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

WCC Eighth Assembly - Press Release No. 18

There may be good reason that the World Council of Churches occasionally suffers under the glare of media criticism, a BBC correspondent told a WCC hearing Monday night (7 December).

As the millennium comes to a close, journalists are looking at the state of the Christian world 2,000 years after Christ's birth and wondering why it is so divided, said Mike Wooldridge, the BBC's South Asia correspondent, at the WCC's Eighth Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe. "If they know of the World Council of Churches and its stated purpose of helping churches toward unity, they are clearly likely to suggest . . . the Council has little or nothing to boast about."

Wooldridge acknowledged that recent media coverage of the WCC has not always been favourable. "The headline over a small downpage piece in the London "Times' last Friday read: "Discord at start of world church summit'. The London "Daily Telegraph' recently, looking forward to this meeting, ran a piece under the headline, "Fifty year bid for church unity ends in failure'."

"But if that's how it's being played," the lanky journalist said in well-modulated tones, "best to take heed."

He reminded Assembly delegates and Council staff of WCC stories that attracted favourable media attention, including former General Secretary Emilio Castro's visit to South Africa in 1991.

"This was about as far from the WCC's inward-looking concerns as you could get: President (F.D.) de Klerk's government still deeply suspicious of the WCC for its funding and other support of anti-apartheid activities; powerful and emotive visits to apartheid's victims -- especially, I remember, an evening visit to an East Rand township where violence and tension were still rife; prayers in the home of someone who had just recently been attacked and killed."

Church stories that attract media interest these days are outside mainstream Christianity, Wooldridge said. "The growth of Pentecostal and charismatic churches and, here in Africa, the indigenous or independent churches... has... been a growth area of religious reporting."

Church leaders should encourage media to offer more informed coverage of "the phenomenon of religion," Wooldridge suggested. "It's inevitable, I think, that much journalism focuses on "applied' religion, rather than pure religion: on religion and war, on religion and poverty eradication, on issues of religion and state, on religion and the environment, and so on."

But the media have discovered that people are intensely interested in news and entertainment programmes that focus on their basic faith. He cited an example from India, when millions of Hindus watched transfixed as the Ramayana epic was serialised on national television.

"There were daily stories in the papers about the impact it was making," Wooldridge said. "There were weddings and funerals delayed so that people could see it. Cities had a deserted air during the screenings. Someone in the holy city of Varanasi reportedly placed the TV on a makeshift altar which was sanctified with water from the Ganges. There were outbreaks of violence when people couldn't see an episode because of power cuts."

India is "fervent about its religious expression and ritual," Wooldridge said, but religion is capturing the imagination of media elsewhere, too. He quoted an African proverb: "I pointed out to you the moon and all you saw was my finger."

Wooldridge concluded: "An encouragement to be more visionary -- perhaps that's what the Church need in the remaining days to the millennium, and beyond."

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 339, 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.