From the Worldwide Faith News archives

World Council of Churches launches Decade to Overcome Violence at Berlin meeting

Date 09 Feb 2001 10:24:18


World Council of Churches launches Decade to Overcome Violence at Berlin meeting

by James Solheim

     (ENS) The themes of reconciliation and peace were woven through the agenda 
of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at its nine-day 
meeting in Potsdam and Berlin, Germany.

     Beginning with a Saturday night vigil on February 4 in the bombed-out shell 
of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in downtown Berlin, followed by a Sunday 
service and concluding with a candlelight march in the snow to the Brandenburg 
Gate, council members launched the Decade to Overcome Violence, pledging to "work 
together to end violence and build lasting peace and justice."

     The appropriateness of the location was underscored by Manfred Kock, senior 
leader of the Evangelical Church of Germany, the nation's main Protestant body. 
"With its dividing wall, Berlin was after all once the symbol of a world that for 
decades seemed immovably caught in the violence of the Cold War." Since the 
peaceful reunification of Germany in 1990, "Berlin has embodied the hope that 
antagonisms can be overcome by other means than violence."

Role of the Orthodox 

     The 158-member committee also sought internal reconciliation with its 
Orthodox members. A Special Commission on Orthodox Participation, with a mandate 
to propose changes in the "structure, style and ethos" of the WCC, offered an 
optimistic report on its progress. Orthodox members have been highly critical of 
what they perceive as a politicized agenda of the WCC, threatening to reconsider 
their membership.

     Bishop Barry Rogerson of the Church of England spoke for delegates who 
worried that changes in the way the WCC operates might mute its "prophetic 
voice." The Program to Combat Racism, for example, "helped change the face of 
southern Africa," he said.

     Dr. Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church said that his church was 
committed to the WCC but he hinted that, unless changes were made the WCC's 
largest member church might leave. The Russians favor representation in the WCC 
by "families of churches" and perhaps creation of a second voting chamber in 
which churches would be grouped by confessions. And they would like the WCC to 
move towards a "consensus model" to replace the more legislative style.

     The Central Committee also called on the WCC to continue its efforts 
"towards a negotiated peace in the Middle East based on international law." The 
committee also addressed other issues such as the bombing of civilians in the 
Sudan, opposition to an American plan to provide military support in Colombia, an 
appeal for the reunification of Cyprus, and a call for a peaceful resolution of 
the conflict in Indonesia.

     World debt was also on the agenda with members stressing the injustice of 
the burden on poorer nations, calling it "immoral" and claiming that the church 
is the only institution speaking out.

Violence and justice

     Central Committee Moderator Aram I of the Armenian Orthodox Church stirred 
controversy when he suggested in his opening remarks that "violence as a last 
resort" is an option that should not be rejected.

     "Violence is evil," he said, and it "undermines the integrity, affects the 
unity and questions the credibility of the church." Yet he pointed out that "for 
some, living under conditions of injustice and oppression, where all means of 
non-violent actions are used up, violence remains an unavoidable alternative." 
While he argued that "we cannot legitimize violence under just any 
circumstances," at the same time violence cannot be condemned when it is used as 
a last resort for the cause of justice and dignity.

     Aram expressed his doubts that violence can be avoided when efforts to 
restore justice fail. "Therefore, 'limited and controlled' violence aimed at 
changing social conditions and establishing justice for all is acceptable and 
even necessary." Yet he called on member churches to build what he called "a 
culture of peace."

The future of dialogue

     In his report to the committee, WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser sketched 
some of the difficulties facing the ecumenical organization and its 342 members 
as they move into a new era of dialogue and international cooperation.

     Raiser has been promoting new ways of dealing with new challenges, 
particularly bringing more churches and organizations to the table, moving beyond 
traditional and formal structures into what he calls "an open ecumenical space in 
which all partners in the ecumenical movement can participate equally."

     In his report, Raiser expressed his concern that ecumenism might become 
merely cooperation among churches at the lowest common level, devoid of authentic 
Christian community. Moving beyond what separates the churches, he called for a 
new vision, one of an "ecumenical space for an inclusive community, local and 

     He added that "it should be a safe space which allows for open discussion 
where all can get a hearing and where the search for a common mind can take place 
without the pressure to win an argument or a vote." It should also be "a sacred 
or spiritual space" nourished through common prayer and worship, as well as a 
"sustainable space with structures of governance which are open and flexible," 
protecting the integrity of the ecumenical space and with "a praxis of education 
and formation which continuously reconstitutes new generations of leadership."

     The WCC has suffered from serious financial problems in recent years and 
faces a deficit of $915,000 this year, forcing it to dip into general reserves. 
The situation forced a major restructuring of the council and staff cuts in 1998. 
The WCC is launching an "income-development strategy" to consolidate, increase 
and seek new sources of funding.

New voices

     The Rev. David Perry, deputy for ecumenical relations, represented the 
Episcopal Church in place of Pamela Chinnis, former president of the House of 
Deputies, who was elected to the Central Committee at the WCC Assembly in 
Zimbabwe two years ago.

     Perry said that he was impressed with "lots of new voices, especially from 
Africa, who will be very important in conversations about a the future of the WCC 
and the ecumenical movement. Their common witness helped to put a sharp edge on 
issues such as globalization and debt--and violence."

     He also noted the "incredible array of participants from Anglican provinces 
around the world, not just Europe and North America. They are a gift of 
leadership from the Anglican Communion to the evolving vision of the WCC." 

     Perry said that there seemed to be general agreement that "we didn't want 
the WCC to be a legislative operation, always voting on issues, but rather to 
move towards a consensus model. There was an evolving sympathy for a new 
ecumenical style," he said.

     In the meantime the WCC is still searching for ways to include broader 
representation of the Christian family, especially the Roman Catholics, the 
Evangelicals and the Pentecostals. Perry said that there was "an impatience with 
the way things have been but perhaps our sharp disagreements will help us 
discover some new ways of being together with new models for an ecumenical life 
that could deal with difficult issues." 

     He is convinced that won't happen until "we do the theological work first, 
establishing a theological rationale for what we are doing." 

--James Solheim is director of the Episcopal Church's Office of News and Information. 
This article is based on reports from Ecumenical News International.

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