8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on the Way
8.9. Visions for the Future
Address by Philip Potter to the WCC on the Occasion of its
50th Anniversary, Harare, 13 December 1998

I have been asked to follow up the journey of the World Council of Churches through these fifty years, by trying to see visions of the future. Being now an old man myself, I can only aspire to dream -- though I must admit that I have always been a poor sleeper!

At Amsterdam the average age of the delegates was 61, while that of us youth delegates was about 25. But a large number of those older delegates had kept alive the vision which they had captured in the Student Christian Movement and the YMCA and YWCA. I did say to the assembly in my address that the young and the old needed each other, in the fellowship of the Spirit, for the tasks ahead.

What struck us young people most at Amsterdam was the boldness and the prophetic character of the message, and especially the call to be Christ's witnesses and servants among our neighbours. The message said in particular:

"We have to remind ourselves and all people 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 learn afresh together what is the duty of the Christian man or woman in industry, in agriculture, in politics, in the professions and in the 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 or she were an irresponsible thing or a means of profit, to the defenders of injustice in the name of order, to those who sow 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 humanity, to all who -- even without knowing it -- look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness."
These words are as fresh and pertinent today as they were in 1948. We started our journey this afternoon with the reading of the letter to the Hebrews, chapter 12, verse 1, which speaks of the "cloud of witnesses". We must not forget that the writer indicates in chapter 2, verse 5, that his vision is "the oikoumene which is coming" -- the oikoumene of God, in which dwells justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

This century has been called "the century of extremes" and it might well continue to be so in the coming 21st century. Certainly, it was in this century that the ultimate weapons of human destruction have been produced and used, and that the pollution of the natural environment has become a real menace. During these fifty years, the oikoumene, the whole inhabited earth, has been brought into one global city, through the various high-technology means of communication, but under the control of only a small minority of the world's population. As the century comes to an end, the world is divided economically into North and South, and culturally and religiously into many hostile factions.

What is the legacy of the ecumenical movement in this half century, and what gains have we experienced which must be carried forward towards the unity and community of God's people as a sign of God's purpose for the unity and community of all peoples in a sustained earth? As we have briefly surveyed the work of the World Council of Churches over these fifty years, there are some things which stand out and point to the future.

First, Christians are now willing to face openly the divisions which have taken place, especially over the past 1000 years. The historic churches are now all on speaking terms. Within the last forty years there have been remarkable comings together and conversations between the major families of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and the churches of the Reformation and their offshoots. We have been able, through the persistent efforts of the Faith and Order commission, to articulate ways to visible unity, and to take small steps towards deeper fellowship in faith, worship and life.

Even though in North and South America, in Africa and elsewhere several independent and Pentecostal communities are sprouting up, they are no longer publicly regarded with suspicion and intolerance. Indeed, religious liberty is being more clearly observed. This is in no small measure due to the contribution of the World Council of Churches and of its related churches to the drafting of the clauses on religious liberty in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948, and to the continued work of the Council in defending religious liberty everywhere.

Second, the WCC has continued and intensified its central task of furthering the mission of the church in six continents, and the proclamation of the gospel in diverse cultures, as well as the ministry of health and healing. There has also been a steady development of dialogue, in mutual respect and openness, with people of the major non-Christian faiths. In several cases cooperation on concerns of human rights and welfare and of disarmament and peace is fruitfully taking place. All this must go on.

In the last twenty years, however, there has been an unhappy increase in ethno-religious conflicts, which calls for more concerted ecumenical attention than has been given. Unfortunately, as the pressure of the globalization of finance, economics and communication accelerates, so do the violent reactions of ethno-religious groupings in many countries. Here again, a very difficult and imperative task awaits the World Council of Churches, together with other Christian and religious groups, to intensify mutual dialogue and action, and to seek ways to overcome violence and encourage cooperation for human well-being.

Third, the ecumenical movement, and the World Council of Churches in particular, have carried out many study programmes and activities which have effected change and will continue to do so for the common good, in several aspects of our human condition. These activities are pursued in order to achieve one of the aims of the Council for "the service of human need, the breaking down of barriers between people, the promotion of one human family in justice and peace, and upholding the integrity of creation".

Let me enumerate some concerns which are central to our ecumenical agenda now and in the future and which should engage our thought and energies.

  • Work among refugees, displaced persons and migrants has been and will be a major activity in a world which is broken with war and conflicts.
  • The Programme to Combat Racism has highlighted one of the scourges of the human family -- discrimination against and exclusion of people because of their race, and the marginalization of Indigenous Peoples, as in the Americas and in the Pacific. The task of affirming and contributing to the sanctity and full humanity of persons of every race must be carried out with eager determination.
  • The age-old discrimination against women in church and society has been challenged with vigour since the Amsterdam assembly. Through the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, which has ended with this assembly, a new and hopefully more creative stage has been reached in recognizing the God-given equality of women and men.
  • The option for the poor and deprived has also been carried out with particular force and enthusiasm during the last thirty years. In a world in which poverty and unemployment are dramatically increasing in both poor and rich countries, we have the obligation, together with all persons of goodwill, to uncover the causes of economic and social inequalities and work unremittingly for a more just world community.

    Let me mention here one of the many occasions on which youth have played a significant role in ecumenical discussion and action. Uppsala was the most open and exciting WCC assembly, which was facilitated by the open houses for coffee and discussion, as well as a daily paper which the Swedish students provided. The youth participants were well prepared for the work of the assembly, and during the days of the assembly itself there were many late-night discussions on strategy, in which I took part. The youth participants influenced some of the resolutions presented to the assembly for adoption. One of those young people was a Dutch economics expert named Jan Pronk. Six years later, as minister of economics in the Dutch government, he presided over an important UN conference which produced a powerful charter on a New International Economic Order. At our Nairobi assembly, I, among others, quoted from this Charter as we were hammering out our own programme towards a Just, Participatory and Sustainable Society. Jan Pronk also addressed our Vancouver assembly as deputy director of the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

  • This century of extremes, which has witnessed the most devastating wars in history, will transmit its legacy of the proliferation of arms of mass destruction and of civil, regional and international wars into the 21st century. Here again it is the duty of the WCC and other Christian bodies, and also of international instruments like the United Nations, to work with ceaseless vigilance to create and maintain a climate of peace on earth and goodwill among peoples.
  • During these fifty years, there has been a growing consciousness of "the limits to growth" and of the squandering of the earth's resources. What has become more evident is that the earth and the atmosphere must be protected and preserved from further pollution. The irony is that it is the richest and the poorest countries, though for quite opposite reasons, which are least willing and able to tackle this growing threat to humanity and to the whole creation. Christians are called more than ever to proclaim and practise God's blessing of "good" on the whole creation.
What is abundantly clear is that the WCC, as a fellowship of churches and as an instrument of the ecumenical movement, has as its continuing raison d'Ítre to declare by word and deed the unity of all God's people, to witness to the saving and renewing grace and power of the gospel of God through Christ in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; and to serve and advance the well-being of all people. I fervently hope that young participants in this assembly will be present at the next jubilee in the year 2048 to testify to what God has done through their generation to carry out the purpose of good for all.

We have been meeting in this jubilee assembly at a time of great challenges and also of great uncertainty about our life and calling together as a fellowship of God's people in Christ sent to do God's work in God's world. We feel insufficient for the tasks before us. But as the apostle Paul reminds us: "Our sufficiency is from God" (2 Cor. 3:5). That is why we have been saying to ourselves and to each other: "Turn to God, rejoice in hope". Indeed, this hope is love in action through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. And to God be all the glory!

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