Interview: Samuel Kobia on the Next Phase of His Ecumenical Journey

The outgoing general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, spoke about his last six years in office and where he is headed next in his ecumenical ministry.

CT: How do you feel coming to the end of your tenure?

Kobia: I feel a sense of satisfaction that I am coming to the end of what I really consider to have been a long journey. The last six years as General Secretary, and before then having worked for the WCC for a long time, it gives me a sense of satisfaction that I have served and have given as much as I could give to an organization from which I have also received a lot. It has been a very enriching experience for me and coming to the end I do feel ready for the next phase of my ecumenical journey.

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CT: What does that look like exactly?

Kobia: My plan is to start in January 2010 a period where I can just rest, relax and not feel pressured to wake up every morning wondering whether I have fulfilled this or what is in store for me today. I feel my life and work as General Secretary of the WCC has been so hectic that I look forward very much to a time where I can feel I have a schedule that I am in total control of and I am not pressured with deadlines. So the first two or three months of 2010 are really to rest and recover!

But then my plan for later in the year is to also to do some serious reflection, to do some study, and to write about the WCC's involvement in Africa. The WCC has accompanied Africa over many years and in different ways. We don't have a record in writing of what that has meant. I would like, while it is still fresh in my mind rather than waiting until I write my memoirs, to use 2010 to document that and I think this is going to be a very useful documentation for the WCC and for Africa.

CT: Is Africa where you will be rooted from now on?

Kobia: For the first year or year and a half, because of most of what I want to do, it's best to do it in Geneva but eventually I will relocate to Africa. I want to focus on Africa but when it comes to recording the WCC's engagement with Africa I will use categories and themes that will be relevant for reflecting on the WCC in other areas and one of them is peace, reconciliation and healing. This is for me more or less the area of my work in the coming phase in my ecumenical ministry.

While I do that I will also look at how the WCC has come on in the Middle East, in Latin America, as a theme but with the entry point as Africa. The second area I want to look at is the WCC's humanitarian work in Africa and of course the two are very closely related.

Then I would want to respond to a request that has been put to me by African churches and ecumenical organizations of putting together a group of people in Africa and Africans in diaspora, to consider seriously what is the new vision for Africa.

At the 1998 General Assembly in Harare we had presented to the assembly what we called the vision and hope for a new Africa – hope being the central theme of my theology and my ministry. I worked quite a bit in preparation for that assembly and talked of a journey of hope for Africa, towards a better Africa. This journey of hope idea inspired many Africans who have been following my work and they feel that Africa, having concluded its political emancipation, should now look for a new vision that would help to restore the soul of Africa and the dignity of Africans both on the continent and in diaspora and I have been asked to put together a team that can begin with brainstorming.

I want to take that up on a much longer term and help the churches and the people of Africa who are struggling with the question of how to take Africa through what I would call economic and spiritual emancipation. I want these two to go together. Because when we lament a lack of good governance, corruption and the violence we see now it is because the spiritual foundation of Africa has been eroded and we need to recover that. I wanted to give some time to that because this has been part of my thinking when I talk of the courage to hope.

CT: It is interesting that you say the spiritual foundation of Africa has been eroded and yet Africa is the continent where Christianity seems to be flourishing. Do you consider Christianity to be part of the spirituality that is eroding?

CT: I am very much aware that Christianity is growing fastest in Africa. I have talked a lot about the shifting of the center of gravity of Christianity from North to the South and the center being very much Africa. But there is a difference between this growth in Christianity - and even of Islam in Africa – and the spirituality that I am talking about. Spirituality should embody both religion – the organized religion like Christianity or Islam – and the African understanding of life and what it means to be a community.

So when I talk of 'ubuntu' (an African philosophical concept of human relationships) I am talking of something deeper than Christianity or Islam as we have it in Africa today. That's where I want to go. If you consider, for example, the tragedy of Rwanda, Rwanda is one of the most Christian countries in Africa. The majority of those who did most of the killings were Christians. What it tells me is that something has died in the African way of understanding life and also of relationships in the community.

That is what I want to look at - what it is that can lead the Africans to genocide in Rwanda or the mass brutal killings in the Democratic Republic of Congo today. That is what I call spirituality and the spiritual emancipation. I want to look at that and say there is something we can contribute as Christians towards discerning a new vision for Africa.

CT: In your report to the Central Committee you spoke of the courage to hope but you were also realistic about the many hopeless situations in the world today. What can the ecumenical movement still offer in terms of hope for the world?

Kobia: It is true that in my travels around the world I have encountered situations where there is despair, hopelessness and fear. Fear is what I would use to describe what I have heard again and again – fear of the known and fear of the unknown. I find humanity today struggling with what gives meaning to life. And when I see this in Europe, North America and other industrialised rich countries it tells you that economic prosperity is not enough to give meaning to life. I have discovered there is the yearning for this meaning in life among young people but not only among them, others as well.

Humanity is also beginning now to encounter new challenges of how to live in a very pluralistic society because of migration. In Europe today, communities have to know how to live with Africans, Asians, Muslims and people of other faiths. Pluralism is not something we are used to living with. The ecumenical movement on the other hand is a very plural community. I don't know of any other organization like the WCC that brings together the diversity of cultures, traditions, races and agendas all together. I think that is where the ecumenical movement can share with the world what it means to be able to use this diversity and be able to live in harmony with each other. That is a contribution we can make.

Having stayed together since the first General Assembly in 1948 where we said we intend to stay together, we have stayed together - but not without problems, not without the challenges. So what the ecumenical movement can teach the world is that diversity has its problems but diversity also has its assets, its potentiality, and that it is possible to find ways of overcoming or dealing with the problems that we encounter because of our diversity. The way we have been able to deal with the concerns of the Orthodox world, for example, by setting up the commission on orthodox participation in the WCC, the way we were able to deal even before that time with the question of polygamy - because this was a big issue in the seventies and eighties. So what I think we have modeled is a way of dealing with problems that are experienced because of diversity.

To me I think that is a contribution that the ecumenical movement can make. The raison d'etre of the WCC is unity – that we all may be one. Unity of humanity is one of the biggest problems we are facing today. I think there is something in the Christian unity that the WCC is seeking, that the one ecumenical movement is seeking, that we can contribute to the humanity that is seeking unity and harmonious living together.

CT: Do you think the issue of human sexuality tests that notion of unity in spite of diversity? We are seeing churches rupturing because of this issue. Does it concern you that this could happen in the WCC?

Kobia: Yes it concerns me a lot. In fact, after the Harare assembly I put together a working reference group on human sexuality because I foresaw that our members churches were going to have to very soon deal with the question of human sexuality and my concern was that this could be such a serious church dividing issue that churches were not prepared for.

I feel that the WCC can provide this place where churches can encounter each other and share the problems they are facing as well as possible ways of dealing with the issue of human sexuality, including homosexuality and the ordination of openly gay priests or even bishops as has happened in the Anglican Church in the USA, same-sex marriages and so on. These issues I saw a decade ago as beginning to constitute new church dividing issues and I wanted the WCC to at least have some capacity to accompany churches in this area.

That's why, as I said in my report to the Central Committee, that the convening role of the WCC was to bring together those who might not otherwise find a space and to do this in a credible way, in a way that they trust that the WCC can provide this space. For me that is one of the biggest strengths of the WCC, the credibility that we have, the trust that the member churches have in the WCC, that the WCC can help to bring them together. I think we will be able to build on this and help the churches in dealing with what I think in the next decade is going to be the most difficult issue to deal with.

CT: Olav Fykse Tveit has just taken over as your successor. What is your hope for the WCC as he takes the helm?

Kobia: I think from my own experience it is a tremendous privilege for any person to work as the General Secretary of the WCC. It gives you an opportunity that is one of a kind and this is the highest position one can hold in the ecumenical movement. It is a privilege and an opportunity both to serve and to receive, to learn and to give.

Being able to interact with the churches at the highest level in all the regions of the world and being able to interact with the government leaders at the highest level and at the same time being able to deal with civil society at the highest level is really the biggest privilege any individual could ever dream of and therefore I welcome Olav to this office. He will bring the individual gifts that he has - that is what every General Secretary does - and at the same time will build on the legacies of the former General Secretaries and the work of the Central Committee. I would say one is not coming into a vacuum but standing on the shoulders of many giants who have been in this position before and I can give some good measure of assurance that he will be very much affirmed by the constituency of the WCC and beyond - even those who are not members of the WCC have tremendous respect for the office of the General Secretary of the WCC.

I am a very optimistic person and very hopeful. I think we should have no room as people of faith to not be optimistic.

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