Author: Fr Peter Fleetwood
Date: 14 August 2013
Out of the blue, I received an invitation from the Vatican Pontifical Council for Inter Religious Dialogue to a meeting in Bangkok. This meeting was the culmination of a process which had involved representatives form the Pontifical Council, from the World Council of Churches and from the World Evangelical Alliance. It was a remarkable achievement to get those three bodies together speaking in the first place. The WCC had convened this meeting in order to answer accusations coming from people from other religions in different countries, particularly Asia but not exclusively, where ‘conversion’ has become a dirty word.
The problem is a double problem. The first dimension of it is accusations from other religious communities that Christians use amoral or immoral methods of conversion. The second dimension of the problem is disagreements between the churches themselves - as the different Christian churches have very different ways of approaching mission.
To give one example, the Mill Hill Fathers from the Catholic church educated people like Benazir Bhutto in their Catholic schools in Pakistan and their attitude was never to make anyone in any of those schools a Christian. Whether anyone did convert, I am not really sure, but they always said that their motivation in being there was to be a witness to the Christian belief that every human being is of immense dignity and needs educating. They would answer questions about Christianity but they certainly ever taught Christianity. This approach, a very laudable one is that you spend time, money and people in doing work that is to reflect the glory of God in every person. But there are other Christians who have been accused of using bribery or only allowing people into orphanages if they become Christians and other similar questionable methods. There are of course a lot of approaches between those extremes.
Christians often point to other Christians when criticised about conversion; saying its not us its them! There is also a problem that the word ‘conversion’ has become like a red rag itself. In Pakistan and other countries Christians have been killed because of this. The aim of the ‘Christian Witness in a Multi religious World’ Guidelines was to edit a code of conduct for consistent and ethical witness to Christ amongst all the churches. This is summed up in the first line of the document:
‘Mission belongs to the very being of the church. Proclaiming the word of God and witnessing to the world is essential for every Christian. At the same time, it is necessary to do so according to gospel principles, with full respect and love for all human beings.’
You can read the guidelines here: