8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on the Way
4. WCC Membership and Relationships

4.1. The work of the Policy Reference Committee I
Policy Reference Committee I, chaired by Gabriel Habib, with Daniel F. Martensen as rapporteur, was responsible for considering reports and formulating recommendations in the general area of the ecumenical relationships of the WCC. It also formulated the assembly’s responses to the reports of the moderator and general secretary and made recommendations for its action on the proposed constitutional amendments and rule changes.

4.2. New Members
Eight new churches were recommended for full WCC membership by the Committee. Each recommendation was voted on individually on 5 December, and all were accepted by a large majority, some without dissent. The fruit of this action was made visible when the representatives of these churches moved to the plenary floor and took their seats as delegates. Two of the new member churches -- the Harrist Church from Côte d’Ivoire and the Council of African Instituted Churches from South Africa -- are churches founded by Africans (rather than by Western missionaries); the application for membership from a third such African Instituted Church, the Celestial Church of Christ in Nigeria, was not accepted by delegates because of unclarities and uncertainties about the church’s stance on the issue of polygamy. However, the vote turning down the application was then challenged as being inconsistent with the provision in the WCC constitution that every member church has only one vote on motions to receive new member churches. This challenge was sustained; and the assembly subsequently decided to refer the whole matter to the new central committee for further consultation and decision.

Two councils of churches -- the Samoa Council of Churches and the Council of Protestant Churches of Equatorial Guinea -- were approved unanimously as associate councils. WCC rules say that associate councils are entitled to send a delegated representative to assemblies. By common consent five organizations were recognized as international ecumenical organizations in a working relationship with the WCC.

4.3. Relationships with Orthodox Churches
The Committee also addressed relationship with the Orthodox churches. Bishop Nifon (Romanian Orthodox Church) interpreted the Thessaloniki statement, developed by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches to convey their concerns and commitments about participation in the WCC. Comments by the seven people who spoke from the floor emphasized the importance of the special commission and the need for understanding the complex context in which Orthoedox churches in the former Soviet Union now find themselves.

Delegates then voted (with 4 abstentions) to approve the creation of a special commission to devote a period of at least three years to studying the full range of issues related to the participation of Orthodox churches in the WCC and to present proposals about changes in structure, working style and ethos to the central committee for decision (or for eventual formulation of constitutional changes at the next assembly).

4.4. Other Relationships
Policy Reference Committee I also made proposals, accepted by the assembly, regarding ways of strengthening relationships with regional ecumenical organizations, national councils of churches and Christian world communions, as well as with churches which are not members of the Council.

Suggested priorities for the Joint Working Group between the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church (JWG) were endorsed, and the JWG was encouraged "to continue its effort to understand past difficulties and open ways towards new perspectives and possible positive initiatives". Specifically underscored for attention by the JWG in the coming period were issues related to "the nature, purpose and methods of dialogue" and "the nature of regional and national ecumenical organizations".

The Council and its member churches were urged to seek "new forms of relationships with evangelicals in the spirit of the CUV". Approval was given to the formation of a new joint working group with Pentecostals, and a number of tasks were outlined for it, including broadening the range of the existing dialogue between the WCC and Pentecostals and "initiating studies and exchange on issues of common interest, including controversial issues".

Several of the recommendations concerning relationships touched on broader questions regarding what "membership" in the WCC means; and how churches and organizations which are not formally WCC members might nevertheless find appropriate forms of participation in the Council’s "governing, consultative and advisory bodies". The new central committee was urged to continue the reflection already begun, within the context of the CUV discussion, on the understanding of and criteria for membership -- and issue which was also reflected in consideration of the proposal for an ecumenical "forum".

4.5. Proposal for a Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organizations
Reports from the
moderator and general secretary referred to the idea of a "forum of Christian churches and ecumenical organizations". This proposal had been developed at an August 1998 consultation which brought together participants from the conference of world communions, the regional ecumenical organizations, national councils of churches, international ecumenical organizations, and member churches of the WCC.

The assembly affirmed the report from the August 1998 consultation and asked the central committee to continue consultations with leaders of bodies which have already expressed interest in the forum idea. The assembly also offered nine observations which it said should guide this further consultation. Central to this were several recommendations dealing with concerns about how an eventual forum would differ from the WCC. One of these stated explicitly that "participation by churches in a forum should in no way be seen as comparable to the ecumenical accountability and commitment of ongoing membership in the WCC".

4.6. Other Recommended Actions
The report of Policy Reference Committee I also included a proposal, accepted by the assembly in plenary session, that the central committee encourage common local, national, regional and global ecumenical celebrations for the year 2000. It expressed appreciation and gratitude for the substantial reports presented by the
moderator and the general secretary.

The assembly also approved a number of changes in the WCC constitution and rules. The one proposed change that was defeated would have been the election of WCC presidents by the central committee rather than the assembly. The Policy Reference Committee itself reported that it could not reach a consensus on the proposal. Primary reasons given during floor discussion were that the assembly is the highest authoritative body of the WCC, and its prerogatives in this matter should not be removed; and that only a third of the member churches would be involved in the electoral process if it were conducted by the central committee. One person spoke in favour of the amendment, nine spoke against.

4.7. Report of the Policy Reference Committee I (full text)

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