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the formation of a regional body for ecumenism

At the global level, the outbreak and the aftermath of the two World Wars forced the churches in the west to bring their search for Christian unity into a concrete institutional expression, so that they might together serve the world in turmoil. The Faith and Order Movement and the Life and Work Movement came together to inaugurate the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. The Missionary Movement was to become part of this fellowship at a later stage. In the meantime, there was also interest in the Asian region to give institutional expression to the unity of Asian Christians and churches. In 1949 a meeting of church leaders from all over east Asia was called under the leadership of Rajah B. Manikam of India and S. C. Leung of China. This meeting, which gave an opportunity to church leaders to consider the common issues facing the Asian churches, led first to the formation of a secretariat to work among churches and Christian councils in Asia, and eventually to the creation of an Asian ecumenical instrument, the East Asia Christian Conference (EACC), later to become the Christian Conference in Asia (CCA). D. T. Niles, one the primary architects of the EACC, did much in its formative stages to keep the EACC a genuine part of the global ecumenical movement and yet an authentic regional body committed to tackling the hard issues faced by Christians and churches in the Asian region. The Asian ecumenical body became one of the active, vibrant, relevant ecumenical bodies within the ecumenical scene inspiring the creation of such regional bodies in other parts of the world.

the roman catholic church in asian ecumenism

In the meantime, within the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), Pope John XXIII decided that a 'Second Sacred Ecumenical Synod of the Vatican'

10 The debate over the issue was so intense that after the Tambaram meeting Kraemer's presentation and that of those who dissented were collected as a volume of the proceedings of the conference: see The Authority ofFaith: International Missionary Council Meeting at Tambaram, Madras, 12—29 December 1938 (London: Oxford University Press, 1939).

should be called to consider the issues that the Roman Catholic Church was facing in a new era. The Council, popularly known as Vatican II, examined several issues pertaining to the life of the RCC. Ecumenism, or its relationship to other churches and ecclesial communities, became one of its priorities. For the first time Protestant and Orthodox observers were invited to the Council. In 1960 a Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity was created to serve the Council in its ecumenical deliberations. The Decree on Ecumenism and the document on the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church opened the possibility for ecumenical advances, and successive Popes have been committed to the ecumenical spirit that emanated from Vatican II.

Many within the RCC in the Asian region made full use of the new openings that Vatican II presented, especially in the areas of theology, liturgy and ecumenism. One of the most significant developments, from the perspective of ecumenism, is the coming together of the National Episcopal Conferences in Asia into the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conference (FABC), officially constituted in 1972. Thus, the RCC had an umbrella organization in Asia, like the CCA that brought together the churches and Christian agencies of the Protestant and Orthodox traditions in the region. Further, the FABC created an Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (OEIA) with the mandate to promote Roman Catholic relations with the churches and religious traditions in the region.

Virginia Fabella points out that the new office was initially more concerned with other religious traditions than the other churches in Asia. She notes that 'despite the FABC's stand on ecumenical collaboration, given the multi-religious reality of Asia, the bishops focused more on interreligious rather than ecumenical dialogue. Dialogue is key to the Catholic bishops, but as often stated, it is a triple dialogue with Asian religions, Asian cultures and Asia's poor.'11 The two large bodies, representing between them most of the Asian Christians, however, could not remain in mutual isolation. The growing contacts at personal and institutional levels resulted in a historic meeting in Singapore on 9-10 July 1987 on the theme 'Living and Working Together with Sisters and Brothers of Other Faiths in Asia'.12

Virginia Fabella, 'The Roman Catholic Church in the Asian Ecumenical Movement', in Koshy i2 (ed.), A History of the Ecumenical Movement, vol. II, p. 116.

D. D. Rosales Gaudencio and C. G. Arevalo (eds.), For All the Peoples of Asia: Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences Documents from 1970 to 1991, vol. I (Quezon City, Philippines: Laretian Publications, 1997), p. 303.

Even though this was the first official meeting sponsored by the two bodies, there had already been significant participation of leaders and scholars across the confessional lines in numerous conferences and meetings on issues affecting the Asian region. The Singapore meeting, however, precipitated interest in having more formal cooperation between the CCA and the FABC, resulting initially in the formation of an Asian Ecumenical Committee (AEC) to promote greater cooperation and later in a more ambitious Asian Movement for Christian Unity (AMCU). The activities carried out under this umbrella and the mutual participation in CCA-FABC meetings and consultations have brought Asian Christians closer together. It must be noted, however, that much of the togetherness of Christians and churches in Asia is inspired more by the urge to witness to and be of service in the world than by the urge to seek the institutional unity of the divided churches. This orientation of both the CCA and the FABC towards Asia's peoples, traditions, issues and historical developments continues to inspire the greater Asian ecumenical scene. We should, therefore, examine the role of ecumenism in the social, political, economic and religio-cultural context of Asia.

the church, the world and mission

The greatest challenge that faced the Asian churches in the early stages of the post-colonial era was the question of identity, which related to three distinct issues. First, having gained some measure of independence from their 'mother churches' in the west, they had to find their 'selfhood' as churches in Asia. What did it mean, to use Pieris's words, to transform themselves from being the 'church in Asia' to the 'church of Asia'? This was a difficult issue because most of the denominational and confessional churches were still closely related to the parent churches in the west and were still dependent on them for human and financial resources. The structures of the church that had been uncritically adopted from the parent churches, the institutions built by mission agencies to promote education, health and social welfare, and the methods of missionary out-reach were enormous and expensive and needed external resources to maintain. Hence it was difficult for the Asian churches suddenly to cut their dependence on their western partners. More importantly, the task of becoming the 'church of Asia' involved a radical change in the 'ethos' of the church, a rethinking of theology, a building of new relationships with peoples of other faith traditions and a more committed participation in nation building. The Asian churches were the least prepared for the political independence of the Asian nations and were in a state of confusion. The newly constituted Asian ecumenical instrument, EACC, under the leadership of Niles, did much to enable the churches to grapple with the question of 'selfhood' in ways that helped to maintain their links with the universal church and yet to assert their identity and independence as Asian churches. Even though the Churches found it difficult to shed their colonial heritage and transform themselves into the churches of Asia, a task yet to be completed, the ecumenical movement in Asia should be credited with keeping the issue constantly at the forefront of the churches' endeavour.

The second and equally difficult issue of identity had to do with the churches' relationship to the world. The 'world' in Asia meant a multi-religious and multicultural world, a world that was beset with poverty, oppression and deprivation. Even though the rank and file of church membership in Asia came from the poor masses, the leadership of the church, for a long time in the hands of the missionaries, had the colonial ethos built into it. The Asian 'world' in the missionary era was primarily a 'mission field' and an arena for Christian service and humanitarian mission. The biggest struggle for the churches in Asia was to re-discover themselves as part of that world, to identify with it, to suffer with it and to be ready to participate in its destiny. This, to quote Pieris again, demanded nothing less than a 'baptism by immersion in the Asian spirituality and poverty'. This too was hard for the churches, but the ecumenical movement in Asia did much to enable the churches to understand the extent of the challenge they faced on this question in the post-colonial context.

The third issue of identity related to the churches' understanding of the evangelistic mission of the church in the new context. Even though the missionary movement in Asia had done much to liberate and humanize Asian societies in general, the classical missionary paradigm was 'church planting', where evangelization was seen as a task of calling peoples out of their communities to become part of the Christian community, which lived as an alternative community. The ecumenical movement in Asia helped the churches to expand their understanding of mission and evangelism for the new context. In fact, Asian ecumenism helped the churches in this struggle not only in Asia but also at the global level. As seen earlier, the Asian voices had challenged the classical understanding of mission and the approach it promoted toward other religions and cultures at the World Mission Conferences in Jerusalem and Tambaram. Further thinking on mission was facilitated in the assemblies, consultations and conferences of the EACC/CCA.

Niles, as the General Secretary of the EACC, has written several books and articles that reinterpret the missionary task in ways that respect the integrity and reality of other religious traditions.13 The primary move made on the issue by the ecumenical movement in Asia was to affirm all people as God's people and to see the church as the servant of God's mission in the world. A further move was to see the risen Christ as already present and at work in the movements and events in Asia that had brought about healing and wholeness to the people. Niles introduces the concept of the 'previousness of Christ' to affirm that the risen Christ was already present and active in Asia long before the missionary out-reach. We do not bring Christ into Asia, he argues, but we witness to him by pointing out his healing grace at work in the world. He popularizes the image of evangelism as one beggar telling another where food may be found, thereby striking at the roots of the triumphalism that had been part of the missionary enterprise.

M. M. Thomas goes further, interpreting the meaning of salvation as humanization and interpreting mission as the humanization of the life of the Asian people, thereby presenting a theological rationale for the Christian participation with people of other faiths and ideologies in postcolonial nation building.14 Even though Niles and Thomas are given here as examples of the new thinking of the time, the urgency for rethinking mission was felt by those committed to the ecumenical vision all over Asia and is reflected in the statements and documents of the EACC/CCA, FABC assemblies and consultations. 'The Christian Community within the Human Community' was already the focus of the first EACC assembly in Bangkok (1959); and the tradition had continued, as reflected in the title of the report of the CCA Mission Conference in Osaka (1989) 'Peoples of Asia, People of God', and in the theme of the eleventh assembly of the CCA in Tomohon, Indonesia (2000) 'Time for Fullness of Life for All'.

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