As the National Council of Christian Churches of Brazil (CONIC) celebrates its 30th anniversary, the event has been marked by the appointment of the Rev. Romi Márcia Bencke, its first woman general secretary, elected in August.
Bencke, a pastor of the Evangelical Church of Lutheran Confession in Brazil, has been deeply engaged with the ecumenical movement. Coming from the small town of Horizontina in Brazil, she studied theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in São Leopoldo.
She worked for congregations of migrants in Alta Floresta do Oeste and the Ecumenical Centre for Training and Consultancy for their “Faith and Citizenship” programme. She is currently pursuing her masters’ studies in science of religions at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora in Brazil.
In the following interview, Bencke spoke about being the first woman to serve as general secretary of CONIC and its implications for Brazil’s religious scene.
According to a recent report from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), there is an increase in number of people with “no religion.” What does this mean for CONIC?
The increase in the number of those who claim to belong to “no religion” is an important aspect of the current Brazilian reality to analyze. Our social environment has secular elements. Yet, even with the increased groups of so-called faithless people, Brazil is largely a religious country.
Nevertheless, the IBGE census draws attention to two factors. The increase in number of “people with no religion” could indicate that Brazil is going through a process of secularization. In this process, people can take, express and conduct their lives based on social values, with no religious motivation or inspiration.
But there is another aspect: a significant number of people claim to be religious but do not claim an institutional religious affiliation. This indicates that there may be underway a process of deinstitutionalization of religious expressions in Brazil. This is a clear feature of Brazilian reality today. To take office at CONIC under these circumstances is a big challenge, making us reflect about the way we want to be churches in the Brazilian context.
How do you analyze the role of ecumenical movement in a country like Brazil, especially in relation to inter-religious dialogue?
I am always enthusiastic about inter-religious dialogue. I think that Brazil is experiencing social inequality and violence in a major way, and religion can play a positive role in overcoming these unjust realities. In this sense, the ecumenical movement, for which CONIC is one of the main voices in Brazil, is an important area of articulation of issues and actions about themes common to all religions, such as human rights and care for the nature.
Still in some churches, we find much resistance toward inter-religious celebrations. I believe that there is no reason not to work together on humanitarian and ecological causes, for example. Another important aspect is that CONIC serves as a counterpoint to more fundamentalist or exclusivist religious expressions. I think we have an important role to play in this debate.
What does it mean for you to be the first woman general secretary of the CONIC?
A key demand of us as women active in the ecumenical movement has been that women should also start to occupy positions of leadership in the ecumenical bodies and churches. Therefore, the fact that I take this position may signal a small but significant change of direction in the spaces of churches and ecumenical bodies in Brazil.
Having been selected for this position in a time when the president of CONIC is a Roman Catholic bishop also demonstrates an interesting opening. I have received much support from many people from the Roman Catholic church and friends showing their joy in the fact that I take up this task.
Another significant aspect of consideration is that the IBGE survey is also showing that most women in Brazil confess themselves as religious. So the fact that a woman is the general secretary of CONIC also emphasizes that the ecumenical movement must expand its commitment to women and their struggles.
I also believe that we have a great responsibility to reflect on the reality of women in the Brazilian context, in which many women are living in situations of violence and aggression. Therefore, to be able to reflect and act on the role of Christian women and other religions in the defense of all women is a big challenge. I feel strongly responsible to lift the flags of women.
Next year, the World Council of Churches (WCC) will hold its 10th Assembly in Busan, Korea, with the theme “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.” How do you interpret this theme?
When reflecting on the theme of the next WCC Assembly, I immediately recall issues related to the transformation of current economic, social, environmental and gender related realities. There is nothing that can justify that in a country like Brazil, which has significantly stronger industries and lots of natural resources, there is still a large contingent of people living in absolute poverty. Concentration of wealth is the main cause of injustice in our country: the richest 10 percent of the population holds 75.4 percent of all wealth. This is absurd.
Another aspect of the theme that comes to mind is related to the cultural, political, economic restrictions that prevent women to have access to a just life. We still have a long way to go before the international platforms related to women’s rights are more strongly used in Brazil. When we consider that 93 percent of Brazilian women, who confess themselves as religious, churches’ commitment becomes essential for women’s concerns to be visualized and heard.