From behind the scenesFrom behind the scenes

In contrast to the old saying about being seen and not heard Mrs Donata Coleman has been heard but not seen at ecumenical gatherings since the 1950s. Donata is one of the voices in the interpretation booths. One of that body of dedicated women and men who enable the words of wisdom of those platform exponents to be understood by those whose only claim to fame rests on the premise that everyone speaks their language – German, French or English.

Donata is originally from Austria. She trained in Heidelberg, Germany, then moved the Geneva as a Secretary in the office of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) joining a long line of ecumenical leaders who were ushered into wider ecumenical service through the WSCF.

In 1956 she moved to the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, near Geneva, as an interpreter. Bossey is still noteworthy for bringing young pastors together from around the world to be enthused about ecumenism.

Two years later she moved to the UK to work for the British arm of the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and there met and later married her husband Peter, a priest of the Church of England. A sign of how far ecumenism has come from those days is recalled by Donata as she remembers that she, a Lutheran, had to be reconfirmed in order to marry her Anglican husband. Widowed nine years ago Donata is proud of her four children and six grandchildren as they are scattered around the globe.

Her interest in ecumenism then has been life long. She has now interpreted at six CEC Assemblies, beginning in Crete in 1979. Before that she interpreted at the Uppsala Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and at every WCC assembly since. Asked what has changed over the years she recalls that even at CEC’s 12th Assembly in Trondheim six years ago there were 36 interpreters in the team in contrast to the seven that are serving the 13th CEC Assembly in Lyon.

Those who sometimes look into the little closed and rather secretive booths at the back of international meeting rooms may well have seen Donata knitting while working. It certainly does not seem to affect her work maybe even helps her concentration - a clear example of multi-tasking. Donata puts another spin on it – it gives her fingers something to do when she is not actually interpreting.

CEC and other international ecumenical organizations owe and immense gratitude to the body of volunteer interpreters. They not only make themselves available, often at inconvenience to themselves so that ecumenical gatherings flow smoothly and are understood by the variety of participants coming from the multi-lingual constituency that is the church fellowship. They are also adept at assimilating into the rather specific vocabulary that is used within the churches and the ecumenical movement. On occasions when professional interpreters have been hired they often end up baffled by ecclesiastical language. They then turn to the volunteers, like Donata for help which is, of course, readily given.

Donata recalls that she trained the interpreters for one of the Anglican communions’ Lambeth Conferences and insisted that these professionals, trained in economics and politics, should bring a copy of the Bible with them and learn to find their way through it.

What keeps her going after all these year? Donata is happy that she can still do it, that she can still be of use to the oikumene. Settled in a rural home in Somerset, UK, she recalls that there is no active ecumenism in her area and that the times she has been able to assist in the bigger cities while accompanying her husband in his parishes is now past. But after a lifetime of experience in the interpreters’ booth it is a “habit” hard to give up.

Asked for impressions of the Lyon Assembly, Donata notes that it is interesting to see the circle go round. She recalls that back in the 50s and 60s the talk was all of the unity of the churches. The vision of the one big church of Jesus Christ reconciled -   the death of denominationalism, she termed it. Then there was the great social involvement following the 1968 World Council of Churches Uppsala Assembly, then the high hopes and expectations that the Roman Catholic Church might join the wider ecumene following the Second Vatican Council. And now, the circle seems to have gone right round with churches looking in on themselves, of churches splitting, of denominations rising again.

Like the true professional that she is Donata makes no judgment about this, maybe recalling that the interpreters’ booths are a bit like the confessional – many things that are heard there are not for the wider public to hear.


Robin Gurney