WCC Anniversary and Eighth Assembly
Feature Service
No. 1
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Happy Birthday WCC
by Marlin VanElderen

Information for editors and journalists
Here is the first in a series of monthly articles we shall provide in 1998 to mark the WCC's 50th anniversary and prepare for the Eighth Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, 3-14 December 1998.

Each month an article will focus on one aspect of the life of the WCC and the year's celebrations and assembly.

This first article is by Marlin VanElderen. He is available for further comment and interview. Radio journalists please note that we have an ISDN line installed in our radio studio using a CCS Codec M66I 64K.

Use of this article must credit the author. Editors may shorten the article, but this should be acknowledged. Please send us a copy of anything you publish for our records. Thank you.

Good quality reproductions of the photos accompanying this text (see list below) are available via Internet or ordinary mail. To order a photo via Internet, just click on the photo of your choice. That takes you to our Photo Oikoumene homepage. There you click on the appropriate theme in the Photo Oikoumene index. When you have located your photo, complete the online order form. Photo Oikoumene will send the photo electronically as an attached file, at 300dpi resolution, JPEG format.

If you want a colour slide, or colour or b/w photo by ordinary mail, send an E-mail inquiry to photo

Orthodox, New Delhi (Theme: Evanston to New Delhi) (Ref. no.: 4170-14)
Gospel & culture conference (Theme: Canberra to Harare) (ref. no.: 6709-30A)
Lima Liturgy (ref. no.: 2527/5A)
Mandela and Castro (Theme: Canberra to Harare) (ref. no.: 5309-31)
Decade T-shirt (Theme: 1988-98 Women's Decade) (ref. no.: 5341-24)
Queuing for food aid, Kenya (1313-2)
A piece of the wall (Theme: Vancouver to Canberra) (ref. no.: 4845-2)
Streetchild, Brazil (ref no.: 5886-12)

Use of the photos with this article is free of charge; other use will attract the usual WCC fees.

Please also feel free to download the Assembly and 50th anniversary logos and the "Highlights - 20th-century ecumenical movement" chart directly from this page.

"Called to one hope - the Gospel in diverse cultures" was the theme of the WCC's conference on mission and evangelism in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, in 1996
(Photo Oikoumene theme: Canberra to Harare;
ref. no.: 6709-30)

The-then WCC General Secretary Emilio Castro, leading the first WCC delegation to South Africa in 30 years, met with then-ANC leader Nelson Mandela soon after the latter's release from prison.
(Photo Oikoumene theme: Canberra to Harare;
ref. no.: 5309-31)

A tourist "must": a piece of the infamous Berlin wall. 1990
(Photo Oikoumene theme: Vancouver to Canberra;
ref. no.: 4845-2)

Founded in Amsterdam on 23 August 1948 by representatives from 147 churches, the World Council of Churches turns 50 this year.

As delegates from its member churches prepare to mark this jubilee in December at the WCC's eighth assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, what events and developments during the Council's first five decades have shaped its life?

Why was the WCC formed?

The WCC's constitution describes it as "a fellowship of churches".

Over the centuries, the separate existence of these divided churches has led to mutual suspicion, tension and sometimes even violent conflict. Most of the time they have gone their own way, isolated from and ignorant of each other.

The conviction grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that this disunity contradicts the historic Christian confession that the church is one and diminishes the credibility of Christian witness in a divided world.

The World Council of Churches was formed to call the churches to make visible in the world the unity of his followers for which Jesus prayed (John 17:21).

No super-church
The WCC is not a "super-church". It has no authority over its member churches. Rather, it provides them a space to take counsel together, to support each other in difficult times, to join forces on common concerns and so grow together towards unity.

The broad lines of the WCC's agenda are set by assemblies of delegates from all member churches, which meet every seven years.

While each assembly has seen more churches represented than the previous one - there are now 330 - the more significant growth has come in the diversity of member churches. In 1948, two-thirds of them were headquartered in Europe and North America; today, two-thirds come from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific.

The Council's third assembly in New Delhi in 1961 offered two important symbols of this increasing diversity:

  • It received into membership four Orthodox churches from Eastern and Central Europe, including the Russian Orthodox (now the largest member church). Several Orthodox churches already belonged to the WCC; indeed, the first official church proposal to form a body like the WCC had come from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1920. But the decision of these other Orthodox churches to join the WCC confirmed its intention to be more than a Protestant fellowship and to overcome the political divisions of the Cold War.

    Orthodox participants at the WCC's third assembly in New Delhi, 1961 (Photo Oikoumene theme: Evanston to New Delhi)

  • New Delhi also attested to the broadening of the fellowship by welcoming a large number of churches from the South. The increasing presence of churches from parts of the world where Christianity is growing most rapidly has inevitably affected the WCC's agenda.

While the largest church in the world, the Roman Catholic Church, kept its distance from the WCC in the early years, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) made a clear commitment to seek unity with "separated brothers and sisters".

In the years after the Uppsala assembly (1968), many people even hoped the Catholic Church might become a WCC member. After long discussions, this did not happen. But the WCC and the Catholic Church do work closely together in many areas, especially through official Catholic membership of the WCC's Faith and Order commission.

Most of the Council's founding churches came from the major historic traditions of the Protestant Reformation - Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed and the like. But some churches from newer Christian traditions have also joined. Among those to become members in New Delhi were two Pentecostal churches in Chile. The first to join of several independent churches in Africa (churches not originating in Western missions) was the five-million-member Kimbanguist Church (Democratic Republic of Congo), in 1969.

Keeping the vision alive

The Council has brought together the vision of three earlier movements for church unity, which focused on (1) overcoming divisions in the churches' missionary work, (2) examining their doctrinal differences (Faith and Order) and (3) working together for a just and peaceful society (Life and Work).

Highlights of the 20th-century ecumenical movement.
(Right-click on the image to view it.)

Much of the early dynamism came from conferences, organizations and informal gatherings of youth and students, whose enthusiasm for breaking down ancient barriers was often a spur to more cautious church leaders.

Major global meetings in these three areas have been milestones of the WCC's first 50 years. They have been accompanied by numerous studies drawing on the experience and wisdom of churches worldwide.

Mission conferences in Mexico City (1963), Bangkok (1973), Melbourne (1980), San Antonio (1989) and Salvador de Bahia (1996) called churches to overcome the idea of mission as a one-way movement from "Christian" to "non-Christian" countries, to take up the challenges of living in community with people of other faiths, to link their verbal proclamation of the gospel with engagement in the struggles of communities against oppression, poverty and hunger, to recognize and affirm the differences in how Christians express and live out the gospel in different cultures.

Faith and Order
The best-known work of Faith and Order is its 1982 text on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. The fruit of many years of discussion, it records growing common understanding of these three central but often divisive aspects of the Christian faith. Elements of the "Lima Liturgy" eucharist, based on the BEM text.
(Photo Oikoumene theme:
Church life/eucharist; ref. no.: 2527-5a)
Life and Work
A key event in the Life and Work tradition was the Council's 1966 World Conference on Church and Society in Geneva.

Much of its agenda was taken up by the WCC's fourth assembly in Uppsala (1968), which responded to the revolutionary climate of the 1960s through commitments to an active - sometimes controversial - engagement in social, economic and political issues which marked the Council over the succeeding decades.

Of all those engagements - in development, education and health care, in human rights, in the struggles of women, in work for disarmament and peace - it was no doubt the Programme to Combat Racism which had the highest profile.

PCR's focus on legally-entrenched racism in Southern Africa proved most controversial when it made symbolic grants to liberation movements - including the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe, SWAPO in Namibia and the African National Congress in South Africa - that were engaged in armed struggle against white-minority regimes.

The controversy often overshadowed the credibility this involvement earned the Council and its member churches among oppressed people in many places.

While the struggle against racism focused on issues of justice and human rights, it was also part of a growing recognition of the need for churches to be inclusive communities.

An expression of this concern has been the WCC's consistent emphasis on the role of women in church and society (though the question of the ordination of women continues to divide member churches).

Even before the 1948 Amsterdam assembly, the WCC commissioned an international survey of the status of women in churches. In the 1970s and 1980s, a further study on the Community of Women and Men in the Church drew unprecedented local participation. And the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, which began at Easter 1988, will climax with an international festival, also in Harare, just before this year's WCC assembly.

The churches in the world

Neither social action nor controversy was unknown to the Council when the storms over PCR broke out in the 1970s and 1980s.

From the beginning the Council has insisted on holding together the search for the unity of the church with the quest for the renewal of humankind. And, as a worldwide organization, it has a significant role in international affairs.

Even before its official founding, the WCC's Geneva office was a central point. Through it, churches divided by the war maintained contact and aided people fleeing Nazi persecution. Just after the war, the WCC coordinated international church involvement in European resettlement and reconstruction. Subsequently the Council played a major role in interchurch aid, and each year channelled millions of dollars to respond to disasters and to support development programmes in every part of the world.

During a severe drought, this Anglican church in Kenya was a local distribution point for ecumenical aid.
(Photo Oikoumene theme: Emergencies/food distribution;
ref. no.: 1313-2)

Cold War
Much of the controversy around the Council over its first four decades related to the Cold War. The Amsterdam assembly's critique of capitalism and communism alike elicited negative coverage from both The Wall Street Journal and Pravda.

A 1950 WCC statement supporting UN intervention in Korea led Chinese member churches to withdraw from involvement in the Council until 1991. And superpower rivalry often lay behind criticisms of the WCC's outspoken support of the hopes and plans of the newly independent countries from which a growing number of its member churches came.

Meanwhile, increasing participation in the WCC of church leaders from Eastern and Central European socialist countries led to charges that the Council was unconcerned about the persecution of "underground" Christians in the Soviet Union. Indeed, critics accused the WCC of supporting communism.

Many disputed the WCC's policy of relating officially to those churches in communist countries whose leaders were allowed some freedom for contacts and travel abroad, with the consequence that the Council's public stance often looked unbalanced sharply critical of the West, silent or at best muted in criticizing the East.

Others would argue that, for all its limits, this policy gave oppressed churches an opening to the outside that eventually helped to bring about the collapse of totalitarian governments.

The 1990s have not brought the peaceful and prosperous world many dreamed of in the first flush of euphoria over the demolition of the Berlin Wall. A growing number of voices now suggest the major issue for the Council as it begins its second 50 years is the promise and peril of globalization.
Brazilian street child in front of MacDonald's restaurant - a symbol of the perils of globalization?
(Photo Oikoumene theme: Development & economy/multinationals;
ref. no.: 5886-12)

In short, what does the vision of fellowship which has been at the heart of the WCC's search for unity over the past 50 years have to say to the stark realities of the version of one world community fostered by today's global economic, financial and media powers? That will be one of the main questions on the agenda of the WCC's eighth assembly in Harare later this year. How the world's churches answer will, to a large extent, determine the degree to which the Council continues to provide a cutting edge at the point where faith and life intersect.

Click here to:
No super-church
Keeping the vision alive
Faith and Order
Life and Work
The churches in the world
Cold War

Past WCC Assemblies

First: 1948 Amsterdam, Netherlands, "Man's Disorder and God's Design"

Second: 1954 Evanston, USA, "Christ - the Hope of the World"

Third: 1961 New Delhi, India, "Jesus Christ - the Light of the World"

Fourth: 1968 Uppsala, Sweden, "Behold, I Make All Things New"

Fifth: 1975 Nairobi, Kenya, "Jesus Christ Frees and Unites"

Sixth: 1983 Vancouver, Canada, "Jesus Christ - the Life of the World"

Seventh: 1991 Canberra, Australia, "Come, Holy Spirit - Renew the Whole Creation"

Next WCC Assembly
Eighth: 1998 Harare, Zimbabwe, "Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope"

Woman wearing a "Decade" T-shirt, Durban, South Africa, 1991
(Photo Oikoumene theme: 1988-98 Women's Decade; ref. no.: 5341-24)

Marlin VanElderen is Executive Editor, WCC Publications. He is author of "Introducing the World Council of Churches", and technical editor of "The Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement" (WCC Publications 1991), a revised edition of which will be published in March 1998.

John Newbury
Press & Information Officer
P.O. Box 2100
CH-1211 Geneva 2
Tel.: (+41.22) 791 61 52/51
Fax: (+41.22) 798 13 46
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