On September 7–13, 2019, the LWF-Pentecostal dialogue met for the fourth time during its five-year cycle of conversations, which are built on the proto-dialogue pioneered by the Institute in Strasbourg. We were hosted by the Malagasy Lutheran Church (MLC) in Madagascar’s capital city of Antananarivo to undertake the topic of healing and deliverance from evil, with special attention to the verse from Luke 4, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Prof. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, Visiting Professor of the Institute currently working in Tokyo with the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church, served as Consultant to the dialogue.
Madagascar was a particularly appropriate place for this year’s discussions. The Malagasy Lutheran Church has a unique and highly developed healing ministry that came about through four revivals (Fifohazana) over the course of the last 125 years, each of which is still alive and well!
We heard papers from professors and synodical leaders of the MLC, Rev. Dr. Joseph Randrianasolo and Rev. Dr. Noel Rabemanatsoa, on two of the four revivals: the Soantanana revival and the Ankaramalaza revival. Remarkably, two of these revivals were headed by women, of which the MLC is very proud. Although women are not ordained to the pastoral office in the MLC, they serve as preachers, catechists, theologians, and “shepherds” (or exorcists). Overall, the MLC has perhaps the most extensive lay ministry of any Lutheran church in the world.
The papers from Lutheran speakers were well complemented by one from Rev. Dr. Opoku Onyinah, theologian and former head of the Church of Pentecost based in Ghana which has congregations and ministries in over 100 countries. He discussed Pentecostal understandings of freedom, healing, and deliverance, with special attention both to biblical foundations and the difficult but crucial work of discernment.
Ecumenists often observe in a dialogue the growth over time in understanding and trust. This is certainly the case with the LWF-Pentecostal dialogue. While there was strong good will and openness already at our first meeting in Baguio, Philippines, in 2016, we have by now spent enough time getting to know each other and our respective traditions that this year we were able to have especially lively and penetrating discussions. The Malagasy setting in particular brought to the fore the perhaps surprising amount of convergence we share on this topic, the common challenges we face, and how our distinctive respective emphases may serve as leaven in one other’s traditions and practices.
In addition to intensive discussion, the dialogue group enjoyed many great opportunities for worship and fellowship. In addition to twice-daily devotions led by dialogue members, we joined the annual meeting of the Antananarivo Synod held for five hours on a Sunday morning in an outdoor amphitheater, attended by over 5000 people, all of whom received holy communion! We were hosted with ecumenical guests at a festive dinner by the church, the highlight of which was the powerful and impassioned singing by the university youth choir of one of the local Lutheran churches. We also attended a service at the toby (revival camp) started in Antananarivo by Germaine Volahavana, better known as Nenilava (1918–1998), which gave space for the mentally and physically ill and addicted to pray publicly, give testimony, and read out Scripture, followed by a service of exorcism and laying-on of hands for healing.
Another interesting detail of the dialogue was that we were in Madagascar at the same time as Pope Francis. While he met with the local churches, we ourselves did not have a chance to have an audience with him; however, everywhere we went we saw signs of welcome for the Holy Father, adding an extra dimension of interconfessional richness to our gathering!
In 2020 the LWF-Pentecostal will meet in North America for its fifth round to prepare its final report for public release. Our short time together already has been so fruitful that we hope and pray our churches will support a new round of dialogue after this one reaches completion.