WCC faces 'significant challenges' as it celebrates 60th birthday

By Ecumenical News International
12 Feb 2008

The main governing body of the World Council of Churches, its central committee, is meeting in Geneva from 13 to 20 February during which it will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1948 founding of what is now the world's largest Christian grouping - write Peter Kenny & Stephen Brown.

WCC leaders say, however, that the Geneva-based church grouping faces significantly different challenges than it did in 1948, in the years that followed the end of the Second World War, and a representative of the council's single largest financial backer says it is failing to make its presence sufficiently felt while it also faces decreased funding.

The WCC had a high profile in the 1970s and the 1980s because of its support for the anti-apartheid struggle in southern Africa and its role as a go-between in the East-West conflict, noted Protestant Bishop Martin Hein of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD).

In recent years, however, it had proved difficult for the WCC to get noticed, partly because of the absence of such high-profile issues, Hein, a member of the WCC's central committee, said in a recent interview with the German Protestant news agency epd

The WCC's general secretary, the Rev Samuel Kobia, had noted in a recent speech, "For decades, ecumenism was heavily affected by the conflict between capitalism and socialism and the so-called Cold War between the two superpowers of the last century."

In the 21st century, however, "The most vital and fastest growing churches are not in Europe or North America, but in Africa, Asia and Latin America, with many of them belonging to the families of charismatic or Pentecostal churches," said Kobia, a Methodist from Kenya.

"The WCC continues to have a political task," Hein said in his epd interview. "But sometimes you have the impression that it lacks a great common goal. The WCC seems to take a position on everything, but the World Council of Churches does not need to be a little United Nations."

The WCC's member churches were originally drawn mostly from Europe and North America and were mainly Protestant or Anglican. It now groups 347 churches, mostly Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC, but it cooperates with the council on a number of issues.

An ecumenical service to mark its 60th anniversary at Geneva's St Pierre Cathedral on 17 February is to be addressed by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I, who is seen by many Orthodox Christians as their spiritual leader.

The central committee will be considering a new communications strategy for the WCC, after the last governing body meeting in 2006 urged that more resources be given to this area of work.

Hein noted the commitment made at the WCC assembly in Porto Alegre in 2006, which sets programmatic directions for the council, "to do less, to do it well". However, he said, "We need to look critically at many areas ... Much happens internally in Geneva but little of this is communicated to the outside world." He added, "If you cannot develop visions and perspectives that are able to be communicated, you cannot blame only the public relations work for the meagre attention [the WCC gets]."

The central committee is the WCC's highest governing body between its once-every-seven-years assemblies, and meets every 12 to 18 months. It implements assembly resolutions, reviews programmes, and approves budget plans.

Hein said that that German Protestant churches, which account, he said, for a third of the WCC's income would be scaling back their contributions in coming years.

"There are other rich churches in the North. Some churches in America and some Orthodox churches are in the position to do more than they have until now," said Hein. "There is no such thing as virtual membership that balks at financial participation."

WCC spokesperson Mark Beach told Ecumenical News International, "We are extremely grateful to the German churches for their contributions and for what they bring as a whole to what we do." Beach noted that WCC has been in discussions with the EKD and other member churches and that these would be raised at next week's meeting.

Beach was asked if the WCC was surprised by Hein's public criticism of the WCC's secretariat ahead of the 60th anniversary meetings. He told ENI. "At 60 years every organization had to go through a process of reviewing itself. The WCC has to listen to its member churches and it will do so." He noted, "The WCC executive committee has said the WCC staff should go through a programme prioritisation process and we will bring some of the results of this to the central committee meeting."

The proceedings of the WCC governing body will be opened on 13 February by the moderator of the central committee, the Rev. Walter Altmann, a Brazilian Lutheran. This will be followed by the report of general secretary Kobia on 14 February 2008.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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