The future of the World Council of Churches lies in playing to its strength of giving those less fortunate in the world a voice, a former Dutch church leader has told a gathering in Amsterdam to commemorate the WCC's 60th anniversary - writes Andreas Havinga from Utrecht, Netherlands.
The gathering, which featured a forum discussion, took place on 22 August in Amsterdam's Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) to mark the founding of the ecumenical body 60 years ago, during a special assembly on 23 August 1948 aimed at forging Christian unity. A Dutchman, Willem Visser 't Hooft, served as the council's first general secretary from 1948 until 1966.
Guest of honour at the anniversary event was Dutch Queen Beatrix, who was presented with the first copy of a jubilee book entitled, "The Ecumenical Movement at a Crossroads".
The WCC must radically change, said Albert van den Heuvel, who was active in the council from 1959 to 1980, and is a former general secretary of the Netherlands Reformed Church, then the country's largest Protestant denomination. He said the council should reduce its staff, studies and conferences, and that it should close down its secretariat in Geneva and replace it with offices in each of the continents.
The council's strength does not lie in the pursuit of big buildings, power and influence, said Van den Heuvel. Rather, its strength lies in telling the stories of victims of injustice, war and violence. "Give them a voice," he urged. "That is when the council is at its absolute best."
In the forum discussion, former Dutch foreign affairs minister Peter Kooijmans argued for an official body to identify areas in the world where tensions could quickly escalate into armed conflict.
That body should help the churches in those areas work out how they can fulfil their mandate of peacemaking, so that violence can be averted. Churches often ally themselves so closely with rulers that they cannot then help bring about reconciliation, said Kooijmans.
In the book presented to the Dutch queen, more than 20 people, including Van den Heuvel and Kooijmans, present their vision on the future of ecumenism. The publication is subtitled, "After sixty years: what does 'Amsterdam 1948' mean for us today?"
Queen Beatrix also took part in commemorative events to mark the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the WCC in 1988 and 1998. In her interest for the council's work, she is following in the footsteps of her mother, Princess Juliana, Dutch media noted.
Expressing gratitude to the "Dutch churches and ecumenical friends" that planned the Amsterdam event, WCC general secretary, the Rev. Samuel Kobia said in a 20 August press release, "Today the challenges of seeking visible unity appear to be even stronger but we, nevertheless, look to the next sixty years with hope and confidence as we are inspired by the spirit of our ecumenical ancestors who made Amsterdam 1948 possible."
The anniversary event was held in a side hall of the Nieuwe Kerk, which has since 1815 been the National Church in the Netherlands as it hosts the inauguration ceremony for monarchs. The church is well-known as a venue for temporary exhibitions.
The main religious celebration of the WCC's 60th anniversary took place in February in Geneva's St Pierre Cathedral, during a meeting of the council's central committee, its main governing body.
The WCC has more than doubled the number of churches in its membership since the opening assembly in 1948, up from the then 147 churches to the current 349 churches.
Among those who attended the ceremony in Amsterdam were: Gerrit de Fijter, synod president of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands; Arjan Plaisier, general secretary of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands; Marloes Keller, a Dutch member of the WCC central committee, on behalf of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands; Job Cohen, mayor of Amsterdam; Hirsch Ballin, Dutch minister of justice; Ruud Lubbers, former Dutch prime minister.
[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.]