“We don’t know where the church ends”: interview with Odair Pedroso Mateus

Leopoldo Cervantes-Ortiz

Without fear of exaggerating, in recent years, in the Latin American Protestant/Evangelical sphere, the name of Odair Pedroso Mateus has become almost a myth. Coming from the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil and with a doctorate obtained at the University of Strasbourg, he directed the Association of Evangelical Theological Seminaries (ASTE) in his country in its initial years and later worked at the then World Reformed Alliance in the Department of Theology, in which he edited the magazine Reformed World. Later, he was linked to the Bossey Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches (WCC), where he became one of his most emblematic and passionate teachers, highly appreciated by his disciples from various countries. He later headed the Faith and Order (or Constitution) Commission, also rising to the position of WCC deputy general secretary. At the end of 2022, they completed their work in those spaces, something that the WCC highlighted at the time. A friend for many years, he kindly agreed to answer this questionnaire (he said that he “worked hard” to answer…) which will surely be of great interest to readers. (The opinions of Dr. Mateus do not reflect the official position of the WCC.)

After several years at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute your work culminates, what prospects do you have in your vital horizon?

I taught in Bossey for 16 years and lived in Bossey for 13. It was a dream come true and a great learning experience that prepared me to lead the World Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Order from 2015 to 2022 and in recent years, also serve as deputy general secretary of the WCC (2020-2022). Bossey is a unique space for ecumenical formation in which pluriculturality and pluriconfessionality interact at the same time in everyday life, in spiritual life and in academic life. This questions both the act of teaching and the notion of ecumenical studies, especially in the context of decoloniality. Now the time has come to serve the ecumenical utopia in other ways. I’m in full transition, writing articles, commissioned prefaces, doing some interviews, preparing for some ecumenical conferences in the coming months, and continuing research on ecumenical theology in the digital library of Faith and Order.

The Latin American presence in the ecumenical sphere came with you to the Faith and Order section of the WCC. How do you envision the work of this commission in the immediate future?

Latin American theologians such as José Míguez Bonino and my unforgettable friend Jaci Maraschin have contributed a lot to Faith and Order. I wrote about Míguez (with great reverence…) for a book published in Germany nine years ago. Faith and Order does ecumenical theology by presupposing a traditional and universal normative reference (without which the WCC could not exist): the Church that we confess in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed of 381 and in what we call the Apostolic Creed is one or it is not fully Church. On the other hand, there is no evidence that today’s globalized Christianity – in which divisions have become Christian biodiversity – want to allow itself themselves to be transformed by the ecumenical imperative of visibly manifesting this gift of unity received in Christ. This type of ecumenical theology, which presupposes a universal ecclesiological normativity, appears today to many as a Eurocentric Christian nostalgia and, therefore, a tribute to colonialism. These are some of the challenges facing the current and future work of Faith and Order.

You have left a lasting mark on the students of the Institute. How do you value your theological work in light of that commitment that occupied you for so long?

I have sought with passion to communicate the spiritual, theological and aesthetic richness of Christian diversity and to promote with indignation a critical reflection on Christian divisions and, in particular, on that Protestant disaster (which was not the fault of the reformers) called denominationalism. I think that the church to which I belong spends more time thinking about the 31st of July of each year, when the denomination was created, than about the feast of Easter or Pentecost, the only date of foundation of the Church… I also tried, in my teaching, to promote a vision of ecumenism in which the search for Christian unity is inseparable from the struggle against the walls that separate people and societies such as patriarchy, racism, violence against women and minorities such as the indigenous peoples from which I am a descendant. The World Council of Churches was created in 1948 for a post-Holocaust Christology and, for this very reason, defended, for example, the victims of the Brazilian military dictatorship.

That’s why at the theological center of the 2022 Assembly of the World Council of Churches was a daily biblical reference to Jesus of Nazareth’s compassion for the marginalized (Matthew 9:35). That’s why the 2023 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was prepared by African-American pastors from Minneapolis and region, where black George Floyd was asphyxiated and killed by a white police officer.

What future do you see for the ecumenical movement in these complex years in which, for example, the possibility of a war between countries of Orthodox tradition was not in sight?

For more than eight years now, the Russian state, with the support of the Orthodox Patriarch (who seems to see in the “russkiy mir” ideology a divine hand judging a Protestant West that he regards as spiritually and morally “decadent”), has been trying to destabilize a country with internationally recognized borders. Tolerating this aggression – even taking into account NATO’s irresponsible expansionism and the promotion of wars to feed the world capitalist system – contributes to the idiocy of dismantling multilateral structures of global governance, which are increasingly necessary in times when the problems that threaten the future of the human species and the planet are by definition global issues.

The Orthodox churches, which historically have maintained close relations with national states and sometimes dangerous relations with nationalism, today suffer the consequences of Russian aggression (to the country which is the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy!) in the form of a deepening of ecclesiastical tension between Constantinople and Moscow that is expressed not only in the Orthodox schism in Ukraine, but that affects the entire Orthodox world of Chalcedonian tradition. It will take many years for this wound to heal. It is urgent to pray and work for reconciliation.

The duty to pray for and promote reconciliation begins now. Last August, I was in Ukraine with the general secretary of the WCC, preparing the participation of a Ukrainian delegation in the WCC assembly in Germany, in which the official delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church was also present. The WCC did not hesitate to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. But it has, at the same time, refused to suspend the Russian Orthodox Church (it was not the church that invaded Ukraine!), thus keeping open the door of mutual admonition that can lead to reconciliation.

Incidentally, it is not new that the World Council of Churches contributes to reconciliation between separate Orthodox churches. Dialogue between the Chalcedonian and Pre-Chalcedonian Orthodox families began in the 1960s through the mediation of the WCC Commission on Faith and Order. In times of easy polarizations, the ecumenical movement, constantly concerned with reconciled diversity, is needed more than ever. The path to Christian unity is complex and viewed skeptically by many, but the values and virtues that govern the ecumenical movement are deeply needed in our time.

What do you think of developments of denominational families in the ecumenical sphere in light of the certain decline of some denominational traditions?

In globalized Christianity, confessional or denominational identities are increasingly threatened by a kind of sociological and cultural indifference generated by the distance in time or space between church members and the confessional or denominational profile of the churches to which they belong. At the same time, the world Christian communions work, rowing against the tide, for greater visible catholicity by bringing together at regional or world level the churches of the same confessional family and by promoting ecumenical theological dialogue on what has separated them in the past or separates them today.

Churches in the Protestant tradition feel little spiritual or theological need to express visibly and institutionally that, according to the New Testament, the church is not only local but also universal. The Lutheran churches linked to the Lutheran World Federation took important steps in this direction, which culminated in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1991, in the declaration of ecclesial communion between them. In my later years as Secretary of the Department of Theology and Ecumenism of the then World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), the current World Communion of Reformed Churches, I promoted the vision of transforming an “alliance” of Reformed churches into something with greater ecclesial density, a “fellowship” of Reformed churches. WARC put the notion of communion in its name but continues to struggle with the challenge of giving the name the ecclesial density that corresponds to it.

Do you consider that the work of the WCC continues to be important in the environment of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue?

Churches that, accommodated to the old divisions, isolate themselves from each other and that fail to feel responsible for each other, always run the risk of turning Christianity into a denominational shopping mall with truths and styles of worship tailored to consumers of religion and, what is more dangerous, of listening to the voice of another Lord, who may be called Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin, Orban… and follow him. Living in worldwide conciliar communion, which is what the WCC promotes, they correct and encourage each other and are more likely to hear and follow not the voice of a new Führer but the voice of the Good Shepherd.

What relevant contributions can be perceived in the last 10 years of the work of the WCC?

Over the past 10 years, the WCC has sought to show the churches the importance of walking together as pilgrims for justice and peace in the world. In this general framework, it worked in favor of a common vision of the Church presented in the book The Church: a common vision; promoted a discipleship-centered vision of Christian mission; promoted inter-religious cooperation in favor of the victims of the pandemic; coordinated the monitoring and protection of Palestinian populations constantly humiliated in their ancestral lands, which are being taken over by the Israeli occupation; condemned anti-Semitism; re-established its anti-racism program; promoted weekly and yearly prayer for the churches and peoples of all countries. Last year, churches from around the world gathered around the theme “The love of Christ moves the world towards reconciliation and unity”. I could fill several pages with this list.

Do you have any future publications on ecumenism in mind that will continue your editorial work before and during your work at the WCC?

I hope to gather in a single volume – under the title Short Ecumenical Writings– several short journal-type texts that I have published by the WCC communication service over the last four years. It would be a continuation in English of Twilight: Little Ecumenical Writings, published many years ago. I work on a kind of map of all the studies that Faith and Order carried out from 1910 to 2022 to facilitate navigation in the library of that which was the most important ecumenical theological adventure of the 20th century and which is now digitized. There is still no theological history of Faith and Order. I tried a first step in the direction of a text that will be published in a condensed version in England perhaps this year or not next year. I would like to write a commentary in Portuguese on the Creed of Nicea-Constantinople, in preparation for the commemoration of the 1700th anniversary of the first ecumenical council, but Jaci Maraschin, 35 years ago, when he was a member of Faith and Order, did it in O Espelho é a Transparência, and I would never no any better.

Inevitable question: what do you think of the recent electoral process in your country and the reactions that have occurred in recent days?

Thanks to the election of President Lula da Silva and the action of the Brazilian judiciary in defense of the constitution that governs the democratic republic, Brazil has escaped for the time being the growing and harmful influence of the international movement of conservative national populism which, based on a pessimistic reading of the human-ecological future, promotes authoritarian and theocratic political projects in which economically ultraliberal rulers govern for their voters and financiers, silence the opposition, subdue courts and parliaments, and ignore the common good or global threats to future generations.

This movement, as demonstrated by the Protestant historian Kristin du Mez in the book, just translated into Portuguese, Jesus and John Wayne, feeds on Christian nationalism, toxic conceptions of masculinity and the white supremacy implicit in the slogan “Make America great again”, that is, that is, that it becomes “great” again after eight years ruled by an Afro-descendant. The struggle of American conservative evangelicals for a Christian state is, in reality, the struggle for a white state, without the descendants of enslaved Africans, without Hispanics, without Muslims. It is a nostalgic struggle for white superiority and, for that very reason, it is a racist and, for that very reason, heretical struggle.

What advice would you give to those who start their journey in ecumenical spaces about their connection to the churches and their work in those spaces?

People who feel called to work for Christian unity because they believe in the biblical promises of the coming Kingdom of justice and peace and the reconciliation of all things in Christ crucified and risen should seek to work in the churches and with the churches (with “i” lower case) by the manifestation of the visible unity of the Church with a capital “i”. But many Latin American evangelical churches are hostile to the pursuit of Christian unity as a witness to hope in the Kingdom to come. This hostility is understandable given the history of the ecumenical movement in Latin America; the isolation in which these churches lived as religious minorities; and the threat posed by the exponential statistical growth of neo-Pentecostalism.

This hostility calls for theological dialogue about the fundamental truths of the Christian tradition received from the New Testament and the apostolic tradition and asks for clarification about the contemporary ecumenical movement as an act of fidelity to the teachings of the ancient church that are more important than denominational identities.

But of course, there is a lot of ecumenical work that can take place outside the institutional confines of churches. Youth engagement against the imminent climate disaster; the fight against the femicide pandemic, the defense of the dignity and rights of hated minorities; active resistance to social violence are combats that, without being formally Christian, express values and convictions shared by different Christian traditions. These struggles are therefore ecumenical. When we confess with the Nicene Creed that we believe in God the Father Almighty, “creator of heaven and earth”, we make a confession that has implications today for the way we live the Christian faith in the face of the imminence of climate disaster.

Those who are working ecumenically outside the institutional confines of the churches must prayerfully, diakonically and humbly remember that we know where the Church begins, but we do not know where it ends because, according to ancient teaching, it is the work of the Spirit before and above being controlled by their leaders.

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