Simon Barrow

Can love cast out fear? Behind the anti-WCC protests

By Simon Barrow
October 31, 2013

While the extraordinarily diverse gathering that is the tenth World Council of Churches (WCC) Assembly in Busan is seeking to put out a positive message about Christian unity and common witness for justice and peace in the world, quite a bit of the media in Korea, where the gathering is taking place, is rather more stirred by the antics of fundamentalist-type groups vehemently opposed to the WCC.

In one sense, it was ever thus. In the old days, the Rev Ian Paisley from Northern Ireland and Pastor Jack Glass from Scotland were among the preachers of doom, hell and destruction outside ecumenical assemblies, waving placards that angrily denounced attempts to seek unity in Christ as a plot of the devil. They alone could separate truth from falsehood they believed, somewhat sidestepping the rather different message of Jesus' parable of wheat and tares.

When I arrived in Greece in 2005 for the WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME), the denouncers were not disgruntled extreme Protestants, but vitriolic hardliners within (or, rather, outside) the Orthodox community who were furious that their church leaders were acquiescing in the recognition of other traditions. "Orthodoxy or Death" was the rather stark choice they posed to those of us entering the Assembly, refusing (for the most part) both the conversation and gifts of food offered to them.

This time, reports the Korea Times, the opposition to ecumenical endeavour (the term is derived from a biblical reference to "the whole inhabited earth" as the object and scope of God's transformative love) comes from an anti-WCC Christian Council of Churches (CCK), which claims to represent more than 45,000 Korean churches with a combined 12 million followers. Fewer than the half billion plus of WCC churches or the 1.2 billion of the Catholic Church with which it collaborates, but not insignificant.

Christian Aid's Paul Valentin, in his first Assembly blog, commented: "We flew halfway across the world to get to Busan, South Korea, for the global assembly of the World Council of Churches. And when we got there, we were greeted by people waving banners in Korean with the only recognisable writing in English proclaiming: 'WCC kills the churches in Korea’.

"Not exactly a warm welcome, but perhaps we should take pride in what we are being accused of.

According to a national English language daily, 'the WCC stands for religious diversity' and 'the WCC defends homosexuality'. This suggests we represent people and churches who accept that we live in a diverse world where there are many opinions and ways of being (even though we are still far from a shared view on homosexuality)."

Peter Colwell, from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, adds: "The next important issue is the challenge of fundamentalism. This was physically manifest on the first day in the protests outside. But clearly the rise of what we might loosely call fundamentalism is a significant challenge for the ecumenical movement. Ecumenism has always been about dialogue, openness, listening, discerning unity; fundamentalism has always been about closing down conversation, enforced monologue and world views that allow for no diversity.

"The challenge is not to deny the existence or relevance of fundamentalism which I think is a mistake. The ecumenical movement should compel us to seek out and dialogue with the other - whether they be self identified as our Christian sisters and brothers or not, whether they love us or whether they condemn us.

"All of this should suggest - especially to us the UK and Ireland context - that we should not be satisfied with an ecumenical model that is content with just 'being together' out of choice. True ecumenical encounter is to engage with with difference and 'otherness' however difficult and challenging that might be. Only this way can true reconciliation and justice be found," concludes Colwell. He is quite right.

At the end of the day, the deepest rift among Christians is not between liberals and conservatives (there is room for both freeing and conserving within the biblical and ecclesial roots of our traditions), but between imperial religion and liberating faith; between those who seek to control the gifts of God for their own purposes, out of anxiety, and those who, often with pain and difficulty, realise that letting go is the only way to be reshaped by the non-possessive love that is the very heart of God.

The former way allows for no error or deviation from the will of the in-group; the latter realises, in the words of a Jewish poet, that where we insist on being finally right, no flowers can grow and new life is quashed.

It's tough when people are accusing you and denouncing you. It's even tougher to respond with open heartedness to messages of suspicion, condemnation or hate. But that is what the gospel requires. Only perfect love casts out fear. We may not be able to muster that in our own strength, but it is precisely what prayer and worship are intended to call into our presence.

Ekklesia's briefing on Christian fundamentalism, which I put together several years ago, can be found here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/article_07021fundament.shtml (Unfortunately, the book links no longer work).

* Paul Valetin's WCC blog: http://www.christianaid.org.uk/pressoffice/blog/wcc-blog-settling-in.aspx

* Peter Colwell, 'Early reflections from Busan' http://www.churchestogetherconnect.org/profiles/blogs/early-reflections-...

* 'Churches' meeting may set off big rift' - Korea Times: http://m.koreatimes.co.kr/phone/news/view.jsp?req_newsidx=145045

* Official website of the WCC 10th Assembly: http://wcc2013.info/en

* More from Ekklesia on the WCC and its 10th Assembly: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/wcc

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He attended the eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare in 1998, and coordinated the British and Irish churches' delegation at the WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) in Greece. He is following and commenting digitally on the current WCC tenth Assembly in Busan, 30 October - 8 November 2013.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.