In his address on “Strengthening Communion” to the 2017 General Council of World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), Rev. Dr. Collin Cowan drew out the critical question of whether the Communion’s strength was the end in itself, or if strength was the means for capacity for transformative praxis to respond to discerning and doing God’s mission.
“Embedded in the very identity of the Reformed community is the understanding that communion is both the result and the doing of peace and that there can be no peace without justice,” said Cowan, General Secretary Council for World Mission (CWM), after he brought greetings and affirmed WCRC’s partnership with CWM on 4 July.
The call to communion is a call for unity as a life-giving and life-affirming community, equipped and energized to join Jesus in his radical love for the world. This agape takes Christians into the trenches of pain and loneliness to which social untouchables are relegated, to cross barriers of arrogance and prejudice, and to challenge ideologies of supremacy.
Communion defined by this love knows that its raison d’être is to partner God in God’s work of renewal, transformation, healing and hope, and congregations must offer authentic witness and service because praxis authenticates communion.
Cowan highlighted that unless Christians are prepared to name the mission context and confront divisive, death-dealing ideologies, they run the risk of playing the usual ecumenical politics, making a mockery of the meaning of communion.
Communion is counter-empire, because “communion exposes empire; communion expresses a theological conviction that in God’s oikos there is a place for all, whilst empire feathers the powerful at the expense of the majority. Empire leaves behind a trail of social dislocation, a sense of powerlessness, and vulnerabilities it creates. Communion is based on relationships of integrity and trust; spiritualities of hospitality and generosity of spirit; and a commitment to the journey of healing and hope.”
Quoting Jürgen Moltmann’s earlier presentation where he suggested that “the ecumenical movement is missing the reformation agenda”, Cowan spoke about how this agenda is stymied by a preference for maintaining the status quo, believing that Christians are doing things right, and no system overhaul is needed.
The call to communion is a call to discipleship, meaning Christianity must be prepared to stand with Jesus of Nazareth, who confronted the power of the day with a radical message and lifestyle of an alternative way of being and doing.
“As a Communion, we are the embodiment of the alternative; this means that we must be prepared to model the alternative by creating safe spaces and sanctuaries of healing and hope for all. We are a Communion because we are disciples of Jesus Christ, called to a communitarian lifestyle, people who embrace and embody values of justice in relationships, mutuality, equality and interdependence, unity in diversity and generosity of spirit,” he said.
The call to communion is a call to transformative praxis, to be “salt of the earth”, beacons of hope and stewards of peace.
Rev Dr Roderick Hewitt, GC Consultant and Associate Professor of University of Kwazulu-Natal, in framing the topic within the context of contemporary global challenges in the concept paper, encouraged Reformed Christians to “promote interpretation of Scripture inspired by the Reformed tradition that affirms life for all” and bear witness to communion that is “with others”.
“The essence of communion is not a private table. It is at this table that we are welcomed and received, a table that moves boundaries, a table that invites us to belong, believe, beckon the faces of radical discipleship. It is that journey of being Jesus’ disciples that pushes us to social, political and economic engagement in an open community,” Hewitt explained.
He also highlighted that missional leadership is crucial for authentic communion, since “Communion necessitates modeling new and inclusive forms of leadership based on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.” Many practitioners who promote self-importance and power are seen as “betrayers” of the gospel, whereas leaders with integrity seek “authentic spirituality that fosters redemption and rediscovering what it means to be human”, thus embodying the practical expression of “being the gospel” and resulting in transformative discipleship.