New expressions of Christianity, the growing prominence of the global South, the impact of globalization and increasing religious diversity are radically changing the shape of the church says the head of the world's largest church body.
These factors and others are contributing to a "rapidly changing ecclesial context," one that World Council of Churches general secretary the Rev Samuel Kobia addressed in his comprehensive report to the Central Committee on Thursday 14 February 2008.
"The WCC will only continue to function as a privileged instrument of the wider ecumenical movement if ... openness to change is shown, and concrete steps for greater clarity of roles and improved cooperation between different actors in the ecumenical movement are taken," Kobia said.
Amid that changing landscape, Kobia - who is undergoing evaluation by the Executive Committee and Central Committee this week as his contract is up for renewal - said the WCC stood amid a number of tensions in its present and future.
It must deepen the fellowship of existing member churches while at the same time reaching out to broaden the ecumenical movement. Calls for the WCC to do more come as its governing bodies are urging it to focus more narrowly and make the most of its resources. At the same time, differing understandings of biblical truth are testing the bonds of Christian unity.
Through all of these cultural and ecclesiological shifts, Kobia said balance is required "between achievements of the past and the tasks of the future".
He named three recent developments illustrating the blessings and challenges of the road forward: the Global Christian Forum held last year in Kenya, the pending merger of ACT Development and ACT International into ACT Alliance, and the dialogue around expanding the involvement in and scope of the next WCC Assembly.
Each represents core elements of the WCC - Kobia referred to unity, common witness, and service as the "three building blocks of the WCC's DNA" - while also extending the ecumenical circle to include a broader involvement. The Global Christian Forum, for example, drew Evangelical and Pentecostal groups into the discussion of common issues.
Some, he said, have expressed fears that the WCC's identity could be diluted by such broader involvement. Kobia said, however, that the current global landscape necessitates change, despite the risk that entails.
He also emphasized that WCC member churches themselves must take greater ownership of the ecumenical movement and, specifically, of the WCC's programmes. "Lack of ownership by the member churches has been the decisive weakness of the WCC and the other ecumenical organizations," he said. Such ownership, he added, is the key to coherence and identity.
Elsewhere in the report, Kobia defended his extensive travels over the past year and a half, which had drawn criticism from a few members. He said it is the most effective way to maintain contact with the churches and to offer support.
Numerous speakers after the report offered their affirmation. "A face-to-face encounter is what our churches need," said Rev Dr Ofelia Ortega Suàrez of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba. Ms Carmencita Karagdag of the Philippine Independent Church said Kobia's visit to her country was "a source of encouragement."
Kobia concluded with an overview of programmatic activities, acknowledging the "serious challenges" and difficulties that have come with the transition since the last Assembly, but also rejoicing in the achievements and fresh initiatives of the emerging new structure. The WCC's programme work, he said, has "begun sailing in more peaceful and calmer waters".