World Council now stable, says retiring general secretary

November 19, 2003

As he faces retirement, the Rev. Konrad Raiser, a German theologian who has been general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) for 11 turbulent years, is leaving behind a smaller organization that is still searching for a broader ecumenical vision that would bring some new participants to the table.

"We have slowly moved out of the turbulent period," said Raiser in a conversation with colleagues at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, thanking them for their support over the years. He pointed to the controversy in recent years with Orthodox members of the council who have strongly objected to what they perceive as a politicized agenda at the expense of a theological vision.

"The situation with the Orthodox has calmed down significantly but not all issues have been resolved," Raiser reported. "It is now less emotional and confrontative, with a more constructive process for addressing issues and working out mutually acceptable solutions. They are being taken seriously and there is an effort to embrace their membership in the WCC," he added.

When asked about the financial crisis that led to cuts in WCC staff and programs, Raiser said that "the situation has stabilized-for now. We are ending the year with a positive balance and expect to rebuild our reserves before the next Assembly. And we adopted financial procedures to satisfy some of the requests from funding partners, successfully reshaping our financial policies."

Yet Raiser was clearly uncomfortable with some of the demands for more accountability in administration of the council. He said that it had been difficult to wrestle with an insistence on "measurable results" when the WCC's objectives are usually to strengthen the quality of relationships. "But it is part of the culture in which we operate so we try to adapt," he said.

"We are moving into a period of preparation for the next Assembly," Raiser said. "It will be smaller, for obvious reasons, and the first in Latin America. After much debate, a theme had been chosen, 'God, in your grace, transform the world.'" In many ways it is an unusual choice, he said, but also "a wonderful provocation for the WCC to speak of grace in a theme. It obliges us to look more closely at the faith traditions of the council and at portions of Scripture not normally part of our considerations."

A larger table?

In recent years the World Council has launched efforts to bring more Christian churches to the ecumenical table. The idea of a Global Forum surfaced in the mid-90s as an effort to bring more voices into the search for reconciliation and cooperation-but not to start a new organization. The effort has been controversial because it leads to identity issues about the role of the WCC, the future of the ecumenical movement, and the unavoidable tensions between a prophetic voice and the search for unity.

"It's more difficult to maintain an ecumenical identity with a quota system," Raiser said. "Our way of configuring the table may make it difficult for some to join us but it is clear that the Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics won't be able to join the WCC as it now exists."

"We can't sacrifice our history-the vision and traditions of the ecumenical movement in the search for alternative ways to express those convictions," Raiser said. "But we do belong together so we should find a way of expressing our communion that is not exclusive, a willingness to explore possibilities when we don't know where they will lead us."

Future still unfolding

It was obvious in the conversation that Raiser has been dealing for some time with the considerable tensions between the old ecumenical models and a future that is still unfolding. "We must be prepared to change, asking if there is a better way of coordination without assuming that some kind of central control is needed. We must search for a new form of governance. The present model has served us quite well but can we restate the basic vision that holds us together? What are the marks of identity of this one ecumenical movement?"

When asked if there was an interfaith component to the emerging ecumenical vision, Raiser said that some are convinced that ecumenical work should not be limited to Christians. He thinks that the interfaith dimension is a challenge to the church to reformulate its traditional ecumenical commitments while providing an opening for a new generation.

That process has begun. Raiser said a mid-November consultation on "reconfiguring the ecumenical movement" will meet in Lebanon. The small number of participants, about 35, will establish an inventory of crucial questions, using a design devised by William Temple in 1936, at the very beginning of the ecumenical movement. A youth meeting will precede the consultation.

Raiser has emphasized that the consultation is not intended to be representative but a mix of experience and commitment among those who will look beyond present structures. He has said in a recent interview, "We need to capture the original spirit that led to the founding of the WCC... Then there was an understanding that, if the churches joined the WCC, they were open to change. This openness is the spirit we must recapture."

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