Bottom of the Ninth Assembly
The Recent World Council of Churches Assembly & the End of the Ecumenical Movement
by George Conger
The decision has been a generation in the making, and no single vote, speech, motion, paper, legislative minute, consciousness-raising session, litany of repentance, people’s drama, or interpretive dance arising from the World Council of Churches’ 9th Assembly, held February 14–23, 2006, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, can be accounted as the definitive end of its Christian life. The thirty-year battle for the soul of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the institutional ecumenical movement has ended.
Founded in 1948 to foster the reunification of Christian Churches, the WCC has effectively shed its religious calling, and in its place has chosen social activism in the pursuit of "relevance.”
The Relevant WCC
This “relevance” found voice at the opening session of the 9th Assembly when the North American delegates offered a litany of repentance. Americans and Canadians confessed to the delegates from more than one hundred countries “the sin of racism,” “our compulsion to despoil the earth,” “our thirst for violence,” “the hunger for revenge,” “our lust for empire,” our “self satisfaction and self-adoration,” and our “hearts hardened by terror and media manipulation.”
Latin American delegates joined the chorus agreeing that America was the problem, confessing to having “to breathe air polluted by foreign-owned industries” and to being “subjected unilaterally to the interests of large corporations or the countries reckoned to be great.”
Asian delegates added a refrain, calling for repentance for “the invalid babies still born in Vietnam as a result of Agent Orange used [by America] during the war in Vietnam.” The call had to be made in absentia, however, as no Vietnamese were actually present.
But while the seed of political relevance has taken root in the institutional ecumenical movement, it has yet to flower in all of the WCC’s 348 member churches, and thus prompted the call for a new “ecumencial paradigm” at this gathering. The 691 delegates learned from the WCC’s Moderator, Aram I, the Armenian Catholicos of Cilicia, that some believed their organization was in “crisis.”
The ecumenical movement had lost “contact with the vision; and the vision appears to be vague and ambiguous” he said; yet this presented an opportunity for the WCC. The way forward was not to regain the WCC’s founding vision of a fellowship of churches but to adapt the WCC to the changing state of the world.
“More and more churches and ecumenical circles consider the ecumenical movement as a ‘forum’ or a ‘space’ for encounter and collaboration,” he said. Although this had led to “sidelining the goal of visible unity,” this should not be of concern, Aram concluded, as “we should not waste any more time and energy on the perpetuation of vestiges of ageing ecumenism. The ecumenical movement must serve its sacred cause and not remain paralyzed within ossified structures.”
Over the following ten days, the assembly served the cause. Delegates were asked to “take a firm faith stance against hegemonic powers” and to “make ourselves accountable to the victims of the project of economic globalization.” There was no need for the delegates to vote, however, as the playfully named AGAPE document (Alternative Globalization Addressing People and Earth) had been pre-approved by the WCC’s Central Committee.
Not satisfied with their opening litany, the 34 American Churches present at the assembly returned to the confessional and offered an apology to the WCC, lamenting their having “turned a deaf ear to the voices of church leaders throughout our nation and world.” “By seeking to reclaim a privileged and secure place in the world,” America was “raining down terror on the truly vulnerable among our global neighbors,” they said. The United States was further “complicit in a culture of consumption that diminishes the earth,” despoiling the environment and promoting racism, economic inequality, and other generally bad things.
Workshops, dramas (pantomime and spoken), and poetry readings explained the injustices of Israel and the need for solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Peruvian panpipe musicians serenaded delegates at presentations on the environment, while Swedish Lutherans, clothed in wool stockings and open-toed sandals, danced in time, their pale arms swaying in the Brazilian night like sea fans in an ocean current.
Not all of the assembly was so insubstantial, as some speakers from the margins of the WCC’s power structure offered alternatives to the politicized religion.
Dr. Jacob Kurien, an Oriental Orthodox seminary professor from India, decried the “comparative silence on holiness,” saying it was “conspicuous” by its absence from the WCC’s deliberations. “Is this symbolic of the growing signs of unholiness becoming legitimized in the Churches? Is not this ‘missing’ a reminder to rethink the Churches’ preoccupation with money and power-politics?” Dr. Kurien asked.
An Argentine Pentecostal speaker, Norberto Saccaro, suggested that the best paradigm for ecumenism was evangelism. Dr. Saccaro, whose church is not a member of the WCC, explained: “An ecumenism of mission is possible insofar as Jesus Christ is proclaimed as Savior and Lord, and the gospel presented in its entirety. We believe that the centrality of Jesus Christ points up the difference between the mission of the church and religious compassion. We need to be clear. Latin America needs Jesus Christ and we should come together in mission to declare that truth.”
The President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, explained that the Catholic Church valued the work of the WCC, but it had no intention of joining. Rome, he explained to the media, was a “universal Church,” while the WCC was a collection of “local and regional ecclesial bodies.” The Vatican much preferred bilateral dialogue, he said, citing the church’s exchanges with the Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, jetted in for a day to address the topic of “Christian Identity and Religious Pluralism” and decisively, but circuitously, affirmed the centrality of the creeds, sacraments, and Scripture in the life of the Church. However, in line with his thinking about the ecclesiology of the Anglican Communion, he declined to say where the line should be drawn between those who were part of the Christian Church and those who were not.
While uncomfortable with the language of the “hidden Christ” in other faiths, he argued that glimpses of the divine were present outside the Church. “In spite of the heritage of sin, there is still the possibility of some kind of constructive response to the gift of God among human beings by the virtue of being made in God’s image,” he argued.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu went a step further, telling the WCC that “God is not a Christian,” in the most warmly received speech of the week, and one that seemed to express the mind of the majority.
After first thanking the WCC for its support of the African National Congress, which “was quite critical in saying our cause was just and noble and that those who as a last resort had opted for the armed struggle were not terrorists but freedom fighters,” he told the assembly that “God is allowing any and everybody into heaven.” The Nobel laureate noted, “I myself have not felt that I needed to convert other people.”
“Black and white, yellow and red, rich and poor, educated and not edu-cated, beautiful and not so beautiful, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, all belong, all are held in a divine embrace that will not let us go, all, for God has no enemies,” he said. “Bush, Bin Laden all belong, gay, lesbian, so-called straight, all belong and are loved, are precious.”
While the WCC holds its conferences, writes its reports, and congratulates itself on its high-mindedness and “inclusivity,” the real work of Christian ecumenism has passed it by. Dialogue between churches and denominations has grown over the past decade, but the WCC’s role in it has declined. Ecumenical enterprises independent of the WCC—missions programs, social action, publishing, theological dialogue—continue to grow rapidly without the involvement of a group that sees the institutional church as a drag upon its social agenda.
Supported by funding primarily from German, Scandinavian, and American churches, the WCC will not be disappearing soon, however. But the WCC’s search for relevance in social activism, at the expense of Christian witness, will push it further to the margins of Christian life and ultimately to irrelevance.
For more information, see the websites of the WCC Assembly (www.wcc-assembly.info/en/welcome.html); the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org/site/pp.asp?c=fvKVLfMVIsG&b=1424961); and the Presbyterian Lay Committee’s publication The Layman (www.layman.org).
See also Johannes Jacobse’s report in the March issue.
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“Bottom of the Ninth Assembly” first appeared in the May 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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