The events of 1989, when people in Eastern Europe took their faith on to the streets and challenged the oppressive regimes, marked a turning point in seeing the Church as a global community of believers, a world mission conference in Edinburgh heard this past weekend. Trevor Grundy reports.
"People took their faith into the public square in Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Berlin Wall came down," Dana L. Robert of Boston University in the United States told the 2010 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, which commemorates a similar event in the capital of Scotland 100 years ago.
Robert referred to a comment ascribed to an East German leader after the 1989 peaceful demonstrations that led to the collapse of communism: "We were prepared for everything but not for candles and prayers."
Robert, co-director of Boston University's Center for Global Christianity and Mission, was speaking at the first plenary session of the gathering of almost 300 delegates representing 30 Christian traditions from 60 countries.
In her remarks, Robert also referred to China's 1989 crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on peaceful protesters, who were seeking greater democracy.
"With students at Tiananmen Square, the cross appeared in public procession for the first time in many decades in China," said Robert. "The repression of dissent there led to a new openness to the gospel among young people in what is now one of the fastest growing churches in the world."
Robert said she believed that these events were a "turning point", creating an awareness of the global nature of the Church as a, "worldwide community of believers, united in common witness", where Christianity exists in diverse cultural contexts.
The 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh is seen as marking the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement for church unity. Then, there was only one black African and 19 Asians among more than 1000 delegates.
Many of the participants at the 2010 event are from the global South, although organisers have confirmed that several African theologians did not receive visas from Britain to attend the gathering.
In her address, Robert referred to the changes that had taken place since the 1910 meeting.
"The vast majority of delegates were European and North American men. Two hundred were women, an estimated nineteen were Asians and one African," she said. "They gathered under the assumption that missions operated in the context of western colonialism but they departed with a prophetic glimpse of Christianity as a worldwide fellowship.
"In other words," Robert continued, "the conference itself awakened them to the reality that discussions of mission could not be separated from the deeper meaning of the Church as a worldwide community united before God."
The 1910 meeting led to the creation of the International Missionary Council, which in 1961 merged with the World Council of Churches, founded 13 years earlier.
Robert pointed to a 1963 WCC mission conference in Mexico City held under the theme of "Mission in Six Continents". She said this marked, "the symbolic beginning of a post-colonial framework for mission; it meant liberation from captivity to western Christendom".
In 2010, "common witness has imbedded within it far more plurality than was recognised fifty years ago," Robert said. "Cultural, ecclesial, theological and organisational diversity is greater than could be imagined in 1963."
She added, "The essence of worldwide Christian community is today re-imagined as a more inclusive and broader 'global conversation' than was possible in the past."
These different perspectives, Robert said, "should be affirmed as signs of hope and opportunities to new forms of mission that must engage each other".
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]
The official Edinburgh 2010 website can be found here: http://www.edinburgh2010.org/