Listening: Reflections from the WCC Assembly, Part Two

February 24, 2006

The 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, from February 14-23, closed with festive worship and with, I would submit, mixed reviews as to its overall success. Billed as a "youth assembly," young people and young adults did make an impact on the Assembly.

While falling short of the 25 percent hoped to be elected to the WCC Central Committee, young people (under 30) will make up 15 percent of the governing body, including Sarah Harte, a social worker and member of the Episcopal Church's Executive Council. The delegation, with my full support and in an attempt to witness to the Episcopal Church's commitment to young people, lay people, and women in leadership on all levels, put Sarah's name at the top of our list. She was elected and will attend her first Central Committee meeting in Geneva in September.

Members of the U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches presented a letter to the Assembly expressing members' penitence for certain aspects of American foreign policy, including the war in Iraq, the lack of attention to environmental concerns by the U.S. government, and our inability to mount a strong enough witness to influence our leaders in these areas. Delivered to the Assembly by Father Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthdox Church in America, the statement is not intended to be an official statement of the churches, but an expression of the concerns of those of us who serve on the Board of the U.S. Conference -- Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican alike.

The Assembly adopted an ecclesiology statement to be read in conjunction with an ongoing project titled "The Nature and Mission of the Church." Intended to be another step in the Faith and Order journey and perhaps at some point a successor document to the famous "Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry" which has become such a touchstone for the ecumenical movement, the statement initiates a process inviting all member churches of the WCC to respond to its ten questions, exploring what we can now say together about the nature and purpose of the Church.

The Assembly explored two new disciplines which were adopted as recommendations of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC. The first is "consensus decision making" by which we mean a moving away from "parliamentary procedure" and toward seeking a common mind through careful listening and dialogue and an attempt to avoid "win/lose" decisions which often result from majority rule. It will take time for us all to learn how to live into and use this method. At this Assembly there was an uneven use of the method. It was as though we were caught between the old style, Eurocentric business-as-usual and the newer methods of consensus building.

The second new discipline was a blend of "ecumenical prayer" in the morning and "confessional worship" in the evening. Morning prayers explored music and worship styles which have emerged over the decades of WCC meetings around the world and often included songs, hymns and prayers in many languages and styles. Evening prayers were offered by the various communions: Orthodox Vespers, Anglican Evensong, Pentecostal prayer and praise, Lutheran Night Prayers. By all accounts the worship was, along with the daily Bible studies in small groups, among the highlights of the Assembly.

The Anglican presence was a strong one, with Dr. Mary Tanner from the Church of England being elected to the Presidium of the WCC and the ecclesiology document being presented by Bishop David Beetge from Southern Africa. A major address by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and an appearance by Bishop Desmond Tutu to lead a peace march in downtown Porto Alegre were named by many as high points as well. The Anglican delegation was welcomed by Archbishop Orlando, Anglican Primate in Brazil, at the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity on Sunday, February 19, and Canon Kenneth Kearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, delivered the homily.

Further reports will be made to the Episcopal Church by our delegation -- Carmen Brooks, Sarah Harte, and the Rev. Kwasi Thornell, as well as advisor, the Very Rev. Cynthia Black, all members of Executive Council. Until then, check out the World Council of Churches web site for pictures and documents. We conclude as we began the Assembly, with a prayer:

God, in your Grace, Transform the World!