The head of the world‚Äôs largest inter-Christian body says that the role of churches in combating prejudice and offering an alternative vision of justice and peace is a key component of their Gospel calling.
The remarks came at an event in Chennai, India, on 13 February 2007, part of this year's celebration of the nation's 60th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule.
India is now a "viable and vibrant democracy" of "manifold diversity" which has become a "major global power" marked by rapid growth and economic expansion, declared the Rev Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
In marking these advances he also regretted the nation's contemporary "setbacks of poverty and violence, caste-ism and fundamentalism of many sorts", supporting the work of Christians and others in tackling these problems.
Dr Kobia was speaking at a seminar convened by the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) and the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College. He addressed the challenges facing the ecumenical movement in the world and their implications in modern India.
The Christian ecumenical movement, affirmed Dr Kobia, seeks to "uphold the sanctity, integrity and dignity of the life of all people", while carrying an "alternative vision of the world, guided by the values of justice and peace".
The search for "the meaning and purpose" of being a part of it in a "context of complex realities" is therefore not "just an existential need because our institutions are in crisis", he continued, but a spiritual thrust to "play a creative role in shaping this ever-changing world, and in keeping it just and humane".
In such a context, Dr Kobia affirmed, the first challenge to churches is to "hear the voices" of "those who are abused, the vulnerable, of women, children, refugees, of unemployed youth and migrant workers, of those suffering and dying of HIV/AIDS and other diseases, the faint voices of women and children who are trafficked, of the Dalits and Adivasis" [people of lower castes formerly known as 'untouchables' and indigenous peoples, respectively]. In so doing, churches must look at their ecumenical vocation as a "vocation of advocacy for life and justice".
Acknowledging that "Indian churches are predominantly composed of the rural poor, who also happen to be from the margins of Indian society", Dr Kobia suggested that this identity needs to be even more "owned and affirmed" by the churches. Christians must challenge the misuse and abuse of power in order to become an "alternative community".
For all this to happen, we "need to recognize the contributions of many others who are involved in similar pursuits with or without any religious calling or affiliation", Dr Kobia added. Commending the pioneering work done in this area by the Indian churches, he suggested that "interfaith dialogue and cooperation can be seen as an instrument of life".
Earlier in the day, Dr Kobia had addressed the Executive Committee of the Church of South India (CSI) at the church headquarters in Chennai. One of the WCC member churches in the country, the CSI is celebrating its own 60th anniversary under the theme "Rejoice! Growing together in Christ. Celebrate! Building Communities of Hope".
"In 1947, in a world in tumult following the Second World War and within the context of India becoming an independent nation, the Church of South India dared to become a united church", recalled Dr Kobia. He highlighted three reasons why the birth of the CSI "was regarded then and is seen now" as a "remarkable church union".
Dr Kobia's three points were: the CSI's "radical vision of unity", in which "divided denominations have 'died' to their separate identities in order to 'rise' together into a single, new, united church"; a "radical vision of the gospel in its local context" which allowed for its liberation from the "cultural forms of Europe and North America" and its taking an "indigenous South Indian form"; and a "radical healing of ecclesiological divisions" which made it possible to "unite the sacramental episcopacy with Reformed and other forms of church order".
"We celebrate your vision in uniting, and your courage in meeting the challenges of living out your unity in the changing and challenging world of today", Dr Kobia said.
Among the main challenges facing the church today, Dr Kobia mentioned forming a "truly inclusive union, not only theologically or in worship, but humanly as well", so as to be able to help the healing of divisions within the society. The church also meets challenges in "witnessing to the gospel promise of abundant life for all in a society shaped increasingly by economic globalization", and "responding to a growing secularism" within Indian culture.
On 17-18 February 2007, Dr Kobia will be the chief guest and a main speaker at the 112th Maramon Convention of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, which takes place annually at Maramon, Kerala, and is the largest Christian gathering in Asia.