number 4, december 8, 1998

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Assemblies: Nelson has seen them all

By Patricia Lefevre

Few of the 4500 ecumenical enthusiasts at Harare can boast of attending five or more WCC assemblies. But one American, United Methodist the Rev. Dr J. Robert Nelson, of Houston, Texas, has amassed thousands of "frequent flyer knots" on the ecumenical boat. This is his eighth assembly.

Nelson jokes that as a small boy his mother took him to the first Faith and Order conference in Lausanne in 1927. But, at 78, he admitted to being "too young" to have been ‘in utero’ at the 1910 Edinburgh world missionary conference where the ecumenical ship was launched.

Curiosity about the formation of a World Council of Churches drew Nelson to Amsterdam in 1948 where he and his wife, Pat, found the streets and canals decorated with Dutch flags.

How grand that the Netherlanders were so welcoming to the churches, he thought, until he learned that the city still bore the bunting of Queen Juliana's coronation.

Nelson had come to Europe in 1947 to study for a year at the University of Zurich, having graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1944. But the wealth of theologians he met at Amsterdam and the high level of debate on the subject of "the universal church and God's design" convinced him to stay longer in Switzerland and complete his doctorate on the nature of the church.

"My whole career was one lucky break after another," Nelson noted. In Geneva he got a taste of the ecumenical debate and a warm welcome from the WCC's first general secretary. Soon he went to Tubingen to read more theology in German, then to London where he met Anglican theologians Oliver Thomkins and Leonard Hodgson.

"I wrote my entire dissertation in the British Museum Reading Room," Nelson said, adding that Protestant theologian Emil Brunner, who had taken a deep interest in his research, added a preface when Nelson turned the thesis into a book.

When he returned to America to pursue a chaplancy with the Wesley Foundation, he got a letter from Thomkins hinting at a job at the WCC.

He took up the post of secretary of the Faith and Order Commission and moved his family to Geneva following the 1952 third world conference on Faith and Order in Lund, Sweden. "I was so flattered that I forgot to ask what the salary was during the interview," he said.

Nelson went to Evanston in 1954 as secreatary and continued in Geneva until 1959.

The United Methodist Church named him a delegate to the WCC's next three assemblies: New Delhi (1961), Uppsala (1968) and Nairobi (1975).

New Delhi remains the greatest assembly for Nelson. It saw the reception of the Orthodox churches into the council and the attendance of the first official Roman Catholic observers -- although two priests had come to Evanstan incognito.

That assembly also produced the New Delhi statement on unity, drafted by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, of the Church of South India. It comprised the first major effort since the 1950 Toronto statement to deal with the nature of the church.

While Nelson would attend Vancouver (1983), Canberra (1991) and now Harare as a visitor, he has never forgotten the excitment of New Delhi.

There, he said, the "essentials of church unity were laid out in wholly Scriptural terms. There was great enthusiasm in the assembly" and agreement on revising the basis of the council to contain the Trinitarian reference proposed by the Eastern Orthodox, he said.

It is no surprise that Nelson finds the Common Understanding and Vision (CUV) statement being debated at Harare to be an idea whose time has come. Noting that "it's a working document, not a dogmatic paper", he said the WCC has to continue the dialogue with full respect to all the participants.

Sunday's debate during the CUV plenary, which showcased tensions between the Orthodox and Protestant members of the WCC as well as their joint longing for unity, is nothing new to Nelson.

Much of the "problem" stems from the fact that "many Protestant clergy don't know what the church is", he said, and the fact that the Orthodox are not prepared "to modify anything in their holy, God-given tradition" -- even though the Orthodox Church in America was breaking away from its Byzantine origins.

Such a stance may leave one to conclude -- as did Lutheran theologian Jaroslav Pelikan years ago -- that "tradition is the living faith of dead persons and traditionalism is the dead faith of living persons."

But like Reinholdt Niebuhr, Nelson calls himself "an optimist without illusion and a pessimist without despair" when it comes to Christ's call to oneness. "The visible unity of the church is attainable," he said. "It's not a solution, but an indispensible hope."

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Read other articles in this issue:

A day of hearings
Attention! Debt to be chained up
Padare' to showcase vitality of ecumenical movement
Harare liturgy marks growth of Orthodox Church in Africa
Invest in human rights education, church told
Assemblies: Nelson has seen them all
Church doing well in Africa?
Decade plenary reveals consensus and division
The topic was sin

8th Assembly and 50th Anniversary

copyright 1998 World Council of Churches. Remarks to webeditor