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Dr Agnes Abuom: “We pray that churches will recommit to the search for visible unity”


WCC News met online with Dr Agnes Abuom, moderator of the World Council of Churches central committee, and she offers reflections on the impact of COVID-19, what gives her hope, and the future of the ecumenical movement

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How have you experienced the impact of COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr Abuom: Initially, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was low in terms of affected people and the death rate. However, during this second phase, more people are testing positive and the death rate has been on the increase. The reason could be that more people are being tested and also political groups have been holding rallies without observing protocols such as wearing masks and social distancing.

Further, poverty is widespread as companies have closed or reduced the number of workers. Already the level of poverty among young people was high and informal settlements are more affected due to poor sanitation and related services. Many relatives go without food and I personally have lost friends and a number of church leaders.

Three other effects need to be highlighted. First, family and domestic violence and gender-based violence. Some men are frustrated because the lockdown means they must stay home, something they are not used to. In addition, without jobs and income to fend for families they feel humiliated and their dignity is compromised. COVID-19 has exposed serious levels of mental illnesses. Second, the indefinite closure of schools from March 2020 meant that children are confined to their homes and it would seem many parents were not prepared for such long recess and, therefore, young girls are impregnated by young men—or taken advantage of by older men—or family violence or incest. Third, the pandemic has affected the fellowship and community life of the church as worship spaces were closed for a number of months and when they opened the elderly were not allowed to mingle. This lack of fellowship has an economic impact on the finances of the church, as well as the pastoral and spiritual life. People are lonely in their homes or hospitals. Pastors are unable to visit the sick and families are unable to conduct burials and final rites that protect the dignity of those who have passed.

What gives you hope at this moment?

Dr Abuom: As a woman of faith, my candle of hope must burn whether the context is good or bad. In other words, faith in the Lord Jesus affirms that nothing is permanent, for what has a beginning, has an end. COVID-19 has reminded me that we as a global human community belong to the one household of God in spite of race, gender, region, weather or wealth because the pandemic has not spared the rich, mighty, the poor nor the children and the elderly. There is, therefore, no need to exclude or marginalise anyone or any community. The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals motto “leave no one behind” encompasses all created things. As the psalmist aptly states: “The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalms 24.1 NKJV). The power of love and the power to forgive implore the church and Christians to pray to God for healing of the mind, soul and body.

Despite the lockdown, people have found ways to navigate and normalise the abnormal. For instance, churches are using online technology to share the message of the good news with their congregations. In the past we read about house churches in some Asian countries but the pandemic has revived family and home churches, prayers and worship. Some remit the offerings collected during home churches to the church.

The 16 Days Against Gender-based Violence began on 25 November. In order to achieve sustainable peace and sustainable development; peace is a twin of justice. Today my hope is sustained as churches, people of faith, men and women of good will engage to overcome racism, xenophobia and other forms of injustice such as economic and ecological injustice.

Yes, today presents to me many concerns and I am hopeful because I am not alone; I have fellow companions on the journey and above all, our God promises that He shall not leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13.5). Because of this assurance we can face the challenges without fear.

There are many reasons to be hopeful, but let me point out the Green Faith International Network by the Anglican Communion that galvanises people as ambassadors for climate justice. The All Africa Conference of Churches engages young people to work towards restoration of ecology. Churches worldwide are more sensitive to community needs than before as they enable respective communities to frame their needs and potential solutions. There are many individuals whose service is a serious divine vocation, and they stay serving for many years. In as much as COVID-19 has overwhelming negative effects, I see hope in the impact if we can discern what God is saying to us human beings. No one or region can go it alone; we need to restore healthy, dignifying relationships with each other, with God and nature.

Dr Agnes Abuom during a moment of prayer, June 2018 (Image: Albin Hillert/WCC)

How do you imagine the church in 2040? 

Dr Abuom: The church I envision in 2040 is one that celebrates the gift of life of all God’s creation. A church that acknowledges that, as human beings, we are all vulnerable to the effects of our abuse of one another and environment. This is a church that is fully inclusive of all God’s people—a rainbow (Genesis 1.26); affirming that all are created in the image of God, and are wonderfully made. In this 2040 church unity in diversity and celebration as well as use of talents are applied to the glory of God. It will be a church that is breaking silence on many taboo issues and building bridges between different people, faiths and nation/states. The 2040 church will remain faithful to its calling by God to proclaim good news; a church alive to prophetic ministry and tradition on behalf of people and nations—a sanctuary for all and a church that accompanies the needy through diaconal services. A church that is the light and salt of society, not one compromised by political class or the economic mammon. A church that while on high moral ground shall not condemn those on low moral ground as dammed; rather the church’s high moral ground will journey with those on low moral ground.

What is your vision for the ecumenical movement of the future?

Dr Abuom: My vision of the ecumenical movement of the future is one that will stay focused on the prayer of our Lord Jesus, “that they may all be one, that the world may believe” (John 17.20-21 NKJV). This unity is not about uniformity but unity of purpose. When I survey the ecclesial landscape, there are more denominations that still need to develop self-understanding and cooperation with others. The different dialogues taking place between various communions are essential. It is my vision that we in the ecumenical movement shall worship together, accept each other’s’ baptism and Eucharist. We are on the way; at the same time, there is need to agree on the basics around these critical aspects of our Christian faith.

The future ecumenical movement is a movement that shall embrace family, local and organic ecumenism as this phenomenon is more apparent especially in Africa where a family has representatives from different denominations; the transformation aspect is also in the interfaith component thus cooperation for the survival, the affirmation of the web of life. And finally the vertical ecumenism must engage the horizontal movements which are issue-based such as peace and justice. An ecumenical movement with a voice that impacts discourse in the public space because it values every person’s contribution. An ecumenical movement that is prayerful, and one that has deepened inter and multi-generational dialogue on issues of concern. An ecumenical movement as a space appreciated, as a gift with diverse experiences, lessons learnt and resources.

What does justice mean for you with a view to living together and solidarity worldwide?

Dr Abuom: If Christ humanised his mission, evangelisation and meeting the needs of the people. Thus the Gospel is a compelling force that should make us restless on any form of injustice and in whatever geographical sphere it occurs. Thus pilgrimage motive allows us to be risk takers and leave our comfort zones. Perhaps it is this risk taking and denial of comfort that gives us the impetus as pilgrims for justice. Therefore as a body of believers called by Jesus Christ to serve humanity and to preach the good news of salvation (Luke 4.18-20); we are called to serve individually in our local contexts and collectively to restore justice. For example, economic injustice fuelled by greed at the expense of the majority left languishing in poverty demands that churches together interrogate and challenge the development paradigm that exploits resources and human beings for a small group with impunity. We encounter cultures that defend dehumanisation and inferiority of other human beings as being less human; we need concerted efforts of standing in solidarity with one another to overcome such atrocious injustices. We work until we witness the image that Amos 5.24 provides: “But let justice run down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” It is about justice for all and all for justice. We address oppressors just like Jesus did. I am saved by Jesus to serve and through salvation I am equipped by the scriptures to serve and witness against unjust structures.

What images of the good life/images of hope are important for you?

Dr Abuom: In the midst of  the recent war (2013) in South Sudan the image of women converging once a month for fasting and prayer is a powerful image: that they defy military forces and, unrelenting, they continue to march once every month, although many have lost their loved ones. They do not use arms to drive home the point that life is sacred and peace with justice is an imperative. Over the years they have appealed to their maker with lamentations and petitions as they also have participated in peace negotiations.

The second image is one where people of all social classes, races, genders, ages are sitting together, as church, and mutually sharing the fruits of spirituality and humanity.

A third image is of a community of men, women, boys and girls gathered under a tree and resolving communal conflicts by using traditional methods of mediation, conflict resolution and thereafter holding hands and praying together.

A fourth image is one of development: workers and church leaders discussing priorities together with communities and those from the north accepting to listen and offer wisdom at appropriate moments – otherwise no longer the masters of change.

Fifth is the image of a Nigerian Imam and pastor traversing the African continent preaching peace. This was to illustrate that religion is not the cause of conflict but the abuse and misuse of religion.

How can we shape the changes or the change together?

Dr Abuom: In order to shape change we should first and foremost understand that change is inevitable and if we do not plan to manage it, we will be overwhelmed or even destroyed. To begin with, we need to scan the context, map the different trends and as we envision change/transformation, it is important that we also take into consideration the other person. We normally reflect on issues and desired change from our own position. When we have reflected from our own interests and needs then we should look at the changes from other people’s standpoint. If we stay truthful, we are able to take into account relevant changes that are a result of multi-pronged discourse. This opens up a window for better appreciation of the different changes required by those involved. A key factor is to listen, to discern the will of God and people at a particular juncture in history. Another factor is to avoid being dismissive of other’s views and perspectives. In other words, create enabling spaces to determine the needed change and how to go about it.

What are your hopes for the WCC 11th Assembly in Karlsruhe in 2022?

Dr Abuom: The WCC will be coming back to Europe after 50 years since the last assembly held in Uppsala in 1968.

A lot has changed in Europe and at the same time some of the issues addressed at Uppsala remain or have resurfaced. First, we hope that all our delegates and other participants will be able to attend especially after this COVID-19. We look forward to an enabling environment for prayer, celebration, discussions, exchange of views and ideas. Above all we hope to get to have a glimpse of church life in Germany. As a global ecumenical movement it is our prayer that the assembly will energise and inspire churches to continue to work for unity of the church and unity of humankind. That many young people will find the WCC and ecumenical movement relevant as it addresses matters affecting them. We pray that assembly participants will give program and policy priorities and direction for the future. We pray that churches will recommit to the search for visible unity.

Interview: Marianne Ejdersten, WCC Director of Communication.

First published on the World Council of Churches website on 7 December 2020.

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