Anniversaries are occasions to pause and reflect. In many ways that is what this assembly was doing for the ecumenical movement. The delegates took a look at where the member churches have been together in the past fifty years, assessed where they are now, and made some decisions that will affect their life together into the 21st century.
This book contains the official texts approved by the delegates at the Harare assembly, with a record of central issues raised in plenary debate. It also includes key presentations, reports, messages and greetings, statistics, names, and the WCC constitution and rules. These proceedings become part of the WCC's ecumenical tradition. In this introduction, I have been asked to offer a personal perspective on the event. This custom puts the texts in a context and helps give a flavour to the whole.
1.2. The participants
As people from many nations and churches descended on the university campus, they made their way first to the registration tables at Beit Hall. Every participant was given an identification badge with a photo which was hung around the neck and became a permanent part of his or her garb for the duration. Those standing in lines were a colourful microcosm of the church in the world -- black, blue and pink cassocks, clerical collars, daishikis, saris and sarongs, and all manner of Western street clothes from T-shirts to ties; a dizzying array of languages; and people from every continent.
The Harare assembly was the largest in WCC history. It included 966 voting delegates chosen by the 336 member churches to represent them: 367 women, 599 men, 525 of whom were ordained, 438 who were lay. Included in these numbers were 134 youth. They came from the regions of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, North America and the Pacific. The largest number of delegates was from Africa and Europe, followed in number by Asia and North America. Twenty-nine associate member churches (those churches otherwise eligible for membership but with fewer than the required 25,000 members) sent 31 representatives who had the right to speak but not to vote. It was announced during the assembly that "to our great regret, the Orthodox Church of Georgia has withdrawn"; furthermore, a letter was received formally stating that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church also had withdrawn its membership.
The three central committee officers took turns presiding at plenary sessions: the moderator, Aram I (Armenian Apostolic Church [Cilicia]); and vice-moderators Soritua Nababan (Batak Protestant Christian Church [Indonesia]) and Nélida Ritchie (Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina). The general secretary Konrad Raiser (Evangelical Church in Germany, elected by the central committee in August 1992, was on the podium for all plenary sessions.
Forty-six guests attended the assembly. Among them was a four-member delegation from North Korean churches led by Rev. Yong-Sop Kang -- the first time churches from that country had attended a WCC assembly; and eight people from other faiths: Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu. Also participating were 289 observers, delegated observers (from non-member churches, including 23 delegated observers from the Roman Catholic Church), and delegated representatives (from organizations with which the World Council maintains a relationship, such as the Christian world communions and national and regional councils of churches). One hundred and twenty-one advisers were present. These are persons who can make special contributions to programmatic presentations during the assembly. Among the advisers were ten people with disabilities, who often gathered in a white tent near the Great Hall where all plenaries were held, ready to engage in conversation about the churches' ministries with people with disabilities.
Assembly staff support was given by 142 WCC staff; 182 stewards -- youth who work diligently to provide support services for the assembly; 117 coopted staff, pressed into service for the occasion; and young people from Zimbabwean churches, wearing red T-shirts, who provided additional volunteer support.
Many media representatives covered the event. The assembly schedule was interspersed with daily news conferences, during which representatives of the media had an opportunity to question key figures about major events of the previous day.
In addition, a record-breaking number of accredited visitors and day visitors attended some or all of the meeting, gathering daily in a tent beside the Great Hall to participate in a visitors programme. Many visitors came from all over Africa, thereby enriching the experiences of all attendees.
1.3. The task
Assembly delegates were mandated to assess the work of the churches together since the Canberra assembly in February 1991; to chart the course for the seven years until the next assembly; to elect the 150 members of the new central committee, who are responsible for implementing the programme guidelines adopted by the assembly; and to choose the eight new WCC presidents who will represent and interpret the work of the Council in their regions. As former WCC deputy general secretary S. Wesley Ariarajah (Methodist Church of Sri Lanka) said during the opening plenary orientation session, "The assembly is in your hands. What it will become depends on what you do."
Because this was the WCC's 50th anniversary, however, the assembly also was invited to take a broader look. This assembly wrestled with some key questions: What have the churches learned from our ecumenical history together in the WCC? What are the implications for us now of what we have learned? How should our churches respond as we look to the future? #Delegates were helped to do this reflection by a policy statement, "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches" (CUV), adopted in September 1997 by the central committee and commended to member churches. Two deliberative plenaries were scheduled at Harare in order to digest the material and reflect on its concrete constitutional implications. Delegates attended hearings at which the issues were presented and discussed in detail. They then engaged in floor debates about specific recommendations.
All these acts were crystallized on a warm Sunday afternoon, the day before the assembly concluded, when participants were invited on a "Journey to Jubilee". Former BBC commentator Pauline Webb told stories about the fifty years of churches together through the WCC. These were interspersed with large-screen video presentations from former assemblies, starting with the founding assembly at Amsterdam in 1948. South African president Nelson Mandela and former WCC general secretary Philip Potter gave testimonies about the churches' life together, and the positive impact this common witness has made on society. Mandela said, "Your support exemplified in the most concrete way the contribution that religion has made to our liberation, from the days when religious bodies took responsibility for the education of the oppressed because it was denied us by our rulers, to support for our liberation struggle." Potter said, "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."
One memorable moment that afternoon vividly brought to mind the 1983 Vancouver assembly, when at the end of a procession of people bringing forward offerings from their countries, the then general secretary Philip Potter was handed a baby by her African mother. It was one of those spontaneous moments, captured on film, which stayed with people long after the assembly ended. At Harare, when Philip Potter walked on stage to address the assembly, he was surprised by that now-fifteen-year old girl saying "Remember me?" The crowd was jubilant.
After the jubilee celebration, everyone walked to the worship tent for the service of recommitment. While religious leaders exchanged crosses made in their home countries, each worshipper was given a simple wire cross made by a Zimbabwean, Simon Muganiwa. The crosses symbolized our own recommitment to the ecumenical movement. Worshippers were invited to focus on the meaning of the cross while saying the following prayer:
God of unity, God of love,Participants then stood for a litany of commitment, interspersed with a Zimbabwean "Hallelujah" that rolled through the big blue tent in vigorous harmony.
what we say with our lips make strong in our hearts,
what we affirm with our minds,
make vivid in our lives.
Send us your Spirit
to pray in us what we dare not pray,
to claim us beyond our own claims,
to bind us when we are tempted to go our own ways.
Lead us forward.
Lead us together.
Lead us to do your will,
the will of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
1.4. The setting
We came at the invitation of the Christian churches in Zimbabwe. Some people arrived early or stayed late so they could explore the region. My own first glimpse of assembly participants beyond the Harare airport was before the meeting in Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park, in the northwest corner of the country. During the hour flight from Harare, passengers looking out of the window saw lush green landscape and rolling, tree-covered hills, red soil heavy with iron deposits, some dry river beds not yet touched by the short rainy season, and scattered villages with round thatched huts occupied by the Ndebele people who live in that region.
A large number of Zimbabweans still live on small farms, cultivating the rocky land. On the ground, visitors were awed by the majestic, mist-throwing falls; bungee jumpers adventurous (or crazy!) enough to fly off the bridge into the gorge; and animals -- majestic, magnificent animals -- elephants, lions, jackals, wild dogs, bat-eared foxes, buffalo, hippopotami, zebras, kudu, bushpigs, and birds of every imaginable colour, shape and size. Others visited Great Zimbabwe, the largest complex of ruins in Africa, seven centuries old, holding tales of the Shona-speaking ancestors of many of today's Zimbabweans. Or they went on safaris around Lake Kariba and into Matusadona National Park.
It is risky to draw conclusions from first impressions. A systematic and comprehensive analysis of Zimbabwe and the African continent was provided during the Africa plenary on Tuesday, 8 December. In addition, President Robert Mugabe addressed the delegates for 50 minutes during his visit to the assembly. His speech offered a detailed and documented overview of the role -- both positive and negative -- played by Christian missionaries and Christian churches in Zimbabwe since the time of Cecil Rhodes. In this connection he thanked the WCC for its solidarity during the struggle that had led to the country's independence in 1980, particularly expressed through its Programme to Combat Racism. Responding to Mugabe's address (which had not touched on the current and growing political turmoil within his country), WCC president Bishop Vinton Anderson underscored the imperative of complementing declarations of independence and democratic constitutions with a continuing struggle for the freedom and equality of all members of the human family, created as they are in the image of God.
Images are more appropriate here, to give a flavour of the place. It is a country and a continent filled with contrasts. Saturday afternoon, 5 December, delegates and visitors piled into a seemingly endless supply of buses for the half-hour ride through the city to the Rufaro Stadium, where the Zimbabwean churches hosted worship. This was the same stadium where, eighteen years previously on 18 April 1980, crowds had gathered to celebrate the birth of the new nation of Zimbabwe. As soon as we arrived, we were given water to drink as a sign of hospitality. Cameras were clicking and videos were whirring as colourfully garbed representatives from Zimbabwean churches whirled around the grassy grounds. There was a steady drumbeat in the background. It was impossible to sit still with the rhythms.
This was contrasted with the sobering sermon of Roman Catholic Bishop Paride Taban of Torit, Sudan, a country plagued by civil war. Bishop Paride pleaded, "Stop the wars and killings. Give us peace." He reminded us that slavery still is practised in some parts of the Sudan. The following week 14 bombs exploded in the square in Narus, South Sudan, damaging both the bishop's cathedral and primary school, killing six people and injuring 14. That incident prompted the WCC general secretary and moderator to send a strongly worded letter of concern to the Sudanese government.
We were made aware of other African countries ravaged by civil wars, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, where troops from Zimbabwe and other neighbouring countries had been dispatched to the concern of other governments on the continent -- and of a growing number of zimbabweans.
We heard other sobering stories as well, during the 8 December Africa plenary. These were told vividly by a Zimbabwean group (ZACT) in moving political theatre called "A Journey of Hope". The drama described a history in which "thus I happened to be another man's slave. And so it happened our neighbours Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Ben Bella and Nelson Mandela also became slaves of strangers in their own land. The strangers carried a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other... One to shoot and the other to tame our heart when it defied the commandments set out by the stranger. I and the rest of my community became drawers of water and hewers of wood." Following the drama, Barney Pityana and Mercy Oduyoye gave an analysis and interpretation.
They told of a present in which 700 people a week are dying of AIDS in Zimbabwe. Almost 10 percent of the population are infected with the virus. Unemployment is around 50 percent. The Zimbabwean dollar is weakening. Inflation is rampant. As in many other African countries, people are flocking to the cities to find work. Precious natural resources have been used to service the burgeoning national debt. Land reform is hotly debated. The gap between rich and poor is ever widening. People are suspicious of government leaders, and tales of corruption are frequent. This information became a backdrop for assembly actions concerning child soldiers, third-world debt, human rights and globalization (see the official texts). One afternoon as delegates returned to the Great Hall following an afternoon tea break, others stood shoulder to shoulder around the hall and passed a red paper chain through the huge circle while chanting "Cancel the debt!"
The same day of the Africa plenary, participants enjoyed an evening of music and dance. With African drums pulsating through the night air, it was a welcome change from steady sitting in the assembly Great Hall.
Many morning worship services in the big tent concluded with the lively South African sung response, "Ameni" -- kicked off with strong bass voices in the energetic choir singing "Ba-ba-ba-ba-bam..." One delegate remarked that he could stand in any room of ecumenists, sing "ba-ba-ba-ba-bam", and draw immediate recognition from the Harare assembly attendees. Participants were invited to an array of Sunday worship services on 6 December, fanning out to surrounding neighbourhoods and towns to participate in local worship. On 13 December, they attended local eucharistic services hosted by Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Coptic and Greek Orthodox churches. Many returned with stories of incredibly gracious hospitality, friendships made, new experiences of worship with traditional African drums and hosho, rattles made from small dried pumpkins. Christian churches are growing faster on the African continent than any other location, and indigenous African Instituted Churches are burgeoning.
1.5. The theme
The theme of the Harare assembly, "Turn to God -- Rejoice in Hope", echoed the closing words of the message from the Evanston assembly in 1954: "... therefore we say to you: rejoice in hope". The theme was explored in a morning deliberative plenary on 4 December, moderated by WCC president Priyanka Mendis from Sri Lanka. Through slides, the assembly saw the design of artist Chaz Maviyane--Davies taking shape through the hands of sculptor Wilbert Samapundo in the strong black Shona stone spirit sculpture interpreting the theme. The sculpture was presented to the assembly by the president of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, Enos Chomutiri, on 3 December during the opening session. Rev. Chomutiri said, "May it be a reminder. It comes from our hearts." Indeed, it was a reminder. That sculpture became the unofficial logo of the assembly.
Three presentations on the assembly theme were given by Anastasios, Orthodox archbishop of Tirana and All Albania, Brazilian Lutheran theologian Wanda Deifelt, and Kosuke Koyama, a Japanese theologian who has taught for many years in the USA. For many, this theme plenary was one of the electric moments of the assembly. These three Christian men and women, from different continents, traditions and perspectives, together provided a holistic sense of the theme that informed the entire event. Their presentations were interspersed with time for reflection and woven through with Bible readings calling attention to the year of jubilee.
The challenge to the presenters and the delegates, considered during morning discussion groups of ten or so people who shared a common language, was posed by Koyama: "The 'whole inhabited world' (oikoumene) is full of the desperately poor, starving children, people uprooted from their homes, and innocent victims of war and ethnic conflict. The threat of nuclear extinction still hangs like a cloud on our horizon, and our planet is in the grip of an ecological crisis. How can we rejoice in hope?" Anastasios reminded the assembly that "a community without memory or with intermittent memory is problematic and fragile". He suggested that "it is from that [anamnesis, remembrance] that all other things begin and draw their meaning". Deifelt talked about the need for repentance in this process of turning, "as prodigal children". She challenged the assembly with a question: "What message do we give to the world when Christians cannot speak in one voice against the injustices of our times?"
In one way or another, throughout the whole assembly, delegates struggled to answer this question. They turned and returned, through worship and biblical reflection, to God who, in the words of Deifelt, "breaks into history to be crucified". It was no accident that worshippers in the round tent were drawn to a giant, 4.5 metre teak cross carved by Zimbabwean artist David Mutasa. And they mulled over Koyama's response: "Is hope related to the future? Yes. But even more it is related to love. Hope is not a time--story. It is a love--story".
Through all the debates on public policy issues in hearings and on the plenary floor, delegates tried to make that hope concrete through their statements commending the member churches to address the pressing issues of our time: on human rights, globalization, third--world debt. These and other issues are related to the second aspect of this theme: the jubilee year.
In his preparatory meditations called The Drumbeat of Life: Jubilee in an African Context, Sebastian Bakare, chaplain at the University of Zimbabwe, recalled the connection between the 50th anniversary of the WCC and the biblical tradition of jubilee. He said, "According to this tradition, every 50th year was to be a year of jubilee. Celebrations were to be held for the whole year. Land and animals were to rest, debts were to be cancelled, land was to be returned to its original owners." Delegates made concrete connections between the biblical year of jubilee and the contemporary social, political and economic situation.
1.6. The process
Delegates had been given written materials prior to the meeting. (Despite counsel to the contrary, plane--loads of participants destined for Harare could be seen poring over the texts as they flew towards their destination.) From Canberra to Harare: An Illustrated Account of the Life of the World Council of Churches, 1991--1998, gave a summary report of the overwhelming breadth of work accomplished under WCC auspices by staff and representatives from the member churches. They did this work in response to mandates given in Canberra, as well as to an established tradition of policies. The 17--member Joint Working Group of the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches also issued a report, its seventh, on the "forms of collaboration between the WCC and the RCC, especially between the various organs and programmes of the WCC and the RCC". The July 1998 issue of The Ecumenical Review was devoted to "Continuing the Discussion" about the CUV text. A book prepared by WCC Orthodox staff members offered Orthodox Reflections on the Way to Harare and was essential reading in the context of ominous rumblings and outright withdrawals of the Georgian and Bulgarian Orthodox churches, which provided an anxious backdrop to assembly proceedings.
The assembly did its work in three phases. The first task was to reflect on the journey from Canberra to Harare in the context of a discussion about the purpose and goals of the WCC. This process occurred primarily from 3 to 7 December, and included plenary reports from the moderator and general secretary; a discussion of the CUV text with an introduction to proposed changes in the constitution that could flow from this "Common Understanding"; and the summing up of the "Ecumenical Decade -- Churches in Solidarity with Women". Greetings from religious and public officials (see sections 6 and 7) were read during these days, including from Kim Dae--jung, the president of the Republic of Korea. The general secretary noted that sharing such a greeting from a public official was a departure from custom, but that "a particular and close relationship of mutual interest and support had developed over the years" between the WCC and the Korean president (and former political prisoner), warranting the exception. #All this information was digested in a series of three open hearings, ninety minutes each, on Monday, 7 December, during which delegates and other participants were encouraged to explore and assess the work of the churches together through the WCC. The whole hearing process was a departure from previous assembly practice, when sections had considered previously prepared reports. The intention of assembly planners was to create an open, free environment, "owned" as fully as possible by delegates from the member churches.
Phase I of the hearings was divided into the four programme units in which the WCC had worked between the Canberra and Harare assemblies: Unity and Renewal; Churches in Mission -- Health, Education, Witness; Justice, Peace and Creation; Sharing and Service; plus a hearing on the work of the General Secretariat. The latter included Church and Ecumenical Relations; Inter--religious Relations; Communication; the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey; and Finance. It was a challenge to reflect constructively on strengths, weaknesses and directions with so much material to cover in relatively little time. Nevertheless, delegates and staff made a valiant effort, and some came prepared with particular questions they later brought back into the work of the assembly committees.
Unlike the phase I hearings, which mirrored the WCC structure prior to Harare, phase II was grouped around themes and issues:
A totally new feature of this assembly, designed to permeate the official deliberations but separate from the decision--making aspects of the assembly, was the Padare. In the Shona tradition of Zimbabwe, "Padare" means meeting place. It is a space for free exchange, common listening, sharing and deliberation. The WCC borrowed this concept for the assembly. The Padare was described as "a new process, designed to help all participants" so that everyone's voice could be heard. Acknowledging both the logistical difficulties and creative possibilities, one WCC leader said, "Padare is mission impossible, but we're going to take it on."
Over four hundred offerings were available during the span of five days, 7 to 11 December, in locations scattered around the campus. Some people came to Harare expressly for the purpose of leading or participating in a Padare, travelling thousands of miles for the occasion. Some Padare offerings were given the special status of a "forum" because they addressed a key dimension of WCC work -- for example, forums on the fifth world conference on Faith and Order (Santiago de Compostela, 1993), the Programme to Overcome Violence, violence against women, migration, globalization and racism. Some groups used the performing arts to convey their message, including several drama, dance and musical presentations by primary and secondary school children and church youth choirs from Zimbabwe. Some people told their stories. Some offerings addressed issues of faith and order. A few were designed to air tough topics for the churches, such as issues of human sexuality including homosexuality. The offerings varied widely in structure and style.
The results of the effort were uneven. Some events were cancelled because too few participants had registered. Others attracted 50, 60, 70 or more people, and generated enthusiastic responses. To the great relief of everyone, Padare offerings on controversial topics were conducted in a spirit of respectful listening. All in all, they were designed to give voice to the churches' concerns and priorities. They were free--wheeling, energy--generating, mind--expanding, grassroots--driven leavening agents pervading the deliberations in imperceptible but tangible ways.
1.8. The nominating process
An essential aspect of the assembly's work was the election of new WCC presidents and central committee members. As in prior assemblies, the Nominations Committee struggled mightily with efforts to be inclusive and provide balance -- by regions, churches, gender, lay/clergy, youth, and Indigenous Peoples. The Committee also considered the percentage of potentially re--elected delegates, to ensure continuity. That percentage from Nairobi to Vancouver was 27 percent, from Vancouver to Canberra, 26 percent, from Canberra to Harare, 18 percent. The Nominations Committee sought to make selections from recommendations that had been proposed by national or regional groupings whenever possible, as well as from commendations by member churches.
The Nominations Committee made three reports, on 5, 8, and 11 December. The final slate included 39.4 percent women, 14.7 percent youth, 24.6 percent Orthodox (Eastern and Oriental), and 43.3 percent laity. By families of churches, balances were as follows: 10 percent Anglican; 4.7 percent Baptist; 6.7 percent Free, Pentecostal and African Instituted; 8.6 percent Lutheran; 10 percent Methodist; 24.6 percent Orthodox; 6.7 percent others; 22 percent Reformed; and 6.7 percent united and uniting.
At one point in the process the committee chair, Bishop Melvin Talbert (United Methodist, USA), said, "It is incumbent on us as the assembly to decide now whether we mean what we say or not when it comes to representation, particularly for women and youth." In his third presentation, he acknowledged that the Nominations Committee had not reached its goals -- partly because of the increased number of WCC member churches. He said they had made their best efforts in light of constraints coming from some member churches. After general discussion in which five specific proposed substitutions were turned down, the delegates affirmed the recommendations of the Nominations Committee and approved the slate presented to them.
They also sent some general recommendations to the new central committee, based on their experiences, about ways the process could be improved in future assemblies. These included: (1) provide a process for alternation among churches in regions; (2) reconsider the maximum number of seats available to any one church; (3) limit the number of terms that can be served by a particular person; and (4) clarify procedures for eliciting names of nominees for presidents, with clear guidelines for balance. A difficult and awkward moment occurred when one of the newly elected members of the central committee, an Armenian Orthodox lay woman, withdrew her name so that an ordained representative of her church could have a seat on the central committee. But the assembly decided not to take action on her request and to refer the discussion to the central committee itself.
A big oval blue tent in a grassy field on the university campus was the central worship space for the Harare assembly. The centre of the tent was dominated by a large teak cross with an outline of the African continent in its centre. Seats were available for 3400 people, and every morning the tent was packed. People came streaming towards the tent, drawn by the irresistible rhythms of the energetic 100-voice choir and, at times, the full, rich sounds of African drums. Even the most culturally restrained worshippers found themselves moving to the music.
Tangible symbols were woven through the liturgies: crosses which religious leaders from around the world had brought to the assembly to exchange during the service of recommitment; healing, refreshing, welcoming water; blessed bread and fruit; leaves offered and eaten, along with prayers for healing, following a Sri Lankan custom; simple African crosses fashioned of wire. One special offering was taken to support victims of Hurricane Mitch in Central America and people afflicted with HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe.
The whole assembly was encompassed by worship. It began and ended the day. On four days, people could attend a mid-day preaching service in the university chapel. At the close of day they had a choice between chapel-centred compline and a freer pattern of prayer and song in the tent. Every day worshippers moved from the big tent to small-group Bible study and reflection during which themes in the service of the day were explored in an intimate setting.
In addition to this regular rhythm, the assembly attended special services -- in Rufaro Stadium, hosted by the churches of Zimbabwe (see "The Setting") and Sunday 6 December worship with local congregations; a Sunday night vigil acknowledging our brokenness at the Lord's table, with candles flickering on the ground, during which worshippers followed the stations of the cross using the passion narrative from the gospel of Mark; Monday morning resurrection matins in which many Orthodox traditions were represented; and the service of recommitment on Sunday afternoon, 13 December.
Since at the present time many churches are not able to celebrate the eucharist together, the central committee had had a thoughtful and wrenching discussion about whether or not it would be appropriate to have an official eucharistic service at the assembly. A decision was made to provide for morning eucharist in five local settings: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox. This had been preceded by the evening vigil, described as a time of "confession and repentance for our brokenness". It was followed by the Sunday afternoon service of recommitment. Some were gratified by the decision. Others felt it was a loss.
A 19-member Worship Committee, appointed by the central committee, assisted by WCC staff, and moderated by Dorothy McRae-McMahon (Uniting Church of Australia), interwove a consistent liturgical structure with changing languages, leadership and hymnody. The structure involved musical preparation, silence, a greeting based on Psalm 51, a hymn, prayer, entrance of the word, biblical reading, response to the word, prayers of intercession, the Lord's prayer, a benediction and a hymn. At the same time, worshippers experienced a dizzying diversity of leaders, languages, songs, prayers and practices from all over the world -- a tangible reminder of the church catholic. But when the leader said: "Let us stand and say in our own languages the prayer of Christ which unites us", unity was experienced concretely as many mother-tongues from around the world joined in common prayer to our common God.
1.10. Other events and programmes
Three days before the assembly, four hundred people came together for a Pre-Assembly Youth Event on the university campus. Attendees included youth delegates, stewards and visitors, all under the age of thirty. The gathering is one means of fostering new generations of ecumenical leaders. One concrete outcome of the meeting was the recommendation that one of eight WCC presidents again be a young person. Kathryn K. Bannister, a Methodist minister from the United States, was elected to the post. Youth delegates were a vital, visible, vocal presence in assembly plenaries. Stewards brought a message to the assembly on 5 December. They also offered soil "to symbolize our diversity and our unique talents".
Some think assembly visitors have the best of both worlds. Through a specially designed Visitors Programme, they are able to participate in the worship life of the assembly, hear featured presenters, and reflect together about the significance of assembly happenings, without being obligated dutifully to attend to the details required of delegates. Visitors to Harare gathered in a big white tent next to the Great Hall, where they could see assembly plenaries on closed-circuit television monitors. They also participated in their own "home groups", engaged in Bible study, attended special workshops, and went to as many Padare offerings as they wanted.
Some of the assembly participants attended a two-week "theological school", providing a valuable opportunity for ecumenical formation. The programme brought together a mix of younger clergy and theological students. It was described as "an opportunity to encounter the international ecumenical movement firsthand, including meetings with contemporary church and ecumenical leaders..." In addition to hearing seven lectures and engaging in discussion, participants also were able to enter into the life of the assembly through the visitors programme.
1.11. The Ecumenical Decade -- Churches in Solidarity with Women
Over a thousand women and about thirty men danced, sang, wept, worshipped, celebrated, analyzed and strategized for four days prior to the assembly in a Decade Festival. They came together to assess the achievements of the Ecumenical Decade -- Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-98) and to chart a course for the future, now that the Decade was concluding. They met at Belvedere Technical Teachers Training College in Harare. The Festival's hearing on violence against women in the church began with nine women bringing vessels of water symbolizing women's tears to a large central bowl. The hearing elicited chilling stories of rape, domestic beatings, sexual trafficking and abusive employment practices. When Metropolitan Ambrosius of Oulu, Finland, later reported on the Decade to assembly delegates, he said, "During the team visits and afterwards, many men, myself included, were shocked to realize -- for the first time -- how much violence and economic injustice against women, whether it is culturally conditioned or not, exist inside and outside churches all over the world." These testimonies had a catalytic effect on the assembly delegates, who vowed to redouble efforts to counter violence against women in church and society.
On 7 December in deliberative plenary, assembly delegates heard reports about the Decade from Despina Prassas (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople), Biasima Lala (Church of Christ in Congo), Deenabandhu Manchala (Church of South India), Mukami McCrum (Church of Scotland), Metropolitan Ambrosius (Orthodox Church of Finland), and Bertrice Wood (United Church of Christ [USA]). Vinton Anderson (African Methodist Episcopal Church [USA]), who moderated the session, challenged the delegates to "move from solidarity to accountability". Rev. Wood presented a "Letter to the Eighth Assembly of the WCC from the Women and Men of the Decade Festival" (see text in section 8.1).
1.12. Behind the scenes
In some ways this was a "high-tech" assembly. Computers made this possible, despite the occasional frustrating technological challenges such as periodic crashes! For the first time, attendees could communicate with back-home office, friends and loved ones via e-mail. The WCC provided an "internet cafe". You could sign in, log on, and "talk" via computer with people halfway around the globe. To those who are gingerly entering the computer age, it seemed nothing short of miraculous.
Cell phones, ubiquitous among WCC staff, were the source of frequent amusement among the unconnected. A little jingle would erupt in the middle of a meeting, someone would pop up out of the gathered, put the instrument to the ear and talk. We laughed, but in fact the phones were indispensable in locating people on a decentralized and spread-out campus.
Other aspects of the infrastructure were very "low-tech". Staff and volunteer stewards could be seen transporting reams of documents on hand carts across the campus from Swinton Hall copy machines to the Great Hall, sometimes with the wind whipping and the rain flying. The assembly was overwhelmed with the happy surprise of more attendees than had been expected, with resulting lines -- lines for registration, lines for tea, lines for meals, lines at the bank. People were good-natured about it (most of the time!), and in fact some serendipitous meetings occurred in those lines. The WCC staff worked valiantly and creatively through it all.
The assembly was held during the southern hemisphere's summer rainy season. Many afternoons, the sky would quickly turn from blue to grey. Colourful African textiles in open markets around the centre of the campus would begin waving in the wind. People scurried to find their umbrellas or shelter. And the rain would come. In fact, a violent thunderstorm on 1 December (reportedly the worst in ten years) shortly before the assembly began resulted in power outages and posed daunting challenges to those who had come early to prepare.
As people arrived, workers could be seen constructing thatched huts to accommodate some of the Padare offerings and provide other services. Trenches crisscrossed the campus -- the result of a welcome grant to the university enabling it to install a badly needed new computer system. These maze-like mud-lines prompted Leonid Kishkovsky (Orthodox Church in America) to quip, "This gives new meaning to the phrase, working in the 'ecumenical trenches'."
Green-garbed guards were in every building -- vigilant, friendly and helpful. Attendees could be identified by the bags they carried sporting the WCC logo -- bags which swelled with more and more paper as the days went on. Big blue WCC logos were prominently displayed on buses that obligingly transported about half the participants to a variety of off-campus housing locations. #Huge billboards around the city welcomed the WCC, and more than one delegate could not resist hopping out of a taxi at a rather inconvenient location to snap a picture.
1.13. What does it all mean?
At age 50, the WCC is both venerable and vulnerable. In Amsterdam delegates said they would "stay together". In Evanston they said they would "go forward together". In Harare they recommitted themselves to "grow together in unity" and they prayed. They prayed for the Spirit "to pray in us what we dare not pray..., to bind us when we are tempted to go our own ways". They asked the God of unity and love, "what we say with our lips make strong in our hearts..."
Advance news reports of the Harare assembly heightened anxieties that it could be a messy meeting, fraught with tension and controversy. Such fears were not realized. In fact this was an assembly that reflected a more seasoned, mature, chastened ecumenical movement, still clear (at least in official texts) on the goal of visible Christian unity, but sobered by the challenges and reminded of our dependence on God as we face them. Implicit in the actions of delegates was the recognition that the councils of churches movement may be an imperfect instrument, but it is the best we have, and we will try mightily not to abandon it despite all the confusion and struggle.
Getting an overview of anything as diverse and multifaceted as a WCC assembly is a daunting challenge. Words freeze ideas in time and for time. Any evaluative comments so soon after an assembly must be tentative. The official texts themselves, tested over time by the reception of the churches, will reveal the full weight of the assembly's actions. Nevertheless, some tentative, preliminary assessments may be offered.
Furthermore, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many Orthodox churches located in countries of the former Soviet Union and other countries in Eastern Europe are experiencing a new freedom at home and abroad which most of their members have not known in their life-times. As Orthodox representatives said in Thessaloniki, "certain extremist groups within the local Orthodox churches themselves... are using the theme of ecumenism in order to criticize the church leadership and undermine its authority, thus attempting to create divisions and schism within the church". This situation is resulting in uncertainties and reorientations, the implications of which I suspect none of us fully understands yet.
The assembly approved creation of a special commission to study the issues raised and propose actions that can be taken. This is a positive development that could have ripple effects throughout the ecumenical movement.
Some of the subjects treated in the Padare raised difficult questions, but I saw in Harare a hopeful reaching for new ways of doing our ecumenical business that reflect more faithfully what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. We do not really know each other as well as we think we do. Too often we put people and churches in stereotypical boxes that are caricatures of reality. The ecumenical movement, at its best, helps break through those boxes.
When Nelson Mandela thanked the WCC member churches for the Programme to Combat Racism on that Sunday afternoon journey to jubilee, he said, "Above all, you respected the judgment of the oppressed as to what were the most appropriate means for attaining their freedom." In other words, people listened and responded accordingly. The dialogical process may seem like it takes a long time, but the assembly affirmed its confidence in and commitment to this process.
Furthermore, delegates and visitors spoke both informally and publicly about the necessity of grounding the ecumenical quest in prayer, worship and Bible study -- a common core of our Christian spiritual traditions. The assertion repeated in the 13 December service of recommitment that "when we draw closer to the cross of Christ, we draw closer to each other" was echoed throughout the assembly. The whole event was designed to give these three elements of prayer, worship and Bible study a central place informing every aspect of the life and work of participants.
It is hard to anticipate what all this means -- for good and for ill, especially for increasingly interwoven economies, but delegates firmly charted the course for churches through the WCC in these areas.
We have an ecumenical tradition, and it is important. At the same time, by seeking (albeit sometimes awkwardly) to include youth in significant ways in the life of the WCC (including the election of a youth president), the assembly tried to strengthen its commitment to cultivating new generations of ecumenical leaders. Both are essential elements in the ecumenical quest.
The ecumenical movement is rooted in the very nature of the Godhead. Thus, the unity of the churches and the renewal of human community are not options for the churches. The challenge is to find ways, in all our human frailty and fallibility, with our limited perspectives of space and time and our inadequacies of structure, to do the best possible now -- to make it better into the future -- to listen and respond together for the word of the Holy Spirit.
© 1999 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor