World Council of Churches Office of Communication
Press Release
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7 December 1998

WCC Eighth Assembly - Press Release No. 17

The seven-year road from the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra to the Eighth Assembly now meeting (3-14 December) in Harare, Zimbabwe, came under scrutiny from its 1,960 delegates Monday (7 December).

Each delegate chose to participate in one of five hearings on what the WCC has achieved in its five main areas of work. A second round of hearings on Thursday and Friday (10, 11 December) will focus on future plans. Delegates' opinions are being monitored by the Programme Guidelines Committee, which will present a report for adoption in the final days of the Assembly.

At the hearing on Unity and Renewal, the topics covered by Unit I of the WCC, delegates were introduced to the work of the Faith and Order Commission by Dr Mary Tanner. She said that its main work was to keep the vision of visible unity at the heart of the ecumenical world, and then to explore issues which cause church division.

A young theologian, Rudolf Von Sinner, who was asked to reflect on the signs of hope for the ecumenical movement, talked about the tensions between Orthodox and Protestant churches. He told the delegates that some Orthodox faced strong criticisms from within their churches and countries, who often saw ecumenism as a mixture of heresy, moral decay and western culture.

He added that the questions of how to deal with Scripture and tradition and how to relate to the present-day world were prominent. While these tensions were worrying, he hoped that the Commission would work hard to build bridges.

The Very Rev. Professor Emmanuel Clapsis talked about other obstacles to unity, citing the resurgence of fundamentalism, globalisation, the tension between truth and tolerance, and different ways of exercising authority.

A youth delegate from the Church of England challenged the Church to involve young people. "Are those represented as younger theologians really young, or are they just younger than the older theologians?" he asked. He told the delegates that there were many enthusiastic young theologians who could make a great difference if they were fully involved. He urged the churches to promote and support them.

Cathy Reeves, from the United States, told the delegates that the involvement of people with disabilities in the Assembly was not visible and hoped that it would rectify. this. Some delegates proposed that the WCC should give a quota to people with disabilities to ensure that they were represented in all the activities of the Council.

Other delegates criticised a proposed new structure for the Faith and Order Commission that would give the Standing Committee, which meets between Assemblies, power to order studies and direction for the Commission. They felt that the proposed arrangement would be exclusive and stifle the voice of some commission members.

The hearing on Churches in Mission (Health, Education and Witness), the work of Unit II, was told that with Aids threatening to wipe out the economically active population in many parts of the world, the Church had been called upon to pull together resources to help those affected. Dr Christoph Benn said that the problem of Aids had reached alarming proportions: new daily infections had risen from 6,000 two years ago to 16,000 this year.

Zimbabwe was the worst-affected nation in the world, with more than 700 Aids-related deaths recorded every week at major health centres, he said. Official but conservative figures indicated that about 10 per cent of the adult population was HIV positive.

Churches ran most of the hospices in Zimbabwe that look after Aids patients and orphans, he said. But he added: "The problem of Aids is not just for Zimbabwe or southern Africa, it's a global one." This was why the Church was being challenged to help.

Dr Benn was one of the four "witnesses" who shared their experiences in the hearing. The others were Bishop Erme Camba, who spoke about everyday witness, Dr Musimbi Kanyoro, on the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, and the Rev. Ipe Joseph.

Brenda Ruiz, who chaired the panel, said that the mission of the Church was to build a new, healthy and just society. She spoke of the recent hurricane that destroyed life and property in Central America as an example of a disaster where the Church was expected to help.

The hearing on Justice, Peace and Creation was told by Professor Larry Rasmussen, co-moderator of Unit III, that the WCC had been deeply involved in addressing the explosion of ethnic conflicts in recent years. "Nonetheless, the evaluation is that the WCC overall lacks co-ordination of its work on ethnicity, though its urgency continues to grow," he said.

Rasmussen, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York, said that the unit's Indigenous People's Programme had received a major impetus since just before the Canberra Assembly. Land, self-determination and the destruction and denigration of indigenous peoples were prominent issues. "That denigration and destruction continues, in part as a consequence of globalisation, in part as a consequence of political structures."

Efforts on youth issues had been modest, he said. "For example, the 20 per cent youth membership in Assemblies, committees and meetings has not been met . . . The failures of the Canberra to Harare period cannot be denied, despite the ecumenical energy of youth in these years."

The hearing on Sharing and Service received an impassioned testimony from 16-year-old Patricia Cruzado of Peru, who said that the WCC "is the only organisation trying to end the exploitation of working children".

Patricia, a gardener, said that she had been working since she was seven. She is part of a network that Unit IV is helping to organise with other groups working with marginalised children. The unit's director, Myra Blyth, said that most child advocacy movements push for abolishing child labour. But after listening to children like Cruzado, the WCC had adopted a more nuanced approach. "We believe dignity within labour is also an argument that can be made."

The hearing was given reports on the WCC's involvement in setting up "round tables", 34 regional groups around the world that enable resource sharing. In Bangladesh, an ecumenical round table initiated the building of 650 cyclone shelters. As a result, fewer than 100 people died when a cyclone hit the country in 1997.

The fifth hearing, on the WCC's general secretariat, based in Geneva, was told that the world of religious plurality required of the WCC to adopt a "global view of things". Delegates expressed regret that despite the reality of a multi-cultural and multi-religious world, the WCC maintained an understaffed department dealing with inter-religious relations.

Some participants contended that Indian religions were neglected by the department because of understaffing, which also prevented it from giving Christian-Muslim relations the attention they deserved.

In contrast, the WCC's Ecumenical Institute at the Château de Bossey, Switzerland, earned a glowing tribute from the participants. The institute, which is currently training 45 graduate students from 3l countries, representing 28 denominations, was hailed for the impact of its courses on societies around the world. Participants were particularly impressed by its course on leadership formation in today's world.

Contact: John Newbury, WCC Press & Information Officer
Press and Information Office, Harare
Tel: +
E-Mail: WCC media

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 332, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the Assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.