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Listening to the Voice of God:
New Trends in the Ecumenical Movement

Samuel Kobia1

I feel honoured to have been invited to give this lecture in memory of one of the pioneers of the Asian and international ecumenical movement, Dr. D. T. Niles. The ecumenical movement continues to benefit immensely from the outstanding contributions made by Dr. Niles both in Asia and world-wide. The Asian ecumenical movement has time and again upheld the conviction that the purpose of the ecumenical movement is not to serve its own interests and those of the institutional structures of the churches, but to serve the causes of justice and peace in the world. The Asian ecumenical movement teaches that it is not only important for the Christian faith to be inculturated on Asian soil but also actively to engage the realities of its context with a view to transform the world through a critical, creative interaction. At the first World Conference of Christian Youth in Amsterdam in 1938, D.T. Niles insisted that the “ecumenical vision revealed indeed God’s pilgrim people on the way to the centre and frontiers of the church and the world and not just a Christian fellowship of humanitarian service... Our main concern is that the missionary emphasis becomes central to the life of the churches represented within the World Council.”2 And so I wish to pay tribute to the memory of Dr. D. T. Niles and all others who, through their life and witness, have showed us that to be sensitive and faithful is to be able to make a difference in our ability to reinvent ourselves vis a vis the changing realities of the world.

The theme of this series of lectures also resonates with that spirit: analysing the trends of the ecumenical movement in the light of what we hear as God's voice in today's world, with a view to making both our responses and ourselves relevant. Through this attempt we assert that we do not prefer to pursue our responses by basing them on what we have heard in the past, but, on the contrary, by actively searching for new meaning and new ways of being the ecumenical movement. In our willingness to listen, we are seeking to be led by what we hear as the voice of God amidst the voices of the world. We pray believing that God listens, speaks and acts in our lives as well as in the life of the world. In my view, discerning the purpose of God for the ecumenical movement in this 21st century is a spiritual exploration.

How do we listen to the voice of God in a world overwhelmed by several dominant voices? I would like to name some of these competing voices. First, there is a category that includes the market and the media - forces that mould our opinions and seem to turn all realities into commodities. People, land, knowledge, faith, religion and politics are measured according to their monetary value. On the other hand, little value is attached to equality, compassion, dignity and rights, and other meaning systems have no secure place in this market-driven world. How then we do listen to the voice of God in this world where we are made to believe that the ultimate purpose of our life lies in our ability to earn wealth and to consume, no matter what this may mean for others and the environment? Second, there are those voices that dominate our structures of relationships. These voices continue to stifle and silence desperate cries for dignity, equality and justice. With the recent resurgence of the religious right, these domineering voices have begun to spread fear and suspicion among people and communities. The minorities - whether religious, ethnic and or linguistic - are increasingly being violated and excluded. How then do we listen to the voice of God in this world where we are made to believe that some are more important than others, and in which injustice and inequality are legitimised, even in the name of God? Third, there are also those voices that silence dissent through the exercise of brute power.

The US-led war against terror, together with the powers that drive the processes of economic globalisation, have already effected a political culture that deals with dissent ruthlessly and safeguards the interests of hegemonic powers. These voices also seem to tell us that the only way to resolve conflicts is through the exercise of violent power. How then do we listen to the voice of God, when the cries of oppressed and unpopular minorities are muted so as to enable the powerful voices to define the shape of the present and the future?

Despite the din of these dominant voices of today's world, which overwhelm our senses and common sense, are we able to hear the voices - small, faint, desperate and also raging - of the impoverished, disempowered, disinherited and destroyed? There are so many such voices in our midst: the abused and the vulnerable, women, children, refugees, unemployed youth and migrant workers, those suffering and dying of HIV and AIDS and other diseases, the faint voices of women and children who are trafficked, of political detainees, of the Dalits and Indigenous Peoples, of those peoples' movements for freedom and justice and for the plundered earth. These voices - in contrast to the dominant voices - cry out for life, justice and peace, for fairness and for a life of dignity, and for the integrity of all forms of life and for the relationality of life.

We believe that God not only speaks but also listens, and that God's speaking to the world is in response to God's listening. God hears the cry of the slain Abel and holds his brother Cain accountable. God speaks to David through Nathan for killing Uriah. God warns Ahab and Jezebel through Elijah for lolling the poor man Naboth, in order to grab his land. God speaks to Moses because God hears the cry of the slaves in Egypt. God speaks to the kings and the priests through the prophets about the plight of the poor, the widows and the destitute. God's listening makes Isaiah prophesy about the new Jerusalem in which there shall not be heard the sound of weeping or the cry of distress. As a continuation of God's endless communication with the world, Jesus responds to the cries and yearnings of the excluded and the disempowered - the bent-over woman, the man with a withered hand, the blind beggar, the lepers, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the multitudes, etc., even to the extent of bringing death upon himself. Paul, too, reminds us of the groaning of the whole creation for liberation. God listens to this clamour for justice, for life and freedom, for a better world, for a new order, for God's oikoumene. God's voice in response is a call to liberation, restoration and transformation, and a promise of grace. Should we not then view the ecumenical vocation as a vocation for life and transformation? Surely and certainly, in a world overwhelmed by the dominant voices that silence and overwhelm cries of people for justice and life, oikoumene needs to be a space where life is celebrated, where life is affirmed in abundance for all. Our option to listen as God's people brings with it the need to search for responsible forms of Christian discipleship. Our listening not only effects our coming together but also demands our bold and creative responses.

Such responses on the part of God's people have resulted in the way the modem ecumenical movement has understood and shaped itself from its beginnings. Against the backdrop of wars and violence and a divided world, the ecumenical movement has seen the purpose of the unity of the church in the vision of the unity of humankind. Meanwhile, the Asian churches have responded with great sensitivity and imagination to the violent upheavals that marked the Asian reality - to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Korean conflicts, the Indochina war of independence, the US war in Vietnam, the genocide in Cambodia, the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, the prolonged tensions between India and Pakistan, the struggles against dictatorial regimes, the repressive political dispensations and the consequent violation of human rights. The global ecumenical movement has greatly benefited from these sensitive responses. Some of these benefits include: creative theological reflections on the phenomenon of religious pluralism, models of interfaith dialogue, movements against militarism and neocolonialism and for human rights, by and for women, youth and students, migrant workers and Dalits; all these examples have been creative theological ventures that are distinctly Asian in content and character. Even as minority religious communities in a predominantly multi-religious Asia, the Asian churches and the ecumenical movement in a distinctive way have expanded the meaning of religious freedom to include not just religious propagation but active participation in the life of the people and for social transformation. I must also commend the Christian Conference of Asia for its ability to stand firm and faithful to the demands of the gospel in spite of threats and expulsions and in spite of differences within the fellowship. You have, in a distinct and clear way, emphasised that the purpose of the ecumenical movement is to listen to the voice of God in the cries of the poor, the disempowered and the silenced - and accordingly to reinvent yourself.

Against the backdrop of this history of active listening and sensitive responses, I would now like us to examine some recent trends of the ecumenical movement, with a view to discerning what these mean for us today.

I. Local and informal ecumenical configurations

We have, over the years, been able to build ecumenical institutions at various levels. These certainly have made their contributions to nurturing and building the movement. However, we have reached a point in time when the institutional churches are not able to support and sustain these structural expressions of ecumenism. These organisations are coming under intense pressure to stay alive and relevant, as they experience dwindling resources and reduced staff capacities. There also seems to be a set pattern of work on certain issues that every organisation embraces. This replication of patterns is not only unsustainable but also a duplication of effort, serving institutional interests rather than the cause. Since the second-to-last meeting of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches in 2003, there have been two major consultations on this theme: “Reconfiguration of the Ecumenical Movement” and “Reflections on Ecumenism in the 21st Century”. While reaching agreement that the multiplicity of ecumenical structures is a problem, both these consultations in Antelias, Lebanon and Geneva also have pointed out the need to address the content of ecumenism.

It has also been noted that there is a significant trend towards local, informal, trans-denominational ecumenical coalitions around issues that concern people in specific geopolitical contexts. These have no organisational structures, constitutions or requisite conversations on theological differences. A certain degree of defiance to structures of authority and to over-bureaucratisation within historical churches may be discerned in these formations. These coalitions have their own rationale and dynamics. They come together for various needs that range from a spiritual quest to a response to an external threat to the community, or to strive for political representation or to assert a particular caste or ethnic identity, or to respond in faith to a wider, existential challenge - be it a social issue or a humanitarian cause.

I think we need to be positive about this trend because it signifies the experiential dimension of ecumenism. This sort of expression of the ecumenical movement at the popular level and in local situations is something for which ecumenical activists have always hoped. We need to thank God for this movement of the Spirit, even when temporary alliances seem to undermine or threaten the space and relevance of our more traditional organisations. The church has often projected an impression of uniformity and opted for structures that suppress internal differences. Furthermore, most of the major religions have been used as unifying and consolidating instruments for the powers, for the empires, by creating monolithic structures and nurturing mono-cultures. As an expression of our resistance to the mono-cultures promoted by the forces of economic globalisation and the consequent dominant voices that submerge all other voices, affirming divergent expressions of unity is a way of affirming the essential diversity of God's creative splendour in its unity and harmony.

However, not all convergences of Christians across denominational boundaries are to be called ecumenical. We must ask ourselves about the purposes for which groups are coming together. Is unity being sought for the sake of people's own strength and stability, or in the hope of becoming the agent and foretaste of God's oikoumene by striving and taking risks to become the voice of the voiceless and the silenced? Ever since the Harare Assembly, the World Council of Churches has been involved in facilitating a global ecumenical forum with the intention of facilitating a process of openness and mutual understanding. While we must continue to explore this possibility, we must also constantly seek ways by which to hold each other accountable for our decisions and actions. Do we broaden the fellowship at the expense of the commitments that are required in the sharply polarised world today? Who do these temporary or nascent formations serve? How do they make visible the purposes of God for God's creation?

Ecumenism in the past century took shape in response to the challenges and situations of an ideologically divided, bi-polar world dominated by the nations of Europe and North America. There has been a demographic shift in the 21st century as regards the constituency of Christianity. By the middle of this century, there will be more Christians living in the global “south” than in the “north”. There is a new and distinctive urge to discover afresh the meaning of being church in varying contexts. Should we then continue to rely on the legacies of the past ecumenical era, based as they are around foci and functions that were shaped under the influence of traditional western theologies? The Asian ecumenical movement and many Asian theologies have consistently challenged the relevance of western theological premises for the global ecumenical movement. There is perhaps a need to turn to the new theological explorations “from below” that are emerging in active, critical engagements with the issues of people's lives, in order that we conceive our ecumenical vocation in a new way - as a creative instrument in the service of the unity of humankind.

II. Listening to the voice of God in human cries for a more abundant life

With the demographic shift from north to south, the influence of confessional theological considerations on the way ecumenism is understood and expressed has been significantly reduced. Furthermore, it has also become clear that doctrinal matters are not the only issues that keep Christians away from one another in many, especially multi-religious, contexts. The reality of a divided church is also a reflection of the divided world. The issues of war and violence, wealth and poverty, ethnic/national or other social identities, cultural value orientations, etc., have had their influence on the way churches have understood themselves and related to one another. These realities must be addressed in the light of the imperatives of the gospel.

On the other hand, there is also a significant trend among churches and individuals of coming together in response to human need and suffering. I call this ecumenism in action. The Asian ecumenical movement has frequently pioneered in these expressions of discovering and celebrating Christian unity in action around issues directly affecting people’s lives. Asian churches continue to overcome the boundaries of their western denominational identities for the sake of their common witness. They are able to transcend the boundaries of tradition and denomination, to listen to the voice of God today in suffering humanity's cry for life. I would especially like to commend the People’s Forum on Peace for Life, a recent CCA initiative in partnership with the WCC in response to the challenges posed by the war on terror and globalisation. At the launch of the Forum in Seoul in 2003, it was said: “...we are driven to reclaim the gift of life given to us by God... The urgency of the threat to life calls us all to a creative, concerted and organized response to rediscover peace. We challenge the churches, religious bodies and our partners to join us in the furthering of an ecumenical, interfaith and multi-religious coalition of people's movement and other groups.”

It is against the backdrop of this ecumenical trend that I would like to draw your attention to the possibility of viewing the vocation of overcoming violence as a new opportunity for the ecumenical movement. The Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) is an instrument that facilitates unity in the common vocation of affirming and safeguarding life. Nurturing a culture of peace is an attempt to nurture life, discovering alternatives to the logic of violence and death and upholding the values of mutuality and interdependence in human relationships that alone will guarantee peace. The Christian Conference of Asia has chosen the theme: “Building communities of peace for all” to guide its initiatives of assisting, accompanying and inspiring the churches and the ecumenical movement in Asia to participate in the DOV during this year. This search for communities of peace for all in Asia seems to have influenced actions following the tsunami when great tides of human solidarity in suffering swept throughout Asia and the world. People overcame divisions and crossed boundaries to reach out to those devastated by the disaster. I hope that the DOV will prove to be an instrument that opens new possibilities and new ways of being ecumenical in the world as you commit yourselves to the vision of building communities of peace. For most of us, peace means the absence of war and violence. It may also mean to some people the elimination or suppression of dissent and disagreement. I am, however, hopeful that this task of building communities of peace will help us to explore new and holistic meanings of peace that centre around justice, equality, reconciliation and harmony. I am reminded of the Japanese concept of Heiwa and the Chinese concept of Ping He, which through the combining of written characters define peace as equality and harmony.

The wider DOV movement looks forward to learning from Asian experience and resources as you - as churches and individuals - strive to be and to build communities of peace for all. Therefore, this year's theme also has a profound ecclesiological significance, encouraging us to rediscover afresh the meaning of being church in a disempowering and dehumanising world. We recognise that communities tend to be hierarchical. Communities do oppress, discriminate, exclude and silence their members to maintain a superficial appearance of wholeness and harmony. Some churches discriminate and marginalise their members. Through the DOV, the sanctity of life is the criterion for our re-imagination of the community and becomes the rationale for all ecumenical action, as the integrity of life validates our ecumenical claims. As Ninan Koshy puts it: “As an instrument of God’s love and justice the ecumenical movement is called today to give public and prophetic voice to a vision of a world that embodies not our worst fears, but our best hopes. The ecumenical movement has to show through its actions its belief in a divine multi-cultural and multilateral world where conflicts are resolved non-violently through understanding and vision. The ecumenical movement is obliged to challenge projects of imperial domination of people and nations. It is mandated to reject categorically theories of inevitability and permanence of war. These visions, doctrines and projects are all community-destroying and adversely affect the people of Asia.”3

In less than a year, the member churches and organisations of the WCC will meet in Porto Alegre, Brazil for the WCC’s 9th Assembly, with the theme: “God, in your grace, transform the world”. Resonating with the spirit of the social movements that have been gathering in Porto Alegre in recent years under the theme, “Another world is possible”, the transformation of the world is being presented as a challenge for the ecumenical movement. Transformation involves not only resisting the forces of death and domination but also proposing and effecting alternatives. Therefore, ecumenism is hope in action. This hope has its origin and fulfillment in the gracious God who constantly listens to the cries of humanity and calls us out to action.

The attempt to resonate with progressive social movements is also to affirm and accompany these new alliances for life. These new alliances f or life are not romantic preoccupations. They are taking upon themselves the responsibility of speaking truth to power. These, then, are also coalitions of resistance to injustice, oppression and exclusion. A commitment to life must bring churches into new partnerships and must also make them relate to people of other faiths and ideologies. This is also necessary for churches as they exist today, with limited space allowed for public witness in an increasingly pluralistic world. We cannot afford to close our eyes to this reality and continue with the old, traditional notions of people of other faiths and of mission. We must look more positively at religious pluralism and grope for ways by which we may become active partners with others. In a world where fear of the other is the major source of violence, a view unfortunately assisted by the religious right, we look forward to learning the art of negotiating partnerships for peace from the experience of the Asian churches and ecumenical movement. As Wesley Ariarajah succinctly puts it: “In the long run, what Asia needs is a ‘wider ecumenism’ or an ‘ecumenism of religious traditions’ that transcend and run parallel to Christian ecumenism - the destiny of the Christian peoples of Asia is no doubt tied up with the destiny of all its peoples. Building actual relationships across religious communities, which are recognised for who they are, is a necessary process on the road to a wider ecumenism.”4

III. Towards a spirituality of life

As I have already noted, amidst the rapid changes being effected by the processes of globalisation, there is also world-wide evidence of a phenomenal yearning for spiritual and moral way of life. This is being manifested through several spontaneous and experiential expressions of faith that are challenging formal arrangements, institutional structures and prerogatives. Doctrinal or theological considerations do not seem to set the agenda of these expressions of “spirituality”. These expressions, which are evident in all regions of the world, are in clear defiance of what is being seen as over-bureaucratisation and authority of structures within the historical churches. Such post-denominational expressions of being church are increasingly preferred by youth, to a large extent from the urban middle class in the developing world. Underlying this phenomenon is their quest for authentic spirituality that expresses itself in interdependent relationships. They are looking for answers to complex questions they encounter in a rapidly changing world. With great awareness of the world, they are looking for answers that are different from those spoken by the dominant voices. Many seekers are crossing boundaries of tradition and forming new spiritual and moral networks. Some are also socially sensitised and want to participate in the political process, in struggles for social and economic justice, for environmental protection, for peace and against hegemonic powers. Full of energy and vitality, they are articulating their own visions of the world.

Christianity inevitably involves a basic desire to relate and share with one another who we are as human beings, and a willingness to engage with the realities of the world. If post-modernity is threatening to rob us of our capacity to be human and to make us indifferent to the needs of the other, how can we then even claim to be Christians? The 20th-century ecumenism that arose from youth and student movements, and the Faith and Order movement and Life and Work, can no longer sustain itself on purely theological and organisational premises. We need to discover new foci and new instruments that uphold and make present the unity of God's people in spite of and amidst a world of change. The ecumenical movement must therefore embrace the principal ingredients of faith in such a way that it relates organically to the contemporary yearning for more experiential dimensions of faith, especially among the younger generations. Even as we respond to this spiritual revival and to this urge for spiritual meaning, we must also ensure that it comes to be understood in terms and acts consistent with the spirituality of life as experienced among the poor and the social movements that support their cause - their yearnings and their inspirations to overcome the shackles of poverty and oppression. We need to draw these two streams together into a creative dialogue. Otherwise, the spiritual yearnings of our young people will not result in necessary changes in the lives of the poor but, at best, serve principally the emotional needs of the urban middle class. We as churches and councils of churches need to dedicate ourselves with all seriousness to ecumenical formation and not leave that educational responsibility to the student and youth organisations alone.

Creating adequate spaces for youthful creativity to energise the ecumenical movement today as well as encouraging creativity in forming new alliances on moral, social and political issues are important challenges to recognise as we commit ourselves to the future of ecumenism. The recent WCC Central Committee decided to make the forthcoming assembly in Porto Alegre such a space for young people to participate and voice their visions of the ecumenical movement and our vocation as Christians. A large number of young people are to be part of this event.

In closing, let me reiterate the need for the ecumenical movement to maintain its character of supplying the ferment of change. One of the stirring achievements of the ecumenical movement has been its bold and prophetic involvement in the struggles against apartheid, military dictatorship and the suppression of human rights. Those contributions were possible because of the ability of the ecumenical movement to read the signs of the times, often ahead of member churches and the society in general.

Unfortunately, due to recent preoccupations with internal institutional challenges, we seem to have lost some of the spirit that has led us to take risks in the past. Our organisational structures have seemed instead to be embroiled in the task of taking care of internal, institutional and programmatic survival between assemblies. Self preservation has become our preoccupation, and through an inwardly-directed obsession with our own structures we have lost the space for active encounter and creative engagement with the issues and challenges facing our world of today.

How do we recapture the legacy of D.T. Niles and the other ecumenical pioneers? What are we now saying about the crucial challenges of empire, globalisation, the “war on terrorism” and global warming? What are our concrete responses and strategies? I hope that our renewed effort to listen to the voice of God, in order to discern God’s purposes for the ecumenical movement, will help us to identify what is worthy and acceptable in God's sight.


1 The Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia is the present General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

2 Ninan Koshy, A History of the Ecumenical Movement in Asia, Vol. I (Hong Kong: CCA, APAY, WSCFAP, 2004), 30.

3 Koshy, 348.

4 Ninan Koshy, A History of the Ecumenical Movement in Asia, Vol. II (Hong Kong: CCA, APAY, WSCFAP), 163.


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