The Global Institute of Theology, 2014: A Report from Cate Burton

GIT 2014

A guest post by Cate Burton

In July 2014 I had the opportunity to attend the Global Institute of Theology (GIT) offered by the World Communion of Reformed Churches and hosted by the Universidad Biblica Latinoamerica in San Jose, Costa Rica. There were 30 participants from 15 different countries, as well as administration and academic staff. We came from Europe, Asia, Africa, the America’s and the Middle East. I was the only one from Oceania, Australasia and Pasifika and found myself as the unofficial representative from our part of the world.

The catch phrase which emerged from our three and a half weeks together was ‘Many Cultures, One Family.’ It was this sense of cross-cultural community which has marked me most. I am truly privileged and blessed to have experienced something of the beauty of the Universal Church (well, the Reformed part of it anyway).

On the academic side, the GIT included one core course and six elective courses, all taught in English. The theme of the core course was Transforming Church, Community and Mission, with one week of morning lectures dedicated to each of the three components. The elective courses took place in the afternoons with the first three electives held during the first week and a half while the remaining electives were held during the last week and a half. These classes were mixed according to gender and nationality with 10 students in each elective. The electives I attended were Eco Theology and Feminism and Masculinity.

The content of the core course and the elective courses has both broadened and deepened my theology. I now have a fuller understanding the theological, ecological, sociological, political and economic issues faced in other parts of the world. With this comes an increased desire to be mindful of and engaged in these issues globally, as well as encouraging the church in Aotearoa New Zealand to respond faithfully to these concerns as they present themselves in our context.

To the class room and coffee break discussions we each brought our own perspectives and experiences, and we shared these freely with one another. Contextual theology became very important for us, with many statements beginning, ‘in my context…’ and many questions being answered, ‘well, it depends on your context…’ This was freeing as well as frustrating.

There was a chapel service every morning and evening during the week, which was another opportunity for us share songs and liturgy from our own context as well as develop our own sense of corporate worship as a gathered community. One day I led worship with Rabih from Lebanon; we prayed in Te Reo Maori and we sang in Arabic. On another occasion I led with Jacoline from the Netherlands and I taught everyone how to hongi as a way of Passing the Peace. We sang in a variety of languages and we prayed the Lord’s Prayer in our mother tongues.

Once a week we visited local projects such as childcare centres for families of impoverished neighbourhoods and churches running support clinics for women with HIV and Aids. On Saturdays we would go sightseeing in San Jose or other parts of the country from the Central Valley to the Pacific Coast. On Sunday mornings we also attended local Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches, which were all in Spanish and were translated when possible.

My experience at the GIT has contributed for my formation as a disciple of Christ and as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I will continue to be shaped by the relationships which developed and the way of life we shared together.

I am grateful to St Peters in the City for allowing me to take an extended period of leave when I was so new to my ministry role there and to the Kaimai Presbytery for endorsing my application for the Best Travel Fund which made a significant contribution to my travel costs.

Muchas gracias! Tena rawa atu koe!

Communion: On Being the Church – the Lutheran–Reformed Joint Commission

Lutheran-Reformed dialogue - Communion. On Being the Church_Page_01The latest report of the Lutheran–Reformed Joint Commission between the Lutheran World  Federation and the World Communion of Reformed Churches is now available. Its title is Communion: On Being the Church. To read and/or download the report, click on the pretty picture.

An Interview with Setri Nyomi

In this recent interview, Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, reflects on the 14 years he has served with the WCRC. I was both interested and challenged about what he had to say about the Accra Confession, a document whose 10th anniversary this year will ironically be marked by a series of consultations:

The issues that the Accra Confession talked about are still with us. And in fact they are expressing themselves in more vicious ways than they were in 2004. We still have economic injustice, we still have many, many, many people dying as a result of the way the global economy is shaped. Since 2004, that has also touched the global north in a way that couldn’t have been envisioned in 2004. In 2004 people thought, “oh that’s the issue for Latin America, and Africa and Asia.” But in 2008 we had the economic meltdown that impacted the north and I personally had letters from people in the global north saying, “Looks like this is the very thing the Accra Confession is talking about.”

And so ten years later we have those issues still with us. For me the unfortunate thing is I don’t see how it is being lived out, even in the lives of our church members, to the extent I would have liked to see. If I had any evaluation of the Accra Confession I would count that a failure, that it is still not part of the mainstream of the life of people. And I hope this tenth anniversary we’ll be able to do that kind of evaluation and redirect ourselves because it’s not the kind of confession that you put on a shelf and say, “We’ve achieved a good statement.” It’s not even the kind of confession that you’re happy about if once in a while you recite it in churches as one of the wonderful confessions of the church. It is one that calls on us to engage in some actions, and unless we are doing those I would say we need to say we have failed.

Two wee notices about the global theology scene

GlobeTheoLibFirst, there’s the Global Digital Library on Theology and Ecumenism (GlobeTheoLib), a joint project of the WCC and Globethics.net which ‘aims to redress a global imbalance of access to research materials in theology and related disciplines’. It contains more than 750,000 articles, documents and other academic resources that can be accessed freely, in six languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Indonesian and Chinese), by registered participants.

Second, the application deadline for next year’s Global Institute of Theology (something that I’ve posted about before) has been extended until 15 January. Applications forms can be accessed here.

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The 2014 Global Institute of Theology

GIT-banner

My mate, Frans du Plessis, reminds me that it’s time to remind folk about the forthcoming meeting of the Global Institute of Theology:

The fourth Global Institute of Theology (GIT) is set to take place in San Jose, Costa Rica, 5–28 July 2014. The institute will be held in collaboration with and under the academic auspices of the Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana (Latin American Biblical University).

The GIT is a bi-annual program by the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). Previously, it has been held in Ghana, United States, and Indonesia. The program is intended for theological students and pastors beginning their ministry. This year, up to 35 participants will be selected. Applicants should have a particular interest in ecumenical theology and mission. The WCRC will take necessary efforts to ensure that the student body will reflect gender and regional balance to represent the diversity of the Reformed family in the world today.

Through lectures, seminars, worship services, exposure visits, contextual experiences, the sharing of stories and participation in the life of the churches in Costa Rica, GIT participants will explore the theme of “Transforming Mission, Community, and Church.” Students will take part in a core course as well as two elective courses out of six possible choices.

“The ultimate goal of the GIT is to form a new generation of Reformed leaders who are fully aware of the faith dimension of contemporary challenges, including economic injustice and environmental destruction,” explains Douwe Visser, Executive Secretary for Theology at the WCRC, and Secretary of the GIT. “Costa Rica, a nation that set the goal to be climate neutral in 2021, and has been ranked number one in the ‘happy planet index’ will provide an interesting background for these discussions,” added Visser.

The GIT faculty will include, among others, Bas Plaisier (The Netherlands), Peter Wyatt (Canada), Aruna Gnanadason (India), Isabel Phiri (Malawi), Claudio Carvalhaes (United States), Philip Peacock (India), Hans de Wit (The Netherlands), and Roy May (United States).

Applications for the GIT will be accepted until 1 January 2014.

Further information can be obtained on the GIT website or via e-mail.

If you’re a young theologian who chooses to develop your work out of the Reformed tradition as ‘a matter of religious and theological conviction’ (to rip from James Gustafson), then I commend it highly.

An essay competition for theology students and young pastors

The World Communion of Reformed Churches is sponsoring an essay competition for theology students and young pastors (up to 35 years of age). The topic is ‘Paradise: an inspirational concept for the financial and economic structures of the global society’.

Essays (written in English, French, Spanish or German) should be received no later than 23 December 2012, and the winner will be awarded the Lombard Prize.

More information is available here.

The World Communion of Reformed Churches: A Wee Reflection

Bruce Hamill and I have spent the last 10 days or so in Grand Rapids, Michigan, serving as delegates of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand at the United General Council of the newly-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). The Council has been involved in the bringing together of two former bodies – the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) – into one World Communion that represents over 80 million Reformed Christians worldwide. It has been a very exciting meeting to attend, and I have felt a deep sense of privilege in being here as a participant.

It has been a rich time of worship, of meeting delegates and visitors from all over the world, of catching up with old friends and making new ones, of sharing resources and ideas about ministry, theological education and mission, of attending to administrative matters (there was no shortage of this), of hearing about what God and God’s people are doing – and are not doing – in different parts of the globe, and of reflecting on both the catholicity and the reformed identity of this branch of the Church, among other things. And, as is typically the case at these ecumenical gatherings, there has been no shortage of talk about ‘justice’, ‘peace’, ‘mission, ‘unity’, and about addressing the powers of empire. The spirit of Accra abides.

One of the issues that I was keen to ‘place on the table’ at this gathering concerned the relationship between Reformed Churches and the State. It seems to me that a tradition like mine which is so heavily imbedded in what is now a rapidly-disappearing Christendom has well and truly entered (in most parts of the world) a time in which our relationship with the State is overdue for a rethink. Put differently, is it time for Reformed Churches who have long been in bed with the State to start thinking about wearing an ecclesiastical condom, at least at more ‘risky’ times of the month? Conversely, is it time for Reformed Churches who have long  sidelined themselves from their societies to re-think their bed etiquette? One place that I thought that such a rethink may be encouraged is in the teasing out of a few implications of being a ‘communion’, as opposed to a being a mere ‘alliance’ (Bruce has more to say about this distinction here). So I trundled along to a section called ‘Reformed Identity, Theology and Communion’, naïvely thinking that the topic of conversation at such a group might have at least something to do with Reformed identity, theology and/or communion.

After what felt like countless hours of talking around in circles about neither Reformed identity, nor theology, nor communion – hours made all the more painful by an incompetent section moderator – I offered the following proposal:

‘The World Communion of Reformed Churches acknowledges that the affirmation of communion has implications for our life together. The shape of this life together is fashioned upon the Gospel, that is, upon the gracious economy of the Triune God who makes us one.

Our identity and communion is created, sustained and fleshed out by Jesus Christ. This reality, which the Bible calls ‘life in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 6.23; 1 Cor 1.30; 2 Tim 3.12), redefines and reconstitutes our identity thus making all other identify-forming relationships secondary.

Therefore, as one of the many concrete expressions of this communion:

  1. We will not kill one another.
  2. We will make disciples in our congregations who might learn to resist participation in the State’s machinery of violence and thereby offer a distinctive Christian witness to an alternative way of living that is determined to not perpetuate the practices of that world which is passing away but which is formed by the new creation inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
  3. We will communicate – in word and in action – to our respective states and governments that our principle allegiance is to Jesus Christ.
  4. We will offer our full support to all those in our communion for whom this commitment will come at great cost.

We are a people who confess to follow one who puts himself in the way of evil, who intervenes on behalf of the oppressed and the weak and the downtrodden, and who does so not with swords and spears, but by bearing on his body the blows and resisting retaliation. Jesus confronts the cycle of violence and declares that ‘The violence stops with me’. He suffers in his own person the wrong that is done, and trusts the outcome to God. That is the pattern of obedient life that Christians are called to follow and into which they are incorporated through baptism. Forgiveness, compassion, prayer and sacrifice are the tools that Christ takes up in his war against evil and sin. When those who bear his name take up arms to wage war, and insist that such action is necessary, unavoidable and a last resort, they are resorting to a logic other than that of the Logos incarnate. It must be confessed therefore that they have failed in the call to inhabit God’s new creation, a call which allows for no exceptions when it comes to loving even our enemies’.

Unsurprisingly, the proposal received very little support (something like 15% I guess). That it received so little support was less disappointing to me, however, than the fact that here was a group of intelligent and articulate reformed thinkers and church leaders who – because of an incompetent moderator – were not afforded the opportunity to even discuss the issue/s being raised. It was, sadly, a wasted opportunity and I can only thank God for the many informal discussions that arose after my presentation. It was also a learning opportunity for me in ecumenical diplomacy (something that I hope never to be too good at) and at the importance of having well-moderated meetings.

After dusting myself off, I decided to give my modest proposal another (if even-more modest) crack in a session the following day, and that via the addition of a single sentence to a report of the Policy Committee. The Report serves as the guide for the future work of the Executive Committee of the WCRC. To the recommendation that ‘WCRC, working with appropriate member churches and other organizations, seek ways to accompany member churches through prophetic solidarity, education and advocacy’, I suggested the following addition: ‘This will include a commitment to not participate in violence against one another’. This time, the proposal was enthusiastically received, but again there was no discussion. And perhaps just as well, for a body of this size (around 1000) to engage in a meaningful conversation about the implications of such a statement would have us stuck here in Grand Rapids for many more moons, and while Calvin College is a extraordinarily-beautiful setting to be hanging out in for a few weeks, I’m looking forward to getting home and to doing some further thinking myself about reformed identity and about the shape of reformed ecclesiology in post-Christendom states.

[Photo by Erick Coll/UGC]