Grappling with change as a global church

By Sara Speicher
1 Feb 2008

Celebrating a 60th birthday for some is a milestone marked by visions of retirement - celebrating achievements and dreaming of new endeavours. The World Council of Churches (WCC), however, on its 60th "birthday" in 2008 does not want to rest on past feats as it looks ahead to the challenges of the 21st century. The largest, most inclusive fellowship of churches in the world, and the pre-eminent face of 20th century ecumenism, is grappling with a very different world today - politically, economically, religiously - than the one it faced following the second world war.

The WCC came into formal existence on 23 August 1948 in Amsterdam, where the delegates of 147 churches from 44 countries met to participate in the first and founding assembly. While the gathering was impressive for its unprecedented diversity, with representatives from Anglican, Old Catholic, many Orthodox and nearly all Protestant churches, the inauguration was also notable for the absence of the world's two largest churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church.

In practice, the WCC already existed. In 1938 a provisional committee had been formed by church leaders to establish a structure for the new body and organize its first assembly set for 1941. But the outbreak of war had scuttled those plans. Instead the provisional committee had served to maintain links between churches on both sides while assisting prisoners of war and refugees and preparing for post-war reconciliation and aid.

At the Amsterdam assembly, the experience of war set a tone that was both humble and defiant as the world's tragic disunity called for radical reconciliation. Willem Visser 't Hooft, the first WCC general secretary, spoke to the fear of creating a "superchurch" and announced the vision of making a difference together: "We are not forming this Council in a spirit of ambition and in order to join in any struggle for power. We form it in a spirit of repentance for our failure to be the Church together and in order to render clearer witness together to the Lord who came to serve all."

In many ways the witness of the WCC over the past decades can be clearly enumerated - tangible contributions to the formation of the United Nations and the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; landmark theological work on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry and significant contributions to missiological reflection; prophetic work on issues such as sustainable development, racism, interreligious dialogue and climate change before they became popular platforms.

Few achievements came without controversy. During the 1970s, many evangelicals distanced themselves from the Council over what they considered weak efforts regarding mission and evangelism. Meanwhile, the Programme to Combat Racism was a lightening rod for criticism in the face of its unflinching support for the anti-apartheid movement in Southern Africa.

But when the WCC celebrated its 50th anniversary at its 1998 assembly in Harare, Nelson Mandela, one of the programme's "beneficiaries", spoke of the programme as an expression of "true solidarity" that was "not merely the charitable support of distant benefactors, but a joint struggle for shared aspirations." "To us in South and Southern Africa, and indeed the entire continent," he said, "the WCC has always been known as a champion of the oppressed and the exploited."

Yet, talking to those touched by the WCC over the years, its greatest achievement has not been a particular issue, programme or publication, but the fact that despite all that could have torn it apart, the member churches have held together, maintaining the fellowship they share through the Council. As an Asian ecumenical leader says: "The relationships built between churches are the WCC's finest accomplishment. It's not unity in the strict sense, but in building a knowledge of heritage and customs and awareness - like a family."

And the WCC is growing. It now brings together 347 churches and denominations in more than 110 countries and territories throughout the world. The Russian Orthodox Church joined in 1961, and the Roman Catholic Church works closely with the Council in many programme areas and is a full member of the commissions on Faith and Order and on Mission and Evangelism.

The growth of the WCC is a sign of success and a challenge to the future, as it demonstrates the changing face of ecumenism and Christianity itself. Most of the WCC's founding churches were European and North American, although churches from other regions were also amongst them; today most members are located in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific.

The breadth of its membership creates the living challenge of ecumenism - connecting, assessing, changing to more truly reflect unity. Intensive dialogue between Orthodox churches and other traditions over the past ten years allowed the fellowship of churches to realize that some practices comfortable to most Western members felt unfamiliar and disempowering to many others. Significant changes in how the WCC conducts its business followed, notably with the introduction of consensus decision-making.

Setting programme priorities for the WCC's work does not come easy, as member churches face different realities in their own contexts. Yet a common thread emerges that builds upon the essence of the WCC from its formation. As one European theologian states, "The WCC's role is to be the one place where Christian voices can be unified."

Within that common space, churches are addressing together some of the challenges they face today: responding to threats to life like poverty, climate change and HIV and AIDS; exploring traditional and newer dimensions of spiritual life; promoting interreligious dialogue and cooperation; reaching out to Christian traditions long sceptical of ecumenism; re-envisioning ecumenism in the 21st century.

As the 60th celebration theme underlines, Making a difference together is not about the anniversary of an institution, but a fellowship, a movement and a vision. Six decades ago in Amsterdam, the participants confessed, "We are divided from one another not only in matters of faith, order and tradition, but also by pride of nation, class and race." While this reality persists, so does the ecumenical vision. "But Christ has made us his own, and he is not divided," the Amsterdam message continued.

The WCC is not just celebrating a birthday, but the visible and viable commitment of the churches, which despite all their own and the world's divisions reclaim the 1948 affirmation: "We intend to stay together."

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(c) Sara Speicher is a freelance writer and former coordinator of the World Council of Churches Public Information Team.

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