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Posted Monday, September 13, 2004 at 1:19 p.m. CDT


How the Asian churches work: from the bottom up
Everyone who wanted to had a chance to speak.

By Edmund Chia

Editor's Note: Edmund Chia, a Malaysian theologian, was the main organizer of the eighth plenary assembly of the Asian bishops. With the event over and after a few days to reflect on what transpired, he sent NCR the following thoughts.

Edmund Chia
Edmund Chia
If you followed the unfolding of the eighth plenary assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences through the daily dispatches of NCR publisher Tom Fox, you might have concluded that the assembly was all very well thought out, planned and executed, and perhaps that numerous persons invested many hours into its planning.

And you would be wrong.

While the assembly certainly was a momentous event for many a bishop (a Malaysian bishop described it as "the best seminar I have ever attended"), I would hesitate to say that it was a result of careful planning. In fact, almost no planning was put into it. It simply happened, like "where two or three are gathered" God takes over.

For starters, prior to arriving at Daejeon, South Korea, no one had any idea what the program of the assembly was going to be. There was no program. All we had were the conference halls, meeting rooms, microphones, a schedule and about 200 participants eager for something to happen. Numerous persons had come prepared to give lectures, but none knew for sure if they would be asked. The bishops had come armed with the working document on family life and their interventions, but didn't know what they were to do with it.

The assembly's first act was to establish a steering committee, comprising bishops, theologians and lay persons who immediately began putting together a program of sorts. Even this was tentative, open to change and subject to review. The basic principle guiding the committee was that they had to allow the participants to speak and that the agenda had to evolve from the floor, day by day.

The Final Documents

The bishops issued two documents at the end of their plenary assembly, a message addressed to "the People of God in Asia and People of Good Will" and their final document, The Asian Family toward a culture of intergral life.

The program of each day was only decided upon the night before, after a long period of review and discernment by the steering committee. A bishop from the Philippines liked the "flexibility" of the process and called it "dialogical."

The steering committee's aim was to enhance this dialogical mood. The participation of the delegates -- bishops and lay -- was maximized. A bishop from Sri Lanka remarked that the "space" created "lent itself to participation."

Everyone who wanted to had a chance to speak. All input was taken seriously, and most made it into the final document that the assembly issued. While the document is "by the bishops and for the bishops," the dynamics of the process ensured that the comments and feedback from their lay consultants were given equal hearing.

In fact, some pointed out that the majority of the comments and amendments were coming from the theologians and the laity. At one point, a bishop suggested that the drafters "stop taking comments" or else "the document may end up being a document from the laity." One bishop, was even more fearful: "I hope you don't allow the lay consultants to 'hijack' the assembly," he said.

The flexibility and informality of the assembly was much appreciated. A priest from Indonesia suggested that the "process methodology" helped to create an "atmosphere like in the family." A layman from India said he "found the bishops open, humble, willing to listen, with a sincere desire to be in touch with reality."

More by Edmund Chia

On the Asian church -- Part I The coming of age of the Asian church, and On the Asian church -- Part II Theological vision of the Asian church .

Astrid Lobo, a Catholic lay woman whose husband is Hindu, said of the assembly: "As a partner in an interreligious family, for the first time I did not feel an 'aberration' in the church." A young woman from Hong Kong said the assembly was "a very good chance to taste the Kingdom of God on earth."

The activities and atmosphere outside the formal sessions contributed to this "taste of the Kingdom." For instance, in keeping with Korean custom, whenever we entered a building we (including bishops and cardinals) took off our shoes and put on slippers. Ample time was set aside for table fellowship and sharing, with ginseng wine and kimchee salad picked up by chopsticks.

Every session featured guitar music, and liturgies were inculturated and participative. Thus, Thai hymns, Indian bhajans, Japanese prayers and homilies delivered by bishops from Mongolia and Myanmar were all assembly experiences. The "bamboo liturgy" received special mention in the evaluations, as did the morning Mass celebrated in the gardens "with the birds at dawn."

Reflecting on the assembly now, I have no hesitation in asserting that it happened "the Asian way." The fluidity and easy-going approach was very Asian. It was in keeping with the contextual, bottom-up method, an approach that places greater emphasis on listening and allowing the Sprit the freedom to dictate.

There was no pre-set agenda; the only agenda was for the bishops to talk to and with one another. There was no need for the assembly to be strongly directed; everything simply fell into place. Faith in the harmony of things enabled the bishops to be open to not knowing what the program of the next day or the next session would be.

The approach also allowed for greater participation by all present, irrespective of whether they were official delegates (the bishops) who could vote or merely consultants (the "non-bishop" participants) who could not. The relational aspect was given primacy. Rules and constitutional matters were secondary. Thus, all the participants were treated as if they were official delegates. Every person's sharing was listened to respectfully. Views, even very contradictory ones, were somehow brought together in a harmonious integration.

This approach accounts for why FABC documents are refreshing, progressive and liberating. They attempt to be inclusive of diverse views, including those coming from the Asian bishops' lay consultants and theologians. But, at the end of the day, each document receives a placet vote from only the official delegates, indicating the bishops' stamp of approval, and becomes the Asian bishops' document.

In the same vein, the Asian churches attempt to be inclusive and dialogical. They go about their evangelizing mission in partnership with the other religions and with all peoples of good will. The bottom-up, contextual approach to doing theology (or of running an assembly) has helped the Asian churches be inclusive and dialogical churches.

Edmund Chia recently stepped down from his position as executive secretary of the FABC Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and has joined the faculty of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.


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