WCC Eighth Assembly


27 - 30 November 1998
Belvedere Technical Teachers College
Harare, Zimbabwe

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In 1988 the World Council of Churches launched the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women as a ten-year programme offered to the churches. The Decade was to provide a framework within which WCC member churches could look at their structures, teachings and practices with a commitment to the full participation of women. It was an opportunity for churches to reflect on women's lives in society, and to stand in courageous solidarity with all women.

From the middle of the Decade onwards, ecumenical team visits - "Living Letters" - were sent to the churches around the world to affirm the achievements made and to challenge the churches to move forward in their commitments to women. The "Living Letters" came back with enthusiastic stories about solidarity among women and their love and commitment to the churches. But also about an unfinished agenda - women's many unresolved questions and concerns.

What the teams discovered

Distilling the findings of 75 team visits to 330 churches, 68 national councils and approximately 650 women's groups, the Living Letters report describes "Life in the Garden" - women who are the pillars of their churches, determined to endure, and forging partnerships with secular groups. It also describes "The Stones" - violence and racism against women, economic injustice, barriers to participation, the role of the family, oppressive theology and interpretations of the Bible, attitudes to sexuality, the gospel-culture connections, and solidarity and divisions between women.

The Living Letters noted, for example, that:
Women are a majority in most congregations and participate strongly in the spiritual and liturguical life of the church. They are active in parish life through a wide variety of lay ministries - diakonia, fund-raising, teaching and counselling. They gain strength and satisfaction from all these kinds of participation even if their contribution is not always recognized and they are unable to attain leadership in these areas.
Offering after outdoor worship at a Methodist Church in Mozambique.

To deal with the violence women experience even within the church is to approach two areas - sexuality and abuse of power - which have always been taboo for the churches. Racism too is a difficult reality to deal with. Yet if the church is an ethical community, then solidarity with women struggling against racism must be seen as part of its sacramental ministry. The globalisation of the market economy is an incredibly huge and complex phenomenon... Yet the ethical challenge to the churches is to affirm and support women's survival strategies. Helping to improve the quality of life in our communities is indeed a liturgical act.

Woman theology student, Shanghai
... we could not help being struck by the evidence that almost everywhere boys are still socialized to dominate and girls to be subservient, and by the number of times "culture" was used to explain or justify violence against women. Whether cited as a pretext or not, culture is frequently at the root of ill treatment of women, and only rarely is it challenged by men in the churches.

Most discouraging was clear evidence that women are marginalised by their own church structures... All the teams noted women's lack of or limited access to decision-making processes - and thus power - in their churches; and some church leaders insisted that church constitutions cannot be changed. This situation both reflects and promotes a similar imbalance of power in society.

The Living Letters report is available for CHF 8.90 in English, French, German and Spanish from WCC Publications, 150 route de Ferney, PO Box 2100, 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland. Tel.: +41.22 791 63 79; Fax: +41 22 798 13 46.

What next?

The WCC's Eighth Assembly, to be held in Harare, Zimbabwe, offers an opportunity to reaffirm the changes that have happened in the churches' lives, but also to restate the challenges that yet remain...

The Decade as a project is over. But its agenda is unfinished; it is urgent to challenge the churches and the ecumenical movement to keep up the momentum of their solidarity.

A special plenary session at the Assembly will focus on recommitment to the concerns of the Decade so that the churches and the ecumenical movement continue their actions in solidarity with women. The plenary will highlight the blessings women bring to the churches through their gifts; it will also draw attention to four areas of concern so dramatically highlighted by the Living Letters report:

  • Continuing barriers to women's participation in the life of the churches - in leadership, theology, spirituality and ministry;
  • The global economic crisis and its grave impact on the life of women all over the world;
  • Violence against women both in church and society, and a growing consciousness that this issue demands serious and active attention from the churches;
  • The racism and xenophobia that are tearing our societies apart. This issue has not received adequate attention either from the churches or from women's movements in church and society, and therefore requires concerted action.

Filipino garment sweatshop workers.

A Decade Festival

A four-day Decade Festival before the Eighth Assembly will provide a time and place for women to celebrate the end of the Decade and their own struggles and commitments to the church, and to articulate their visions for the church and society beyond 1998. It will give them a chance to reflect on the ways the Decade has had an impact on their lives as they look to the future.

Central events will be:

  • A celebration of African women's contributions to church and society, with women-to-women visits before the Festival (from 22-26 November 1998), a plenary on African women, and an environment shaped by the energy, commitment and strengths of Zimbabwean women.

  • A hearing on violence against women in the church. For the first time ever at a global gathering, women who have personally been subjected to violence within the church will give live testimonies of their experience.

    This hearing will include testimonies of racism, domestic violence, violence in a pastoral situation and within a congregation, as well as of the theological silencing of women's voices, and of structural violence against women in the churches. It will give an account of positive actions for change initiated by the churches, and by women responding to violence.

A London women's centre fighting for an end to
discrimination on grounds of sex, race and class.
It will conclude with a challenge to the churches to make more concrete their pastoral and solidarity actions beyond 1998, and to the WCC to set up a credible global programme to respond to the above issues.

The hearing will take place in a context of pastoral care and compassion, making visible the commitment of all the women and men gathered together at the Festival to struggle against the violence women experience.

  • Theme huts. Some fifteen African huts on the Festival site will be spaces in which women can share their concerns and activities in their local contexts with each other. The huts will be places for networking through exhibits, posters, brochures, etc. along eleven broad themes:

░ Women and racism
░ Ecology/creation
░ Women and theology
░ Women and economic justice
░ Women as peacemakers
░ Violence against women
░ Uprooted women (refugees and migrants)
░ Young women
░ Women and diakonia
░ Women and health
░ Women and children.

Global ecumenical sister organizations like the World Day of Prayer, Fellowship of the Least Coin, World Young Women's Christian Association and many others will also be able to share information about their work.

In addition to the issue- and action-oriented huts, there will also be a "quiet hut" for mediation and prayer.

Having fled slaughter at home, this
Rwandese woman and thousands like
her faced more danger in
refugee camps. (Tanzania, 1994)

  • Recalling her story and our vision. Alongside the many Festival events will be an exhibition entitled "Recalling Her Story and Our Vision". It will make visible the stories of women who have contributed to the ecumenical movement at different levels, different times and in different regions of the world. An important element of the exhibition will be a selection of icons of women saints from different traditions. To ensure genuine participation in the planning, women in the ecumenical movement in all regions have been approached for suggestions.

    The exhibition will be displayed both at the Festival and at the Assembly. Later it will be made available to members of the ecumenical movement as a portable exhibit.

Beyond 1998

Women all over the world fear that the end of the Decade as a project will mean that programmes and projects addressing women's struggles will slow down and that the diminishing funds of churches and the ecumenical movement will mean less work with women. This cannot be! The Festival and the Assembly must keep this commitment alive!

Thus, the Festival will celebrate the gifts and commitments of women but also point to the need for continued solidarity. A document on "Women's Challenges: Into the 21st Century" has been shared with women around the world, will be further discussed during the Festival, fowarded to the Assembly and, from there, to the churches. It calls for continued monitoring so as not to lose the momentum created by the Decade and sets out an action agenda for the churches and the WCC.

Click here to "Women's Challenges: Into the 21st Century".

Who can participate in the Decade Festival?

We hope that 1200 people - 100 men and 1100 women - will take part in the Festival. Of these, 1000 (including some official delegates - women and some men - to the Assembly) are to come from the regions. There is a quota for each region: 200 for Africa, 170 for Asia, 50 for the Caribbean, 200 for Europe, 80 for Latin America, 100 for the Middle East, 175 for North America, and 50 for the Pacific.

Please note that:

  • The regional ecumenical organizations (see addresses below) are coordinating applications.
  • Some regions have already filled their quotas.
  • Participants must find their own funding to attend the Festival (see funding, below).

Regional Ecumenical Organisations:

Women's Programme
All Africa Conference of Churches
P O Box 14205
Nairobi, Kenya
Phone: + 254 2 44 14 83
Fax: + 254 2 44 32 41

Women's Concerns Programme
Christian Conference of Asia
Pak Tin Village
Mei Tin Road
Shatin NT, Hong Kong Phone: (+ 852) 691 10 68
Fax: (+ 852) 692 38 05

Women's Desk
Caribbean Conference of Churches
P O Box 616
Bridgetown, Barbados
Phone:(+ 1 809) 42 72 681
Fax: (+ 1 809) 4292075
E-mail: ccchurch@toj.com

Ecumenical Decade
Conference of European Churches
150 Rte de Ferney
1211 Geneva, Switzerland
Phone: (+ 41-22) 7916325
Fax:(+41-22) 791 62 27

Ecumenical Decade Coordinating Group
40 St Clair Ave, E. Suite 201
Toronto, ON, M4 T1 M9, Canada
Phone: (+416) 921 77 59 ext.30
Fax: (+416) 921 74 78

Women's Desk
Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI)
Avenida 12
Calles 13 y 15
Apartado 62
1002 San JosÚ, Costa Rica
Phone: (+506) 25 70 989
Fax: (+506) 28 50 300
E-mail: pfmnclai@sol.racsa.co.cr

Women's Programme
Middle East Council of Churches
P O Box 4259
Limassol, Cyprus
Phone: (+3575) 32 60 22
Fax: (+3575) 32 44 96
E-mail: kandis@cyberia.net.lb

Women's Desk
Pacific Conference of Churches
P O Box 208
Suva, Fiji
Phone: (+679) 311 277; 302 332
Fax: (+679) 303 205

Women's Programme
National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA
475 Riverside Drive
Room 572
New York, NY 10115-0050, USA
Phone: (+1212) 8702141
Fax: (+1212) 8702817

We need your help to fund the Festival!

The Festival itself needs to be funded! Any personal contributions will be welcome! For more information, please write to the Women's Programme of the WCC at the address below.

In addition, many would-be participants cannot afford to come to the Festival. So we are also seeking funds to cover travel, particularly from those parts of the world where funding is difficult to obtain.

Not everyone who has kept the Decade alive in their region can participate in the Festival. If you are unable to attend, you may be able to help someone else to come! If so, please send your contribution to the WCC Women's Programme, or directly to the regional ecumenical office in your region (addresses above). There has also been a suggestion that women who are frequent flyers could contribute their bonus travel miles to the travel of other women. If you'd like to contribute in this way, please let the Festival Office know.

The Women's Programme
Unit III - Justice, Peace and Creation
World Council of Churches
PO Box 2100
1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland
Phone: (+41 22) 791 6213
Fax: (+41 22) 791 0361
E-mail: Contact us"
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Good quality reproductions of the photos accompanying this text are available via Internet or ordinary mail. For information on our fees and/or to order, please go to our Photo Oikoumene site, or send an E-mail inqiry to photo. Please quote the following references:
░ Mozambique church service (5616-25A)
░ Shanghai theology student (3928-25A)
░ Filipino garment workers (4288-18A)
░ Rwandese refugee (6037-17A)
░ Kings Cross centre (4180-12A)