, community and worship as the gifts of the coming kingdom. It creates faith-to-faith conversation through mutual witness and openness to the Spirit. And it requires renewed testimony to the transformation of God in Christ, together with the building up of his crucified and risen Body for the healing of the nations.
All this was glimpsed at CWME in Athens. We began at the Aegean Sea by receiving a huge olivewood Cross. It came by boat as a gift from the churches in Jerusalem, a sign of both suffering and hope, made from the fragments of the trees uprooted during the building of the wall separating Palestinians from Palestinians and Palestinians from Israelis. We prayed that this cross become a sign of reconciliation.
Taking up the conference theme, “Come, Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile!”, we began each morning in small groups, reflecting on the biblical message of hope coming out of our different confessional and cultural backgrounds. Then we moved into plenary presentations on the work of the Spirit, Christian community, overcoming violence, healing and reconciliation.
The message was incarnated in synaxeis, meeting spaces where we shared practical examples of Christian witness and service. Over meals and in our common life we talked, laughed, and argued. In worship we gathered up what we were discovering and offered it back to God, only to receive the Word again as we returned to our small groups at the end of the day.
The fact that this historic WCC gathering took place for the first time in a majority Orthodox setting was a sign of the ecumenical capacity to overcome internal division in the search for common witness. It was also a marker of the ground still to be covered and the painful struggle for mutual recognition this involves.
What many of us came away with was a deepening conviction that God is, indeed, reconciling the world in the way, life and truth that is ours to touch in the flesh of Jesus. But the scale of worldly violence, hatred and resistance to the sacrificial love through which peace with justice is wrought remains huge.
For this reason, there is a need both to renew our commitment to the liberating message of the Gospel (holistic evangelism) and to strengthen our capacity to speak and listen to those of a different creed and conviction (inter-cultural and inter-confessional dialogue.)
These two enterprises are not separate but one. There is no true witness without listening and respect, because the Jesus to whom we testify is one who overcomes violence and enmity. And there is no dialogue without testimony, because it is God and each other we seek, not the assertion or reflection of ourselves.
How appropriate, then, that the thirteenth world mission conference concluded on Mars Hill, where St Paul preached his famous sermon to the Athenians. He sought to build a reconciling bridge between contemporary culture and the life-giving action of God in Christ. This was our calling, too, we realised, as we dispersed once more to the four corners of the earth — the task of ecumenical mission.