The Church’s World-Fest in Växjö
Växjö, in central south Sweden, hosted a real world-fest over the first week-end in June. “Världens fest” is an expression that tries to convey that the church is there for the world and is concerned about all the problems of the world, but at the same time also called to celebrate together with others, sharing signs of God’s grace.
In this case it was also an occasion where the international dimension was dominating. We cannot survive as a Swedish church unless we have constant and strong links to other people and other Christians in other parts of the world. Our church’s commitment toward international mission and diakonia was a back bone in the whole conference, which also was a real festival. Rich Eucharistic worship went together with numerous seminars on relevant topics and a number of concerts and shows. Well over 3000 people came, more than the 2500 who had registered.
This is quite a crowd in Swedish terms and those who came had also in advance carefully selected which seminars to attend and what else to do. They were people who had a high awareness of why they came and of what they wanted to achieve.
We were blessed with sunny and most reasonable summer weather and it was good for us as all the plenary meetings would take place outdoors. The cathedral in Växjö, a medieval creation of great beauty, was too small and the main city square was set apart instead. Half of it was now covered by a huge tent that could seat nearly 3000 people and the other half gave standing space below the centre stage.
So for a week-end the Christians of the Church of Sweden, with hundreds of invited guests from other continents and countries, congregated on central Växjö and the local people did not seem to mind.
It was a very happy occasion, people enjoying being together, thinking it was fun and at the same time deeply involved in the serious issues of the day.
The programme was just very impressive, and it impossible even to try to give the basic points (go to www.svenskakyrkan.se/varldensfest). No less than 168 seminars were arranged and each individual participant would have had to book in advance which seminars would take preference. When I looked at these seminars while still in South Africa, I found that most of them already were fully booked. So were also the two seminars where I had been asked to participate.
The world-fest was arranged around four themes all on M: Mission, Milieu (environment), Market and Migration. Main speakers were invited to address the respective themes. The Archbishop of Church of Sweden, Anders Wejryd, addressed a plenary session on “Another world is possible” and in a humble, yet straightforward way he showed how utterly important a role the church can play facing the present challenges, so well articulated in the four themes on M.
I was asked to take part in two seminars, one on reconciliation, the other on proselytism/conversion. I was also asked to chair the first one and we were no less than four persons asked to give perspectives on the theme of reconciliation during one single hour. It proved to be quite a dynamic hour, where the presenters swung between frustration over having so little time and the fact that all four of us seemed to have something of great value to convey. Four parts of the world were represented: Faten Nastas Mitwasi, artist, Palestine/Israel (Bethlehem), Pfr. Dr. Christoph Ehricht, diocesan chaplain for diakonia, Greifswald, Germany, Dr. Rosa Alayza, politologist and director of the Instituto Bartolomé de Las Casas in Lima, Peru and I represented South Africa.
None of us seemed to be without hope, rather expressing the dire need for talks, encounters that eventually might lead to something that can be called reconciliation. On the other hand it was said that this process may never be complete as it always will be unfinished business. Also it was felt that the church could do more, or rather a concrete action programme on the part of churches in post-conflict situations seemed to be missing. One participant asked whether the Israel/Palestine conflict now had taken apartheid-like forms. Faten Nastas did not think so. She said she had an identity as Palestinian from which she could work and live. Christoph Ehricht originating from eastern Germany also did not think that they were left with an apartheid-like legacy; rather he breathed some kind of cautious optimism regarding a unified Germany, despite residual problems like unemployment in the eastern part.
The second seminar dealt with conversion, and just as much with proselytism (‘sheep stealing’, new churches ‘steal’ those who are already Christian in other, probably main line churches): what happens when a person grows out of one faith and grows into another? My counterpart was Revd Annika Wirén, from Stockholm, who works at a centre for interfaith dialogue (religionsdialog) run by Stockholm Diocese. This session was much more relaxed. We spoke from two quite different perspectives: I tried to problematize the phenomenal growth of the Christian church in Africa by saying that the Christian gospel and African culture/religion have not yet met on the same level in many instances; Annika Wirén showed that the way to a mature faith in multicultural Stockholm can be long and difficult. It was not a session with simple answers. We were both worried about tendencies of Charismatic proselytism and other Christian fundamentalism.
The world-fest became a real fest thanks to the Eucharistic celebrations. Our church is good at this and I am proud of that. New music and powerful images on the altar podium were impressive. The altar was built on five oil barrels. In secular Sweden it is extra compelling to be together on the main square of Växjö and celebrate. We need to tell the world that we are alive and more than that: that we have a mission and that we are sent by Christ, the healer, reconciler and someone who is burning for justice.
On a personal note: this was indeed a home coming in a double sense. I am at home in this mode of being, taking the liturgy of the Eucharist seriously while at the same time being dead-right concerned with the issues of the world. We are in fact a whole generation of people who feel and live like that in our church. As I said, I feel proud of our church at such times as these. The other aspect was of course the numerous friends whom we hadn’t seen for years and it was quite overwhelming to meet them and embrace them now. After so many years in the service of the church I certainly know people on all levels, from the local level of Växjö diocese, where I was ordained, to national and international level.
The church’s world-fest in Växjö 4-6 June this year was a manifestation of our church at her best; I remain a proud member of the same church, part of the world church, but this Swedish branch of the world church is going towards very insecure times, with very probable continuously diminished membership and as a result substantially less funds.