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Belgrade Conference: The Authority Question
(Vatican Radio) The key question of authority and decision making within different Churches and religions is at the heart of a meeting taking place in the Serbian capital this week.
Theologians from around the world have gathered in Belgrade to discuss the theme ‘Religion, authority and the State: from Constantine to secular and beyond’.
Vatican Radio's Philippa Hitchen is in Belgrade and reports on the wide variety of countries and cultures that have been under the spotlight on the second day of the conference.
listen to Philippa's report...
‘What exactly is your conference about?’, one of my children asked me before I took off for Belgrade on Wednesday.
Well, my morning began with an elderly Lebanese Shia Muslim comparing and contrasting the organisation of the earliest Christian communities with the beginnings of Islam. It ended with a young American doctoral student discussing the role of the internet in a post-secular society. In between I’ve done the role of women within the Pentecostal world, church-state relations in South Africa or Vietnam, religious freedom in America today and “the Ambivalent Conversation between Christian theology and human rights” - from a Mennonite perspective.
Those are just the discussions I’ve been able to attend. I wasn’t able to follow the fascinating session on Christian-Muslim conflicts in West Africa, the exploration of Anglican-Orthodox dialogue or the paper on the Canadian government apologising for abuses that took place in the country’s Indian Residential schools.
So what exactly is my conference about? Well what links all these vastly different subject matters, tackled by a wide variety of experts from different countries and diverse religious traditions, is the key question of authority, or if you prefer, religious and secular power struggles down the centuries. Since the Roman emperor Constantine first recognised Christianity’s right to exist, alongside other faith communities, how have religious leaders made decisions and tried to reconcile the constant tensions between Church and State?
There are of course no easy answers to that question, which over the centuries has led to brutal oppression, persecution, sectarian conflicts and wars between churches and nations. While a whole heap of conference papers from theologians, historians and social scientists may not seem very exciting in comparison, the passion with which these topics are being explored shows that – while it may no longer be a reason to go to war - it is still a defining point of what it means to be a person of faith.
Most encouragingly, the interaction between people from such vastly different backgrounds shows a new willingness to really learn from the experiences of other religious traditions. Ecumenical and interfaith dialogue is clearly a key to resolving the ‘authority’ question that all of our churches are still struggling with 1.700 years on from Constantine’s epic decision.
That is what this conference is really all about.