When Konrad Raiser was installed as the new General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, some of us (including myself) reminded him of the necessity to discover and reinforce the links with Christian communities which have sprung up all over, before and after 1948, among the marginalised and disadvantaged and have begun to challenge the propositions and structures of 'established' Christianity. Within the context of Black majority churches in Britain, this had struck me by research undertaken in Jamaica twenty years ago. There was the national Jamaica Council of Churches which fought poverty by analysing it, and there were grassroots churches whose addresses I carried with me from England who worked with the poor - and no connection between the two. Henry Van Dusen of Union Theological Seminary in New York spoke in 'Caribbean Holiday' (1955) of a 'new reformation' taking place, or a 'third force' in Christendom - after Eastern Orthodoxy and the Western (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) missions - which pose a challenge to today's ecumenism. This revealed even then that the ecumenical problem of the future will not be the prolonged debate between the oral and the literary Christians and theologians. This problem is even increased because oral theologians are more often (though not always) poor and black, and literary theologians are generally (though not always) white and rich' (Walter Hollenweger, 1974). Raiser confirmed this in a letter to me in 1992: "You are right that what is at stake is to help those on the underside of human life to have a voice. Doubtless, in this context the independent churches play an important role in the future development of the ecumenical movement."
This was said in the light of the decision taken by the last WCC Assembly in Canberra in 1991 to promote efforts 'to establish and strengthen relationships with evangelical, pentecostal and independent churches.' It also highlighted the fact that more than half of the non-Roman and non-Orthodox churches do not belong to the world organisation, or, in the words of Hollenweger in 1992: "This is a difficult situation for a council which perceives itself as a voice of "Third World" churches but to which (with rare exceptions) only those "Third World" bodies belong which have a European orientation."Hubert van Beek of the Office of Church and Ecumenical Relations, as outlined in his presentation, was entrusted with this task of following up the Canberra decision. Two meetings with evangelical and pentecostal churches took place in Latin America in 1993 and 1994. At the latter, it is reported that representatives from the WCC were struck to find in the first sentence of the first confession of faith in Pentecostalism in the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 the search for Christian unity and togetherness which would outdo racial, cultural, national, creedal and class divisions (cp One World No 203, March 1995, p 14). Quoting from William J Seymour, the spiritual father of the mission: "The Pentecostal power, when you sum it all up, is just more of God's love. Pentecost means to live right in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians which is the standard. . . This is Bible religion. It is not manufactured religion. Pentecost makes us love Jesus more and love our brothers (and sisters) more. It brings us all into one common family" (Apostolic Faith, 1907).
In 1993, Hubert van Beek contacted Pauline Huggan, member of the Central Committee of the Conference of European Churches, and myself (then still in Germany), as to whether we would be willing and able to help prepare and organise such a meeting in Britain. Pauline was an ideal partner from her open approach and wide contacts within the ecumenical scene, while remaining a practising minister within her Apostolic Church; Roswith, who was soon to take up a post as Senior Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, was able to help with her knowledge and contacts nationally and internationally.
The African and African Caribbean churches in Britain were chosen as 'a very significant example of the presence of the Black church movement in Europe' (van Beek) but also, I may add, because of their involvement in ecumenical 'partnership' with the indigenous Christian bodies over two decades. The consultation, which was sponsored by the University and housed by the New Testament Church of God (Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee) in Harehills and the West Yorkshire African Caribbean Council of Churches (WYACCC), was also attended by a few representatives from the Asian Christian community and from the Ecumenical Council in Hamburg. Striking for the latter was the high degree of self-assurance and self-determination coupled with critical self-reflection of the participants on their performance both within their respective communities and in society as a whole. Speaking as a German, I would have wished for more representation from the European continent, as the African Religious Diaspora is growing there with an increased inflow of African refugees, and as the historical churches have hardly begun to recognise their presence as churches, let alone to perceive them as partners in an ecumenical process. I still feel that it is a missed opportunity which could have empowered people by listening to those who have been a 'staying power' in Europe for forty years, have developed their own agendas, and have learned to cope with white bureaucratic structures.
In spring 1995, a letter was drafted by us (later to be revised by the newly established planning group) whose purpose it was to reach as many Black organisations, councils and major denominations as possible to name their own representatives for such an occasion. First, completed forms reached us by July. But, as always with such events, and especially within a primarily oral culture, there were many adjustments, last-minute changes and innumerable telephone calls. Some who wished to come never came. Some who had not registered arrived. It was fortunate that the planning group had an open approach not to bar anybody. Retrospectively, I regard it a miracle that, altogether, 45 participants were there, representing various traditions and holding together the African/African Caribbean, South/North, Ecumenical/Evangelical and Male/Female divides. Regarding the latter, women were under-represented, which reflects Robert Beckford's criticism about the 'marginal role' of women in the power structures (but not in the running!) of the church.
Leeds as a venue was chosen for two reasons: (1) One of the organisers and WYACCC are situated here and seemed open and flexible enough to support such an event. Also, the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, renowned for its link with the local communities, promised to help, as did Leeds Churches Together (CoLeCT) which provided a welcoming atmosphere and accommodation. This is a perfect example of ecumenical togetherness crossing the borders in a relatively small community working for a worldwide context. (2) Those of us who do not live in London felt it was high time to let the South come to the North for once, to support new and relevant ventures and ensure that there was a nationwide representation. 'Black Christian Concerns' in London met partner organisations elsewhere. In retrospect, I feel that both assumptions worked well.
The planning group, which we later called the organising caucus, from conflicting traditions: combining African and African Caribbean, Ecumenical and Evangelical, men and women in a joint venture, first met in May 1994 - a meeting which Hubert van Beek attended and briefed. We met four more times alternating between Leeds, London and Sheffield. Our duties were:
(1) To work out a possible agenda which would allow people to speak for themselves, ie maximum participation.
(2)To put information into two major presentations, one on the WCC, the other on the British Black community, and the latter divided into African and African Caribbean perspectives as quite distinct from each other. These were thought to be the 'backbone' to questions and discussions. As it turned out, all three raised much deeper issues than just plain information. Jeri Jehu-Appiah, for instance, took us right back to the roots of early Christianity as also present in Africa!
(3) To draw from the completed forms of those registered the issues to be discussed in the five workshops, Joe Aldred chairing the one on (Black) Theological Education, Hubert the one on WCC Resources and Criteria, James Ozigi the one on Social Justice and Racism, Ronald Nathan the one on Church, Culture and Identity, and Roswith the one on Mission and Evangelism. Their recommendations are printed in this report.
(4) To act as a steering group throughout the conference, responsible for the proceedings practically and ideally, and for providing the 'Way Forward'.
(5) Last but not least, to arrange the worship at the Opening and each morning - as the centre from which to draw strength and confidence. It was this, praising the Lord in all our differences, which would bring us 'into one common family'!
It was mentioned before and confirmed afterwards that the Consultation was not a WCC membership campaign but the exploration of an open dialogue which might challenge our structures. For myself, especially working in a planning group, it was a storehouse of new insights and hope.