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WCC Bate-Papo kicks of with lively encounter

The WCC Assembly’s Mutirao Bate-papo on Wednesday was a lively discussion, with a young, lay Protestant woman telling a 70-year-old Catholic bishop that the future of Christianity lay in starting at the grassroots and addressing grassroots problems.

For half an hour each day from 12.45, the Bate-papo – or "chat" – is an informal conversation between a leading ecumenical personality and an up-and-coming young ecumenist. It explores issues from liberation theology to the future of Christianity. Scheduled speakers include Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania, the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Dr Rowan Williams and several Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Wednesday’s discussion on whether there was a future for Christianity in the 21st century featured Jantine Heuvelink, from the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, interviewing Bishop Richard J. Sklba, auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee and chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Heuvelink’s opening gambit was that the future of Christianity was in the grassroots, but the church did not take into account grassroots problems. To thrive, young Christians needed an open space, rather than strict guidelines that made it even more difficult for them to explain to their friends why they were in the church, she said.

To make other people enthusiastic, she said, the church should be seen to care for people and ask about grassroots concerns. It should withdraw guidelines that did not apply to local situations.

Sklba said the church must begin with good theology, theology that was not rigid. It was a life-long process, he said, with which the Spirit must help. He also said that Christianity should be realistic. The heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition was in relationships – love of God and love of one’s neighbour.

Heuvelink said the starting point of theology should also be in daily life. It should have clear, jargon-free language that lay people and young people could understand. She asked how it was possible to explain the church to people who were content and didn’t need anything. What could the church offer them?

Sklba, agreeing there was a need to clarify traditional theological language, said Christianity could offer a sense of belonging to community, for people who felt they were on the outside. It could offer meaning, a way in which people could look together for signs of God in today’s world, and ways to begin to address new questions.

Heuvelink said people needed to know what the church was doing in society: "We need to say what we do in language people understand. To be credible, we need to say in our own language why we go to church. To make myself understood is to make Christianity understandable. Grassroots people speak best for the church."