Listening: Reflections from the WCC Assembly

February 21, 2006

After five days at the Ninth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Bishop Christopher Epting, deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the Episcopal Church shares some reflections, organized around the theme of the international, Christian gathering:

God, in your Grace, Transform the World;

The Moderator of the WCC, His Holiness Aram I of the Armenian Orthodox Church, in his opening address, pointed out that the modern reality of globalization -- like other political, economic, ideological, and technological movements -- seeks to transform the world. As Christians, we believe that only God's grace can renew and transform humanity and creation.

Dr. Sam Kobia, the General Secretary, suggested four new emphases for assisting in this task -- developing faith and spirituality in our people, ecumenical formation for a new generation, the costly work of transformative justice, regaining our strong moral voice in the world. Both speakers rejoiced in the presence of youth delegates and participants in the Assembly and called for them to be generators of the new course in ecumenism.

God, in your Grace, Transform the Earth;

Dr. Tony Clark, winner of the Right Livelihood Award in 2005, stated that "Water is now replacing oil as the commodity of the century." He called for the church to address the deep disparities between water-poor and water-rich nations, the growing demand for water, and the attempts to privatize water. "Water and the access to water is a spiritual issue," said Joe Kennedy of KAIROS in Canada, "Yes, it's a human right, yes, it's a lot of things, but it's a spiritual issue. We need to address it at a spiritual level."

Another presentation at the Assembly dealt with protecting native seeds since some 300 species of seeds are in danger of extinction in Brazil alone. "It's a big problem, not just for Brazil, but for farmers all over the world, " said Nancy Cardoso Pereira, a Methodist minister. "Genetic modification promoted by multinational corporations don't reproduce which means that farmers must buy new seeds every year -- more money for you know who!"

God, in your Grace, Transform our Societies;

The President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in his major keynote address, thanked the World Council of Churches for its work, especially during the 1970s and 1980s when Brazil was under totalitarian rule. "We found in the (WCC) not only moral and spiritual incentives, but active solidarity and effective support for us to go on believing in our own battles ... struggling to defend human dignity and freedom," he said. The most important thing, he added, is "keeping alive the flame of fraternity and solidarity among all peoples of the world ... to continue working together with us to build a society that is more fair" for all people and a more peaceful world.

God, in your Grace, Transform our Lives;

We start each day in "home Bible study" groups of about ten or twelve. Mine is led by a female Commissioner of the Salvation Army named Linda Bond. She has gently led our group of Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and United Church of Christ members to connect our daily Scripture readings with the societies from which we come, with our churches various realities, and with the Assembly theme, "God, in your Grace, Transform the World. Our lives truly are being transformed as we pray together in these small groups and in the huge worship tent, experiencing evening prayers (so far) in the Anglican, Evangelical, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Pentecostal traditions. Wonderful music and energetic singing!

God, in your Grace, Transform our Churches;

Each "confessional family" has had more than one opportunity to gather for reflection and community building. More than seventy Anglican delegates from virtually every Province of the Communion are joined by scores of others attending as visitors or workshop participants.

The tensions within our own Communion pale by comparison with the ecumenical and global tasks before us at this meeting. Nonetheless, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke strongly of our need to stay together "because we need each other." The Western, liberal elite in our family, he said, often believe that society sets the agenda and that the church must respond. The so-called global south often counters with the assertion that the Bible sets the agenda. Neither of those are precisely what classical Anglicanism has believed, he said. There is truth in both positions and we need to stay together to help each other discern that greater truth. "It matters that there is an Anglican Communion!"

God, in your Grace, Transform our Witness;

Aram I concluded his opening address to the Assembly with these words. Being ecumenical means:

* engaging in a common mission and diakonia, and struggling for the visible unity of the church,
* praying together, working together, suffering together, sharing together, witnessing together,
* perceiving our essential identity not in those matters that distinguish us from each other, but in our faithfulness to the Gospel imperatives,
* affirming our diversities, and at the same time transcending them to discover our common identity and unity in Christ,
* being a church that constantly fulfills itself as a missionary reality in response to God's call in a changing world,
* (and finally) being firmly committed to and responsibly engaged in a journey of faith and hope.

It is a joy to represent the Episcopal Church in this historic meeting. And an honor to serve with our four delegates from Executive Council, our youth presence, and a number of visitors and workshop participants from our church. More later...from Porto Alegre!

[Representing the Episcopal Church at the WCC Assembly are: the Very Rev. Cynthia Black, advisor; Carmen Brooks; Bishop Christopher Epting; Sarah Harte; and the Rev. Kwasi Thornell.]