8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on the Way
7.4. World Evangelical Fellowship

I am pleased to have the opportunity to convey to you the greetings of the World Evangelical Fellowship. In doing so, I have only one regret, namely, that this greeting is not conveyed to you in an African voice. The Council made provisions for two persons to represent the WEF. Naturally the WEF chose as one of these a person from Africa. Unfortunately, because of a miscommunication on our part this did not come about.

The WEF has its roots in an ecumenical venture that predates the establishment of the WCC by a hundred years. In 1846 the Evangelical Alliance was founded. Almost as soon as it began, however, it floundered, interestingly, on an ethical-social issue, namely, slavery. Nevertheless, its initial failure as an international movement was largely offset at another level. In many regions of the world, the 1846 event provided a strong impetus for the establishment of national and regional evangelical fellowships. When the World Evangelical Fellowship was established in 1951, it became heir, as it were, of these flourishing national fellowships. Today the WEF represents a membership approaching one hundred and fifty million Christians around the world. The WEF continues to be active, especially through and in support of 111 country and regional evangelical fellowships.

I would like to call attention to two aspects of evangelical-ecumenical relations. The first concerns overlap, the second tension.

In many national and regional contexts, evangelicals are closely involved in ecumenical councils related to the WCC. In fact, in some countries, such as Ghana, evangelicals are on the staff of WCC-related councils of churches. The overlap between evangelicals and ecumenicals is demonstrated at this assembly: more than a dozen delegates representing WCC member churches identify themselves as evangelicals. Most prominent among these is the courageous leader of the Anglican Church in Kenya, Archbishop David Gitari.

More specifically, the WEF commitment to ecumenism beyond its own members is evident in the existence and work of its task force on ecumenical issues (of which I am convener). Through this task force, the WEF is engaged in an ongoing consultation with the Roman Catholic Church. Similarly an evangelical-Orthodox dialogue was initiated at Canberra and, as you have heard at this assembly, continues in lively fashion. Furthermore, the task force has formulated a response to the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry document, as well as to the apostolic faith study.

All of these initiatives indicate that "evangelicals" and "ecumenicals" are by no means mutually exclusive categories.

Yet decided differences of outlook and emphasis exist which, if not overcome or at least understood and respected, will increasingly become a rift. The tension takes many different forms but, in the interest of brevity, may be illustrated in the understanding of an approach to mission. Evangelicals are committed to holistic mission, articulating this, partly in dialogue with ecumenical developments, as encompassing the socio-political aspects of human existence. What characterizes the evangelical burden for mission is a strong sense on what it considers to be the pivot, the axis of mission: the universal call to conversion -- conversion to the crucified and resurrected Lord.

The evangelical focus on this heartbeat of mission is best captured by an intervention of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin at the last major ecumenical gathering he attended before his death, the 1996 conference on world mission and evangelism in Brazil. When the conference proposed that we commit ourselves to unequivocal witness to the gospel of hope in Jesus Christ, Bishop Newbigin proposed that this phrase be added: "so that all may come to know and love Jesus". These ten words sum up the evangelical passion for mission, an all-embracing mission that has as its core this call to conversion.

Charity and conviction regarding the heartbeat of holistic mission is that for which we hope, for which we pray, and for which we work, also at this assembly, devoted as it is to the theme "Turn to God -- Rejoice in Hope".

George Vandervelde

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