From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
World Council of Churches meeting in Africa expected to redefine
John Rollins <firstname.lastname@example.org>
26 Oct 1998 20:35:02
World Council of Churches meeting in Africa expected to redefine
by James Solheim
(ENS) 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
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
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 Millenium.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
"Because of the diversity of our delegation, we will be able
to make valuable contributions to that discussion," said the Rev.
David Perry, ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Church. "We will
be able to speak from our experiences because we have been deeply
involved in the issues the WCC is facing as it articulates a new
vision for a new millenium."
The church's delegates are: Presiding Bishop Frank T.
Griswold, Pamela P. Chinnis, president of the House of Deputies;
the Ven. Carmen Guerrero of Los Angeles; Katherine Tyler-Scott of
Indianapolis; the Rev. David Veal of Northwest Texas; the Rev.
Hector Monterroso of Guatemala; Bishop Jean Zache Duracin of
Haiti; Miguelina Espinal of the Dominican Republic; Virginia
Doctor, interim director of Indian Ministries; and the Rev. Keith
Yamamoto of California.
--James Solheim is the Episcopal Church's director of the Office
of News and Information.
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