From the Worldwide Faith News archives

WCC NEWS: Geneva 1966: ethical challenges still relevant today

From "WCC Media" <>
Date Tue, 05 Sep 2006 14:43:15 +0200

World Council of Churches - News Release

Contact: +41 22 791 6153 +41 79 507 6363 For immediate release - 05/09/2006 11:15:08 AM


The World Council of Churches' (WCC) participation in debates on social and economic issues remains as relevant and necessary in the 21st century as it was when canvassed at the World Conference on Church and Society, Geneva 1966, according to speakers at a 40th anniversary colloquium in Geneva today.

Since that conference there has been an ongoing debate in the ecumenical movement about appropriate forms of ecumenical witness for social and economic justice * whether the transformation of society should be achieved through quiet efforts at social renewal or through the use of revolutionary methods, such as the violent overthrow of an existing political order.

According to former WCC General Secretary the Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, the fundamental change of perspective which began to articulate itself at the Geneva conference was acted out in the struggle against racism and, in particular, the support given by the WCC to liberation movements in Southern Africa.

"The positions and actions of the WCC at the time," he said, "are taken as the outstanding example for the 'prophetic role' of the ecumenical movement, even by many of those who were among the critics of the WCC during the controversy."

The Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) heard speakers including Raiser, current General Secretary the Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia and academics Professor Ioannis Petrou (Greece) and Dr Puleng Lenka Bula (South Africa) discuss the methodology of the 1966 conference, the relevance of the event, ecumenical engagement for social and economic justice since 1966, and challenges not addressed at that time.

Raiser said the 1966 conference affirmed in its message that a "radical position" had a solid foundation in Christian tradition and should have its rightful place in the ongoing discussion. He said it could now be the special vocation of the WCC, together with its ecumenical partners, to create the space and the conditions for the dialogue between conflicting religious, political and economic perspectives and interests to continue.

However, Raiser told a press conference following the colloquium that, while the WCC has not condemned those who in their context resorted to violence as the only possibility for realizing justice, the WCC had never wavered in its policy statements from a commitment to non-violence.

The World Conference on Church and Society in Geneva 1966 is considered the first genuinely world Christian conference on social issues, including equal numbers of representatives from the first, second and third worlds and a large group of observers from the Catholic Church.

At Geneva in 1966, the WCC said the churches should be more active in promoting a worldwide revolutionary opposition to the capitalist political and economic system being imposed on new nations by Western industrialized countries; a system seen to be leading to new forms of colonialism and oppression.

Discussions produced many new ideas on economic justice, political responsibility, racism, the relation between women and men in community, and the problem of rapid technological change. The conference, however, refused to provide theological endorsement of a specific revolutionary ideology.

In the 1970s * with continuing debate about the theology of revolution - the notion of "responsible society" was replaced by other ecumenical social criteria, such as the "just, participatory and sustainable society".

Ecumenical efforts to integrate concern for issues of faith, science and the future with older themes of social justice have proved difficult. The WCC's programme emphasis on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation - underlining the common response by churches to injustice and inequality, violence and war, and environmental destruction * did not find agreement on a theological basis to address such concerns.

Since then the WCC has refined the concept of sustainable society into that of "just and sustainable communities" and the 1998 Harare Assembly incorporated finding a solution to the debt crisis and other concerns into its call for a more coherent approach to challenges arising from globalizat ion.

Dr Puleng Lenka Bula, lecturer of Christian Ethics at the University of South Africa, addressed important theological and social concerns that had emerged in contemporary times, which were barely addressed by the 1966 conference: gender justice and the concerns and contributions of women and the question of the threat to the web of life.

She noted there had been negative reactions to programmes for gender justice, even within the ecumenical movement, and said it was imperative for the churches to be "open to dialogue and transformation so that the authentic and faithful expression of God's ministry does not disenfranchise women from wholeness and from living out of their faith".

Raiser told Central Committee that a valuable set of criteria was presented in the study document on "Christian Faith and World Economy Today", and were included in the AGAPE document on alternatives to economic globalization discussed at the WCC assembly at Porto Alegre earlier this year. At Porto Alegre, he said, there was a relatively broad agreement on the commitments to action included in the AGAPE call.

Professor Petrou concluded his analysis with an appeal to churches to engage with contemporary society, and to be self-critical on the stewardshi p of wealth in the churches. He also called for practical engagement of churches to respond to the problems of society, beyond proclamations.

These words were echoed by Raiser. "As Christians," he said, "we are called to act; we cannot wait until we have reached complete agreement in terms of analysis or with regard to the theological, ethical and ecclesiolo gical implications."

For more information on WCC's work on economic justice:

The video of the plenary on economic justice during the Assembly in Porto Alegre (February 2006) can be found on:

More information on the WCC Central Committee meeting is available on the WCC website:

Additional information: Juan Michel, +41 22 791 6153 +41 79 507 6363

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The World Council of Churches promotes Christian unity in faith, witness and service for a just and peaceful world. An ecumenical fellowship of churches founded in 1948, today the WCC brings together 348 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches representing more than 560 million Christians in over 110 countries, and works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church. The WCC general secretary is Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, from the Methodist Church in Kenya. Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland.

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