Jesudas M Athyal

Come Holy Spirit, Diagnose, Heal And Reconcile: Lingering Questions from Athens

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Relevant Patterns Of Christian Witness In Pluralsitic Societies: An Indian Perspective
Religion, Marxism & Humanism In Dialogue
Gospel And Cultures: A Subaltern reading of the history of Christian Mission in India
Come Holy Spirit, Diagnose, Heal And Reconcile: Lingering Questions from Athens
Gospel and Cultures: An Indian Perspective
New Challenges for Dalit Theology
Diaconal Ministry of the Church
Public Mission of the Church
Witnessing Christ in a Pluralistic Society
The Return of the Sacred
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Come Holy Spirit, Diagnose, Heal And Reconcile:


Lingering Questions from Athens



While travelling to Athens for the World Mission Conference, I was reading T. V. Philip’s book, Edinburgh to Salvador: Twentieth Century Ecumenical Missiology.[1]Being a book that deals with discussions of the previous mission conferences, it no doubt formed the right backdrop for the present conference. The book provides not only a historical account of the mission thinking as expressed in ecumenical conferences and assemblies but also gives one an overview of twentieth century ecumenical missiology.


There is of course a certain danger in reading too much of history. The ecumenical movement is a story of openness to promptings of the Holy Spirit into unchartered territories. A certain fixation with the past can blur one’s vision to the ‘movement’ dimension of the ecumenical process. History is important only to the extent that it roots our vision to the past while enabling us to go forward.


The 2005 Athens Conference was unique in several respects, not only because this was the first major ecumenical meeting to be held in a predominantly Orthodox context; apart from the rich and visible participation of the various Orthodox traditions from around the globe, the meeting was further enriched by the official participation of the Roman Catholic and the sizable presence of the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. By all accounts, the conference perhaps provided a platform for the broadest gathering of all Christian confessional groups.


There are however lingering questions. Could not the theme of the Conference: “Come Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile: Called in Christ to be Reconciling and Healing Communities”, have been studied at a deeper level? As the ecumenical movement becomes broader with the increased participation of more churches, will it be possible for the direction and focus gained by the movement over the past century, to be continued? An understanding of mission in relation to people of other faiths was the subject matter of several CWME conferences of the past; should this process not be continued, especially in the context of increasing religion-based violence and fundamentalism across the globe?


These and several other questions merit attention at ecumenical and missiological levels across the globe. While remaining deeply appreciative of the visible unity of World Christianity witnessed at Athens, there is the need to take up some of these questions for a serious study. Triggering off such ongoing studies is one of the purposes of such world gatherings, I suppose. This article seeks only to make some introductory comments along these lines. It is essential for the future of the ecumenical movement that we continue these discussions so that the thrust built up over the past century can be maintained even in the new phase in which the movement grows broad based.


The Healing of the Nation


The Athens Conference was the first major ecumenical gathering to choose a theme focussing on healing and reconciliation. The choice of the theme marked a significant shift in ecumenical discussions in the sense that the Conference deliberated on the theme, “Come Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile’ at a crucial phase in history when health care and drug policy affecting millions of people around the world is undergoing radical changes. Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) which integrally relate the health sector to industry, became effective in several developing countries on January 1, 2005. TRIPS and its related conditions seek to bring about radical changes in the health policies of countries around the world. The link between TRIPS and public health policy is crucial to any discussion on health care and healing today.


It is in this context that it was unfortunate that at the week-long Athens Mission Conference, attended by a large number of medical practitioners, theologians and church leaders, there were no sessions on these larger issues that affect healing and reconciliation. The link between TRIPS and public health, the availability of medicines at an affordable price, theological and ethical issues involved in the practice of pharmaceutical companies, raise a number of pertinent questions. HIV/AIDS was recognised by the Conference as an epidemic threatening the world; what was overlooked, however, was the reality following the changed drug policy, in which the price of medicines for AIDS will go up by as much as twenty times in a large part of the world. Health care is a matter that affects not only the developing and underdeveloped countries; in “developed” societies like the United States too these are seriously debated issues.[2]


The World Council of Churches has a tradition of participating in the larger social questions involving health care and healing. In the early years of the Christian Medical Commission (CMC), the emphasis was on the promotion of primary health care as a means of redressing the imbalance between “sophisticated and expensive institutional medical care for a few and hardly any for the rest.”[3] The pioneering work of WCC/CMC in this area eventually led to the adoption of the “Alma Ata Declaration” which set the trend for community health work the world over. The understanding here was that: “Health is not primarily medical… The causes of disease in the world are social, economic, political and spiritual, as well as bio-medical. Poverty is the number one cause of disease in many parts of the world.”[4]  What was being affirmed here was that Christian health care is not a question of mere ambulance service or sensationalising epidemics such as AIDS, but involves an analysis of the situation, linking health to the larger socio-economic realities and, in response, encouraging the evolution of a systematic and socially relevant approach to health care, involving the churches, ecumenical agencies, health workers and social activists in this process. This is also a process of sensitising the churches to go beyond the level of piety and charity with regard to healing and health care and rise to the level of identifying the systemic causes of disease and ill health.


What was lacking at Athens was a keen theological and social analysis of the theme of the Conference. ‘Healing’ has ramifications that go beyond, ‘the healing that takes place through prayer, ascetical practices and the charisms of healing, through sacraments and healing services, through a combination of medical and spiritual approaches, and through sensing the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit, even when we accept and continue to struggle with illness and traumas.’[5] It involves the larger questions of health care and drug policy, as has been pointed out above. ‘Healing services’, which have become an integral part of the Christian worship services in several parts of the world, were also organized as part of the Athens Conference. Such services provide psychological and spiritual relief to the participants, but there is a certain danger in treating these programmes as a substitute for a deeper theological and social understanding of health and healing. Health workers in Kenya, in fact, have called attention recently to the negative influences of such apparent healing after only a short prayer. Such interventions, it has been pointed out, will undermine efforts to control and manage HIV/AIDS, which is pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa.


‘Reconciliation’ too, which was a part of the Conference theme, could have been studied at a deeper level. At the Afro-Asian Preparatory Meeting of the World Mission Conference, held in Bangalore, India, in November 2004, serious doubts were raised at an unqualified use of the term ‘reconciliation.’ In a context marked with injustice as ours is, it was pointed out, that justice concerns should be an essential part of reconciliation. The ‘Synaxis’ at the Athens Conference, which dealt with the question of truth and reconciliation, especially in the South African context, also threw up several complex questions evolving out of discussions on ‘reconciliation.’ The question was repeatedly asked: what theological and missiological resources we need in order to counter the destructive capabilities of the hegemonic powers in and to build reconciled communities?


Speaking at the concluding plenary session of the Athens Conference, Prof. Nam-Soon Kang of the Association of Theological Institutions, linked the theme of the conference to the exclusion experienced by the marginalized sections. It is not enough to discuss the problem of HIV/AIDS; we should also ask, why people get AIDS. In our efforts to heal and reconcile, we need to go to a deeper level. The reality that God is the author of reconciliation should also be discussed at a deeper level. “Don’t discriminate on the basis of language, colour of skin or sexual orientation. If you have an exclusive approach, it is not conducive for healing and reconciliation,” Prof. Kang said.


The integral relation between health care and the fight against poverty also points towards the need to take a more comprehensive and socially relevant approach to healing and reconciliation. It is futile to be concerned about epidemics such as HIV/AIDS when the larger problems remain unattended. Olusegun Obasanjo, the President of Nigeria, recently stated, that hunger and malnutrition continue to kill more people, than HIV/ AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. The poor and the hungry are also likely to be prey to epidemics that destroy persons, families and nations. We can very well discuss one problem in isolation without relating it to the larger picture.


Deep and Wide


The participation of a wide spectrum of churches at the Athens Conference has indeed broadened the scope of Christian unity and witness. Since the CWME Athens Conference was the first major ecumenical meeting to be held in a predominantly Orthodox context, we are perhaps justified in taking a closer look at the growing Orthodox presence in the ecumenical movement. Participation has been the key word in the current WCC – Orthodox discussions. During an informal conversation with this writer in Athens, Archpriest Mikhail Gundyaev of the Russian Orthodox Church outlined the background and salient features of the 'Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC' created at the WCC's eighth assembly in Harare, in December 1998. Though the worldwide Orthodox communion had formally become a part of the World Council of Churches at the New Delhi Assembly in 1961, a fuller integration of the Orthodox communion and the predominantly Protestant WCC, remained a dream.  According to Fr. Goundiev, WCC has historically been predominantly “Protestant” in form and content and the Orthodox voice was the minority voice. It was in this context that the Special Commission was appointed. The Commission, in true Christian spirit, proposed to discard the majority-minority approach to problem-solving and instead, put forward the consensus model. The WCC Central Committee that met in February 2005 adopted this as the official position of the Council.


A just and sufficient involvement is crucial for meaningful participation. The consensus model, proposed by the WCC-Orthodox Special Commission, has indeed widened the scope of ecumenical relations. Now that a certain mechanism to ensure increased participation in the decision-making process has been evolved, there is the need to address other questions involved in the increased Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement. One of these is, how the widening participation in the ecumenical movement can enrich the distinct direction the movement has attained during the last half a century.


The WCC is primarily a council of churches, but this was always a two way process, in which the WCC took its mandate from the member churches and the Council was steadfastly at the vanguard of the ecumenical movement, prodding the churches forward to a genuine and prophetic witness in their contexts – locally, regionally and globally. The vanguard role played by WCC in justice and peace concerns had its impact far beyond the confines of the churches. Several examples can be cited in this regard. It is widely acknowledged that the Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) played a crucial role in the ultimate victory of the struggles against apartheid in South Africa. The WCC also set the agenda for the ‘Community of Women and Men’ and Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC) which were initiatives taken up enthusiastically by churches around the world.


It is in this context that the question becomes relevant – how can the increased participation of the Orthodox churches in WCC/CWME enrich the ecumenical process? There are at least two (possibly more) challenges involved here: (1) The need to grapple with Orthodox theology and spirituality at a deeper level so that the ecumenical movement and the other churches are nurtured and enriched by this exercise, (2). The need to challenge the Orthodox churches to demonstrate a greater sensitivity to the momentum and direction gained by the ecumenical movement over the last few decades and the commitment to strengthen this process.


The prophetic courage demonstrated by the Greek Orthodox Church - even in the face of severe hostility from a section of the Church - in welcoming the World Mission Conference to Athens is an indication of true Christian hospitality – and a sincere and genuine effort to grapple, theologically, with the above questions. For the very survival of the ecumenical movement in a meaningful way, it is crucial that we maintain, in our journey forward, the dialectical tension involved in these questions. 


Identity and Mission


Questions of participation and direction in the context of the ecumenical movement cannot, however, be reduced to an “Orthodox problem” alone; the context at Athens was much larger. The Conference can perhaps be described as the largest cross-section of Christian gathering in history. As the preparations for the Athens Conference were under way, Jacques Matthey, the Executive Secretary in the WCC Mission and Ecumenical Formation team, predicted that the Conference might well be “the most universal Christian mission gathering envisaged at the beginning of this century in terms of denominations and cultures represented.”


Such a wide gathering, for all the promises and possibilities it holds, also brings with it new challenges. In the early years of WCC, the churches brought with them their confessional traditions and enriched the ecumenical movement, in the process, attempting to transcend their individual confessional identities. This bringing together of one’s confessional-creedal identities to enrich the ecumenical process emerged as the new identity to prod the movement forward towards greater unity and fellowship.


The temptation to treat the ecumenical movement as a forum to assert one’s own confessional identity was present, then as it is now. This trend is probably inevitable in a particular stage of growth. This could also be part of the growing identity consciousness, characterised by the assertion of the hitherto marginalized cultural, racial and regional groups. The 2000 CWME Statement on, ‘Mission and Evangelism in Unity Today’ described thus the emerging trend:


After so many decades of ecumenical dialogue and life together, there is a paradoxical resurgence of confessionalism today, undoubtedly linked to the fragmentation process. Denominations are signs of the richness of charisms and spiritual gifts within the household of God when they positively contribute to a better common understanding of the gospel and the mission of the church in the process towards unity. But many churches seem to be more concerned about affirming and strengthening their own confessional and denominational identities than about ecumenical endeavours.[6]


As noted earlier, the ecumenical movment has always been a two-way process where, while the movement receives its mandate from the churches, through its focus on unity, mission and service, the movement also challenges the churches to be true to their calling. Without the challenge to the churches, the ecumenical movement becomes a mere federation of churches. How can the direction, achieved over the last several decades, be retained and strengthened as the movement seeks to broaden its constituency?  One aspect of this direction is the openness to address even controversial theological and ethical issues. In the context of the changes in the Roman Catholic Church, Professor Alberto Melloni asks:


If the Church continues to repeat its catechism and ban reflection on sensitive topics it cannot go far. Take homosexual rights. Very different positions exist on this in the Christian world. But while the Anglicans, also Christians, discuss it openly, and at the highest levels, within the Catholic Church discussion is not admitted. There is an immediate condemnation from the magisterium. The same has been true of topics like sexual morality, abortion, embryo research and Islam. These are not external questions but internal ones.[7]


The question is, as the ecumenical movement is broadened, whether there will be space for dissident voices such as those of Professor Melloni. The unique contribution of WCC in the area of public mission in the past was not that it could provide answers for all the problems in the church and society, but the vulnerability – the prophetic courage – that was exhibited in addressing all questions with an openness to grapple with them, theologically and spiritually. This is perhaps what M. M. Thomas meant when he said, Risking Christ for Christ’s Sake. Questions such as the increased participation of women in the life of the church and a pastoral understanding of same sex relations within the framework of the church are unresolved problems not only for the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical churches but also for large section of the Anglicans and Protestants. Within the framework of the ecumenical movement there was, however, traditionally the space to grapple with such questions at the theological and spiritual levels - and not to treat them as anathema. It is important that this cutting edge in ecumenism and mission - without which WCC and CWME would not be what they have historically been – continue to be maintained even as the movement becomes broad based.


The Athens Conference has demonstrated that such a diverse gathering has the potential to be a ‘rainbow coalition’ in the ecumenical process enriching the movement. Father Alkiviadis Calivas of the American Orthodox Church stressed that the spiritual life of the conference is a two-way street: “For the Orthodox, it means that we open up to see how other churches have in their worship less clericalism and a strong participation of lay people. This is a very essential part of our Orthodox tradition as well, and we can rediscover it now within the ecumenical participation. From our side, we can offer to other Christians a deep understanding of common worship as a divine mystery, which we invite all to discover with us.”


Not Without My Neighbour[8]


The ecumenical movement is a fellowship of churches, but as has been argued in this paper so far, it is more than that. It is a fellowship specifically committed to the task of unity and mission in the church and the world at large. When the ecumenical movement speaks of ‘mission’, it takes the world seriously – not merely as the location of mission but as the arena of God’s action. T. V. Philip maintains that from the very first Mission Conference at Edinburgh, every conference has wrestled with the meaning of Christian witness in the world of religions. From the Edinburgh conference which ‘was convened to discuss the evangelisation of non-Christian lands’ to the Salvador conference which, according to Christopher Duraisingh, was ‘a shift in mission thinking and practice from colonial to post-colonial and Euro-centric to polycentric,’[9] - from one major ecumenical gathering to another - there has been a growing sensitivity to the participation of people of other faiths along with Christians in God’s plan of salvation.


The Athens Conference apparently reversed this process. Among the five hundred participants from over one hundred nations, there were no delegates or guests from the other faiths. The open letter, issued at the end of the conference, made only a passing reference to ‘the need for reconciliation… between people of other faiths.’


The focus on the Holy Spirit in the theme of the Conference could have had the potential to provide for a deeper discussion on the understanding of mission in the context of religions and cultures. The other major ecumenical gathering that had invoked the Holy Spirit to ‘renew the whole creation’ - the Canberra Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1991 - related the Holy Spirit to the spirits of all those who have laid down their lives for the cause of freedom and liberation throughout history and affirmed: “Without hearing the cries of these spirits, we cannot hear the voice of the Holy Spirit.”[10] Many dominant Christian traditions present at Canberra were greatly disturbed by ‘a tendency to substitute a “private” spirit, the spirit of the world or other spirits for the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and rests in the Son.’ What was seen at Athens, however, was an apparent swing to the other extreme where the work of the Holy Spirit was identified with ‘the healing that takes place through prayer, ascetical practices and the charisms of healing, through sacraments and healing services, through a combination of medical and spiritual approaches, and through sensing the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit, even when we accept and continue to struggle with illness and traumas.’[11]


Such an intensely personal and liturgical understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit is an integral part of several Christian traditions including the Orthodox and Pentecostal churches but leaves unattended the role of the Holy Spirit in our pluralistic context. Our present context is not merely pluralistic in the traditional sense of the term as being multi-religious and multi-cultural; the phenomenon today is a volatile situation of growing fundamentalist forces in most religions. A generation ago, Harvey Cox wrote in the book, The Secular City about the world of declining religion. His thesis was in tune with the theory of the ‘melting pot’ where social scientists claimed that with modernisation of a pluralistic society, cultural and religions distinctions will disappear or at least become irrelevant and that all the citizens of a country would evolve a common identity. As the forces of sectarian and fundamentalist forces are increasingly on the rise all over the globe, this theory has been abandoned. Harvey Cox himself revised his theory in the 1980s when he wrote, in Religion in the Secular City that rather than an era of rampant secularisation and religious decline, it appears to be more of an era of religious revival and ‘the return of the sacred.’ Whether it is the redemptive or the demonic elements of the ‘sacred’ that have returned to influence so profoundly the course of current history, is the question before us.


The resurgence of religious fundamentalism that accompanied ‘the return of the sacred’ in most traditional societies has considerable significance for mission and dialogue today and for our understanding of the healing and reconciling role of the Holy Spirit in the present pluralistic context. The dominant Christian confessional groups have traditionally understood Holy Spirit in relation to the church and her evangelistic work. Today there is, however, the need to discern ecclesiology, pneumatology and kerygma in relation to the multi-religious context. As John V. Taylor puts it:


If the small local units are the true growing edge of the church they must never be ‘for Christians only’. They are the points of dialogue with the world… the ground of all our evangelism is the fact that the Holy Spirit, the Go-Between, not only stands between one believer and another, but between the Christian and every other being with whom he is given the communion of a mutual awareness. If it were not so the border of the church would be an abyss, whereas we know it is a place of meeting where new life is generated.[12]


Post-Modern Conference


The Athens Conference marked a shift from the previous mission conferences and ecumenical gatherings. It was affirmed at the outset of the conference that while the earlier Mission Conferences were academic and intellectual exercises, this conference would be “experiential” in form and content. Stories of atrocities against humanity such as ethnic genocide, racism and casteism were heard at the Conference. Such voices brought sharply into focus the acute physical, psychological and spiritual struggles experienced by large sections of our people. What was lacking, however, was adequate reflection on these stories, analysis of them and the need to go deep into each case so as to identify common currents running through several of these stories and also, to ask the crucial question: How can such stories never, never be repeated? From stories of brutality, violence and injustice, where do we go? To cynicism, that nothing is possible in the midst of such gloom and despair? To the level of the vicarious suffering of a few concerned Christians? To summon the Holy Spirit to come and “heal and reconcile?” The answers to these questions were left open, perhaps intentionally, but several participants felt a certain lack of direction in the whole exercise.


Another shift was with regard to the Bible study sessions, a vital part of any Christian gathering. Bible study was replaced at the Athens Conference by Lectio Divina which focused on a ‘meditative’ approach to a ‘personal’ understanding of the prescribed Bible portion, but which discouraged any study or discussion. Lectio Divina in fact was the reflection of a certain reluctance throughout the Conference to discuss at a deeper theological and social level any questions with regard to the theme.


While ‘statements’ dealing with the current missiological challenges were issued at earlier mission conferences, the Athens Conference decided to issue, at the end of the Conference, a ‘letter’ which mentioned several current issues (“… the need for reconciliation between East and West, North and South, and between Christians and people of other faiths…we are challenged by violence inflicted by the forces of economic globalization, militarism, the plight of people and peoples uprooted by migration…”) but again, it did not study deeply any of them. The ‘letter’ reflected a post-modern approach that shies away from definitions and objectifications. Beyond such deconstructive perspectives, there is perhaps the need to acknowledge the constructive post-modern thought that recognizes plurality at all levels. This needs to be explored if such insights have implications for imparting a definite sense of direction to missiology and ecumenism today.


In his speech at the concluding ceremony held at Areopages on May 15, WCC General Secretary Sam Kobia gave a significant interpretation to the theme of the Conference: “What happens when the Holy Spirit comes?” When the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples on the day of Pentecost, it equipped them to go out and turn the world upside down. We need to discern the work of the Holy Spirit today in the light of the realities around us such as globalisation.  Kobia challenged the youth and the women to have the courage to stand for truth and to work with the conviction that, “another world is possible.” Sending forth the participants from Athens, he exhorted them: "Like the apostle Paul and the disciples of Christ, who heard the good news as they were, where they were, and they were never the same again, let us allow the same Holy Spirit to come upon us, to convict us and transform us in such a way that we shall never be the same again."


“Come Holy Spirit, Diagnose, Heal and Reconcile” is a theme that does not rhyme well. The harsh realities of life seldom do. This modified theme raises serious theological questions also: healing and reconciliation are roles that can easily be attributed to the Holy Spirit, but diagnosis? Is it that the Holy Spirit diagnoses or equips us to diagnose so that we become participants in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation? There are no easy answers, it is however by theologically and missiologically grappling with such clumsy questions that we discern the mission of the triune God in a church and world torn and divided.






(Dr. Jesudas M. Athyal teaches at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, Chennai, India and attended the Athens Mission Conference as an Advisor/Consultant)






[1] T. V. Philip, Edinburgh to Salvador - Twentieth Century Ecumenical Missiology: A Historical Study of the Ecumenical Discussions on Mission, CSS & ISPCK, Delhi, 1999

[2] Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times on 13 June 2005: “We need to do this one right. If reform fails again, we'll be on the way to a radically   unequal society, in which all but the most affluent Americans face the constant risk of financial ruin and even premature death because they can't pay their medical bills.”


[3] Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, WCC Publications, Geneva, 2002, p. 510

[4] Dictionary, 511

[5] A Letter adopted by the Athens Conference and addressed to the Christian Churches, Networks and Communities, p. 2

[6] “You are the Light of the World”: Statements on Mission by the World Council of Churches (1980-2005), WCC Publications, Geneva, 2005, p. 71

[7] The Hindu  (Chennai, India), April 21, 2005

[8] This sub-title is borrowed, with gratitude, from the title of one of the books of Wesley Ariarajah

[9] Edinburgh to Salvador, p. 218

[10] Edinburgh to Salvador, p. 215

[11] A Letter from Athens, p. 2

[12] John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission, Oxford University Press, New York, 1972, p. 151