ecumenical dictionary

July 2003: "Interchurch aid". Author: MICHAEL H. TAYLOR


In 1938, when W.A. Visser ’t Hooft was invited to become the WCC’s first general secretary, he accepted on condition that the Council would be active in the field of aid, because “there could be no healthy ecumenical fellowship without practical solidarity”. Few, if any, have disagreed with him. Even the provisional committee of the WCC, which began meeting in 1942 against a background of massive destruction in Europe and mounting need for reconciliation, set up what soon became known as the Department of Refugee and Inter-Church Aid (1945); and since the first WCC assembly in 1948 a whole succession of departments within the Council have reflected Visser ’t Hooft’s conviction, most notably: the Department and then Division of Inter-Church Aid and Service to Refugees (DICASR, 1949); the Division of Inter-Church Aid, Refugee and World Service (DICARWS, 1960); the Commission on Inter-Church Aid, Refugee and World Service (CICARWS, 1971); and Unit IV: Sharing and Service (1992) whose responsibilities were shared out between a number of teams within a newly-formed “cluster” on relations following the Harare assembly of 1998.

And these have not been the only actors. Within the structures of the WCC itself, CCPD (the Commission on the Churches’ Participation in Development), ECLOF (Ecumenical Church Loan Fund), PCR (Programme to Combat Racism), CWME (Commission on World Mission and Evangelism), ACT International (Action by Churches Together, jointly managed with the Lutheran World Federation) and others have all played their part.

Outside the structures of the WCC, though within the same ecumenical family, the most important contributors to interchurch aid have of course been the churches themselves, both individually and together in their local, national and regional councils. Standing alongside them have been the increasingly professional and specialized aid and development organizations to which the churches gave birth and to which their offsprings have usually remained accountable even though they have tended to take on a life of their own. These organizations may relate to a single church or to several churches and so be ecumenical in their own right. In addition they have formed ecumenical alliances and networks of which the European APRODEV (Association of WCC-Related Development Organizations in Europe, 1990) and the much larger ACT International (1995) are examples. These organizations began to appear in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand in the 1940s. They are often referred to as “agencies” since they carry out the churches’ work, and as “donor agencies” since they have been major sources of funding. They are now found in most corners of the world. Some, like CASA (Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action) in India, are very large indeed.

The understanding of “interchurch aid” has broadened over the years. This is partly the result of internal debates within the ecumenical family often stimulated by the growing presence and influence of the churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America. But it is also due to external pressures. The persistence of poverty and inequality has been one, deepening the debate about the adequacy of the churches’ response. The “wind of change” which swept across Africa and elsewhere was another, drawing the churches into the struggle for liberation and inspiring for example the Ecumenical Programme for Emergency Action in Africa (EPEAA) in 1965 and, later, the Programme to Combat Racism* (1969). The end of the cold war opened up greater cooperation with the churches in Eastern Europe and also brought with it the demands of a growing number of conflicts elsewhere. Most recently interchurch aid, as part of the life of an intrinsically “international” community, has been challenged to re-express itself in response to the phenomenon of “globalization”.

“Broadening” has therefore been both geographical and conceptual. At the start interchurch aid was thought of largely in terms of helping the churches in Europe to recover from the ravages of the second world war; but its geographical remit soon widened to include most other parts of the world. At the start interchurch aid was concerned with “emergencies” which it was hoped would soon be resolved, for example by enabling refugees from conflict or famine to survive and then to return home and re-build their lives. That concern has never been abandoned. Indeed it was re-invigorated in 1995 when the WCC’s Unit IV marked the 50th anniversary of the Council’s service to refugees by re-commitment to solidarity with uprooted peoples; and the response to emergencies is now on a scale undreamed of at the outset, through ACT International for example which not only improved efficiency but gave the churches and their agencies a single common identity. But many of the underlying causes of these so-called “emergencies” were soon recognized as being far from temporary. A more sustained approach was required and the concept of aid broadened out to include the concept of development.* Again at the beginning, and the attitude still persists, aid was understood to be a matter of the materially rich helping the materially poor. Gradually it came to be understood that all peoples are both rich and poor in their different ways, spiritually as well as materially, and need each other’s help. If ever interchurch aid was conceived rather narrowly as churches helping churches, it soon became clear that any such help had to enable churches to serve the needy, whether inside or outside their ranks, irrespective of ideology or religious creed. Finally, the understanding of interchurch aid has broadened to include advocacy which tries to meet human need in a different but complementary way by campaigning for changes in the policies and practices of governments and some of the world’s largest and most influential institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO and the UN. One result has been the formation of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance in 2001 preceded by the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel the debts of the poorest countries which was a thoroughly ecumenical movement of the churches and other faith communities.

Interchurch aid has been marked and stimulated by several long-running debates of which three are mentioned here. First comes the debate about holism. At the conceptual level it has kept on insisting that we are not just economic beings. If life is more than food, aid is more than emergency rations, and development is more than economic development. As human beings we have minds and spirits as well as bodies: we exist not just as individuals but in cultures and communities. Our needs and aspirations have to be dealt with in the round. Basically livelihoods may be the precondition of everything else but there is little point in gaining the whole economic world and losing our souls.

This holistic approach was a major theme running through the Larnaca consultation, organized by CICARWS in 1986, and the work of Unit IV in the early 1990s. At the practical level it led, for example in the Rwandan crisis of 1994, to attempts to deal with the psychological needs of people traumatized by conflict and to foster reconciliation between them as well as providing food and shelter. More difficult was the attempt to honour both the Christian vocation to witness through evangelism, upheld by the missionary movement and incorporated within the WCC as the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, and to witness through service, upheld by the development movement and incorporated within the WCC as various commissions on aid, development and service. Not to combine these two seemed to fly in the face of an holistic approach, but to combine them could rapidly put the work of aid and development under suspicion of being a cover for proselytism.*

Second is the debate about structural change. No one doubted that emergency aid was necessary but did little to deal with underlying causes. It provided a sticking plaster but not a cure. The force of the argument was not so readily accepted however when it came to the myriad development projects and programmes reported by ecumenical partners throughout the world. They too eased the pain but according to some did little to change the inequitable economic and social structures which created and perpetuated poverty. Structural change could only be brought about if the churches, along with others, engaged in political activities, and for many they needed to be of a radical, even revolutionary kind. Practical examples included efforts to protect victims of human-rights violations in Chile and other Latin American countries and standing alongside the racially oppressed in Southern Africa.

Several objections were raised however. The most familiar, and the most misguided, was that Christianity and politics do not mix. The more pragmatic was that it would bring the aid and development work of the churches under another cloud of suspicion especially from donors, both personal and corporate, who might well withdraw their financial support. More measured was the argument that political attempts to bring about structural change should not be allowed to eclipse projects and programmes which were a necessary support to poor people whilst they waited, perhaps for a life-time, for change to come about. In any case, if planned strategically, these programmes could in fact be instruments of structural change, not merely a substitute for it.

The third debate has been about partnership. At first it was hardly mentioned. Interchurch aid was dangerously like hand-outs and hand-downs. Churches of the “South”, however, insisted that interchurch aid was in many ways perpetuating the very dependency it sought to eradicate whereby powerful and well-off churches and nations dictated what should happen to the less powerful and the poor and kept the decision making, whether with good or bad intentions, firmly in their own hands. This was objectionable for several reasons. It denied poor people the right to take control over their lives. It assumed that others knew better than they did what was good for the poor. Worse still, it behaved as if so-called poor people had nothing to give and had no riches of their own to share. As a result relations between the churches were not mutual but one-sided and over-bearing.

Numerous attempts have been made to promote real partnerships. The priority projects list administered by the WCC for many years tried to ensure that priorities for funding were decided by the recipients and not the donors. In 1987 a consultation at El Escorial produced fresh “Guidelines for Sharing”. The WCC created a desk dedicated to resource sharing understood as a respectful and mutual enterprise. Round tables were formed and re-formed in countries and regions where all the parties involved, donors and recipients alike, met together and made joint decisions about programmes and strategies and were accountable to one another. Whilst unequal power structures in both church and world and the unequal distribution of resources, together with the widening gap between rich and poor, jeopardize all such attempts, they nevertheless underline the importance of fostering a community of sharing in which all are seen as vulnerable and as responsible for each other.

Interchurch aid will no doubt continue to be endorsed by the whole ecumenical family; and it will continue to be the focus of controversy. It is too close to the heart of the churches’ calling to serve and to bring good news to the poor, and it is too close to the harsh realities of life for millions of God’s people to be otherwise. Nevertheless, for the time being we may perhaps define it as: churches helping each other to play their part according to the gospel in opening up for everyone, especially the most deprived, an equal chance to live their lives to the full.


H. van Beek ed., Sharing Life: Report of the World Consultation on Koinonia, El Escorial 1987, WCC, 1989 ¦ H.E. Fey ed., The Ecumenical Advance: A History of the Ecumenical Movement, vol 2: 1948-1968, London, SPCK, 1970 ¦ Fifty Years and More: World Council of Churches’ Sharing and Service 1994-1995, WCC, 1995 ¦ K. Poser ed., Diakonia 2000: Called to be Neighbours, Larnaca 1986, WCC, 1987 ¦ K. Slack ed., Hope in the Desert: The Churches’ United Response to Human Need, 1944-1984, WCC, 1986 ¦ M. Taylor, Not Angels but Agencies, WCC, 1995.

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