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Presentation on the world council of churches

Hubert van Beek

Office of Church and Ecumenical Relations

on Friday 1 December 1995

1 The WCC has 330 member churches, comprising the Protestant world, the Anglican community, and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches. The Roman Catholic church is not a member church but there is an official Joint Working Group of the WCC and the Vatican. The WCC grew out of movements such as 'Faith and Order' (concerned with doctrine and theology) and 'Life and Work' (concerned with social topics) and also out of post-war Inter-church Aid and Refugee Service. Its official foundation was delayed by World War II, and the two streams united at the inaugural assembly in Amsterdam in 1948. The then 144 members were largely the North Atlantic Christian community plus some Asian and Orthodox churches. Today there is a much wider representation but even so, the WCC is not yet fully representative of christianity wordlwide.

The WCC's organisation consists of four major programme units:

(1) Unity and Renewal (Faith and Order, Theological Education, Worship and Spirituality, Laity)

(2) Churches in Mission: Health, Education and Witness (Gospel and Cultures, Evangelism, HIV/Aids, Christian education, relationships in mission)

(3) Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (Theology of Life, Social ethics, Faith and economy, Racims, International Affairs, Overcoming violence, Women, Youth)

(4) Sharing and Service (Diakonia, Uprooted people, Emergencies, Sharing of resources)

The General Secretariat comprises Offices for Church and Ecumenical Relations, Interreligious Relations, Communications, and the Ecumenical Institute Bossey.

The WCC is presently in a period of reflection on the future. The visible unity of the churches continues to be its central goal but there is increasing emphasis on the nature and the quality of the fellowship or koinonia which it consitutes. The divisions are not only doctrinal. The churches are also divided on questions of social justice, racism, gender, ethnicity, ethical issues etc. As part of its effort to deepen the fellowship the WCC is alos seeking to relate to churches outside its membership, such as for instance the African Independent churches.

The first members agreed on a short Basis, later extended, describing the WCC as a 'Fellowship of Churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures and seek to fulfil their common calling to the glory of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit'. From the start, it was conceived as a Prayer Fellowship and not as a Super-church or an Ecumenical Council with authority to impose anything or legislate the churches. It has to live the tension between 'prophetic leadership' and 'accountable representation' and argues for linking Faith and Order with Life and Work: 'You cannot invite representation from doctrinal propositions and talk about theology without addressing the questions of christian witness in society'.

In 1950 the WCC made the so-called Toronto Statement, which spells out how the member churches understand the council and how they recognise each other in the way each church understands itself.

2 Today's Consultation is one more step to reach out to Evangelical, Pentecostal and Independent churches. This is a large christian family or sector of world christianity which is not really represented in the WCC. Presently, there are only four pentecostal member churches (four in Latin America and one in Africa) and a few African Instituted churches such as the Kimbanguists, the Church of the Lord (Aladura), and the African Church of the Holy Spirit. After the 1975 Nairobi Assembly regular contacts were established with international evangelical bodies such as the World Evangelical Fellowship and the Lausanne Committee. Leaders as David Bosch and David du Plessis played active roles in this regard. But there was little evidence of real outreach to actual churches. At Canberra 1991, the WCC decided to increase its efforts to establish and strengthen relationships with Evangelical, Pentecostal and Independent churches worldwide. Since then there have been two meetings, both in Latin America. The first was in Equador in 1993 with representatives of Evangelical Free churches; it resulted in real discoveries on both sides, eg that the WCC is not the antichrist and that evangelicals are not only interested in the salvation of the soul! The other meeting took place in Lima, Peru in 1994 with 50 Pentecostals - which was a big celebration and brought to light the tension between indigenous Pentecostalism and its solidarity with people and the shallow message of neo-pentecostalism and its 'prosperity' gospel. In July 1995, an Orthodox - Evangelical consultation was held (with Evangelicals from within and outside WCC membership) in Egypt, hosted by the Coptic Orthodox Church. The discussions brought out that orthodox and evangelical christians can discuss their differences in a profound spirit of common faith convictions.

This meeting in Britain is an attempt to open up yet another dialogue, within the European situation. It will be followed by a meeting with African Instituted churches from Nigeria and other countries in West Africa, near Lagos in January 1996. It is hoped that in the next Assembly of the World Council in Harare 1998, African and African Caribbean churches will be full co-actors in this ecumenical event. Further steps will be a mutual discussion with Pentecostals in the USA in 1996, and a suggested pan-African meeting with African Instituted Churches in 1997.

It has to be firmly emphasised that all these undertakings are not meant to be a membership campaign - churches join if they want to do so - but as a drive towards mutual awareness, contacts and understanding and the removal of misconceptions.

3 In discussion, the issue of a 'bureaucratic machinery' was raised and the tension between 'movement and institution' pointed out. Hubert van Beek drew attention to the relatively small staff of WCC, their flexibility in moving always towards the reality of people (eg women), and its inherent constructive criticism: 'And yet, it moves, in spite of its weight!'

Questions of terminology came up. The description 'Independent' was preferred to 'Instituted' by Father Abiola of the Council of African and Afro-Caribbean Churches. But who is to solve the problem of an ever-changing terminology?

The Caribbean (besides Asia and the Middle East) was not yet included in this process because of its own re-structuring.

Issues relating to membership of WCC were raised, including the sharing of information about the criteria for applications: The latter comprise the number of 25,000 members, autonomy as national churches, constructive ecumenical relationships within the given area, subscribing to WCC basis, and awareness of the financial and related implications of membership. Those larger churches abroad (eg the Church of the Lord Aladura in Nigeria) which are WCC members, should include in their meaningful participation representatives of their smaller churches elsewhere (eg in the UK).

The WCC is aware that the present structure is a North Atlantic set-up which raises questions about exclusion, ethnic minorities and migrant churches, and the larger international confessional bodies. However, as it is not a World Christian Council but a Council of Churches in which participation, function of leadership and representation, and fellowship rank highly, criteria for membership may have to be adjusted.


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