THE ELEVENTH ASSEMBLY of the World Council of Churches (WCC) ended in Karlsruhe, Germany, last week, following eight days of formal deliberating, praying and deciding, plus a raft of pre-meetings and much informal discussion.
The WCC’s gathering was one of three significant global meetings to be held within a short period of one another: the others being the 77th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and the seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions (LWTR).
While it is easy to be cynical about such ‘talking shops’, the need to discover and create decisive human commonalities in the face of the multiple threats the world faces right now (not least the climate emergency, economic inequality and injustice, the rise of far right nationalism, the resurgent nuclear threat, and the refugee crisis) has perhaps never been more urgent since the two world wars that produced the impetus for such global forums, including the World Council of Churches itself.
Participation and inclusion
The last WCC assembly I attended, as an ecumenical delegate from Britain and Ireland, was in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1998, nearly a quarter of a century ago. That felt like a momentous occasion. It was exactly fifty years since the first, historic post-war gathering in Amsterdam in 1948. It took place against a backdrop of repression within the host country, which occasioned numerous acts of solidarity – including the boycotting of a ‘host rally’ organised by dictator Robert Mugabe. It also witnessed a memorable address by then South African President Nelson Mandela, who offered personal and moving testimony to the positive impact of the (at one time controversial) WCC Programme to Combat Racism (PCR). The PCR supported movements of liberation and decolonisation across the continent of Africa, in particular. That included, in time, the fall of apartheid and the release of Mandela.
This time, for health reasons, my own participation as a journalist and commentator at the Assembly was by digital means only. The Covid pandemic has carried with it the next wave of the communications revolution, enabling the Assembly to include hybrid elements. I attended many of the 18 press events hosted by the excellent WCC comms team, and was able to ask questions in six of them. There were also various opportunities to meet participants online and to watch the plenary sessions.
However, a significant part of the value of these occasions lies in informal contact with people across the globe who you are unlikely to encounter in domestic contexts, and the networking that takes place outwith the formal agenda. This cannot be readily replicated online. On the other hand, digital technology widens access and participation, as well as reducing environmental and other detrimental impacts. Blended events are the future.
So, what were the key issues at Karlsruhe, and how does one assess its overall value and impact? There is no one set of answers to such questions. Participants from different regions, church traditions and backgrounds will have had their own journeys and priorities across the eight days. But, unsurprisingly, several prominent issues emerged within the umbrella of the overall aspirational theme, ‘Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity’, which in itself embodies the core purpose of ecumenism. This is not simply unity (expressed in both organic and relational ways) among the churches. It is about growing together for a purpose – that purpose being life for the whole inhabited earth (household), which is what the traditional Greek word oikoumene means.
Time to stop the killing
One defining concern shaped by the overall theme was, inevitably and necessarily, the tension between the search for unity among diverse peoples and beliefs, and the manifest and continuing divisions within the churches themselves. This was highlighted with extraordinary poignancy in relation to the war in Ukraine. Metropolitan Job of Pisidia, speaking from the heart of the conflict at the morning press conference on 7th September, did not hold back. “Christians are killing other Christians” he declared in measured but agonised tones, identifying this as the most existential challenge imaginable to ecumenism.
The Metropolitan’s challenge echoes that of a famous Mennonite poster (one I used to have displayed in my office when I was Assistant General Secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland from 2000 to 2005): ‘A modest proposal for peace’, it reads “Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill one another.” That being so – a leap way beyond the bloody history of Christendom – would it therefore be permissible, some used to ask me, for Christians to kill others? By no means. The logic of a prohibition on killing among those supposedly baptised into a new way of being in Christ is surely that the love this embodies is inseparable from the true requirements of love of neighbour. It also constitutes an invitation to friends of other faith and of no religion to find, within their own traditions, the resources to end war together.
In Harare in 1998, an unexpected move at the end of the 8th WCC Assembly produced the call for a Decade to Overcome Violence and Build a Culture of Peace across the world (held from 2001 to 2010). Many valuable initiatives in community peacebuilding and conflict transformation emerged from this process, which was a particular gift to the global church from Anabaptists and from the historic peace churches with which Ekklesia aligns itself.
But our current wars in Ukraine, Yemen and many other places show that there still is a very long way to go even to persuade Christians that war cannot be God’s way. This past week, Pope Francis, speaking at the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions (a gathering that brings together Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and other faiths), issued a fresh challenge to make the rejection of war central to Christian, ecumenical and interfaith commitment – effectively challenging Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who has backed the invasion of Ukraine and endorsed an ultra-nationalist stance.
Before the Karlsruhe assembly there were calls on the World Council of Churches to consider the suspension or expulsion of the Russian Orthodox Church. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was one of the voices raising that possibility, and Ekklesia endorsed a letter from theologians, priests and others pressing the issue. In the end, both Russian and Ukrainian delegations were present. The rationale was an opportunity to broker discussion and peace talks. By the close of the Assembly, no formal meetings had taken place, to the disappointment of many, though there were reports of private conversations. We can but hope that these open doors to a just peace, or at least contribute to that trajectory.
The credibility of ecumenical forums like the WCC is tested severely in such circumstances. A unity among the churches (or anyone else) which comes at the cost of justice, truth and peace is a false unity. If the aim of the whole enterprise is communio, common life on the one earth we are gifted, this must mean a sharing of such life amid difference and in confrontation with the forces of destruction, exclusion, impoverishment and death-dealing. Without that, reconciliation too easily sinks into conciliation, accommodation or even appeasement with the rule of Caesar.
Confronting the deformations of Christendom and beyond
Similar challenges were raised at the Assembly in relation to the phenomenon of ‘Christian Nationalism’ in the United States and Russia, in particular, but also elsewhere. That major self-expressions of Christianity now growing across the world that threaten whole populations with the deformations of authoritarian religion, warlikeness and the degradation of the demos – in league with other far right, racist and white nationalist movements – is another massive challenge to the identity and possibility of ecumenism. In many respects, this is not a new problem. It is the latest manifestation of imperial religion, the religion of power, which has always existed within, and sometimes dominated, the 1700-year era of Christendom.
Eastern Orthodox scholar, David Bentley Hart, spells this out unflinchingly towards the end of his vitally important book, Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Baker Academic, 2022). There he writes of “the tragedy of Christendom” in the following stark terms: “If the teachings of Christ form the indispensable standard of Christian spiritual life, then it is clear that Christianity as a historical project has been in many enormous respects a ghastly failure, and in no way more conspicuously than in many of the terms its institutional embodiments accepted as the alliance with empire and state.”
In this respect, what is now called Christian Nationalism is a step further into the abyss, subsuming the categories and language of faith into the will-to-power of a Trump or Putin; bowing the knee to the Emperor and doing his will, all the while claiming the name of Christ. This surely constitutes a ‘confessional moment’ for Christianity at large, to use the Reformed terminology that was invoked (though only by a small minority) in the face of Nazism in the 1930s. Karlsruhe began to embrace the concern and challenge, but again there is a very long way to go, and the extent to which the churches are able to openly challenge refute such poisonous developments will define the value or otherwise of the unity they continue to seek.
Climate, indigenous communities and youth
Another major issue at the 11th Assembly was of course climate change and the climate crisis, which is already enveloping much of the world, as the tragic events surrounding floods in Pakistan vividly illustrate right now. Here the strong voices of indigenous communities from around the globe (among those most threatened by climate breakdown) were central in making it abundantly clear to delegates and participants in the WCC gathering, as well as the world’s media, what is at stake. They were joined by the increasingly strident voices of the young, and understandably so. The future those of older generations bequeath to their successors is increasingly looking like one beset by catastrophe. The ‘slow apocalypse’ of climate chaos demands recognition and action. This cannot be left to tomorrow, and the young are now at the forefront of a movement to save the planet which is as thoroughly ecumenical in its crossing of the boundaries of belief and culture as anything imagined at Karlsruhe or any of its preceding gatherings.
The 11th WCC Assembly ended with concrete moves to engage youth more fully in the structures and programmes of organised ecumenical activity, and with an act of worship which gave just a taste of what a global communio could look, sound and feel like. Tangible actions and rituals are surely needed to give this dynamic the anticipatory power it needs to confront the gathering clouds of doom in our world.
Who is listening? Where does the ecumenical future lie?
Finally, in this brief refection on a thousand-plus event of immense variety, who was listening, reporting and thinking about what was being said and done? The WCC Assembly was national news in several parts of Europe, where it was held, and well beyond. But besides a few articles in the church press and a couple of mentions in ‘religious slots’ provided by the BBC and elsewhere, virtually no one in Britain would have known it was taking place at all. There were dedicated delegations from across these islands, but none should kid themselves into thinking that our ecclesiastical institutions give any real priority to global relations and vision. They are mostly far to bound up with their own survival and domestic issues.
Much of the secular media, meanwhile, is cynical towards (and substantially ignorant of) religion in a society which increasingly sees faith as lacking moral and intellectual substance and insight, often justifiably so. This was a challenge I raised in the final Karlsruhe press conference with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. His answer amounted to a “we must walk the talk” plea. This is true. But the comforts of being embedded in the establishment are definitely not the place to start. Nor is institutional religion. The engagement between the local and the planet, the oikoumene, is where we must renew our vision of unity. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for that in terms of solidarity and cooperation to address a “world in peril” at the United Nations General Assembly.
Meanwhile, the future of ecumenism – indeed of Christianity – if there is to be one, surely lies at the margins, among those dissenting from neoliberal religion, in the voices of the hitherto ignored and oppressed, in embracing our diversity through an economy of love and justice, and in decolonising our religious landscapes spiritually, politically and humanly. Karlsruhe offered some further signs and possibilities in this direction for those who were listening. Who will now give them concrete expression?
* Ekklesia was pleased to publish fourteen articles and to share over 100 communications online during the WCC 11th Assembly. For all of Ekklesia’s coverage via Twitter, type “@Ekklesia_co_uk WCC” (without inverted commas) into your Twitter search function and hit ‘latest’.
© Simon Barrow is Director of Ekklesia. His next book, Against the Religion of Power: Telling a Different Christian Story, will be published in early 2023, and his more recent articles on this site can be found here. From 2000 to 2005 he was Assistant General Secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) and Executive Secretary of the CTBI Churches’ Commission on Mission.