About 700 representatives from churches and mission bodies from all over the world gathered for the opening of the first Conference on World Mission and Evangelism of the 21st century today.
The conference, convened by the World Council of Churches (WCC), opened this morning in Athens with two thematic presentations on the general theme "Come Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile" and will run through May 16.
According to WCC, delegates to the CWME conference from Orthodox, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches or mission bodies are called to this humility, so as to recognize the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in all of them.
In his address at the opening session of the conference, the World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia told CWME participants that it was time for confession, repentance and a deep conversion in thinking and attitudes.
In his remarks, Kobia acknowledged that "'mission' carries a heavy historical baggage, having played a part in fostering division and conflict - between peoples, and even between families of churches."
"So perhaps the time has come for confession, and repentance," he suggested.
The WCC general secretary affirmed that Christians are summoned to "conversion" both in "thinking and attitudes."
The shift of the demographic center of Christianity from the North to the South has "spiritual, moral, theological, (and) missiological implications," he said. "Our vision must undergo a corresponding conversion."
According to Kobia, "forms of expressing our faith that grew out of European culture are no longer normative." Today, mission spreads from unexpected directions, "borne by brothers and sisters who have received gifts of the Spirit that were never monopolized by European or North American intermediaries."
The ecumenical movement therefore faces a double challenge. On the one hand, it must open itself up to "new manifestations of the Spirit" that "though often providing healing, joy and comfort, may also create tensions and disunity among churches."
On the other hand, it needs to avoid becoming "detached from the truth, tradition and theology of historic communities that have faithfully served God for 2000 years."
At this historical juncture, the "first mission conference of the new millennium" gains a strategic relevance.
"It is my hope that this conference will encourage broad dialogue on Christian witness, joined by participants from diverse traditions," Kobia said.
"I encourage this mission conference, focusing on a theme of healing and reconciliation, to highlight peace and non-violence as gospel imperatives", he said.
The archbishop of Athens and all of Greece, His Beatitude Christodoulos, also affirmed the need for ecumenical encounter and dialogue, as well as for a new articulation of Christian identity and mission in order to face contemporary challenges.
In his welcome address on behalf of the Church of Greece, Christodoulos hailed it as an "important and timely" event, in face of the "many and difficult challenges which confront all Christians today".
The head of the (Orthodox) Church of Greece emphasized the "determination to join our forces with other Christians in dialogue and common witness" in spite of the "past bitter experience from aggressive missionary activities and hostile actions" suffered by his church.
"We Orthodox do not only benefit from the ecumenical encounter and dialogue but also bring challenges coming from our history-long mission experience and our mission theology with echoes from the time of the early Christian communities," he said.
However, since the world today "is no longer the same as the world our church lived in in the past and developed her mission theology and praxis," Christodoulos acknowledged the "need for a new articulation both of our Christian identity and of our mission, without of course compromising our faith."
Among the new realities challenging churches today, he mentioned the growing effects of globalization, the increased movement of populations, the fact that societies everywhere are becoming multi-religious, as well as the consequences of terrorism and the war on terror. All of them challenge churches to rediscover their prophetic voice.
"When peoples are more and more impoverished while the rich are becoming richer" while economic and political decisions are presented as "historically unavoidable," the church has to be "on the side of peace, the poor, the marginalized, and the powerless," he affirmed.
Christodoulos also highlighted the achievements of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, and affirmed that "a new era in WCC-Orthodox relations is about to be inaugurated."
This CWME will be the first time such a conference was held in a predominantly Orthodox context.
Coming from WCC member churches and the Roman Catholic Church as well as Pentecostal and Evangelical churches and bodies, the participants of the CWME include young people, women and men working at the frontiers of Christian witness, church and mission leaders, theologians and missiologists.
According to the WCC, the conference will offer, right at the outset of the 21st century, a unique opportunity for Christians from all continents and the largest confessional families to exchange experiences and to reflect on the priorities for mission and the future of Christian witness.
Daily plenary sessions will focus on the central elements of the theme and sub-theme: reconciliation, healing, the Holy Spirit and the Christian community. Moreover, one of the plenary sessions will be dedicated to the complex relationship between mission and violence given that the conference coincides with the mid-point of the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010).
Aside from the plenary sessions, about 70 workshops will offer participants opportunities to discuss a wide variety of issues in depth. These range from experiences of multi-dimensional healing to mission in war and conflict situations; from the role of women in mission to the relationship between healing, salvation and conversion; from the missionary challenge that people living with HIV/AIDS pose, to the way that indigenous people approach reconciliation and healing.
According to the WCC, there have been 12 such ecumenical mission conferences since 1910.
In addition to being the first time such a conference was held in a predominantly Orthodox context, it will also be the first time ever that the conference plenaries will be broadcast live via the internet.