WCC Anniversary and Eighth Assembly
Feature Service
No. 11
Jubilee Expectations
WCC General Secretary, Konrad Raiser, reflects on some of the main issues facing the forthcoming Harare Assembly and suggests what the gathering needs to achieve

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In less than three months, following its closing service, the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches will have ended. During the three final days, 12-14 December, the assembly will receive, discuss and act upon the reports from committees and give direction to the future work of the World Council. Proceedings on this concluding business agenda of the assembly will stop on Sunday, 13 December for a special programme of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Council which was founded in August 1948 at the first assembly in Amsterdam.

What can be expected from this forthcoming assembly? What is likely to be its outcome? Some events during recent months have raised concerns that the assembly might be disrupted by conflicts which could not only affect its business agenda but seriously disturb the celebration of the anniversary.

Orthodox churches have raised questions regarding their continued participation in the World Council of Churches. Some of them are likely to reduce the size of their delegations to the assembly and to restrict their mandate for participation. Efforts are presently underway from both sides to clarify the situation sufficiently so that a crisis at the assembly itself can be avoided. The issues which have been raised by the Orthodox churches are being taken seriously by the leadership of the Council. It is clear, however, that these issues could not receive satisfactory attention at the assembly itself. A process of serious discussion and reflection is, therefore, envisaged for the period after the assembly in a commission to be appointed by the new Central Committee which will be elected at the assembly.

Another area which has given rise to concerns is the question of whether and how the assembly will deal with the controversial issue of sexual orientation.

Metropolitan Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church raising a question during a WCC Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (Brazil, 1996).

Many WCC member churches, particularly in Europe and North America, have in recent years been confronted with pressures from within to define or review their position regarding questions of sexual orientation. The most recent example is the debate which took place at the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in July and August of this year. Most member churches in Africa and other parts of the Southern hemisphere, as well as Orthodox churches, are not willing or prepared to enter this discussion. Therefore, no serious work on the subject has taken place so far in the World Council of Churches. We are far from a sufficiently common understanding of the issues involved and this fact alone excludes the possibility that the assembly should take any action in this regard. At the Lambeth Conference the matter was part of the official agenda; this will not be the case at the WCC assembly.

The Harare assembly will, however, open up its programme during five days to contributions and offerings from member churches, ecumenical organizations and groups who are invited to share their experiences of ecumenical work and their expectations regarding the future of the ecumenical movement. The offerings have been grouped in six thematic streams but the responsibility for content and form remains with the initiators. This open space, called Padare (a Shona word meaning meeting place), is an integral part of the assembly but is not part of the official business agenda. In thePadare, delegates will be invited to share in the various presentations alongside other participants and in this way sharpen their perception of the mandate which they will be required to give to the WCC for the period ahead. A small number of offerings will address the questions of human sexuality and sexual orientation, either as issues of justice and human rights or with regard to the inclusive character of the Christian community. Padare is an exciting new feature in the programme of a WCC assembly and great care has been taken to clarify the "rules of the game" in order to enable it to be an occasion for exchange and learning from one another rather than a time of provocation and confrontation. A Padareadvisory group has been formed to monitor the process and to mediate in case of conflict.

The example of previous assemblies shows that this kind of large international, ecumenical gathering attracts conflict. This risk cannot be avoided. However, the Council has so far shown sufficient maturity to handle conflict in the spirit of mutual understanding and respect. The Harare assembly will be no exception from this established tradition.

But will the assembly leave its mark in the history of the ecumenical movement? Will it be able to provide new and challenging directions? Several features stand out which promise to make this a distinct event.

First, it is 22 years since the last assembly of the WCC gathered in Africa. The Fifth Assembly in Nairobi in 1975 took place in the midst of the liberation struggles, particularly in the Southern African region including Zimbabwe. Since then, the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa has ushered in a new period in the post-colonial history of Africa. However, what was expected to become a period of reconstruction and rebuilding, particularly with respect to the community of African people, has turned into a scene of unending internal conflicts. In this situation, great responsibility now falls on the African churches as the trustees of a message of justice, peace and sustainable community.

The WCC has deliberately chosen a country in Southern Africa for its jubilee assembly to reflect the conviction that the future of the ecumenical movement in the 21st century will largely be decided in Africa. The Harare assembly, therefore, will have to respond to the expectation that it is going to bring a message of hope and solidarity to the churches in Africa. The expectation in Africa is that the worldís churches, through the assembly, will take a clear stand regarding the burden of unpayable international debt which is crushing social and economic life in African countries which form the majority of the group now known as highly indebted poor countries (HIPC).
In Africa, poverty and recurring famine are linked to an unpayable international debt. Here parishioners queue for food in a Kenyan church. (1993)

Woman wearing a Decade T-shirt at a meeting with WCC visitors to South Africa (1991).
The second special feature of the assembly is that it coincides with the culmination of the Ecumenical Decade - Churches in Solidarity with Women. In the days prior to the opening of the assembly (27-30 November), around 1000 women from all Christian traditions throughout the world will gather in Harare for a womenís festival on the theme Visions Beyond 1998. This event will harvest the fruits of the Ecumenical Decade and celebrate life in an inclusive community. The final evaluations of the Decade, based on the reports of over 70 team visits to the more than 300 WCC member churches show that the Decade has stimulated serious processes of critical self-assessment in many of the churches. However, we are still at the beginning of the way towards a true community of women and men. The assembly will therefore have to show that the WCC is prepared to maintain its leadership in this process in the years to come.

The third distinctive mark of the assembly is, of course, that of the Jubilee of the World Council. An ecumenical jubilee: what could that mean? In the biblical tradition the jubilee carries a message of release for slaves and captives, of the remission of debts and the restitution of ancestral land. Foremost, however, the jubilee is the symbol of reconciliation and the re-establishment of right relationships in the community. There is no doubt the ecumenical movement needs this message of the jubilee which has been captured in the words of the assembly theme Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope.

The churches need to hear the liberating jubilee message that reconciliation is offered to them and to the whole world by God in Christ. Reconciliation between separated churches which is the unity we seek is Godís gracious gift. Are the churches ready to accept it and to celebrate the genuine, even though imperfect communion which, by the grace of God, has become a reality in the course of this ecumenical century? If indeed unity and reconciliation are truly gifts of God, this jubilee message places all our ecumenical efforts in a new and wider perspective.

The "Lima liturgy" - an example of the "genuine if imperfect communion" achieved by the ecumenical movement.

Many are talking about the fact that on the eve of the 21st century the ecumenical movement finds itself at a crossroads. The ecumenical pilgrimage has reached a point where the way ahead is unclear. The earlier efforts of churches, mainly from the Anglo-Saxon Protestant traditions, to achieve unity by institutional, organic union have almost come to a standstill. The intensive doctrinal conversations between churches and church families over the past three decades have not been able to achieve communion and the churches are struggling with the task of receiving the agreements which call for a reassessment of their traditional identity.

Neither organic union nor doctrinal consensus in themselves seem to provide the answer to the search for visible unity. The assembly theme Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope is an invitation to the churches in the spirit of the jubilee to be released from institutional and doctrinal captivity. It is an invitation to conversion, to a turning around in order to be able to move again. The present captivity and defensiveness of the churches is rooted in histories of division containing many memories of hurt and shame. These histories have not been reconciled. The offer of Godís jubilee carries the message of forgiveness. Godís jubilee can liberate the churches from being tied to their past and open the way into the future.

Earlier this century, when the generation of ecumenical pioneers formulated their vision, it energized and liberated church leaders, lay and ordained, to engage in a process of ecumenical renewal. Much has been achieved in the decades since then. Does the ecumenical vision still provide orientation for the people of God on the way together? At the Harare assembly, following the celebration of our jubilee anniversary, delegates will be invited to express a renewed commitment to the ecumenical movement on behalf of their churches. The order of service in which this commitment will be made says this about the ecumenical vision:

We long for the visible oneness of the body of Christ,
affirming the gifts of all,

young and old, women and men, lay and ordained.

We expect the healing of human community,
the wholeness of Godís entire creation.
We trust in the liberating power of forgiveness,
transforming enmity into friendship

and breaking the spiral of violence.

We open ourselves for a culture of dialogue and solidarity,
sharing life with strangers

and seeking encounter with those of other faiths.

A plenary session during the 1991 assembly in Canberra - one expression of the fellowship of churches that is the WCC.
Is this vision strong enough to guide churches in their quest to be more truly church, and to be and become for the world that space where reconciliation is experienced as a reality? The central focus of this vision statement is a new quality of life and relationships in community. With this emphasis the vision statement echoes and translates what a recent policy document has affirmed as the fundamental understanding of the WCC itself, viz. to be a fellowship of churches where the churches accept mutual responsibility for each other.
This affirmation is a challenge both to the churches and to the Council. The way in which the assembly will handle the potential conflicts of a political, ecclesial and moral nature will show how far the member churches and the WCC as an organized body are prepared to live up to this vision. This could become the strongest message of the assembly.

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