World Council of Churches celebrates 50th anniversary, charts new course for the future

December 21, 1998

Almost a thousand delegates from over 300 members of the World Council of Churches (WCC) met in Zimbabwe for nearly two weeks to celebrate the ecumenical organization's 50th anniversary-and to chart what they hoped would be a new course for a new millenium. African drums and exuberant songs welcomed jet-lagged delegates to the opening service at the University of Harare December 3 where WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser praised the decision to hold the Eighth Assembly in Harare, despite an unsettled political environment in the country and threatened boycotts by some Orthodox churches unhappy with the organization.

"How wonderful and significant to hear the words of Jesus here, in mother Africa, where they take on a unique rhythm and flavor; in mother Africa, so easily forgotten and ignored by the powerful when convenient, so unknown by so many, so exploited and stepped upon by others, but also so beloved by so many of us. Here, in this continent, in Africa, where Jesus received asylum and protection as an infant 2000 years ago," said the Rev. Eunice Santana of Puerto Rico, one of the presidents of the WCC, in her opening sermon. Sounding the Jubilee theme of the assembly, she asked, "Now all the international debts are being carefully counted, but where was the human accounting when colonialism crushed the people?"

The nature of the challenge facing the WCC as it seeks to redefine its role was apparent from comments by its top leaders at the opening plenary. "Institutional ecumenism is in crisis," said Catholicos Aram I of Lebanon, moderator of the Central Committee. "Much of our constituency is disillusioned with the institutional expressions of the ecumenical movement… especially the youth who do not want to become prisoners of structures." The moderator said that "unless the churches re-own the ecumenical movement and re-articulate clearly its vision by making it relevant to the life of the people, [it] may lose its vitality, its sense of purpose." Looking back over history he said that "we have both much to rejoice in and much to repent over" but he is convinced that the WCC has steadily moved towards "a real partnership." But he reminded delegates that the organization "is an instrument and not a goal in itself. It serves the churches in their common task of taking the Gospel into the world and in their common calling to grow together in obedience to the command of Jesus Christ."

Aram also confronted one of the more vexing issues facing the assembly and the future of the WCC-the role of the Orthodox members. While they have played a vital role, "they have not integrated themselves fully into the total life and witness of the council," he observed, largely because of "Protestant theology which continues to dominate the council's theological language, thinking and methodologies." Unless the WCC takes Orthodox concerns seriously, "I fear that the Orthodox participation will steadily dwindle."

Prior to the assembly Orthodox leaders had warned that continued participation would depend on what Russian Patriarch Alexy II of Russia called "total reconstruction" of the WCC. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, who holds the position of "first among equals" among Orthodox leaders, sent a letter to the assembly charging that "a series of liberal, theological and moral positions" had been adopted since the 1991 assembly in Canberra, "by a variety of member churches, mainly of the Northern hemisphere." Later the assembly endorsed a three-year commission to study the participation of the Orthodox. 

Raiser also confronted the issue, asking whether "membership" is the only arrangement or even the most appropriate form of taking part in the ecumenical movement. He asked the assembly to consider the formation of a Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organizations in which "participation is more important than membership." Such a forum, which could include Roman Catholics and a wide range of evangelical churches, would offer a space to discuss common challenges facing the ecumenical movement and make decisions on ways to cooperate. "The WCC would participate in the forum alongside other partners, without claiming any privileged place." Raiser has pushed hard for the Forum because of his conviction that the "organized ecumenical movement," including the WCC, represents "only one segment of world Christianity." The assembly approved a plan that could culminate in a forum at Pentecost 2001.

Common understanding and vision?
Plenary debate on the document Towards a Common Understanding and Vision (CUV), which grew out of a study begun in 1989 and was adopted by the Central Committee in 1997, exposed widely divergent opinions on the future of the WCC. 
Pointing out that many churches had not participated in the CUV process of self-examination, Dr. Agnes Abuom of Kenya asked, "What does it mean to talk about Christian unity when we churches are breaking up? What does it mean in a broken world?"
The Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America (which is linked to the Russian Orthodox Church) said that the WCC was formed in 1948 to deal primarily with issues linked to the 16th century Protestant Reformation. "The churches of the East were not and are not part of this story. The Reformation is not our story," he said. "Its theological debates and presuppositions are not our theological debates and presuppositions."

After several comments by Orthodox delegates who sought to distance themselves from the WCC, an obviously exasperated delegate from the Church of England, the Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin, said that the debate was "really about power." She added, "At the risk of sounding naïve, what is the problem here? It seems the road we have gone down is, My church is bigger than yours, or, I have more money than you, or, My church has this long and important tradition." She pointed out that the Decade Festival ending the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, which preceded the assembly, said the opposite, that "Your story is my story." She concluded, "If we're going to listen to each other, we cannot do it from a distance. That means walking side by side with me, even if you are uncomfortable."

An experiment in conversation
In an experiment unique to a WCC assembly, delegates were offered a dazzling array of opportunities to discuss issues and activities in small groups called padares, based on a traditional Shona "meeting place." The goal, according to Raiser, was "to make visible the richness and health of the life of the churches." Almost 600 exhibits, presentations, performances and discussions were offered in scattered locations across the large campus of the university. "This is not a place for resolutions, but for the free exchange of ideas-and sometimes they will be controversial," said Raiser in his introduction. Eleven of the padares dealt with the issue of homosexuality, for example--the only time the issue appeared on the agenda. Members of an advisory committee moved among the padares in an attempt to "maintain the open spirit" and to report back to the WCC planning committees.

Reactions of delegates varied widely. Some reported that no one showed up for padares, and in some cases the leaders didn't show up. Others complained about accessibility, especially on such a large campus, one that was not lighted during the evening sessions. The session on unity issues seemed to draw the most participants, but workshops on globalization and debt were also quite popular. "It is particularly unfortunate for some Third World organizations who have spent many thousands of dollars bringing personnel and materials to Harare, only to find that their presentation has been lost in the confusion and dispersal of the display locations," said the Rev. Ron O'Grady, a retired ecumenical staff official. 

African setting is key
"The decision to go to Harare for the Eighth Assembly expressed our determination that the ecumenical fellowship of churches would not weaken its solidarity with African churches and people as they search for new foundations upon which to affirm their identity and reconstruct viable forms of community life," said Raiser in his report to the assembly. Several prominent guests spoke directly to the WCC's support for liberation movements in Africa. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe made a passionate appeal to member churches to help end what he called "a global conspiracy against poor nations," in a world dominated by "bullies."

He cited the debt burden and international trade practices as major factors in wrecking the economies of poor nations. The current debt stands at $379 for every man, woman and child on the continent, higher in Zimbabwe. "Where are men and women of prophetic witness, our seers and our moral and spiritual liberators?" Mugabe asked. He challenged the WCC to "lead in calling the world back to sane and human goals that edify God's image," to use its "moral authority to appeal to the powerful nations of the West to agree to write off the debts of Third World nations."

Mugabe paid a glowing tribute to the WCC for its "courageous gesture" in 1969 when it supported Zimbabwe's struggle against colonialism and established a controversial Program to Combat Racism and a special fund to channel humanitarian support to liberation organizations. He also scolded some churches for their acceptance of a "colonial ethos" among missionaries, arguing that they had played midwife to colonialism, "succumbing or voluntarily surrendering God to the racism of colonial structures." Yet he pointed out that other churches spoke against the excesses of colonial rule and "paid dearly for their conscience" by deportation or death. Mugabe is in the middle of a struggle to claim land from white farmers whose property has been protected since the new nation was formed in 1980 from former Rhodesia. In efforts to reassure Great Britain that the farmers would be justly compensated, he bristled at charges in the British press that accused him of "larceny, tyranny, brutality and racism." 

Although he did not address the issue of homosexuality in his speech, Mugabe has made frequent vitriolic attacks on gays, calling them "worse than pigs." As he left the plenary, he was asked for a comment by a Dutch journalist and suggested that the church should take a role "to cure them from their diseased way of life…. This is the church, this is the organization that can purge them."

Mandela thanks WCC for support
It was the surprise appearance of Nelson Mandela, president of South Africa, that produced an infusion of new energy at a special plenary celebrating the WCC's 50th anniversary. Accompanied by Mugabe, Mandela received a tumultuous welcome, and in his address made a passionate appeal to the WCC to give the same support to the struggle for the development of democracy in Africa that it gave to liberation movements. In expressing gratitude to the churches, he praised the WCC for "activating the conscience of the world for peace and on behalf of the poor, the disadvantaged and the dispossessed." 

Citing the Program to Combat Racism and the special fund to support liberation movements, he said, "Your support exemplified in the most concrete way the contribution that religion has made to our liberation, from the days when religious bodies took responsibility for the education of the oppressed because it was denied to us by our rulers, to support for our liberation struggle." He said that the people of southern Africa and the whole continent regard the WCC as "champion of the oppressed and exploited." Mandela said that "the name of the WCC struck fear in the hearts of those who ruled our country during the inhuman days of apartheid. To mention your name was to incur the wrath of the authorities. To indicate support for your views was to be labeled an enemy of the state."

Development is the challenge of the new millenium, Mandela argued. "My own continent of Africa dreams of an African renaissance in which, through reconstruction and development, we will overcome the legacy of a devastating past and ensure that peace, human rights, democracy, growth and development are a living reality for all Africans." When the WCC moved "to the risk of active engagement in the struggle to end oppression," it broke new ground and now it was time "to show that same engagement in the new and more difficult struggle for development and the entrenchment of democracy." In its closing days, the assembly confirmed its commitment to Africa, rejecting negative views of the continent and stressing in a statement that "the emphasis should be positive, leaving behind the notes of fatalism, despair and helplessness which tend to characterize some attitudes and responses."

To underscore the danger of speaking the truth to power, a group of delegates urged the WCC not to be a party to a conspiracy of silence on genocide "being perpetrated by the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Khartoum against the people of southern Sudan." They spoke in response to a sermon by Roman Catholic Bishop Paride Taban of the Sudan who offered an eyewitness account of bombing raids. A week after he spoke, he was the object of a bombing raid himself. The WCC sent a strong letter to Sudan's foreign minister, saying that "it is strongly suspected that units of the Sudanese army were responsible for this atrocious act. According to some reports we have received, the attack was in retribution for a sermon Bishop Paride preached in a public stadium here in Harare at the special invitation of the WCC. It urged the minister "to take immediate measures to ensure his absolute personal security and identify and bring to justice the perpetrators of this terrible act."

Role of women and youth
Most delegates seemed to support a letter from the Decade Festival calling on the assembly to condemn violence against women as a sin. The Rev. Deenabandhu Manchala of India, one of the panelists in the plenary, asked, "Does the church wish to remain custodian of a culture of violence or a catalyst to a culture of life? We must stop seeing violence against women as a women's problem." The decade should not have been perceived as a threat by any church, said Metropolitan Ambrosius of the Orthodox Church of Finland. But several Orthodox delegates complained about what they saw as a radical feminist agenda. While affirming the call for human and social rights for women, "So long as other WCC churches advocated an agenda calling for all churches to ordain women and to accept inclusive language, the eucharistic unity that is a dream will never come true," warned the Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin of the Russian Orthodox Church.

An attempt to provide adequate representation of women and youth on the 150-member Central Committee exposed some deep fissures. Bishop Melvin Talbert of the United Methodist Church, moderator of the nominations committee, expressed deep frustration in trying to achieve a balance, calling the slate "unacceptable." Dr. Marion Best of the United Church of Canada said in response, "I feel a very deep disappointment, fast rising to a high level of anger. When the Ecumenical Decade in Solidarity with Women was launched, I tried to support it, I met with church leaders, and now the percentage of women on the Central Committee is less than it was at Canberra. I don't know if I want to be part of the WCC if it doesn't change."

Talbert said that some churches had "found various reasons" to decline a request to include more women on the list they sent to the committee and some men had "emphatically stated that no woman would replace them." When the assembly considered the final slate, it brushed aside attempts to nominate men to replace women, including one from the Armenian Apostolic Church. A quarter of the churches at the assembly is represented exclusively by male delegations. The WCC has attempted to have a minimum of 40 percent women among the delegations but the goal is difficult when Orthodox delegations are over 85 percent male.Women moved close to the 40 percent goal on the final slate for Central Committee. Pamela P. Chinnis, president of the House of Deputies and leader of the Episcopal Church delegation at the assembly, was one of two Anglicans from North America elected to the committee. She also served on the critical business committee at the assembly, responsible for daily operations.

The same issues of balance plagued the election of presidents for the WCC. The assembly rejected a proposal to have the Central Committee appoint the presidents, requiring the nominations committee to scramble to prepare a slate for consideration on the closing day. The presidents are chosen on a regional basis. Africa will be represented by Agnes Abuom of the Anglican Church of Kenya; Asia--Moon Kyu Kang of the Presbyterian Church of Korea; Europe--Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Ephesus and Bishop Eberhardt Renz of the Evangelical Church in Germany; Latin America/Caribbean--Bishop Frederico Pagura of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina; Middle East--Mar Ignatius Zakka Iwas of the Syrian Orthodox Church; North America--Kathryn Bannister of the United Methodist Church; and Bishop Jabez Bryce of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Polynesia.

The assembly re-elected Aram I as moderator, and chose as vice-moderators Justice Sophia Adinyira, an Anglican from the Province of West Africa, and Marion Best of Canada. The issue of homosexuality emerged during a debate in the closing plenary on a resolution on human rights. "Our support for human rights will ring increasingly hollow until we speak out against violence done to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters," said Dr. Paul Sherry, president of the United Church of Christ in the U.S. "Our silence in the midst of this violence is deafening." When the program guidelines committee identified the issue of human sexuality as one of seven areas for WCC work in the future, Russian Orthodox delegate Vladimir Shmaliy warned that "any move to develop a homosexual agenda would severely jeopardize Orthodox participation in the WCC." His move to delete the issue from the report was soundly defeated.

The other six issues identified by the committee were: worship and spirituality, inclusive community, non-violence and reconciliation, globalization, debt cancellation, and creative ways to accomplish the WCC's work with less budget and staff.

Among the major resolutions the WCC called for:

  • debt cancellation for impoverished nations, debt reduction for middle-income nations, and international economic reforms to prevent recurrence of debt;
  • alternative responses to activities of transnational corporations and other international financial institutions, and restrictions on the unlimited flow of capital that produces "instant profits and equally instant disasters" for the rich and poor;
  • a decision on the status of Jerusalem that includes Jews, Muslims and Christians for whom the city is holy and by the two peoples who call it home, the Israelis and Palestinians.
  • condemnation of the use of children in warfare, calling for an immediate moratorium on their recruitment.

A message of hope
Despite some strong objections to an early draft, on its closing day the assembly issued a message of hope, "Being together under the cross in Africa." Emphasizing the theme of the assembly, "Turn to God-Rejoice in Hope," it said, "As we have turned once again to God, we have been able to rejoice in hope. We invite you to share with us the vision which we have been able to express together and which, we pray, will become a part of a common life and witness." "We are challenged by the vision of a church, the people of God on the way together, confronting all divisions of race, gender, age or culture, striving to realize justice and peace, upholding the integrity of creation," the message said in one clause. "We journey together as a people with resurrection faith. In the midst of exclusion and despair, we embrace, in joy and hope, the promise of life in all its fullness. We journey together as a people of prayer. In the midst of confusion and loss of identity, we discern God's signs of God's purpose being fulfilled and expect the coming of God's reign."

Episcopal Church participants react
In a brief interview with delegates and visitors at the assembly from the Episcopal Church, there was unanimous agreement about the hospitality of the people of Zimbabwe and the exciting variety of worship. The Rev. Patrick Mauney, director of Anglican and Global Relations, expressed surprise that the people he encountered spoke so openly of politics in Zimbabwe. The Rev. David Perry, the church's ecumenical officer, said that the formation of a commission to address the concerns of the Orthodox members of the WCC was "very positive, a signal that we are still together in the search for a common vision. We kept the conversation going."

Richard Parkins of Episcopal Migration Ministries said that "the setting and participation of Africans gave it a sense of reality, especially in dealing with issues such as international debt." The youngest member of the delegation, 22-year-old Aldo Rincon of the Dominican Republic, said that it seemed "difficult for youth leaders to make their mark at the assembly." He found some of the talk by WCC leaders about youth participation "superficial," and felt that the assembly blocked any efforts to make substantial changes. Perry is encouraged that the assembly made a clear commitment to meet the needs of member churches and take what he called "some big steps forward," even though they were not always evident in such a complicated meeting. "Instead of self-destructing, as some were predicting, the delegates laid the foundation for a common vision. As Anglicans we will provide whatever leadership we can to implement that vision."

--James Solheim is director of the Office of News and Information for the Episcopal Church and covered the assembly for ENS.

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