INTRODUCING THE WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES
Hubert van Beek and Jean Stromberg introduced the WCC and the reflection on future vision and understanding.
As a council of churches the WCC is a body made up of autonomous member churches, most of them organised at the national level of their country, which have made a free choice to join the council.
Today the WCC has some 332 member churches in over 100 countries, which come from the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, the Protestant family and the Anglican community. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member but there is an official Joint Working Group between the WCC and the Vatican.
Historically, it is often said that the origins of the modern ecumenical movement can be traced back to the world missionary conference in Edinburgh in 1910. Out of this event grew the Faith and Order and Life and Work movements which were inspired by individuals who had a vision of unity and cooperation. In 1920 the Patriarch of Constantinople issued an encyclical calling upon all the churches in the world to join in a League of Christian Churches. In the '30s the leaders of Faith and Order and Life and Work together developed the plan to form a world body for christian unity. The founding assembly was initially planned for 1941 but had to be postponed because of the war. In 1948 the representatives of 147 churches came together in Amsterdam and founded the WCC.
The International Missionary Council which was set up as a result of the 1910 world missionary conference was not involved in the early stages of the formation of the WCC. The IMC merged with the WCC in 1961 at the 3rd Assembly in New Delhi. In the wake of this merger many churches from Africa, Asia etc. which had grown out of missionary work began to join. The 1961 Assembly was also the time at which the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe were able to integrate the WCC; they had been prevented from doing so in 1948 because of the Cold War. While almost all the founding churches in 1948 were from the North Atlantic region, from 1961 onwards the WCC became far more representative confessionally and geographically.
Several basic questions concerning the nature and understanding of the World Council were resolved at the very beginning of its life, in ways that are still fundamentally important today. For instance, among various proposals to form a council of national councils of churches, or a council of confessional families, or a council of churches, the delegates in Amsterdam decided firmly in favour of the latter. A brief Basis was accepted, stating the ground on which the churches were able to join and stay together. It was not meant to be a common creed but a formulation describing the council as a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour. The Basis was later extended to include references to the scriptures, the Trinity and the common calling of the churches; the verbe accept was replaced by confess. Since 1961 it reads:
"The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit".Another issue which required clarification was the ecclesiological significance of the WCC. To that end the Central Committee adopted in 1950 a document on "The Church, the Churches and the World Council of Churches" known as the Toronto Statement. It spells out that the WCC is not a super-church and does not negociate church unions; it is not based on any one particular conception of the church and to be a member does not imply the acceptance of a specific doctrine concerning the nature of church unity. The document also contains a number of positive affirmations concerning the oneness of the Church of Christ, the mutual recognition of elements of the true church in other churches, the common witness to Christ, solidarity and spiritual fellowship.
From the outset the search of the visible unity of the churches has been at the heart of the WCC. At the 5th Assembly in 1975 the functions and purposes were re-formulated and expanded; the first of these reads as follows:
"to call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe;"
The Commission on Faith and Order, which is responsible for the doctrinal and theological work on unity has a membership that is broader than that of the WCC. It includes the Roman Catholic Church as well as some evangelical churches and is open to the participation of other churches which are not WCC members.
The WCC has no authority over its member churches and can make no decision that is binding for them. In the words of Archbishop Temple, one of the pioneers: "Any authority that it may have will consist in the weight it carries with the churches by its wisdom".
Since a few years the WCC is engaged in an intensive process of reflection on its "Common Understanding and Vision". It is hoped that this will culminate in the adoption of an "ecumenical charter" for the 21st century by the next Assembly in 1998, in Harare (Zimbabwe), when the WCC will celebrate its 50th anniversary. The reason for this new effort of looking at itself and at the future lies in the recognition that the world and the ecumenical movement have profoundly changed since the time the WCC came into being.
Some of the questions which are being addressed in this process are:
* The nature of the fellowship. What does it mean when the Council calls itself a fellowship of churches? How integral is membership to the life of the churches? Has there been growth to their understanding of unity as integral to their life and being as a church?
* The relationship of the WCC to the wider ecumenical movement. The WCC understands itself to be "a privileged instrument" of the ecumenical movement but not its totality nor its center. How can new relationships be established with other parts of the movement? How can WCC make itself available without dominating?
* Participation and representation. Many churches and whole sectors of christianity are outside the membership of the WCC. Many new "actors" have emerged on the ecumenical scene: national and regional councils and alliances, confessional families, evangelical groupings, movements of women, youth, coalitions of Christian action groups etc. Where and how do these have access to the WCC? Who participates? How to relate representation of institutional church bodies and other manifestations of ecumenism?
* Models of unity. The methodology for the search of unity has been based on identifying and overcoming divisions and differences. Several models have been elaborated over the years. Does this have to be the role of the WCC? Or should it rather seek the unity that is needed to live in oneness and call the churches to celebrate it?
These and other questions are not for the member churches only. All partners in the ecumenical movement and non member churches are invited to take part in the reflection.
Perceptions of WCC. Some of the Pentecostal participants said that in their communities (especially in the USA) the WCC is perceived as a body that is concerned with social action, not interested in evangelism and theologically liberal. People judge by generalizing statements they hear from some members of WCC member churches, e.g. calling into question the divinity of Christ or the resurrection or the authority of the Bible. They read that the KGB has infiltrated the WCC. Their conclusion is that "these members of the WCC don't believe in anything", that "Orthodox are communists". Pentecostals in the USA have been shaped by the Cold War and the political right. Seen from this angle the WCC and the Pentecostals are "two totally different worlds and it is difficult to see places of engagement".
Others remarked that one should not judge a whole church, let alone the whole WCC by what some individuals say. Pentecostals could not expect the WCC to have any direct responsibility for how its members interpret the Basis, just as there would be no direct influence on ways Pentecostals would interpret it.WCC participants pointed to the role of the media which focus on the politically controversial sides of any WCC action and do not tell the other stories. They mentioned the differing opinions in their own churches about the WCC, the pressure sometimes to withdraw, but also the firm conviction that their place is within the fellowship. As one put it: "I hear from North American Pentecostals mention of Jesus Christ, I hear my Latin American brother talk about the Kingdom of God, I hear my own church speak about social action .... just because one part of us says we don't have need of another part that does not make it true".
Images of WCC. Two examples were quoted of WCC productions which tend to project a one-sided image: The video "Acting in Faith" emphasizing the good aspects of the WCC but not the things Pentecostals cannot accept; and the Canberra video highlighting prof. Chung's performance and ignoring the Orthodox presentation on the theme, which was much closer to a Pentecostal position. Several scholars in the group said that these kinds of tools which do not present several views are not helpful when they discuss ecumenism with their students.
Interfaith dialogue. It was underlined that many Pentecostals are suspicious of the WCC because of its involvement with other religions. They believe that under the guise of unity the WCC is after some kind of a "super-church" which will no longer be christian but a mixture of religions.
In response it was said that for the WCC interfaith dialogue is a dimension of christian witness. It does not require to compromise one's own faith, and it is vital in a world where the religious factor is present in so many conflicts and where people of different faiths are called to live together in peace. As for the danger of syncretism, the WCC constituency itself would not allow that the Council deviate from its explicit christian identity as expressed in the Basis.
Racial and social justice. One Pentecostal member of the group spoke strongly about issues of racial and social injustice between Black and White Pentecostals in the USA. "The WCC may not be where we want it to be ... we may have the Holy Spirit ... but we have a lot to learn what it is to be like Jesus Christ".Membership of the WCC. Questions were asked about the criteria for membership and whether these are adequate for Pentecostal churches. When an application is measured against the WCC's views on ecclesiology, ecumenical commitment, size etc. these may not fit the Pentecostal reality. And what would be the attitude of the WCC if Pentecostals applied in large numbers? Should it not be happy to receive any group that confesses Jesus Christ and wants to join?
From WCC side it was acknowledged that there is an inherent tension between being open to new members and using criteria that may seem restrictive. Yes, the WCC is open to others but the purpose must be to join in order to respond together to the common calling.
Pentecostal members of the WCC. A participant coming from one of the Pentecostal member churches of the WCC witnessed to the fact that theirs has been a very positive experience. They have met in the WCC a profound respect for their worship style and have never been imposed upon (see also .....).
Complexity of the Pentecostal world. Several participants insisted on the extreme variety and complexity of Pentecostal churches and their relationships to each other. Apart from the distinction between trinitarians and unitarians there are great differences between black and white (e.g. in the USA), north and south (e.g. between North and Latin America) and in theology, worship style etc. One must be careful not to generalize about Pentecostalism.
Some of this was apparent in the discussion. The Latin American Pentecostals expressed much less difficulty with the WCC than their North American brothers. They said there is a resemblance between the tensions in the WCC and those they experience in their own Latin American context among themselves. As they have learned to exercise dialogue to deal with their differences they perceive the WCC as a place where there is that same space for dialogue. The WCC and the Latinamerican Council of Churches are partners who challenge them and help them reflect on the mission of the church.
North American Pentecostals recognized the importance of listening to and learning from their Latinamerican sisters and brothers. In this same context the racial problem came to the surface. One of the North Americans said: "I feel more affinity with my Latin-american brothers here than with my white pentecostal brethern".
Dialogue between WCC and Pentecostals. Some pertinent questions were asked about the initiative of the WCC to begin a dialogue. Is the WCC aware how varied Pentecostals are? Are all invited or only some? What are the terms of the dialogue and to what extent does the WCC consider the Pentecostals to be valid protagonists? Would there be the political will to provide space for Pentecostal leadership? Pentecostals would also like to know why the WCC is interested: is it because they are more and more influencing the "mainline" churches which form the backbone of the WCC? The questions were not only directed to the WCC but also to the Pentecostals themselves: are we, Pentecostals prepared to part of ecumenical structures?
Strong sentiments were expressed about language and attitudes. Jargon like "mainline churches" hurts and should be avoided. Are Pentecostals off the line, or sideline? Essential to the dialogue is also that the work of Pentecostal scholars be taken seriously. "If you don't care about us enough to read what we have written .... then we don't trust any overtures. And the WCC should not only bring to the table members of its churches who are sympathetic with Pentecostals but also the "liberals" with whom there is real disagreement. Just as from the Pentecostal side the "hierarchs" should be brought in, those who do not want the dialogue.
From WCC side emphasis was put on the effort that is needed to understand each other. "We need to go on a common journey towards oneness".
Accountability. The discussion was concluded with a call to all "to a greater accountability to what God has called us to do, to our traditions and to this conversation".