Editor’s note: During the 11th World Council of Churches Assembly in Germany, Dr Jørgen Skov Sørensen, general secretary of the Conference of European Churches urged the global church to stay together while facing the challenges such as the war in Ukraine and rising secularism. In an exclusive interview with China Christian Daily, Dr Sørensen stressed the importance of being part of the worldwide fellowship and showing the diversity of how the church can be through different contexts.
China Christian Daily: Can you introduce yourself and the Conference of European Churches?
Dr Jørgen Skov Sørensen: I personally belong to the Lutheran Church in Denmark, which is the largest kind of Protestant church in the country. Since the beginning of 2020, I've been working as the General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), a 62-year-old organization. It was originally created as a bridge builder between Eastern Europe and Western Europe at the time of the Iron Curtain when Europe was divided into the East block and the West block. In 1989, Europe was united again in many ways, and the organization had to reinvent itself. The headquarter used to be in Geneva, and today it’s based in Brussels.
It's a platform for member churches in Europe to dialogue with European political institutions. Our concern is to consider how the member churches can be active. Churches in our societies can add to the benefit of European citizens, and carry on the Christian heritage.
There are 114 member churches from Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox families. We have eight staff members altogether, so we try to cover as much as we can with the limited resource we have available.
China Christian Daily: What are your takeaways from this 11th World Council of Churches (WCC) Assembly in Germany?
Dr Jørgen Skov Sørensen: It's a very concrete physical experience of being part of a worldwide church. I attended the 10th Busan WCC Assembly in Korea in 2013, so it was my second one. I realize what kind of diversity is building the international church, in the way people worship, pray, express themselves, and dress. I see the diversity of Christ's Church on a global level.
This is my first assembly as the General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches. CEC is not part of WCC, but we work together with it on different levels. After two years with COVID-19 and restrictions on mobility, it is good to meet people and shake hands. It’s good to not only see each other on a screen, but actually to be together, drink a cup of coffee together, and establish some relations that I have wanted to establish for a long time.
China Christian Daily: As CEC is a fellowship of 114 churches from different traditions, what is the central core to bring them all together?
Dr Jørgen Skov Sørensen: It is a commitment to being together as churches in spite of different contexts, cultures, and theology, but bound together by the Holy Spirit, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God. That's the spiritual foundation for the organization. Then there's a strong wish from all member churches together to be active participants in the development of Europe as societies looking into the future and creating a good framework for European citizens. We, as churches, believe we have a role to play.
There are more concrete activities now, e.g. the current refugee crisis in Europe. Many churches work together to receive Ukrainian refugees. That's also a way of being part of society. We work as a platform for the exchange of ideas and practices when it comes to refugees.
China Christian Daily: What is the overall situation of the European churches? Can you share the main challenges?
Dr Jørgen Skov Sørensen: One challenge in Europe that is shared by all churches is the increasingly secular societies in which we live. Faith matters less than it used to. In many European countries, churches, political decision-makers, governments, and states have had a close relationship, but the relationship is now changing over these years. As societies become more secular and less faith-based, our decision-makers, our politicians, and civil servants have less and less understanding of what faith in Christ is. Navigation as churches in modern European secular society is a theological and concrete skill that needs to be addressed over the years to come.
China Christian Daily: How should the church respond to a hard situation like secularism?
Dr Jørgen Skov Sørensen: I think first and foremost, churches should stay together, as we do in the ecumenical movement and show our commitment to being together. During times of crisis, sometimes differences between churches become more visible. It's even more of a challenge now for churches to show that they will stick together in a situation. The Assembly is an example of recommitting to stay together.
I would always stress and reiterate the need for praying together. Sometimes we forget the power of praying. Praying together is a spiritual exercise through which you show that you are related to your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and your commitment to fellowship with other churches.
CEC also works with the Roman Catholic churches to make sure that Christian churches have a role to play, that we have space to express ourselves and to deliver what we want to deliver in society. It cannot be taken for granted as much as it used to in the past. It's important that we speak up for our rights, create spaces in our societies where faith will also have a say in how we develop as societies. It's a very practical matter to create this space, but it also demands a kind of change of mindset.
China Christian Daily: The pandemic is a threat to the reconciliation and unity of all nations, especially China. How can we be united again?
Dr Jørgen Skov Sørensen: COVID-19 is still in Europe but the precautions here are not as restrictive as China has been over the last six months. I think you are still suffering more than we are with confinement and things like that.
There’s something related to COVID-19 that maybe has united the world more than divided it during the pandemic. Virtual communication has been boosted over the last two years. The tools and software are way much better than they used to be. It's more user-friendly and reliable. We realize that we can have meetings across continents. Some churches are taking advantage of that, also reaching out to people that they otherwise wouldn't.
China Christian Daily: Chinese Christians have been very concerned about the war in Ukraine. What kind of help do you encourage Christians in China to offer to the brothers and sisters in Ukraine?
Dr Jørgen Skov Sørensen: First of all, pray, as you have done already. Pray for Ukraine, the people, and the churches. Many European churches are very active in refugee work, receiving refugees from Ukraine, and assisting with food and clothes, but that's not relevant yet in a Chinese setting. You really pray to make Christians in Ukraine and the Ukrainian people know that the Christians in China are caring for their well-being and the difficult situation that their country and their people is in. It's important for the church in Ukraine at this Assembly to see that they are part of the worldwide fellowship, which includes not only European but also Chinese churches.
China Christian Daily: What do you think the Chinese church can contribute to this ecumenical church?
Dr Jørgen Skov Sørensen: Be another expression of what a church can also be. China Christian Council considers itself to be a post-denominational Christian council. That is an inspiration to many churches. Churches around the world that are uniting, or united have sort of given up the historical deviations between different church families. Chinese churches used to be different denominations and splinter groups and have been united in one church over the last 70 years.
I’ve been to worship places in China over the years. There’s still an expression of variety which is generally Chinese, with Chinese hymns, traditions, and ways of doing things. As far as I understand the Chinese church is also growing and you have something to share with the rest of the world. Churches in other parts of the world may be struggling during these years, whereas the church in China is a growing church. So how do you achieve that? What is the context that defines the growth of the church in China nowadays? That's for you to tell us.
China Christian Daily: Do you have words for the church in China and Chinese Christians?
Dr Jørgen Skov Sørensen: Pray persistently for Ukraine and also for the rest of Europe. Remember that you are part of a worldwide fellowship of mutual encouragement. We are constantly reminded how challenging life can be. It's good to know that there are people around the world praying for you and for your church as we pray for the church in China every day. This is the fellowship that we are part of.
We should act together too. The foundation is that we are a fellowship of mutual encouragement so that we can hold up one another when we find that our context is difficult. Remember that the love of God, the grace of our Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit bind us together.