An anniversary assembly
2. All assemblies of the WCC have been significant events, attracting attention beyond the inner circles of the Christian churches. This is true in a special way for this eighth assembly. We are meeting in the fiftieth year after the inaugural assembly of the WCC in Amsterdam in 1948. During 1998 this "ecumenical jubilee" has been commemorated and celebrated in many churches around the world. Special events have taken place in Geneva; in Amsterdam, Evanston, New Delhi, Uppsala, Nairobi -- sites of earlier assemblies; in Toronto, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg -- cities where significant meetings of the central committee were held; and in numerous other places. Indeed, a chain of "praying towards Harare" has been formed by hundreds of thousands of Christian people all over the world. Now we are here to reaffirm the covenant made by the delegates at the first assembly in constituting the World Council of Churches, and to commit ourselves afresh in fellowship with one another to "fulfil our common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit".
3. The creation of the WCC fifty years ago was an act of faith. The world was in search of a new order after the devastation left behind by the second world war, and also found itself under the shadow of renewed confrontation at the beginning of the cold war with its nuclear threat. The churches, which had been tested in their very being and faithfulness, were faced with an enormous task of reconstruction and reconciliation. A "Call to the Churches concerning the First assembly", issued in April 1947 by the Provisional Committee of the WCC, invited all Christians to join in earnest prayer "that the First assembly... may be used of God for a rebirth of the churches, and for their rededication in the unity of the faith to the common task of proclaiming his word and doing his work among the nations". There was no precedent for the formation of a council of churches across national and confessional lines, and no one knew whether the new framework would be viable. In his report to the assembly, the general secretary, Dr Willem Adolf Visser 't Hooft, described the purpose of the Council in these terms: "We are a council of churches, not the council of the one undivided church. Our name indicates our weakness and our shame before God, for there can be and there is finally only one church of Christ on earth... Our council represents therefore an emergency solution -- a stage on the road -- a body living between the time of complete isolation of the churches from each other, and the time -- on earth or in heaven -- when it will be visibly true that there is one shepherd and one flock."
4. The first assembly's theme, "Man's Disorder and God's Design", echoes the doxology at the opening of the Letter to the Ephesians: "God has made known to us his secret purpose, in accordance with the plan which he determined beforehand in Christ, to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely, that the universe, everything in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ" (Eph. 1:9-10, NEB). Only in the light of this design of God in Christ is it possible, as Karl Barth reminded the assembly, honestly and without self-justification to discern and address the root causes of human disorder and the churches' co-responsibility. And the formation of the WCC is to be understood as an act of faithfulness and obedience to God's will as revealed in Christ. The message from Amsterdam expressed this affirmation in its opening paragraph: "We bless God our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gathers together in one the children of God that are scattered abroad. He has brought us here together at Amsterdam. We are acknowledging him as our God and Saviour. We are divided from one another not only in matters of faith, order and tradition, but also by pride of nation, class and race. But Christ has made us his own and He is not divided. In seeking him, we find one another. Here at Amsterdam we have committed ourselves afresh to him, and have covenanted with one another in constituting this World Council of Churches. We intend to stay together. We call upon Christian congregations everywhere to endorse and fulfil this covenant in their relations with one another. In thankfulness to God we commit the future to him."
5. Fifty years later, this covenant still holds. Much has changed in the relations of the churches with one another. Strangers have become neighbours, and those treated with suspicion have become friends. Awareness is growing that all churches, in spite of what still separates them, belong to the one extended family of God's children. From a fellowship of mainly historic Protestant and Orthodox churches in Europe and North America, the Council has grown into a truly worldwide body. It has facilitated the common witness and service of the churches, and today churches all over the world are linked with one another in a multifaceted ecumenical network of partnerships. The challenge of defending the cause of justice and human dignity, of trying to discern and exercise both "the priestly ministry of reconciliation and the prophetic ministry of liberating conflict" (M.M. Thomas) has sometimes tested this fellowship -- and the Council has not always passed this test without bruises. Certainly the Amsterdam commitment "we intend to stay together" has not been taken for granted. Thus we can and should give thanks to God for having enabled the churches not only to stay together, but to go forward and to grow together.
6. And yet, as we commemorate and celebrate this 50th anniversary, there are signs of uncertainty about the purpose of this fellowship in the WCC and doubts about the future of the ecumenical movement as a whole. We seem to be at a crossroads. Different understandings of ecumenism are being put forward, and the way ahead is not clearly visible. There is disappointment that the intensive search for visible unity of the church has not yet opened the way to true koinonia. Understandings of Christian mission in a world of religious and cultural plurality differ widely. The tradition of ecumenical social thought and action has come under increasing strain in responding to the impact of the rapid process of globalization upon the life of human communities. The approaching end of the millennium reinforces the sense that these ecumenical uncertainties are part of a deeper process of transition into a new historical epoch which will be very different from the conditions prevailing at the time when the WCC was formed. Many of the churches which have shaped the life and witness of the WCC during these past decades are today confronted with internal challenges and tend to concentrate on maintaining their own integrity. At the same time, local ecumenism is flourishing in many places. Lively processes of renewal and growth of Christian community life and witness are taking place outside the fellowship of the WCC. What does this mean for the future of the Council?
An ecumenical jubilee
7. When the WCC decided more than four years ago to accept the invitation of the churches in Zimbabwe to hold the eighth assembly in Harare rather than the invitation of the Dutch churches to return to Amsterdam, it wanted to give a signal. It was a signal that the 50th anniversary assembly should not so much be an occasion to look back and recall the memory of these decades and all the momentous changes they have brought in the world, the churches and the Council, as an opportunity for seeking to discern the present challenges facing the ecumenical movement and to look forward into the 21st century. The future of Christianity and of the ecumenical movement is likely to be shaped and influenced more in regions like Africa and Latin America than in the Northern regions of historic Christianity. By the early part of the 21st century, Africa promises to be the continent with the largest Christian population. At the same time, it is in Africa that the disorder of the present global system and the marginalization and fragmentation of entire societies are most dramatically evident. The period of liberation struggles in Africa in the 1970s was interwoven with one of the most conflictual phases in the history of the WCC. The memory of the crisis caused by the 1978 grant to the Patriotic Front of Zimbabwe/Rhodesia is still alive. The decision to go to Harare for the eighth assembly expressed our determination that the ecumenical fellowship of churches would not weaken in its solidarity with the African churches and people as they search today for new foundations upon which to affirm their identity and reconstruct viable forms of community life. In a set of "Policy Guidelines for WCC Work in Africa", the WCC executive committee in February 1995 stated that "while African churches and peoples are struggling to shape a new social and political culture, the challenge to the ecumenical movement is to sustain the hope and vision for a viable human community for all African people". This means that our assembly here at Harare will have to be very attentive to what God is telling us through Africa today.
8. The theme of the assembly has been formulated against this background: "Turn to God -- Rejoice in Hope". In a situation of growing disorder and resignation, these words renew the affirmation of God's faithfulness expressed in the theme of the Amsterdam assembly. The God to whom we are invited to turn is not the unapproachable ruler and judge of human destiny, but the God of the covenant with Noah, Abraham and Moses, who has turned towards us in Jesus Christ, offering reconciliation and the fullness of life for all. "Turn to God" is an invitation to trust God's faithfulness in the midst of all the confusion and uncertainties of our present time. To discover God's loving face turned towards us in the crucified and risen Christ, to build one's life on trust in God's faithfulness -- that is what the New Testament calls metanoia, in the double sense of entering into a firm commitment and turning away from false allegiances.
9. In his Letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul vividly describes the dynamic of this process of reorientation: "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to (the pattern of) this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:1-2). Paul goes on to indicate that this transformation does not remain an internal personal experience, but finds expression in the renewal of the life of the community. Using the image of the body and its different members, Paul draws a profile of the Christian community which lives out of its commitment to God. Among the many invitational exhortations we also find the second part of our theme: "Rejoice in Hope" (Rom. 12:12). It was this message of hope which the central committee wanted the assembly to proclaim, implicitly reaffirming the theme of the second assembly at Evanston in 1954: "Christ -- the Hope of the World". Quite understandably, some raised the question of whether the invitation "rejoice in hope" was appropriate in view of the present condition of Africa and the world as a whole. However, as the commission on Faith and Order affirmed at Bangalore in 1978 in its "Common Account of Hope": "The Christian hope is a resistance movement against fatalism." And the plenary on the assembly theme has already recalled the vivid witness of hope in the doxology which opens the first Letter of Peter: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead... In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith... may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1 Pet. 1:3-7).
10. We are assembled to celebrate an "ecumenical jubilee". The theme of the assembly was chosen to capture the spirit of the jubilee, which is in fact one of the strongest images of hope in the biblical tradition. Jesus reaffirmed this in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth. Drawing on a passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah, he proclaimed "the year of the Lord's favour", the year of grace and liberation (Luke 4:19). The proclamation of the jubilee year is part of the holiness code in the book of Leviticus (Lev. 25). After seven cycles of sabbath years, the 50th year was to be observed as a jubilee year. After approximately seven times seven years between assemblies, we are now in the 50th year of the WCC, the year of the ecumenical jubilee. But what does it mean to talk about an "ecumenical jubilee"? Several ecumenical initiatives calling for a cancellation of the external debt of the world's poorest countries by the year 2000 have drawn inspiration from the biblical jubilee message. This is certainly appropriate: the cancellation of debts figures prominently in the biblical jubilee tradition; and the issue of international debt is on the agenda of our assembly. Yet the message of the biblical jubilee goes deeper than an urgent issue of social, economic and political justice.
11. Historically, the jubilee year should be seen as a reappropriation and reinterpretation of the older biblical tradition of the sabbath year. During the sabbath year, the people were to leave the soil fallow in order to give a complete rest to the earth, to the animals and to the servants. Slaves were to be released and debts cancelled. All this is integrated into the jubilee tradition, but the jubilee goes beyond the sabbath year. In the jubilee year all should be enabled to return to their ancestral land. In the context of rebuilding the community after the return from the exile in Babylon, the jubilee provides all families and members of the community with what they need to sustain their lives. Furthermore, as Leviticus 25:8-9 indicates, the jubilee shall be proclaimed with the sound of the trumpet on the day of the atonement, the day each year when the Jewish community asks to be liberated from its sins and reconciled with God and with each other. The jubilee message is therefore a message of reconciliation. It extends the liberating act of the atonement to a whole year. Together, these jubilee ordinances describe essential elements of the covenant order. Periodically, the inevitable injustice, exclusion and bondage resulting from the distortion of social and economic structures were to be corrected. The jubilee is meant to break the cycle of domination and dependency by proclaiming reconciliation and liberation and by ordering a self-limitation in the exercise of power. Those who control the basic factors of economic life -- land, labour and capital -- are to limit and even relinquish their exercise of power, thus restoring to the deprived and excluded the basis of and space for a life in dignity. They are to practise the same generosity and justice that God manifests in the act of the atonement, of reconciliation.
12. Jesus sums up his interpretation of the jubilee message in the words: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21). In Jesus, God's offer of reconciliation, the proclamation of the final jubilee of God's reign, has been fulfilled. In his life and death, he has given us the example of the one who gave up his power and status of equality with God and became human in order to open within our human history the space for reconciliation so that we could enjoy the glorious liberty of the children of God. If this is the message of the jubilee in the light of the proclamation of Jesus, then the jubilee is indeed a message of joy and hope for the ecumenical movement as well. Since the beginning of this century, churches have been searching for ways to restore the unity and communion of God's people, responding to the prayer of our Lord that all may be one. They have sought to redress and rectify the relationships between the dispersed members of God's people which have been distorted by mutual condemnation, by hatred, prejudice and exclusion and -- not least -- by claims of power and control over the means of salvation, of the fullness of life.
13. The ecumenical jubilee is therefore first of all a call to conversion, to repentance and critical self-assessment, acknowledging the accumulated guilt and coresponsibility in dividing the body of Christ. Turn to God in Christ -- this is the invitation to all churches to leave their defensiveness and self-righteousness and to turn to the source and centre of their unity: Christ, the crucified and risen one. Second, the ecumenical jubilee is an invitation to celebrate God's offer of reconciliation and to affirm the unity rediscovered and restored through the action of the Holy Spirit in the ecumenical movement. Today we can say: what unites us is stronger than what still separates us. We acknowledge each other again as relatives, as different, though related members of God's family. Third, the ecumenical jubilee is a message of hope, not only for the Christian community, but also for the world as it approaches the beginning of a new century and millennium. In a world captive to the forces of competitiveness, domination and exclusion, there is hope because the way of reconciliation and of sustainable life in community has been opened in Christ. In his presence and through his power of healing and restoring wholeness, we are being granted liberation and forgiveness. In the spirit of the ecumenical jubilee, we are called to become communities of hope, following in the footsteps of the one who renounced his claim to power, who shared and gave his life and thus created the space for us to experience the fullness of life, who embraced the stranger, the excluded, the deprived and poor and restored them in their dignity as full members of the community. Christ's way is our ecumenical vocation on the eve of the 21st century.
Opening up ecumenical space
14. But are we ready to celebrate this ecumenical jubilee? Are we prepared to turn to God, to receive God's offer of reconciliation and thus be released from the institutional captivities which prevent us from living visibly the koinonia which we affirm as God's gift in Jesus Christ? The jubilee ordinance was intended to provide guidance to the Jewish people for the task of rebuilding a viable community after the end of the Babylonian exile. What inspiration and orientation can we draw from the jubilee tradition for rebuilding communion among the separated churches? What is the place and the task of the WCC in this context? Has it not also become a victim of institutional captivity, thus itself needing liberation? Is it still an instrument of the ecumenical movement, of the churches on the way together, or has it become an institution apart, pursuing its own objectives? How can the WCC open and create the space which allows communion to grow and reconciliation to take place?
15. One of the main legacies of the Canberra assembly to the new central committee was the reflection begun in 1989 towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC. The central committee continued this process and in 1995 decided to orient it towards the eighth assembly. The results of this effort are before this assembly in the form of a policy document accepted by the central committee at its last meeting in September 1997. This document, which is printed in the Assembly Workbook, has benefited from and incorporated the proposals from many member churches. In its present form it represents no more -- and no less -- than an honest account by the central committee, as the main governing body between assemblies, of the WCC's vocation at this point in the development of the ecumenical movement. As the assembly delegates of the member churches, you are now invited to respond to this assessment of the understanding and task of the WCC and to draw out its implications.
16. As you will have seen in studying the document, the text does not propose a radically new understanding of the WCC. Rather, it seeks to offer a contemporary interpretation of the self-definition of the Council put forward in the Basis and in other foundational texts, especially the Toronto declaration of 1950. Central in these early identifications of the Council was its characterization as a "fellowship of churches". While this term "fellowship" is variously understood, its use in the Basis does seem clearly to suggest "that the Council is more than a mere functional association of churches set up to organize activities in areas of common interest" (CUV para. 3.2). Acknowledging that the existence of the WCC as a fellowship of churches poses an "ecclesiological challenge" to the churches, the CUV document offers a number of affirmations to clarify the meaning and the scope of the fellowship the churches experience in the WCC. In many ways these echo what I said earlier about an "ecumenical jubilee". The fellowship is not the result of an act of voluntarism on the part of the churches. It has its centre in the common commitment to Christ. As the churches together turn to God in Christ, they discover their fellowship among each other. The fellowship, therefore, is not merely an institutional arrangement between organized church bodies and their leaders. "It is rather a dynamic, relational reality which embraces the fullness of the churches as manifestations of the people of God. It is not an end in itself, but exists to serve as a sign and instrument of God's mission and activity in the world. The WCC may therefore be described as a missionary, diaconal and moral community" (3.5.3). The significance of this fellowship lies precisely in its opening the space where reconciliation and mutual accountability can take shape and where churches can learn together to walk on the way of a costly ecumenical commitment: "recognizing their solidarity with each other, assisting each other in cases of need, refraining from actions incompatible with brotherly and sisterly relations, entering into spiritual relationships to learn from each other, consulting with each other to learn of the Lord Jesus Christ what witness he would have them to bear to the world in his name' (Toronto)" (3.5.6).
17. Such a relational understanding of the Council as a fellowship of churches places the concern for its structure and institutional profile into a wider and more properly theological context. It corresponds with the affirmations of the fifth world conference on Faith and Order in Santiago de Compostela (1993) about "the understanding of koinonia and its implications" (report of Section I). In considering koinonia both as God's gracious gift and as calling to the churches, the report uses the image of the pilgrimage as an action of metanoia or conversion. This constant movement of metanoia is most expressive of the relational character of the church. To be in relationship means to be prepared to expose oneself to the otherness of the other, to allow oneself to be changed through the encounter. It also means accepting the fears and anxieties that any such encounter arouses in us. This interpretation sheds light on what I said earlier about the invitation "turn to God" as a call to metanoia, and about the "ecumenical jubilee" as a call to a self-limitation of power. "The encounter with the other in the search to establish the koinonia, grounded in God's gift, calls for a kenosis -- a self-giving and self-emptying. Such a kenosis arouses fear of loss of identity, and invites us to be vulnerable, yet such is no more than faithfulness to the ministry of vulnerability and death of Jesus as he sought to draw human beings into communion with God and each other. He is the pattern and patron of reconciliation which leads to koinonia. As individuals and communities, we are called to establish koinonia through a ministry of kenosis" (para. 20).
18. Seeing the Council as a fellowship of churches in the light of the dynamic, pilgrimage character of the koinonia which the churches in the Council seek to manifest makes us aware that the commitment this fellowship requires is indeed costly. It must be nurtured and re-generated continuously as the churches seek to fulfil their common calling. This is particularly important when churches are being challenged to render prophetic witness and service in the world. The WCC study on "ecclesiology and ethics" has further developed insights from the Faith and Order world conference, the ecumenical process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation and earlier efforts to relate the being of the church to its character as prophetic sign in the world. This study has explored the "ethos" of the church as koinonia as it is expressed through the liturgy, especially the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist. It has given particular attention to the process of spiritual and moral formation and discernment through which koinonia is generated and re-built. This leads to the important suggestion that the oikoumene be understood as an "energy-field" of mutual resonance and recognition generated by the Holy Spirit. "By choosing resonance and recognition as our metaphors we are able to turn to a biblical formula found in the Johannine literature... The sheep know the shepherd's voice (John 10:3; cf. Rev.3:20)... Discipleship means hearing, being drawn, being formed, by the voice: not just its sound but also the content, the authentic note of a way of speaking by which we are shaped, attesting to an identifiable way of being in the world, yet a way of being having many different forms... The focus of ecumenical recognition is that the other community has an acted commitment analogous to one's own, and one's own commitment is analogous to the other. The analogy exists because of a shared recognition-pattern of moral practice in the Spirit. People... recognize that others have the same spirit'... Such recognition is something holistic, never merely doctrinal or jurisdictional but also including both doctrinal and jurisdictional elements. It is recognition of a lived reality: a sense of moral communion. This is what oikoumene means" (Costly Obedience, para. 90f.).
19. This document then goes on to interpret the WCC as the "space" marking the possibility of such communion of mutual recognition and resonance. Though not itself that moral communion, "it is a community of churches praying to receive the spiritual gifts which such communion in moral witnessing will require" (para. 99). "The WCC needs to mark, maintain, indeed be a space where the ecclesio-moral communion... can come to expression, where language is constantly sought to express the reality more fully, where common actions are conceived which embody the needed moral witness, and where an ecumenical formation takes place which gives growing density, increasing fullness, to it" (para. 102). This understanding of the WCC has inspired the Theology of Life programme, which explored the ten affirmations of the Seoul convocation on "Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation" (1990) as "a preliminary definition of the framework and space in which people can build up confidence and trust. The affirmations are not confessional statements nor criteria for the judgment of heretical positions. Rather they can be seen as yardsticks of mutual accountability, regulative ideas for conflicts of interpretation in ecumenical dialogue and cooperation in radically different contexts" (M. Robra in The Ecumenical Review, 1996, no. 1, p.35). The sokoni conference in Nairobi in January 1997, since it was organized on the model of the African village market, which serves the community as a place of communication and exchange, offered a tangible experience of this ecumenical space. This is also the intention of the Padare as an open and yet protected space in the middle of this assembly.
20. The concept of "ecumenical space" thus widens our understanding of the WCC as a fellowship of churches. This notion was in fact already used in earlier ecumenical discussions of conciliar fellowship. The statement of the Faith and Order commission on "Conciliarity and the Future of the Ecumenical Movement" (1971) affirmed: "If the unity of the church is to serve the unity of [humankind], it must provide room both for a wide variety of forms, and for differences and even conflicts... The church's unity must be of such a kind that there is ample space for diversity and for the open mutual confrontation of differing interests and convictions" (Louvain report, pp.226f., italics added). More recent Faith and Order discussions have suggested that the notion of "ecumenical space" could advance the doctrinal discussion about the ministry of bishops. "Living in Spaces with Open Doors" is the title of the report from a 1995 consultation organized by the WCC's various educational programmes to explore educational paradigms which enable people to live in open spaces, accept diversity, broaden horizons and keep hope alive. The report points to the concept of "civil society" as describing a space, distinct from the political and economic structures of the state and the market, where genuine community building takes place. We might also say that the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women has made a dramatic plea for the space needed to make of the church truly an inclusive community. Finally, the ecumenical discussion about the integrity of creation has led to the recognition that the earth is the space which the Creator has provided for all living things to live together in sustainable communities. The seventh day of creation, the divine Sabbath, when God rested from all God's work of creation, opens the space for life to expand and grow. Echoing the rabbinical tradition, Larry Rasmussen affirms that "it is sabbath and not dominion that symbolizes the proper relationship of humans to the rest of nature and of all creation together with the Creator. Indeed, Sabbath, and not the creation of humans, is the crown and climax of the creation story itself..." (Earth Community, Earth Ethics, Geneva, 1996, p.232). In this sense the sabbath and the jubilee year are to provide the space for the periodical rebuilding of community life.
21. All of this reminds us of the prophetic exhortation: "Enlarge the space for your dwelling, extend the curtains of your tent to the full; let out its ropes and drive the tentpegs home" (Isa. 54:2). These words could inspire a revitalization of the life of the churches in fellowship with each other in the WCC. Many churches today, however, under the pressure of internal and external challenges, are withdrawing behind confessional and institutional lines of defence. Ecumenical partnerships with other churches too often remain formal, rarely leading to the encounter of life with life. As the sharing of resources becomes professionalized, ecumenical bonds of solidarity grow weaker. Many perceive the World Council of Churches as a functional agency whose effectiveness is to be evaluated in comparison with the many other specialized international non-governmental organizations. Others feel that the WCC adds to the problems and pressures which churches face by imposing positions and programmatic orientations which conflict with their inherited church traditions. Even the interpretation of the Council as a fellowship of "mutual accountability" can be understood as such an imposition which does not respect the integrity of the member churches. My suggestion that the notions of "pilgrimage" and "ecumenical space" can enhance our understanding of the Council as a fellowship of churches comes against this background. In the uncertainty of the present situation, with its temptation to see identity in a defensive and exclusive way, the ecumenical movement needs to recapture the sense of the pilgrim people of God, of churches on the way together, ready to transcend the boundaries of their history and tradition, listening together to the voice of the Shepherd, recognizing and resonating with each other as those energized by the same Spirit. The WCC as a fellowship of churches marks the space where such risky encounter can take place, where confidence and trust can be built and community can grow. At present, this conviction is being tested severely by conflicts over moral issues, especially regarding human sexuality, and by the ecclesiological and theological challenges arising from the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women. More than ever before we need the WCC as an ecumenical space which is open and yet embraced by the faithfulness of God and protected by the bond of peace, a space of mutual acceptance and understanding as well as of mutual challenge and correction.
22.The fellowship of churches in the WCC is not an end in itself. It is meant to serve as a sign and instrument for God's mission in the world. We have interpreted "fellowship" with the help of the notion of ecumenical space, a space where "the churches can explore (together) what it means to be in fellowship towards greater unity in Christ" (CUV para. 3.5.4). In itself, however, this does not transcend the perspective of interchurch ecumenism. Therefore, the ecumenical space will have to be opened for the concerns of the world. In his analysis of the churches' responses to the CUV process, Peter Lodberg says: "The WCC is a sanctuary in a divided world" (in The Ecumenical Review, 1998, no. 3, p.276). A sanctuary is a place of refuge for the stranger; it offers hospitality to those who have no home. Reflecting on the widespread contemporary search for spiritual meaning and the diffuse resurgence of religion today, Lewis Mudge believes that the Christian community -- and by implication also the ecumenical fellowship of churches -- "can provide not only material hospitality to the stranger, but also spiritual hospitality: a sanctuary of meaning for those who, for many reasons -- intellectual, religious, political -- are unable to confess the source of this meaning" (The Church as a Moral Community, Geneva, 1998, p.82). Sometimes the churches in their ecumenical fellowship have indeed offered to the wider secular community the space for reflecting more deeply the moral and spiritual dimensions of justice and injustice, reconciliation, human rights and peace-building. As Mudge says: "Churches can and should offer a sort of metaphorical space in the world for those, believers or otherwise, who believe that human society can overcome its violent origins, its continuing resentment and mistrust, and come to realize its true calling to become the beloved community envisioned in the biblical story. The churches exist to hold open a social space in which society's existing structures and practices can be seen for what they are and in which human community can be articulated in a new way, a space in which the metaphors of common life can be exposed to their transcendental ground" (loc. cit., p.112).
23. The CUV document emphasizes the understanding of the WCC as a "fellowship of churches" which has a structure and organization, but is not to be identified with this structure. Yet -- partly in response to the CUV text itself -- a new discussion has arisen precisely around the institutional character of the WCC as an organization with member churches. In its outline of what is implied by membership of this body, the CUV document draws on an earlier text received by the central committee in 1996 (cf. "The Meaning of Membership", in Central Committee Minutes 1996, pp.184-87). When a draft of that text had been sent to the member churches for comment, only very few churches reacted. In retrospect it is clear that an explication of the meaning of membership which is inspired by the biblical notion of the body -- in other words, the churches in fellowship as members of one another -- cannot easily be reconciled with the notion of membership of an organization. Many churches seem primarily concerned about membership of the Council in the sense of participation, representation, influence on decision-making -- summed up in the phrase "owning the organization". Membership indeed brings rights and privileges -- but it also entails responsibilities and obligations. The CUV document speaks much more extensively about the responsibilities of membership than about the issue of rights of participation and representation. While an earlier draft of the CUV text had included a section about the institutional implications of this understanding of the WCC, particularly for its governing structures, the central committee felt that those proposals needed further reflection and should therefore be treated separately from the policy statement. Now it is precisely on these concerns that discussion is focusing.
24. Critical questions have in particular been raised by the Eastern Orthodox churches. At a meeting at Thessaloniki earlier this year, these churches called for a "radical restructuring" of the Council, apparently making the accomplishment of this objective a condition for their continued participation in the life and work of the WCC. The understanding of "membership" is central in their argument. Membership of the Council at present is based on the institutional identity of churches as autonomous, mostly national bodies. The Constitution and Rules of the WCC -- in accordance with the Toronto declaration of 1950 -- leave open the ecclesiological question of what constitutes a church. A potential member church needs to express agreement with the Basis and give evidence of its autonomy and "sustained independent life and organization". It must recognize "the essential interdependence of the churches, particularly those of the same confession, and must practise constructive ecumenical relations with other churches within its country or region". Apart from these requirements, potential member churches must have at least 25,000 members (for associate member churches 10,000 members). These formulations on "membership" do not indicate how the WCC is to respond if a member church experiences division or if two or more member churches enter into union or an agreement of full communion. The fact that most churches of the Protestant tradition today live in a situation of (at least de facto) full communion with each other raises the question of how this can be reflected more adequately in the character of their membership of the WCC.
25. For more than twenty years, the Orthodox churches have expressed concern about the WCC's continued acceptance of new member churches, most of them of Protestant background, while the number of Orthodox churches has remained virtually unchanged and is not likely to change. They find themselves locked into a structural minority situation. Consequently, they can exercise only limited influence on programmatic directions and decisions of the WCC's governing bodies. Emphasizing that they represent one of the two main Christian traditions -- Orthodox and Protestant -- which together form the Council and that the combined number of their faithful corresponds to at least one-third of the total of all member churches of the WCC, they are calling for a reconsideration of the Council's structures and processes of governance. To be granted a quota (presently 25 percent) of the seats on governing bodies, alongside quotas for lay persons, women, young people etc., does not in their understanding address the real problem. They also question the Council's rules for debate and decision-making, which follow the parliamentary model of majority rule. Respecting their firm conviction that matters which affect the ecclesiological self-understanding of a church cannot and must not be decided by a majority vote, the Council has adopted a rule (XVI.6.b) allowing such matters to be dealt with in deliberative session without a vote. Recently, however, they have raised the more fundamental question of what it means to continue membership of an organization whose agenda is shaped by concerns which often are foreign, not only to their ecclesiological self-understanding, but also to their ethos and culture. Not wishing to call into question their commitment to and co-responsibility for the ecumenical movement, in which they have participated from the early days, they ask whether institutional membership with the implications and responsibilities set out in the CUV document is the only way to be recognized as an ecumenical partner. Some have noted that the Roman Catholic Church enjoys broad possibilities for participation as an essential partner in the programmes and activities of the WCC without, however, taking on the responsibilities of membership.
26. What these questions bring to light is that the WCC's institutional profile and "ethos" have been shaped essentially by the model of church assemblies and synods of the historic Protestant churches which have appropriated the tradition of parliamentary decision-making in countries with democratic constitutions. And indeed, participation by the people in decisions affecting their lives has been a criterion which the Council has strongly defended. It has thereby opened its own life to the influence of interest groups around many significant issues. While many churches consider this appropriate, it is essentially a model derived from political life and is not necessarily the best way to express the self-understanding of a "fellowship of churches". Not only the Orthodox churches, but also many churches in Africa and other parts of the Southern hemisphere, follow different models, which emphasize dialogue and consensus and the respect for hierarchy and authority. Without rejecting the discipline of "mutual accountability" as a criterion for a committed fellowship, they would insist that it presupposes genuine partnership, the readiness to risk the encounter with the other in a dialogue of love rather than the negotiation of compromises between different positions and interest groups. If the WCC is indeed to serve as a framework for opening ecumenical space, the question should be asked whether the present form of governance by majority rule is the most appropriate way to organize its life. Decision-making by consensus has been adopted as a formula even in some political forums on the international level. It is practised in most of the programmatic contexts of the WCC. Such models might also be explored for the governance of the WCC at the formal decision-making level. At the same time, the space for genuine deliberation in meetings of the assembly and the central committee should be opened up and widened, inviting the different partners to encounter and engage each other without necessarily having to reach a decision by taking a vote. It is obvious that all the questions regarding participation and membership cannot be dealt with satisfactorily at this assembly. The inter-Orthodox meeting in Thessaloniki mentioned earlier suggested strongly that a "mixed theological commission" be created to discuss the institutional changes required in order to achieve an acceptable form of Orthodox participation in the life of the WCC. This proposal has already received the support of the executive committee, and it is expected that this assembly will take the decisions necessary for setting up such a commission.
27. However, the fact of the active participation of the Roman Catholic Church in many aspects of the life and activities of the WCC obliges us to return to the question whether "membership" as an institutional arrangement with rights and responsibilities is in fact the only -- or even the most appropriate -- form of expressing participation in the ecumenical movement. It has always been recognized that the ecumenical movement is wider and more comprehensive than the World Council of Churches with its recognized member churches. A great variety of instruments and agents of the ecumenical movement have emerged. Some are even older than the WCC itself. The Council has regular working relationships with the bodies representing Christian world communions, with regional ecumenical organizations and national councils and with a range of international ecumenical organizations. While the WCC Rules recognize these as essential partners in the "one ecumenical movement", they cannot be members of the Council, and their participation in developing the WCC's programmes and activities is limited. Besides the Roman Catholic Church, other "non-member churches", particularly from the Evangelical and Pentecostal traditions, contribute in their own way to shaping the agenda of the ecumenical movement without, however, being institutionally related to the WCC. The World Council of Churches continues to be the most comprehensive and most representative institutional expression of the ecumenical movement. Thus it has a particular responsibility to "strengthen the one ecumenical movement", as the proposed revision of article III of the WCC Constitution recognizes. The proposed constitutional amendment acknowledges the different ecumenical partners of the WCC and sees it as a special responsibility of the WCC to "work towards maintaining the coherence of the one ecumenical movement in its diverse manifestations".
28. This proposed amendment thus attributes to the WCC a responsibility which goes beyond its formal membership. The new formulation does not change the character of the World Council as a "council of churches", but it acknowledges that "membership" cannot and must not become an exclusive category for participation in the common ecumenical endeavour. To give tangible expression to its readiness to foster wider relationships beyond membership, the Council has suggested exploring the formation of a Forum of Christian churches and ecumenical organizations. This term "forum" is deliberately chosen in order to suggest that participation is more important than membership. The forum is to be open to all bodies and organizations which share in the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour according to the scriptures and which seek to be obedient to God's call. Its purpose would be to create the space where a genuine exchange about the challenges facing the ecumenical movement can take place and where forms of cooperation can be worked out. The forum should not become yet another institution with administrative and bureaucratic structures. It is not envisaged as a framework where decisions are to be taken or resolutions passed. Its objective would be to shape a network of relationships transcending the limitations of existing arrangements. The WCC would participate in the forum alongside other partners without claiming any privileged place. After initial consultations with the most immediate partners whose willingness to participate would be decisive for establishing the forum, an exploratory consultation took place in August of this year, and a common proposal has been formulated which is now being shared with the different partners for their response. On behalf of the WCC, this assembly, through the Policy Reference Committee I, is asked to react to this proposal.
An ecumenical vision for the 21st century
29. I want to turn in conclusion to the wider perspectives opened up by the assembly theme when it invites us to "rejoice in hope". Are we ready to give an "account of the hope that is in us"? Do we have an ecumenical vision which could guide us as we move into the 21st century and which is compelling enough to inspire a new generation? As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the WCC we are reminded that the affirmation of the Amsterdam assembly, "we intend to stay together", was not only an act of faith. It also expressed a vision for the church and the world and a commitment to action. The words of the assembly message which solemnly state this commitment are worth quoting once again at the opening of this jubilee assembly: "Our coming together to form a World Council will be vain unless Christians and Christian congregations everywhere commit themselves to the Lord of the church in a new effort to seek together, where they live, to be his witnesses and servants among their neighbours. We have to remind ourselves and all [persons] that God has put down the mighty from their seats and exalted the humble and meek. We have to learn afresh together to speak boldly in Christ's name both to those in power and to the people, to oppose terror, cruelty and race discrimination, to stand by the outcast, the prisoner and the refugee. We have to make of the church in every place a voice for those who have no voice, and a home where [everyone] will be at home...We have to ask God to teach us together to say No and to say Yes in truth. No, to all that flouts the love of Christ, to every system, every programme and every person that treats [anyone] as though he were an irresponsible thing or a means of profit, to the defenders of injustice in the name of order, to those who sow the seeds of war or urge war as inevitable; Yes, to all that conforms to the love of Christ, to all who seek for justice, to the peace-makers, to all who hope, fight and suffer for the cause of [humankind], to all who -- even without knowing it -- look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness."
30. Acting on this commitment and vision the WCC, in the fifty years of its existence, has indeed become a source of hope for many people and communities: for uprooted people and the victims of racial discrimination and oppression, for those struggling for justice and human dignity, for women and all those who are marginalized in church and society. These visible signs of common Christian obedience have shaped the profile of the WCC for several generations. They have encouraged the emergence of networks of ecumenical solidarity in all parts of the world which have changed the understanding of what it means to be the church in the world.
31. But in celebrating the heritage of those who have gone before us, we cannot be content with simply reaffirming their vision and commitment. In Amsterdam the vision and commitment were formulated under the impact of the devastation left behind by the most destructive war in human history. We must articulate the vision and commitment in addressing the situation of the world and of the ecumenical movement on the eve of the 21st century. We find ourselves being drawn today into a process of historical transformation commonly characterized by the term "globalization". This has dramatically increased the interdependence of all parts of the world, particularly in the fields of economy, finance and communication. At the same time it is causing growing fragmentation and the exclusion of large numbers of people worldwide. Moreover, the ecumenical movement finds itself at a crossroads and in urgent need of new orientation. We cannot, after celebrating this jubilee and affirming again that we intend to stay together, simply return home and continue with ecumenical business as usual.The assembly theme calls us to conversion, to repentance and to a self-critical assessment of our failures to heal the divisions of the body of Christ, of our hesitations to say No to all that divides and to say Yes to all that promises greater unity.
32. But sometimes our No has been louder than our Yes. We have at times allowed our vision of unity and just relationships in church and world to be blurred by the ambiguities and antagonisms of decades of cold-war confrontation. This is not a time for us to rest on our laurels, to rely comfortably on our own past. Networks of ecumenical solidarity are becoming strained under the dynamics of the process of globalization, which manifests a ruthless "ecumenism of domination". While we must say No to an emerging world order that denies hundreds of millions of people the right to life and human dignity and endangers the very sustainability of the web of life itself, we are challenged more than ever before to say Yes wherever we discover efforts to affirm and defend life, to heal human community and to restore the integrity of creation. The jubilee message inherent in the assembly theme does not provide a blueprint for a new order, but in the midst of a broken, imperfect world it identifies areas where conversion is needed. It does not promise an imminent "new heaven and new earth". Rather it was and remains today a message of liberation from the captivities which still hold us back on our ecumenical way and a charter of hope for the reconstruction of community in which those who have been marginalized and excluded are restored to their place as co-equals.
33. Building on the CUV document, the text "Our Ecumenical Vision" (which is included in the Assembly Workbook) attempts to give an account of the hope that is in us. This text has been formulated as a kind of litany couched in the liturgical language of worship. It will provide the structure for the service of recommitment on 13 December when we shall commemorate the 50th anniversary of the WCC. It constitutes an invitation to contextualize the vision and to turn it into the common expression of hope of this assembly. It is not so much the central core of the vision itself which is at stake.The biblical symbols of the reign of God, of the fullness of life in the presence of God, of a new heaven and earth established on right relationships, the bringing together of all things into unity in Christ -- these constitute the source of inspiration for our hopes and visions. The challenge to us here is rather to find a language in which to interpret and explicate these biblical images for the generations of today and tomorrow, that they might be equipped to respond to the ecumenical calling with the same conviction as did those generations who prepared the way.
34. The vision statement begins by affirming the legacy of those who have gone before us. It reminds us that we are still the pilgrim people of God. And it articulates a vision for the ecumenical movement today:
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.Central to this vision is the restoration or building of sustainable human communities. In a time of increasing individualization, fragmentation and exclusion, this gives a focus to the hopes of the North as well as the South. Strongly affirming life and the right to life for all, it continues the thrust of the Canberra assembly. Its motifs are wholeness, reconciliation, community, dialogue and tolerance, solidarity and the self-limitation of power. The vision statement encourages the formulation of shared values and norms, the building of a new culture of dialogue and readiness to learn from one another, of non-violence and peaceful resolution of conflicts, of sharing and solidarity. This vision of an alternative culture of human community in church and society may appear utopian, since it stands against the imposition of other values and norms in a globalizing world. It is rooted in the confidence that there is an alternative to unlimited competition, to growth at any cost instead of sufficiency, to use instead of regeneration, to individualism instead of community.
We expect the healing of human community, the wholeness of God's 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.
35. Any vision which does not inspire new forms of acting remains a distant utopia. It can even prevent a sober discernment of reality -- thus running the risk of becoming a stifling ideology. A vision is compelling only if it helps to uncover and name the contradictions of the present and to release energies for change and transformation. Such a common vision engages the churches in the ecumenical movement to make manifest a new quality of their relationships to one another which expresses and anticipates the profile of a new order, a new culture. The strength and integrity of the ecumenical movement lie in such a worldwide network of relationships which can sustain the intention of churches in each place to be truly church, to form lively and sustainable communities, to build supportive neighbourhoods, to provide sanctuary and space to those who are lost or excluded. By giving expression to such a vision through their worship and life, the churches can offer new meaning to those who feel lost or abandoned and anticipate that wholeness which is God's eschatological promise. With such a vision, the churches can, by God's grace, truly become communities of hope in a world in need of firm foundations.
© 1999 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor