The Global Christian Forum – Nairobi 2007 was the culmination of a nine-year long process that began in 1998. It was also the realization of a proposal made at the very first consultation on the Forum idea, in August 1998, that such a meeting « may take place as early as the year 2001 ». As the exploration of the Forum idea progressed it became clear that more time was needed to test it out and build trust. Forum consultations held in 2000 and 2002 led to a series of regional meetings in Asia (2004), Africa (2005), Europe (2006) and Latin America (2007). With hindsight it can be said that the gathering in Limuru would hardly have been possible, and certainly would not have had the same results without these regional consultations.
Under the theme Our Journey with Jesus Christ, the Reconciler, the four-day programme of the gathering was designed on the basis of the experience of previous Forum meetings. It consisted of an introduction to the history, purpose and process of the Global Christian Forum and the sharing of faith journeys on the first day, followed by two days focussing on the discernment of what God is doing in the churches and organizations, and a final day of conclusions and some actions. Each day began and ended with a time of prayer led by different traditions represented in the meeting. Bible studies in small groups took place on the mornings of the second, third and last day. The opening session on the first day was organized by the local hosting committee and was marked by moments of lively Kenyan worship. The gathering ended with a closing celebration prepared and led by a group of participants.
The participants were welcomed on behalf of the Kenyan churches by Rev. Judy Mbugua, Kenyan member of the Continuation Committee, member of the local committee and team leader of the Association of Evangelicals of Africa. The Rev. Canon Peter Karanja, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Kenya delivered a reflection. The meeting received greetings from the Rev. Mvume Dandala, general secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches and at a later time from the Rt. Rev. Philippe Anyolo of the Kenyan Episcopal Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Middle East Council of Churches. Mgr. Jack Radano of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity paid a tribute to George Vandervelde, former member of the Continuation Committee who died in January 2007.
Three plenary speakers addressed the gathering. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches spoke « words of encouragement » inviting the participants to take the risk of working together. He stressed the unprecedented breadth of the event and shared his own faith journey. Pentecostal theologians Wonsuk Ma (Korea) and Cheryl Johns (USA) presented papers on questions of unity and mission which have been the issues at the centre of the Global Christian Forum process from the beginning. Both speakers were stimulating and provocative. Wonsuk Ma pointed to the contradictions between what he typified the life-before-death emphasis and the life-after-death emphasis which have separated the ‘mainline' and 'evangelical' approaches to mission. Taking his personal faith story as an illustration, he affirmed that the two approaches are actually complementary and one is never complete without the other. Cheryl Johns stressed that the old 'mainstream' ecumenical paradigm is dying and that nothing less than a re-birth of ecumenism is needed to embrace the challenges of the new faces, the different worldviews and the new voices of non-Western Christianity. Those wishing to create a new space for Christian unity, she said, need to undergo a process of conversion and all of us from the North, the South, the East and the West need to die to old assumptions regarding each other. These presentations sparked off animated discussions in the groups.
Flow and process
In preparing the programme, care was taken to ensure an interaction between plenary sessions and meetings in groups. Each participant was assigned to one of eight groups of thirty members and to a Bible study group of fifteen. Each group reflected in its composition the broad range of traditions and the diversity of regions that was characteristic of the gathering. This enabled the participants to experience in the more intimate setting of the groups the uniqueness of the Forum. The groups of thirty met each day and were free to choose the issues they wished to focus on. Brief reports were shared in plenary each day.
An absolute highlight of the gathering was the sharing of the individual faith journeys on the opening day. Because of the size of the meeting this was done in the groups of thirty. Although it meant that all stories could not be shared with everybody the exercise of listening to one another’s journey with the Christian faith and encounter with Christ was a tremendous experience of opening up the minds and spirits of Christians belonging to so many different traditions. There is no doubt that one of the strengths of the Forum is this way of beginning a meeting rather than with formal speeches and academic papers.
Simultaneous interpretation was provided, including in the groups of thirty of which four were bi-lingual, in order to ensure a maximum of participation of the French and Spanish speaking participants. All documents were, or will be, available in the three languages.
As this was a gathering that was expected to speak a word about the Forum a process was built into the programme to make that possible. A small drafting group was set up on the first day to work on a possible message or letter to be issued as a result of the event. Secondly, a group of leaders of the main church families / movements and global organizations present in the meeting1 met twice to discuss a set of proposals for the future of the Forum submitted by the Continuation Committee. The participants were fully informed of these actions.The draft message as well as the proposals were shared in plenary for comments and the groups of thirty were invited to discuss the two documents. Their remarks were fully taken into account. The transparency of the process and the quality of the work done by the drafting group and the leaders group enabled the gathering to approve by consensus the Message and the Proposals for the Future of the Forum on the last day.
The Global Christian Forum – Nairobi 2007 brought together a group of participants representing a very broad spectrum of the Christian church worldwide, at a significant level of leadership. The fact that the World Evangelical Alliance and the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions held their 2007 annual meetings in conjunction with the global Forum gathering contributed considerably to the representativity of the meeting . An important feature was that the participants from churches and organizations belonging to the Charismatic, Evangelical, Holiness and Pentecostal movements formed about 50% of the total. The relative over-representation of these parts of the Christian church has been a principle of all the Forum meetings. It is done in recognition of their extraordinary growth over the past century and in order to strengthen their presence as they meet with the ‘older’ churches and make their voice(s) heard. A majority of the evangelical / pentecostal / charismatic participants was from the global South.
The spirit of the meeting
The gathering was characterized by a remarkable spirit of openness and eagerness to listen to one another and break down barriers. As the momentum built up there was a growing awareness among the participants of being part of an extraordinary and ‘historic’ event. The participatory and flexible style of the meeting helped to create numerous opportunities for conversation and mutual discovery. For many of the representatives of the churches and organizations involved in the ecumenical movement it was a unique occasion to interact with such a powerful group of evangelicals and pentecostals, and vice-versa.
Not enough time had been scheduled in the programme for discussion in plenary with the two key-note speakers. The time reserved for the Bible studies in the small groups was also too short. In spite of the efforts to achieve a balanced representation and of the emphasis on the role of the churches in the global South in shaping the new faces of Christianity, the South was not sufficiently visible in the leadership of the gathering (including the Continuation Committee itself). The representation of women and young adults and other groups, i.e. people with disabilities, indigenous groups etc. was not satisfactory at all. The number of participants was slightly less than expected, mainly due to illness and other last-minute incidences.
The group which met in November 2006 in Utrecht to do the basic planning of The Global Christian Forum – Nairobi 2007 formulated the expected outcome in the following terms :
- to encourage the continuation of the Forum process, especially locally and nationally
- to decide that global Forum gatherings be held from time to time
- to set up a new Continuation Committee
- to ensure the continuation of the Forum process administratively
In addition, the planning group suggested that the global Forum gathering could issue a message or statement if it was the wish of the participants to do so.
The gathering achieved far more than could have been expected. The Message contains a very strong affirmation of the Forum and an invitation to all « brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world » to join the process. The Proposals for the Future of the Forum provide a clear direction and a comprehensive set of guidelines for carrying the process forward. They are prefaced by an affirmation of the statement on the purpose of the Global Christian Forum which is renamed Guiding Purpose Statement in replacement of the initial « provisional purpose statement ». In the same spirit the name « continuation committee » is replaced by Global Christian Forum Comittee (GCF Committee).
Besides the Message and the Proposals for the Future the reports of the discussions in the groups will also be summarized and published.
One of the most important moments of the gathering was the plenary on the morning of the third day when leaders and representatives of the Catholic Church, the Evangelical and Pentecostal movements, the Orthodox Churches, the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions and the World Council of Churches expressed in unequivocal terms the importance of the Global Christian Forum and their resolve to be part of this new space. Some of them did so affirming at the same time the value of other, existing instruments for Christian unity, others by pointing to the need to hold on to the priority of mission along with the search for unity.
Another essential result of The Global Christian Forum – Nairobi 2007 is that the Pentecostal World Fellowship could be listed with the Churches, Church families and Organizations that signed the Message. In the past the PWF was little or not involved and it was not officially represented at the gathering. The decision taken by its leaders who were present to subscribe to the Message is a major step forward.
The meeting did not go into any in-depth discussion of potentially divisive issues. It was not intended and not equipped to do so. Some felt that if such issues were put on the agenda major divergencies could be expected to emerge rapidly along the well-known fault lines, taking the process back to square one. Nairobi 2007 may have indicated that the Forum approach, based on the sharing of faith journeys as the preamble for discussion, offers a new way of dealing with divisions. The reference to repentance, which is present in the Message and was expressed in a moving way in the closing celebration points in the same direction.
To God be the glory!