Churches should be prepared to confront their differences honestly and to examine them in the light of the scriptures, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I has said at a service to celebrate 60 years since the World Council of Churches was founded with its goal of Christian unity - writes Peter Kenny.
"The bonds of friendship between divided churches and the bridges to overcome our divisions are indispensable, more now than ever. Love is essential, so that dialogue between our churches can take place in all freedom and trust," said Bartholomeos, preaching the homily at the 17 February 2008 service at Geneva's St Pierre cathedral.
"We shall then acknowledge that the divergences that originate from the different ways in which churches respond to moral problems are not necessarily insurmountable, because churches witness to the Gospel in different contexts," he said.
The service took place in tandem with meetings of the WCC's main governing body, its central committee, and its executive committee, as the church body evaluates its future path.
In his assessment of the WCC, its general secretary, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, had on 14 February said that new expressions of Christianity, the growing prominence of the global South, the impact of globalisation and increasing religious diversity were radically changing the shape of the Church.
"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.
He said that the WCC must deepen its bonds with existing member churches while at the same time reaching out to broaden the ecumenical movement. The WCC leader said, "Lack of ownership by the member churches has been the decisive weakness of the WCC and the other ecumenical organizations." Kobia noted that such ownership is the key to coherence and identity.
Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are growing worldwide while traditional Protestant churches often face declining membership in the global North.
Bartholomeos I of Constantinople is the Istanbul-based patriarch considered by many to be the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians. Orthodox Christians and the Roman Catholic Church separated from one another centuries before the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism.
The WCC has 349 member churches, principally Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant. The Catholic Church is not a member but cooperates with the Geneva-based church grouping in some areas.
The Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral of St Pierre in Geneva where the Orthodox leader preached his homily is best known as the church where Jean Calvin preached during the mid-16th century, the time of the Protestant Reformation.
The Patriarch acknowledged the existence of turbulent periods in the church council's life, but said that dialogue that resulted from those difficulties has paved the way forward.
"We shall also recognise that dialogue on ethical and moral questions proceed on the assumption that the churches are not content to 'agree to disagree' on their respective moral teaching, but that they are prepared to confront their divergences honestly, and examine them in the light of doctrine, worship life and Holy Scripture," said Patriarch Bartholomeos.
He noted that in 1920 the Church of Constantinople had issued an appeal to churches around the world, "inviting them after the fratricidal First World War to form a "League of Churches'. This coincided with similar initiatives by Anglican and Lutheran leaders in Europe and the United States.
"It can thus be stated that the concerted action by Orthodox, Anglican and Reformation churches in the 1920s laid the foundations for the modern ecumenical movement," he said.
Patriarch Bartholomeos recalled that almost 60 years had passed since 23 August 1948, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, in Amsterdam formally declared that the World Council of Churches was established.
"This inter-church platform has been at the service of its member churches and dedicated to increasing the spirit of the Gospel, seeking Christian unity and encouraging cooperation by the churches in their social and diaconal work as they confront the acute pressing problems of humankind," the Patriarch said.
"Are we today prepared, as member churches, to reaffirm the role of the Council as a privileged ecumenical space, where the churches will freely create networks for diakonia and for defending and promoting certain values?" he asked. "And where, by dialogue, the churches will continue to break down the barriers that prevent them from recognising one another as churches confessing a common faith, administering the same baptism, and celebrating the Eucharist together?"
Dignitaries present at the service included Catholic Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Archdeacon Colin Williams, general secretary of the Conference of European Churches; the Rev. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches; the Rev. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation; and other Orthodox, Protestant, Roman Catholic, ecumenical, and government officials.
[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.]