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14 December 1998

WCC Eighth Assembly - Press Release No. 52

When Mvuselelo Nyoni was a year old, she was lifted up by her mother into the hands of a tall young West Indian minister standing on a platform above them. For the applauding audience, she represented the future towards which the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, meeting at Vancouver, Canada, in 1983 looked in faith and courage.

Yesterday's 50th anniversary celebration at the Eighth Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, at which President Mandela of South Africa spoke (Press Release No. 50), began with grainy black and white photos of the founding Assembly in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in 1948. As the faces of its leaders and participants gazed down on today's audience like benevolent ghosts, the drums and voices of the Congo's Asafa Choir beat out the urgent rhythms of today.

The Rev Clement Janda, General Secretary of the All-Africa Conference of Churches, spoke of today's needs. The WCC "has always stood for the marginalised and the disenfranchised", he said, and today, "as Africa is marginalised by the so-called First World", he called for renewed commitment to fight the debt burden and other injustices.

Movement at the back of the hall announced the arrival of President Mugabe of Zimbabwe and the chief guest to his country. As the audience rose, a procession of suits and uniforms bore the grey hair and grey shirt of a smiling, slightly stooping Mandela down the central aisle as he parted the waves of applause like an unassuming Moses.

When he had taken his seat in the front row, Dr Pauline Webb of the United Kingdom, a former vice-president of the Central Committee and its first woman officer, introduced what she described both as "a journey of memory, faith and hope" and "a mystery tour" in the search for unity. As narration, archive film and music took the audience through five decades and past the milestones of seven Assemblies, she asked veterans of each one to stand: Amsterdam 1948, Evanston (USA) 1954, New Delhi (India) 1961, Uppsala (Sweden) 1968, Nairobi (Kenya) 1975, Vancouver (Canada) 1983, Canberra (Australia) 1991.

In the history of an organisation where many voices have spoken, two of the most moving moments were tributes to voices that were silenced: Martin Luther King, assassinated only weeks before he was due to address the Uppsala gathering, and a young Japanese woman who, a few years after calling on the Vancouver Assembly to campaign against nuclear weapons, died from tumours that were a legacy of Hiroshima.

The story was lifted from its more sombre moments by the 40-strong Imilonji KaNtu Choral Society, wearing the green, gold and black of their South African home. President Mandela joined them on stage to sway to their song of welcome, Thato Ya Hao, and to take a turn as their conductor. Later, after his speech, they incorporated his name and President Mugabe's into a song written two years ago by the South African composer Cola. Bayeth Ma-Afrika celebrates the African renaissance and calls upon its leaders - the choir inserts appropriate names for the occasions when they sing it - to stay true to the ideals of peace, stability and freedom.

Not to be outdone by Mandela's conducting, Konrad Raiser, the General Secretary, led the singing of a Nairobi Assembly prayer that was turned into a song, Break Down the Walls. His choir was eight young people, who then patted large coloured balls to each other and into the audience, where they were playfully tossed from outstretched arm to outstretched arm as the delegates became as little children in the Kingdom of God.

So to the moment when the girl who was an infant in Dr Potter's youth greeted him on stage as a teenager. Pauline Webb had described her own first meeting with him when she was a young Evangelical. Her diary entry had noted: "Despite his ecumenical theology, I think he will go far."

Dr Potter recalled how in his youth, Amsterdam had inspired himself and his contemporaries with its declaration: "We have to learn afresh . . . 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."

He added: "These words are as fresh and pertinent today as they were in 1948. This century has been called "the century of extremes' and it might well continue to be so in the coming 21st century." The century had produced the ultimate weapons of destruction, the menace of pollution and the turning of the oikoumene, the whole inhabited earth, into one global city.

From the past 50 years, Dr Potter picked out three features that point to the future. First, Christians are now willing to face openly their divisions, resulting in conversations between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and the churches of the Reformation and their offshoots. The independent and Pentecostal churches sprouting up in North and South America, Africa and elsewhere "are no longer publicly regarded with suspicion and intolerance. Indeed, religious liberty is becoming more clearly observed."

. Second, the WCC has intensified its central task of propagating the Gospel in six continents and in diverse culturesand developed dialogue with non-Christian faiths. But in the past 20 years "there has been an unhappy increase in ethno-religious conflicts which calls for more concerted ecumenical attention than has been given".

Third, the WCC has carried out many study programmes and activities which have affected change for good and will continue to do so. Those that specially demand attention now, he said, are:

  • Work among refugees, displaced persons and migrants.
  • Renewed campaigning against racism and marginalising of indigenous peoples.
  • Continuing to challenge discrimination against women.
  • Tackling the causes and cure of poverty.
  • Helping to create a climate of peace.
  • Seeking the earth's protection 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."

As his address and the celebration drew to a close, Dr Potter urged the WCC on to its next 50 years: "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."

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.