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ECUMENICAL DECADE FESTIVAL CONCLUDES WITH CHALLENGE
Framed as a letter to the World Council of Churches’ Eighth Assembly, to take place 3 - 14 December at the University of Zimbabwe, Harare, the 1200 Festival delegates ask the WCC's 332 member churches to declare that violence against women is a sin, commit resources to "restore (women) to their rightful place in God's household," and denounce economic injustice and racism.
The statement will be presented to Assembly delegates during a special Decade Plenary on 7 December.
The Festival met 27-30 November on the campus of Belvedere Technical Teachers Training College in Harare.
The tightly packed document - six pages, single-spaced in its English version - presses more than a dozen specific initiatives.
After the document was read to gathering, delegates asked for strengthening of language on racism, environmental justice, war and the arms trade, and attention to fundamental needs such as literacy, clean water, sewage systems, vocational training for income-generation, and health care.
These and other amendments grew out of the specific contexts of delegates: concern about the impact of religious fundamentalism and discriminatory law, the need to recognise indigenous women’s identity and culture, the evil of sex tourism.
Speakers rose to urge "development of a theology that denounces unbridled consumerism in the West and the concept that private property is an unlimited right" and compassion and immediate debt cancellation for Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala - reportedly set back 30 years by Hurricane Mitch.
One paragraph in the document was a test of how to reach consensus when delegates are polarised on a key point of content. Getting careful attention was a paragraph reflecting the difficulty on discussions around human sexuality.
While the document put before the delegates at no time included the words "homosexual", "gay", or "lesbian", these clearly were at issue, as debate centered on wording about "human sexuality in all of its diversity". One delegate, from Africa, asked that the phrase "in all of its diversity" be struck. Another delegate spoke up for its inclusion.
An Orthodox woman from the United States asked that the document say, "For some men and women in our midst, addressing this issue is not legitimate". She explained, "Our church has taken a very serious stance on the topic and we aren’t in a position to change it here". A delegate from the Netherlands, identifying herself as a lesbian, said, "My church has been discussing sexuality for 20 years and I can be open about my sexuality in my church".
At the Festival, most discussions around homosexuality took place informally around tables or at a thatched issue hut on the campus green, and in a couple of specially called meetings off the formal agenda. "Listeners’ reports" reflected some of that conversation back to the plenaries, and Dr Aruna Gnanadason, WCC staff member responsible for the Women’s Desk, offered a personal apology for excluding "our lesbian sister" in Festival presentations. And a lesbian member of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) spoke during debate on the document, claiming, "I haven't been in church for 10 years. I have been discriminated since people found out I was lesbian. I am also created in the image of God."
In its final form, the paragraph simply acknowledged the differences around issues of human sexuality. It read, "We recognise that there are a number of ethical and theological issues such as abortion, divorce, human sexuality in all of its diversity, that have implications for participation, and are difficult to address in the church community. During the decade we acknowledge that human sexuality in all of its diversity has emerged with particular significance. We condemn the violence perpetrated due to differences on this matter. We wrestled with this issue aware of the anguish we all endure because of the potential to create further divisions. We acknowledge that there is divided opinion as women and men on this particular issue. In fact, for some women and men in our midst, the issue has no legitimacy. We seek the wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we may continue the conversation in order that justice may prevail."
Other key amendments: Recognise the church leaders and lay men who have been in solidarity with women. Recognise that many church leaders now are women. Be more affirming of women’s achievements.
Former WCC Deputy General Secretary, Dr Mercy Oduyoye of Ghana proposed deleting language expressing "the painful reality that the churches were not committed to (the Decade)". "True, many churches weren't committed...but in this decade we have seen a Methodist woman bishop and seven Lutheran women bishops."
A Coptic Egyptian woman asked that the words addressed to church leaders be expressed more smoothly in accordance with Egyptian culture - "not to talk to them like we're giving them an order".
The process of developing the letter involved multinational discussions in table groups, input from national and regional delegations, and work by a redrafting team, which also took into account "listening reports". The document that came to the plenary was much different from the draft that had been mailed to the delegates (adding "colourful language, stronger image, passion" said a drafting team member), and delegates spent four hours in debate after having the document read to them just before a lunch break. A series of amendments were proposed, and entrusted to the drafting committee to which the delegates by acclamation handed the task of integrating the dozens of edits proposed during the afternoon.
Rev Bertrice Wood of the United Church of Christ (USA), Cleveland, Ohio, led the delegates through the process. "This document will be global and ecumenical. It will draw on all the diversity within this room." She urged delegates to ask, "Not, ‘Is this how I would have written it for presentation to my denomination?,’ but, ‘Have I and others been heard?’ If each one of us is heard we may also have to hear some things we don't want to hear. The goal is a document that essentially reflects what was said and reflects the spirit of the Festival."
At the close of the discussion, Dr Kathleen Hurty, general director of Church Women United (USA), asked the delegates to adopt it by consensus, calling it "A powerful document, crafted carefully. It’s not perfect but we did our best. Our comments have been essential, probing, painful. I believe the document provides a strong stimulus for action, thoughtful theology and a bold middle ground where we don’t agree."
Contact: John Newbury, WCC Press & Information Officer
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 332, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the Assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.