By Donald Messer*
For United Methodists participating in the World Council of Churches 10th Assembly, the election of Bishop Mary Ann Swenson as the first female bishop in a top leadership position was a highlight of the gathering.
The assembly in Busan, South Korea, which wrapped up Nov. 8, focused on issues of unity, justice and peace, highlighted by attention to the desire for reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
The event drew 2,665 registered participants representing 141 countries and the Vatican as well as an estimated 4,600 Korean church members as day visitors.
“Bishop Swenson’s election,” noted the Rev. Youngsook Kang, an assembly delegate from Denver, “symbolizes United Methodist’s gift to the global Christian community since others fail to select women as episcopal leaders.”
Some of the 345 member Protestant and Orthodox churches of the WCC do not ordain women or have women serving as bishops.
Swenson, ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops, was elected vice moderator along with Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima, Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Eastern Orthodox). They will work with Agne Abuom, Anglican Church of Kenya, the first woman and the first African to be elected moderator for the WCC Central Committee.
Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, said he was “glad Bishop Swenson was elected as she brings enormous experience as an ecumenist in the world.”
United Methodist Bishop Christian Alsted, of the denomination’s Nordic and Baltic Area, said she “would offer her gifts of facilitating with style and grace.”
“Bishop Swenson is ideally qualified because of her understanding of the global church and her prophetic voice,” explained New England Area Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, chairperson of the ecumenical relations leadership team for the Council of Bishops. “She is needed by the WCC if it is to fulfill its new mission mandate to reach out to the margins of society.”
New mission and evangelism statement adopted
The central committee elections came at the close of an assembly that focused on a theme couched in the form of a prayer “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.”
The highlight of the conference for Thomas Kemper, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, was the adoption of “Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes,” a new WCC statement.
The document reflects closely what United Methodists believe and practice, he explained. “It will serve as a useful teaching tool in preparing missionaries and others in our church.”
Kemper indicated that what is particularly new is the emphasis on the healing ministry of the church. Previous documents recognized medical missions, but with the rise of Pentecostalism around the world, the new document recovers “the spirit of John Wesley who emphasized care of the body as well as the soul.”
Mission on the margins
Reflecting this new emphasis of healing and mission on the margins, the WCC underscored the need for the church to be engaged in combating HIV and AIDS around the world.
Recognizing that many churches and the public have become apathetic about the global AIDS crisis, the assembly welcomed Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, as a keynote speaker, and the WCC’s top executive, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, stressed the church’s need to address stigma and discrimination.
A Presbyterian pastor from South Africa living with HIV, the Rev. Phumzile Mabizela, declared AIDS is “not only a medical issue but a social justice issue as well.” A 19-year-old Presbyterian woman from Malawi, Shyreen Mrula, who was born with HIV, reminded the assembly “HIV is not a punishment from God; this is just a disease.”
The topic of human sexuality emerged periodically in workshops and plenary sessions. Feeling marginalized, an active group of Christians supportive of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered community presented workshops and pressed the church to at least “create safe space” for the LGBT community.
For Magali do Nascimento Cunha of the Universidade Methodista de São Paulo, Brazil, the Bible studies were a high point of the assembly. “In my Bible study group, we talked frankly about controversial political questions and human sexuality,” she said. “Too often, the church refuses to deal with these issues, postponing discussions for a future day.”
Probing questions of justice and peace
Topics considered on questions of justice and peace included the conflicts of the Middle East, the reunification of North and South Korea, sanctions and Iran, climate change, the global financial crisis and nuclear weapons and power. The 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate, Leymah Gobwee of Liberia, described how her non-violent movement of Christian and Muslim women played a pivotal role in ending her country’s civil war in 2003.
Matthew Laferty, a young adult delegate from the United Methodist Central Russia Annual (regional) Conference, pressed the WCC to include more young people in their deliberations. “The WCC may not need young people to operate, but it needs young leaders if it is to grow and thrive,” he said.
Chicago Area Bishop Sally Dyck, who was re-elected to the central committee, indicated the denomination’s Busan delegation “has work to do at home to help United Methodists understand the importance of ecumenism in a post-denominational world.”
The Rev. Stephen Sidorak Jr., top executive of the United Methodist Council of Bishops’ Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, considered the assembly a “watershed” event because of its clear commitment to justice and peace.
“Whether the topic was poverty, nuclear weapons or the environment, member churches expressed a new unity to move forward in advocating and acting together to secure a more just and peaceful world,” he said.
The trip was designed to travel through Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, Seoul, and finally into Busan. However, the train was not permitted to pass through North Korea — a vivid reminder of the challenges remaining to achieving reconciliation, justice and peace in the world.
*Messer is executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS and consultant for the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, United Methodist Council of Bishops. News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.