Stony road to unity

Stony road to unity

Meeting of the World Council of Churches in November 1961 in New Delhi © KNA

Europe had just experienced the worst of all wars. One result of this time: the foundation of the World Council of Churches in 1948.

When Pope Francis visits the World Council of Churches (WCC, also known as the World Council of Churches) in Geneva on Thursday, he will also be creating the climax of celebrations marking its 70th anniversary. And thus contributes significantly to the fact that this anniversary is perceived at all – because the community of now 348 churches has been in a crisis for years.

WCC should not become a "super-church

Not much is left of the spirit of optimism at the founding meeting in Amsterdam in August 1948. At that time, after years of preparation, interrupted by World War II, it had finally been possible to form a "church federation" modeled on the League of Nations. It is no coincidence that the WCC was based in Geneva, where important organs of the UN, founded in 1945, were also located.

While the initial 147 member churches were mostly Protestant and Western, the profile changed in the 1960s with the accession of Orthodox churches from the former Eastern Bloc and newly independent churches from former colonial regions of the South. According to the self-understanding adopted in Toronto in 1950, the WCC "is not and must never become a 'super-church'". It is also not supposed to initiate union negotiations between the churches.

Commitment to "justice, peace and the integrity of creation"

The 1998 Assembly in Harare stated that the main goal of the community was "to call one another to visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ, through witness and service to the world.".

With the terms "witness and service to the world," the emphasis is placed primarily on the practical cooperation for which the WCC stands to this day – critics call it politicization. These included, for example, the program to combat racism, which was controversial at the time, the commitment to human rights and, since the 1980s, above all to "justice, peace and the integrity of creation". This "conciliar process" culminated in a watershed Ecumenical World Assembly in Seoul in 1990: After the end of the communist regimes and the East-West conflict that had dominated until then, a phase of reorientation also followed for the WCC.

This was especially evident in a growing tension between Orthodox and Protestant churches. While the Georgian and Bulgarian Orthodox have distanced themselves completely from ecumenism, the Russian Orthodox Church in particular criticizes Western "undesirable developments", for example with regard to the evaluation of homosexuality, the ordination of women and lifestyle in general. But it also meets here with evangelical and Anglican representatives from the South.

WCC busy with crisis management

In addition to the disagreement over content, there has been financial hardship in recent years – due to high costs in expensive Geneva, the exchange rate of the Swiss franc, but also a dwindling payment morale of the member churches. The general secretary in office since 2009, the less than charismatic Norwegian Lutheran Olav Fykse Tveit, is to no small extent preoccupied with crisis management.

The Catholic Church has significantly improved its relations with the WCC since the Second Vatican Council, but accession is not on the agenda – because of its self-image, but also in view of the fact that, with 1.3 billion members, it is more than twice as large as all WCC churches combined. However, it works closely with the World Council of Churches in several commissions. Also not represented in the WCC is the rapidly growing group of evangelical and Pentecostal movements, some of which fundamentally reject ecumenism.

As a platform for dialogue with these groups, the WCC founded the Global Christian Forum 20 years ago, which now includes some of these groups. If the WCC wants to continue to play a role in the future, it should raise its profile in this area or in initiatives such as the recent conference on world mission and evangelism in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, and not get bogged down in day-to-day political minutiae.

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Christina Cherry
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