World Council of Churches meeting in Africa expected to redefine ecumenical movement
Episcopal News Service, October 27, 1998
When representatives of the 330 members of the World Council of Churches meet in Zimbabwe in December to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the most visible expression of ecumenical hopes, they will be asked to chart a new course for the future-and to sidestep some issues that could threaten the search for visible unity.
The climate of the ecumenical effort has changed dramatically since 1948 when 147 representatives, most of them white Protestant clergymen, met in Amsterdam to launch the WCC. When a thousand participants gather for the opening service December 3 at the University of Zimbabwe, the full diversity will be quite apparent.
“The rich diversity of WCC assemblies today makes possible an inclusive and unparalleled sharing of the many perspectives of the churches worldwide,” said Jean Stromberg, head of the U.S. Office of the WCC in a preparation document. “To have in the same assembly Bible study group a Coptic Orthodox priest, a Peruvian Pentecostal pastor, a Korean lay teacher, as well as others from unique contexts and with unique experiences, is to begin to experience the richness of reading the Bible from the perspective of the other. No one remains unchanged in such an encounter.”
End of decade in solidarity with women
One dramatic example of that diversity is the changing role of women in the ecumenical movement. A four-day festival to celebrate the completion of the WCC’s Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women will offer both celebration and a sobering assessment of that emerging role. In the closing five years of the decade, 75 teams have visited 330 churches, 68 national councils and approximately 650 women’s groups to assess the achievements and challenges of churches in their efforts to move forward in commitments to women in the life of the churches.
A report called Living Letters will illustrate that women are a majority in most congregations and, in many places, undergird the spiritual and liturgical life of the church, that they are active in a wide variety of lay ministries and increasingly in the ordained ministry.
Yet the visits also uncovered persistent examples of violence and a continuing struggle with racism, as well as economic hardship in societies where poverty is a daily burden. “We could not help being struck by the evidence that almost everywhere boys are still socialized to dominate and girls to be subservient, and by the number of times ‘culture’ was used to explain or justify violence against women. only rarely challenged by men in the churches.”
The visitation teams were also discouraged by “clear evidence that women are marginalized by their own church structures. All the teams noted women’s lack of limited access to decision-making processes, and thus power, in their churches-and some church leaders insisted that church constitutions cannot be changed. This situation both reflects and promotes a similar imbalance of power in society.”
African setting is key
The assembly will meet in a region of the world where Christianity is experiencing explosive growth and vitality-and where churches and cultures are faced with massive problems of debt, war, violence and ethnic conflicts, the uprooting of significant portions of the population and health problems that are decimating whole nations.
Since the WCC met in Nairobi in 1975, in the midst of liberation struggles, “the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa has ushered in a new period in the post-colonial history of Africa,” General Secretary Konrad Raiser said. “However, what was expected to become a period of reconstruction and rebuilding, particularly with respect to the community of African people, has turned into a scene of unending internal conflicts.” He is convinced that “great responsibility now falls on the African churches as the trustees of a message of justice, peace and sustainable community.”
During a special plenary, Thabo Mbeki, deputy president of South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s heir apparent, will convey his vision for Africa in the coming years and reflect on how the churches might best express their solidarity with the peoples of Africa in the Third Millennium.
An Anglican official of the All Africa Council of Churches urged African members of the WCC to insist that the assembly focus on African concerns. “This assembly will definitely have to have an African stamp,” said the Rev. Clement Janda of the Sudan. He said that homosexuality was not among those concerns. He added that “people will bring their different issues,” but that “ours as Africans is not to be side-tracked by other people’s issues and agendas, but we should be thinking about how best to articulate our own issues.” He cited the issues of poverty, the heavy debt burden, environment and diseases such as AIDS and malaria. As a special feature of the meeting participants will meet around the issues in padare, a Shona word that means meeting place, a tradition of people sharing experiences and wisdom in facing issues of their communities. Everyone will be invited to join in the padare, breaking down the barriers between official representatives and the thousands of advisors, guests, local church members and observers.
Topics will cross the spectrum, organized around the six themes of the assembly: Justice and Peace, Unity, Moving Together, Learning, Witness and Solidarity. Several hundred workshops from member churches, ecumenical groups and organizations will be among the offerings.
Gays allowed to participate
The Zimbabwe government has promised that gays and lesbians will not be blocked from participation. Homosexual acts are illegal and carry stiff penalties in Zimbabwe, and President Robert Mugabe launched a personal campaign against them, describing them as “lower than dogs and pigs.” The WCC reached a “memorandum of understanding” with the government that will allow delegates to enter the country freely, include the issue on its agenda and permit journalists to report on the issue “fully and freely.” Earlier Mugabe had said to journalists, “We do not believe they have any rights at all. They can demonstrate, but if they come here, we will throw them in jail.”
The issue is not officially on the agenda, and would prove very divisive. The African Anglicans, who led a successful effort at this summer’s Lambeth Conference to declare homosexual activity contrary to Scripture, would find allies among the WCC’s evangelical and Orthodox members. Planners of the assembly have walked a fine line, trying to maintain an open meeting while accommodating the strong opinions of many members that homosexuality could hijack the whole meeting.
Raiser told a special anniversary celebration in Amsterdam in September that the council cannot “close its eyes” to the issue of homosexuality. He expressed his hope that the assembly would “open the way” to explore issues of personal and interpersonal morality, areas that have been largely absent in ecumenical dialogue. “At least we are opening up the possibility. We now await the advice of the assembly itself,” he said.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Netherlands has decided not to send delegates to the assembly because of Mugabe’s anti-homosexual campaign.
Orthodox reexamining their role
From the earliest stirrings of the ecumenical movement “the Orthodox have had a relationship with modern ecumenism that is characterized by enthusiasm and by discomfort, by encouragement and criticism, by joy and sorrow,” according to a briefing paper for the assembly by Dr. Peter Bouteneff, a member of the Orthodox Church in America and a staff member of the WCC Faith and Order Department.
The Orthodox are particularly critical of what they perceive as the politicized agenda of the WCC, feeling that in many discussions “there appear to be virtually no limits to the diversity that is tolerated,” marred by a “tendency to place more conservative moral or theological positions on the defensive,” says Bouteneff. “In all, Orthodox participants in the WCC feel that, thanks to a number of factors, they are a minority, sometimes even a special interest group, among a large Protestant majority.”
Bouteneff says that “these are indeed critical times in the Orthodox encounter with the WCC” and the assembly “will be a critical event.” He is worried that Orthodox concerns could be “aggravated” in Harare, pointing to the theological inhibitions that prevent them from sharing the sacrament with non-Orthodox. “This will again be a focus of pain for all sides.” And he said that the padare feature, which will include openly gay groups, would appear to be sanctioned by the WCC by those who can’t distinguish between the official assembly program and the informal program.
Underscoring the Orthodox commitment to the search for full visible unity as “holy work,” he said that they “share a responsibility before God to seek to discern what in our Christian disunity is due merely to misunderstandings and historical-cultural factors, and what needs addressing on the level of theology and life.” He is convinced that “the WCC is a unique instrument, the most comprehensive global fellowship we have.” He praised the support the WCC has provided for “the much-needed renewal in our church life today” and admitted that “many items that are squarely on the socio-political and moral/ethical agenda of WCC activity need to be placed more centrally on our agenda as well.”
Orthodox members are expected to reduce the size of their delegations and perhaps restrict their participation. “Efforts are presently underway from both sides to clarify the situation sufficiently so that a crisis at the assembly itself can be avoided,” said Raiser.
Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow has warned that the continued participation of the Russian Orthodox Church, the WCC’s largest member, will depend on the organization’s “total reconstruction.” He and other Orthodox leaders have experienced pressure within their churches in recent years to withdraw from ecumenical participation.
The Orthodox need some way of expressing their objections to what he called the abandonment of “important theological principles and moral injunctions” by “certain Protestant confessions” which then imposed their own “altered principles” on other member churches.
“This is possible because extreme liberals, without representing the majority of Christians, have gained a dominant position,” the patriarch said in an interview with a Polish newspaper in Warsaw. In looking for a way for Orthodox objections to such trends to be acknowledged, he said, “We are making our future participation depend on this.”
Searching for a new identity
A cornerstone of the discussion at the assembly will be a study document on the future of the WCC, “Common Understanding and Vision,” the culmination of eight years of work. It poses questions about how the WCC can serve as an instrument of the worldwide ecumenical movement in the future. It draws on the insights of 50 years of history and analyzes the challenges churches face. Response to the statement will set the course of the WCC and could reshape the whole ecumenical agenda.
Raiser has raised the possibility of a wider forum that might include other streams of Christian life and expression that have emerged in the last few decades, as well as Roman Catholics who are not members but have participated in some parts of the work of the WCC.
He said at a news conference in Amsterdam that a proposal for the establishment of a forum to include wider representation would be on the agenda in Harare. He described it as a “network” rather than a new ecumenical structure, intended as an effort to overcome barriers of “institutional rigidity” which has hampered dialogue, “a space for mutual enrichment, for discovering ways of cooperation.”
The idea has been gathering momentum, largely due to efforts by Raiser, who said that Roman Catholics and Pentecostals had expressed interest. He said that it might be possible after the assembly to establish a joint international commission with the Pentecostals, who number an estimated 500 million in the world. “We must find ways of opening up to a genuine encounter,” he said in Amsterdam. “Pentecostalism has become a new face of Christianity in its own right, and should not be simply subsumed under Protestantism in general.”
“Many are talking about the fact that, on the eve of the 21st century, the ecumenical movement finds itself at a crossroads,” Raiser said. “The ecumenical pilgrimage has reached a point where the way ahead is unclear.” Yet Raiser pointed out, “The assembly theme, ‘Turn to God-Rejoice in Hope,’ is an invitation to the churches in the spirit of Jubilee to be released from institutional and doctrinal captivity. It is an invitation to conversion, to a turning around in order to be able to move again.. God’s jubilee can liberate the churches from being tied to their past and open the way into the future.”