The final stepping stone

Dr Elizabeth Joy, the first female candidate for the role of General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, shares our Reflection of the Month for July 2022.

17 June 2022 will always be a memorable day for me. A day for which I had waited with anticipation to receive the outcome of the long recruitment process for the role of the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (GS-WCC). It was much delayed due to the pandemic. I experienced the theory of relativity once again in my life. The nearly two and a half hours waiting that day seemed much longer than the previous two and a half years!

I am proud to be the first woman shortlisted as one of the final two candidates for the General Secretary’s role in the history of WCC. I strongly believe that I will be the final stepping stone for a woman to become the GS-WCC.

What moved me deeply was the way I was taken into the meeting hall after the vote. One of the Vice Moderators, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson (United Methodist Church, America), broke the news officially to me. She did it in an amazing manner, full of grace, tears and love. The WCC Moderator, Dr Agnes Abuom of WCC, thanked me profusely for being in the selection and election process to the end. She thanked me for being an inspiration. A few members of the Central Committee prayed for me, and I deeply appreciated that. The whole gathering gave huge applause, some with tears and sadness. I was asked to go up the podium and I was hesitant but did go finally and even speak.

Dr Joy is greeted by WCC Moderator Dr Agnes Abuom

I am very proud of my church (Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church) which has become a role model by endorsing a woman for this role. My failure to reach this height will only encourage other women to reach it. We walk in faith, hope and love. I am grateful to HG Zachariah Mar Nicholovos, Abraham Thomas Ramban and Rev Fr Aswin Fernandes from our Church’s Ecumenical Relations Department. I am also very grateful to the current as well as the former head of my Church – the Catholicos – who endorsed my candidacy and all the bishops and priests who stood by me. This nomination became historic and put my Church on the global ecumenical map once again. One of its members was the first woman to be nominated for the job of the General Secretary – WCC.

As I came out of the meeting hall, the first person I met was a former CTE Trustee Janet Scott who said, “Elizabeth, we were afraid that we, as CTE, would lose you. Glad you will still be with us”. Prof Dr Dimitra Koukoura from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Greece, a member of the Central Committee, greeted me and shared her joy in coming to know of my work with CTE through one of the younger Bishops from one of the Ancient Churches. I was overjoyed to see how Churches Together in England really stands for what it is. Leaders who represent Churches that were historically very much apart stood together and witnessed together in supporting a female candidate from an Orthodox Church. One of the first text messages I received was from the Chair of the CTE Trustees. It was soul-touching and I felt as if it had come from my sister, a close friend or even a mother. And one of the first emails I received was from Bishop Joe Aldred, a mentor of mine who retired from the CTE staff in 2020, assuring me very much of his prayers.

I also thank all those who were my referees although I cannot name them here as much as I wish to. My husband, my family, my neighbours, my classmates, teachers, colleagues, priests, bishops and friends will remain the unsung heroes and heroines of my achievement. They have played a great role in my personal and spiritual formation. As according to the African saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. I will always treasure these memories.

I have often spoken about the power of prayer at CTE gatherings. Once again, I can loudly and boldly say that the Triune God upholds and sustains me. The prayers of all who love me dearly including the Saints from different corners of the world sustain me in an extraordinary manner. Despite my failure to be elected as General Secretary, I could only feel the peace that passes all understanding. I was stunned at this, the peace that filled my entire being was something that I had never experienced before. Prayers uphold us at all, especially at difficult times. Of course, it was a time to rejoice that the WCC has elected its new General Secretary. I truly and wholeheartedly rejoice in this.

I still do not know who voted for me, but I thank each one of them from the bottom of my heart. I do not know who voted for Dr Pillay, but I thank them too. I heard, a few abstained. However, I am glad that their silence did not affect WCC from marching forward victoriously. I love them too for being a part of the body of Christ. WCC’s victory is my Church’s victory and mine too. I invite the members of CTE to celebrate this victory with us and through solidarity to uphold the WCC in their prayers.

Dr Elizabeth Joy is a CTE Trustee. Elizabeth is a member of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. She is originally from India but is now based in the United Kingdom. Her research focuses on the identities of the marginalised and their relevance to liberation and transformation in communities. She is a member of the Student Christian Movement’s Council of Reference (an advisory body to the board of trustees).