Tuesday, 03 September 2019

Being the Church in and for the World

Written by Rev. Dr Ji Zhang, Assembly Theologian-in-Residence
Rev. Dr Ji Zhang with Associate General Secretary of the WCC Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri Rev. Dr Ji Zhang with Associate General Secretary of the WCC Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri

The Uniting Church has an important role as a participant and a contributor to the global ecumenical movement.

This was clear for Assembly Theologian-in-Residence Rev. Dr Ji Zhang after an extended study trip to Heidelberg University, the World Council of Churches (WCC) and a theological gathering with the Christian Congress of Asia (CCA) in Indonesia.

Rev. Dr Ji Zhang met with eminent theologians, senior leaders and program executives at the WCC, and dialogued with church thinkers from across Asia making a significant contribution to the flourishing of the Church in that region.

“My trip was filled with important connections, being struck by similarities to the hopes and challenges facing the Uniting Church in Australia, and also many opportunities for collaboration.”

“I was encouraged that the Uniting Church has a growing part to play in ecumenical engagements across the Church, not only as a dialogue partner, but as a contributor to the shared witness and mission of being the Church in and for the world.”

Ji shares some of the insights gained on the trip:

The Church is in and for the World

During my time at Heidelberg University, I explored more deeply my own work on the theology of social service.

The theology of Diakonia – acts of service to change people’s lives – is interdisciplinary. It is a hybrid discourse in dialogue with social and political sciences, economics, public health, poverty, migration, youth-family and other issues.

Ji trip 3

Transformation by serving the poor

The Central City Church in Heidelberg offers a practical lived example of a Christian community being transformed by acts of service.

From its near closure 15 years ago, this church has been renewed by serving the poor.

Social service is included in theological discernment, through which the congregation rediscovered its vocation shaped by industrialisation 120 years ago - “Service is Mission”.

“The Kingdom of God is bigger than the Church”

I was honoured to meet with esteemed German theologian 93-year-old Prof Jürgen Moltmann, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen.

Moltmann is author of the book Theology of Hope, which outlines his theological vision for hope rooted in God’s participation in human suffering as well as God’s promise in the resurrection of Christ.

Together we discussed different aspects of theology. On the theology of social service, his thesis was that “the Kingdom of God is bigger than the Church”. Theology is to nurture the faith of the people, to inform the Church in the world and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

It was an inspiring meeting, which finished with us praying together. Before I left, he said to me twice “Thank you for remembering me, Peace Be With You" in German and English.

Ji trip 2

WCC Connections

The Uniting Church is well-loved by the WCC because we are a “uniting” church. Our contributions are well noted, including the introduction of consensus decision making to the WCC and two generations of UCA leaders’ involvement in the ecumenical movement.

One of my most important conversations was with Associate General Secretary of the WCC Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, an African theologian and renowned ecumenist.

Prof. Apawo Phiri leads the WCC’s programmatic work in the area of Public Witness and Diakonia.

In our conversation, Prof. Apawo Phiri spoke about Australia’s very unique place between the West and the East, the North and the South. I shared with her the growing number of culturally and linguistically diverse communities in the UCA and our desire to be a truly multicultural and cross-cultural church.  She described this capacity of holding diversity together as a gift to the WCC member churches.

Rudelmar Bueno De Fariajpg

A public role to play

I also had the opportunity to speak with ACT Alliance General Secretary Rudelmar Bueno De Faria. He shared how the UN and others are seeking to build relationships with Churches because of the significant public role played by religions in all parts of society. This role is getting bigger, not smaller. Across the globe, 86 percent of the world’s population identify with one or more religions.  Religions often have something to say about the betterment of humanity.

My time with the WCC highlighted the changing face of the ecumenical movement with much greater representation and involvement from churches in different parts of the world. A large board depicting all the member churches inside the WCC head office in Geneva is now more than half-filled with Churches from Africa and Asia.

Ninth Summit of the Congress of Asian Theologians

More than 120 theologians from across Asia participated in the Congress. CCA General Secretary Rev. Mathews George Chunakara in his opening address encouraged us to pursue an authentic Asian theology, reflecting a strong desire among Churches across Asia to develop a theology that is grounded in the lived experience of their people. This opens up new possibilities for us as the Church in Australia to explore what this would look like in our context, particularly our lived experience in this land, sovereign to First Peoples.

I believe we are headed in the right direction.

I had the opportunity to chair the first keynote panel and give a response to Bishop Theophilose, Metropolitan of Syrian Orthodox Church in India, and present on two topics: Theology of Social Service in Australia, and our Journey of Reconciliation with the First Peoples.

There is much interest across the WCC and CCA in both these topics and ongoing possibilities for us to share and collaborate.

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