world council of churches

Membership of the WCC
Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (revised edition, forthcoming)

The Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, first published in 1991, will be published in a revised edition by the end of the year 2000. We are glad to present here the entry on "Membership of the WCC" in advance of publication.

Entry for the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement
by Marlin VanElderen

Churches which agree with the WCC basis are eligible to apply for WCC membership. Applications may be approved at an assembly by two-thirds of the member churches or, between assemblies, by two-thirds of the central committee (unless objection from one-third of the member churches is received within six months).

A prospective member must evidence "sustained independent life and organization" and "constructive ecumenical relations" with other churches in its country, which normally means membership of the national council of churches. Ordinarily, member churches have at least 25,000 members. Churches with at least 10,000 members may be associate members, eligible to participate in all WCC activities but not to vote in the assembly. Associate membership is also open to churches which -- for reasons approved by the Central Committee -- prefer this status.

WCC rules state that becoming a member signifies a churchís "faithfulness to the basis of the Council, fellowship in the Council, participation in the life and work of the Council and commitment to the ecumenical movement as integral to the mission of the church". These responsibilities are further specified in the rules. Member churches are expected to send delegates to the assembly, inform the WCC of situations in their own life which warrant the attention and solidarity of the ecumenical family, pursue and encourage ecumenical commitment at all levels of their churchís life, interpret the work of the WCC and ecumenical movement among their members, and participate in the activities and programmes of the Council. Each member church is to make "an annual contribution to the general budget of the Council" in an amount "agreed upon in consultation between the church and the Council", normally a minimum of SFr.1000. The WCC constitution and rules make no provision for suspending or removing churches from membership.

History and statistics
In Amsterdam in 1948 representatives of 147 churches, mostly European and North American, constituted the WCC. By each subsequent assembly the number had increased -- 161 at Evanston (1954), 197 at New Delhi (1961), 235 at Uppsala (1968), 285 at Nairobi (1975), 301 at Vancouver (1983), 311 at Canberra (1991), and 336 at Harare (1998). The churches come from about 100 countries all over the world.

Relatively few churches have withdrawn. Three white South African churches left the WCC in the aftermath of the condemnation of apartheid by the declaration of a WCC-sponsored meeting in Cottesloe, outside Johannesburg, in 1960. Later, the Presbyterian Church of Ireland and the Salvation Army withdrew; both objected to grants from the Programme to Combat Racism to armed liberation movements in Southern Africa, although the Salvation Army also noted the difference between its organization and that of most member churches and has remained an active participant in a number of WCC activities. Four Chinese churches were founding members; but there was little WCC contact with China after the Korean War (1950-53). In the mid-1980s, after Chinese Protestants entered a "post-denominational" period following the cultural revolution, they began to renew their contacts with the WCC; and in 1991 the Canberra assembly received the China Christian Council as a member church. Following the end of the USSR, the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians - Baptists, which had been a federation of Baptist, Pentecostal and other evangelical bodies in various Soviet republics, ceased to exist; and its successor bodies did not remain in WCC membership. In the context of growing expressions of concern during the 1990s among Eastern Orthodox member churches about the direction of the WCC, two of these churches -- in Bulgaria and in Georgia -- decided to leave the WCC; until then, all the autocephalous churches of the Eastern Orthodox family had been members of the Council.

The number of member churches has sometimes dropped due to a union of two or more member churches -- perhaps creating discontent if the newly united church is allowed fewer delegates than its constituting churches were -- but in some cases member churches whose origins were in mission during the colonial period have divided into two or more nationally organized churches, thus increasing the total number of WCC members.

Churches calculate their own membership on different bases, ranging from those which count only adult confirmed members to those which include all inhabitants of their country except persons who explicitly indicate otherwise. The WCC does not maintain membership statistics, and it is impossible to give precise figures for how many people are members of WCC churches. Commonly used numbers range from 350 to 450 million.

Membership issues
The WCC faces various interesting issues of membership within (and without) its fellowship.

National churches as the "building block": Nearly all of the member churches are organized bodies of local parishes or congregations, usually within the boundaries of a single nation, where they exist alongside other similar organizations of local congregations. They are often described as "denominations", although not all of them would accept this designation.

In the original draft for a WCC constitution, prepared in Utrecht in 1938, representation of the churches was based on a regional principle, with an exception made for Orthodox churches. A counter-proposal made in 1945 by Lutheran churches in the US suggested instead a structure based on world confessional families. In the end, the argument prevailed that it was essential for the WCC, as a body without its own canonical authority, to be in direct touch with the national churches; and this was the principle adopted by the Amsterdam assembly. In turn, the WCC takes account of confessional and regional representation in its governing bodies. Moreover, national councils of churches, regional ecumenical organizations, Christian World Communions and international ecumenical organizations recognized by the Central Committee as being in working relations with the WCC are normally invited to send non-voting representatives to assemblies and central committee meetings.

WCC regulations and Orthodox canon law make it likely that new member churches will be Protestant, thus reducing the proportion of the Orthodox voice in the WCC and (some have argued) in effect rewarding the Protestant tradition for the schismatic and divisive tendencies which the WCC is intended to overcome. To help counter this, the WCC ensures a certain percentage of seats to Orthodox representatives.

Roman Catholic membership: The first WCC assembly after the Second Vatican Council (Uppsala 1968) raised strong hopes of RC membership. In 1969 Pope Paul VI said the membership question "contains serious theological and pastoral implications. It thus requires profound study and commits us to a way that... could be long and difficult." A 1972 report on membership, from the WCC - RCC Joint Working Group, concluded that there were no insuperable theological, ecclesiological or canonical objections to membership. But the holy see made a prudential judgment not to apply "in the near future".

Were the RCC to apply, two difficulties would be considerable, if not insuperable. Given that representation on WCC governing bodies must give "due regard" to size and that there are perhaps twice as many Roman Catholics as members of all the WCC member churches combined, the consequences for achieving balanced representation would be enormous.

Moreover, since the RCC understands itself as a family of local churches with and under the bishop of Rome -- "a universal fellowship with a universal mission and structure" -- RC representation would come from both the holy see and the local churches. What would happen if within the RCC there was public dissent among the RC episcopal, clerical and lay representations, and between some of them and the contingent of the holy see, especially on important ecclesiological and personal and social ethical issues?

Although not a member, the RCC does participate in various ways in almost all WCC programmes.

Other non-member churches: The limited nature of WCC authority enables it easily to involve a range of people from non-member churches in its conferences and consultations, studies and other activities. Some judge, however, that many small national churches, particularly those in a minority situation, are unfairly excluded from the benefits of belonging to the WCC because they do not have enough members to be eligible for it. Others note that the WCC does not take sufficient account of the interests of diaspora Christians -- those in a smaller ecclesiastical jurisdiction of a church with its headquarters in another country.

A more wide-ranging challenge is raised by statistical projections of the growth of independent, Pentecostal and evangelical churches outside the WCCís membership; most have little or no knowledge of or contact with the WCC or are in principle against the WCC. According to some observers, fewer than half of the non-Roman Catholic and non-Orthodox Christians in the world are now members of WCC churches; this imbalance has serious implications for the understanding of the WCC as an instrument of the worldwide ecumenical movement.

W.A. Visser ít Hooft, The Genesis and Formation of the WCC, 1982, ch. 18; T. Stransky, "RC Membership in the WCC", The Ecumenical Review, 20, 1968; WCC/RCC Joint Working Group, "Patterns of Relationships", The Ecumenical Review, 24, 1972. Reference:
W.A. Visser Ďt Hooft, The Genesis and Formation of the World Council of Churches (Geneva: WCC, 1982), pp. 61-2.

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