Ecumenical Training for Interreligious Contexts: A Seminar for 13 Pastors from the Gambia

From 9 to 13 January, the Institute in Strasbourg hosted a group of 13 pastors from the Gambia, a small country in west Africa. The pastors came as representatives of 7 of the denominations belonging to the Gambia Christian Council: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and Assemblies of God. Already having basically positive relationships as a tiny minority of Christians in this predominantly Muslim country, the GCC wanted to deepen and strengthen the ecumenical fellowship in the Gambia.

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The initial idea came from Bp. Samuel S. Thomas of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Gambia, who in 2014 participated in the Studying Luther in Wittenberg seminar offered by the Institute’s staff each November. Excited by the work the professors were doing, he brought home news of the Institute to the Gambia and encouraged involvement in the Institute’s activities. Over the course of many discussions, both the GCC and the Institute concluded that the best way to proceed was to bring representatives from the Lutheran church and all the churches with which Lutherans have had dialogues to Strasbourg for an intensive seminar. That dream finally came to fruition this January.

Although the time was relatively short, a great deal of ground was covered. Prof. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson began with an overview of church history with a focus on division, followed by an account of ecumenical efforts and milestones in the 20th and 21st centuries. In later sessions she turned to the question of baptismal recognition, both between divided churches and between infant-baptizers and believer-baptizers. The group studied the first section of the Faith and Order Commission’s “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” and talked about whether it might be possible for the churches of Gambia to create a baptismal covenant, recognizing each other’s baptisms despite differences in ministry, theology, and method.

In turn, Prof. Theodor Dieter reviewed the conflicts of the 16th century leading to the division between the church of Rome and the various Protestant groups with a particular focus on the case of Martin Luther. This laid the foundation for a review of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and the concept of differentiated consensus, which lies between the extremes of accepting everything, on the one hand, and requiring uniformity in every particular, on the other. At the end of the seminar, he talked about the specific case of reconciliation between Lutherans and Mennonites in 2010 and the “Five Ecumenical Imperatives” at the end of From Conflict to Communion, the 2013 statement of the international Lutheran-Catholic dialogue on the commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.

The Gambian participants also worked on analyzing their own particular situation as many Christian churches in a Muslim context, and the challenges they face in more fully living out their unity in Christ. While 44 churches belong to the Gambia Christian Council, only 3 are full members, who make the primary decisions about activities and projects, which can lead to less involvement on the part of the other 41. The participants decided to return and advocate for more active inclusion and participation of a larger number of churches in the Council. They also face challenges of “sheep-stealing,” people moving from one church to another in search of various goods, rebaptism, and duplication of both congregational and diaconal ministries. Nevertheless, the will was strong in the group to face and overcome these difficulties for the sake of their witness to Christ. The group brainstormed practical approaches to reaching their goal: “We can achieve collective plans such as: a) doing evangelism together, b) doing diaconal work together, c) planning measures in Christian-Muslim relations. Strategies: a) each member church of the GCC is encouraged to do mission and evangelism in areas where there are no churches yet; b) member churches should be encourage to do development work collectively to avoid duplication; c) member churches should meet together to discuss Muslim-Christian relations; d) GCC should train personnel in theology, development, and social service.”

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Beyond the hard work, the participants enjoyed time for fellowship and visits in the area. The seminar took place mainly at the Centre St. Thomas, a Catholic retreat center near the European institutions in Strasbourg. On Sunday, the whole group attended worship at St. Alban’s Anglican Chaplaincy, where they were very warmly welcomed by the congregation, which held a reaffirmation of baptismal vows in observance of the Baptism of Christ. The service was followed by a luncheon hosted by the church, after which Prof. Dieter gave the participants a guided tour of the cathedral to explain its overall theological message as expressed in the artwork. On Tuesday, leaders of the Union of Protestant Churches in Alsace and Lorraine shared lunch with the participants at the Séminaire Protestant, and afterwards the Regional Bishop Jean-Jacques Reutenauer gave the group an overview of the excellent ecumenical fellowship and interreligious relations enjoyed in Strasbourg. This in turn was followed by a visit to St. Thomas, the principal Lutheran church in Strasbourg.

On the final afternoon, the whole group took an excursion into the Vosges Mountains. The first stop was Mt. Ste. Odile, a convent perched on a mountaintop dedicated to the patroness of Alsace. A particular delight was the heavy snow—a first for most of the Gambians! Afterwards a visit was paid to the Musée Oberlin, which presents the life’s work of John Frederick Oberlin, a Lutheran pastor who spent his entire fifty-nine year pastorate in a poor and insignificant village and yet became known worldwide for his piety, preaching, and development projects for these despised and forgotten villagers. The day concluded with a classic Alsatian meal of tarte flambée—though most of the Gambians confessed they’d have been just as happy with rice, their traditional food at every meal!

We at the Institute were particularly glad to have the opportunity to host this seminar as we reflect on ways in which to extend our ecumenical work more intensively into the Global South. It became clear that attention to division and unity in the body of Christ is just as urgent in the South and among younger churches as it is among the older churches of the North. We gained many insights for future work and projects.


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This impression was confirmed by the Gambians themselves, who offered many positive comments on the seminar:

“I would like to share my good experience of the mature nature and gentleness of the people at the Institute, very experienced, calm, and polite ways of teaching, which can be a good example to our churches and Christians.”

“The concept of ecumenism is Christian unity or cooperation as well as bringing or gathering the renewal of the whole life of the church to make it more responsive.”

“I will share with my people the importance of ecumenism. In order for us to unite we must first accept one another’s differences. If we do that, then we will have no problem in moving together toward our goal of uniting as a body. Thank you for a job well done and for accepting young pastors such as ourselves. I encourage you to take on other young African pastors because the youth of today are the future leaders.”

“What I learned about ecumenism was how all Christians can be under one umbrella with their fellow human beings. Christ said that in seeking him we will find one another, and we should intend to stay together. What I found most helpful was to learn more about the teaching of other churches and the good teaching on Christianity, which helps me to know Jesus in the true perspective.”

“I learned that Christians should recognize each other’s baptism. As long as one is baptized with water using the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it should be acceptable to any Christian church.”

“A very touching thing was visiting the cathedral. After knowing how many years the church took to be built, I came to realize that many people who contributed to building the church were not there to see it when it was finished. And this helped me to realize that we do not benefit from our own labor but we labor for something that other people will benefit from. This is a very good sign of what it means to be Christian.”

“I would like to take this chance to thank the professors for taking their time to teach us about the unity among churches. I will inform my bishop about it so that all Christian churches will have such ecumenical training and improve our standard of understanding each other in Christ.”

“I learned to accept God’s judgment on whatever I do in the world. Sometimes I have tried to serve God through my own understanding, putting my own loyalties before loyalty to Christ. Our separation has stopped us from correcting one another in Christ. The world is in the hands of the living God, who is Jesus, who lived and died and rose from the dead. I also learned that God has broken the power of evil once and for all, and the doors were open for freedom and happiness in the Holy Spirit. The judgment on our history and on everyone’s deeds will be the judgment of the merciful Christ. At the end of his mission there will be the triumph of his kingdom when we shall understand how much God has loved the world. When I go back, I will have so many things to discuss with my fellow pastors in the Gambia.”

“This is one of the best seminars I have ever attended. It has been a very, very excellent stay in Strasbourg, a very nice stay indeed. Our two able lecturers showed me the whole scope of Christianity and division that I was never aware of. A great moment.”

Some photos of the event: