World Council of Churches marks 50th anniversary

September 25, 1998

The World Council of Churches officially celebrated its 50th anniversary with church services in Amsterdam, site of the WCC's first assembly, and in Geneva, where the organization's headquarters are located.

The services were the first of several events that will culminate in the WCC's eighth assembly, in Harare, Zimbabwe, in December.

The formation of the WCC in 1948 was "an event of epoch-making importance," Catholicos Aram I, a leading figure in the Orthodox world and moderator of the WCC's central committee, told a congregation of 500 in Amsterdam's Old Lutheran Church on Sept. 19. 

The ecumenical movement, thanks to the "power of the Holy Spirit" had broken down a "partition" dividing the churches, he said.

In Geneva, on the following night, more than 1,500 people crowded into the Protestant Cathedral of St Pierre for an ecumenical service.

Before the service, young people from the city's churches gathered at the Ecumenical Centre, where the WCC's headquarters are located. Others celebrating the anniversary met at four churches in Geneva--Reformed, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Old Catholic-before processing to the cathedral in Geneva's historic old town,
where they were welcomed by a brass band of the Salvation Army.

During the service, Catholicos Aram said, "We must work together for the unity of the churches. We cannot witness and survive as churches without ecumenism."

The WCC, he said, had responded concretely to the needs, the aspirations, the challenges and the concerns of its member churches. "It is not an organization, but a family of churches," he said.

The inaugural assembly of the WCC took place in Amsterdam in 1948, but the WCC's association with Geneva reaches back even before its official foundation. A plaque in the cathedral commemorates the first official international ecumenical service held after the Second World War, a service that took place in Geneva's cathedral in February 1946.

Those taking part in the 1946 service included Dr.Geoffrey Fisher, the archbishop of Canterbury, theologian Martin Niemoller of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), and Bishop Eivind Berggrav, the Primate of Norway--whose countries had been at war less than 12 months earlier.

New ecumenical networks
After celebrating the council's past, Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the WCC, appeared at a symposium to talk about the future.

It seems likely, he said, that in the first few years of the next century--possibly in the year 2001--all the main Christian traditions would form a new "network" to discuss ways in which they can cooperate. He confirmed that a proposal for the establishment of the forum would be put to the WCC's assembly in Harare in December. 

Asked by ENI whether the forum would be a new ecumenical structure, Raiser said the word "network" was more correct. There would definitely not be a new "structure" or "institution." The forum was intended to provide a space, which could overcome the barriers of "institutional rigidity" which prevented dialogue at present. "In fact we have to seriously engage in de-institutionalization," Raiser said.

The move toward a forum or council of the main Christian traditions has gradually been gathering momentum over the past three years, in part thanks to the encouragement of Raiser, who is a German theologian and specialist in ecumenism.

The Roman Catholic Church--by far the world's biggest church--and most Pentecostal churches, which are growing rapidly in many regions, particularly in Latin America, are not members of the WCC. The proposed forum, which would probably be launched at an initial meeting of about 200 officials, would enable much closer communication and cooperation among all the main churches. It would also give a major boost to the global ecumenical movement which some observers believe has been caught in an impasse in recent years.

Homosexuality not on official agenda
In response to questions, Raiser also said the WCC cannot "close its eyes" to the issue of homosexuality, one of the most controversial issues facing many of the world's churches. At the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in Canterbury in August this year the issue dominated media coverage and caused division among the participating bishops. 

Raiser said that he hoped the WCC's next assembly, in Zimbabwe, would "open the way" to explore issues of personal and interpersonal morality, areas which up to the present had hardly been tackled in ecumenical dialogue. His remarks indicate a growing willingness by the WCC's leadership to face up to an issue which the organization has generally regarded as too divisive for its member churches to allow a robust debate, and which is not on the official agenda for discussion at the Harare assembly.

Sexual orientation is a particularly controversial matter for the Harare assembly because the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, has condemned homosexuality as un-African. Most African churches also reject homosexual practices, pointing out that scripture forbids them. Many churches in other regions, particularly the Orthodox churches, believe the issue should not be discussed by ecumenical bodies such as the WCC.

At a press conference after the symposium, Raiser told journalists that any further action on the homosexuality issue would depend on decisions by the delegates at the assembly. There was, he said, "no firm proposal" for any action. "At least we are opening up the possibility. We now await the advice of the assembly itself." 

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