Joan Patricia Back attended the recent Assembly of the World Council of Churches and shares some of the key elements of this eventful meeting.
[New City Magazine – November 2022 page 7-9]
A remarkable ecumenical event took place in Karlsruhe in Germany from 31st August to 8th September. Over 4,000 Christians from every continent representing more than 250 Churches descended on this city to pray and work together around the theme ‘Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.’ It was the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
An ecumenism of the heart
This was the leitmotif which aptly describes a ‘living ecumenism’ centred on God’s love. It is interesting to note that it is the first time the word ‘love’ has been part of a WCC Assembly theme.
This event wanted to affirm that the quest for Christian unity is founded on the love of God for humanity, and it is precisely this love which moves the world towards reconciliation and unity.
Before the conference began, WCC delegates visited some of the open wounds that bleed in today’s world, including Ukraine and the Middle East.
The new moderator of the Central Committee of the WCC, Lutheran Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, preached on St John’s words: ‘God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in them.’ He asked ‘Will we be witnesses of this beautiful and eternally faithful love in this wounded world?’
Christians are to be a community of peace
It was a very timely event in today’s world situation, which is sadly the scene of wars, climatic disasters, injustice and poverty. All the themes taken up during the Assembly’s programme, showed the Churches in the front line, in their words and actions, to alleviate the urgent needs of suffering humanity, while being global advocates of peace and justice.
As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said in his address, ‘in this time of world crisis, Christians are to be a community of peace’ who live amidst the ‘ecumenism of suffering’.
A praying assembly
The experience of a community built upon God’s love was the outcome of this dynamic multifaceted event rooted in daily Bible studies, and morning and evening prayer services where participants prayed according to many different liturgical traditions of western and eastern Christianity and to Pentecostal worship. A sense of the universality of Christ’s Church was a living reality.
A unique space for dialogue
As the Acting General Secretary, Romanian Orthodox Rev Ioan Sauca underlined, the WCC offers a unique space for dialogue. In his report, he affirmed: ‘My prayer has been that the WCC can be a space for dialogue, for listening to and caring for one another, and for a just peace and reconciliation.’
He touched on the requests from several sources to ‘expel’ the Russian Orthodox Church from the fellowship of the WCC, saying that after consultation with the leadership of the central committee, they responded, ‘the WCC was created as an open platform for dialogue and encounter, for discussion and challenging one another on the path to unity. Unless it was because of theological reasons… the WCC did not exclude anybody unless they excluded themselves.’ Delegations from Churches in Ukraine and the Russian Orthodox Church were present at the Assembly.
Reconciliation among ourselves
Pope Francis asked in his message to the Assembly:
‘How can we credibly proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation without also being committed, as Christians, to promoting reconciliation among ourselves? I ask God that this Assembly strengthen everyone’s commitment towards a more intense cooperation in the search of a fuller and more visible communion. Reconciliation among Christians is the fundamental prerequisite for the credible mission of the Church. Ecumenism and Mission belong together and interrelate.’
Walking, praying and working together: an ecumenical pilgrimage
Reconciliation implies action. The recent Joint Working Group’s report, between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC, states what has been on the ecumenical agenda for some time – the need to walk, pray and work together, and as Pope Francis has often affirmed, ‘walking together is already unity’. Although not a member of the WCC, the Catholic Church has for over 50 years worked very closely together on the Joint Working Group, besides being a full member of the WCC’s theological department, Faith and Order, and was present with a delegation at the Assembly.
The Assembly was the continuation of the 10th Assembly in Busan (Korea) in 2013. ‘We can advance only if we walk together,’ underlined Sauca. Since Busan the ‘Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace’ has gathered momentum, and this common ecumenical journey, as a pilgrimage of reconciliation and unity, is now the paradigm that guides the WCC’s work. As Sauca stated, ‘The image of pilgrimage speaks to our identity. We are a movement and not a static institution. We are “people on the way”.’ The first Christians were called ‘people of the way’ (Acts 9: 2).
Christ’s love on the pilgrim way
The pilgrimage image was developed in the ‘Unity Statement’. It affirmed the WCC’s deep commitment to visible unity, with a renewed focus on ecumenical spirituality and on ecclesiology, noting visible signs of growth towards unity. However, Churches are also asking how this growth might be made visible? Expressing the reality of the ‘ecumenism of the heart’, the statement concluded:
‘There is a move amongst some to emphasize the experience of ecumenism more than formal agreements, and a recognition that as we first walk together on our common pilgrimage of reconciliation and unity, we are then also led to reflect together on questions of faith and truth.’
Ecumenism of the people
The voices of the youth were heard loud and clear, and they were encouraged to speak out. Their participation, not only as stewards, but also as delegates of their Churches engendered much optimism for the future of the ecumenical movement, as did a meeting of over 100 young people in the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute programme that offered ecumenical formation to emerging theologians.
The Assembly was made up, not just by Churches, but also a variety of ecumenical associations, communities and movements, including Taize and Focolare.
Participants mingled with local people at the numerous stalls with information about the activities of Churches, associations and advocacy groups which were displayed like a market place in the Brunnen area that lined the streets outside the Congress centre.
The city of Karlsruhe generously took the Assembly on board, organizing numerous events also given by Assembly participants.
The greatest threat to our planet is climate change
These stalls gave participants from areas affected by climate change, such as the Pacific, opportunities to voice their suffering also outside of the Assembly. ‘Living Planet: seeking a just and sustainable global community’ was the title of an Assembly statement voicing concern and demand for action.
Patriarch Bartholomew in his message to the Assembly, while focusing on the need for drastic lifestyle changes underlined: ‘If we are to make any change in our priorities and lifestyles, we must do so together – as Churches and communities, as societies and nations.’ He also echoed what other Church leaders had said:
‘Even as we look around, we are obliged to confess that we have not practiced – and continue to fall short of – what we have preached over twenty centuries. How can we reconcile our magnificent faith with our manifest failure? What is required is nothing less than a radical reversal of our perspectives and practices.’
Rediscovering the spiritual passion of the past for ecumenism
This challenge launched by Archbishop Welby, found an echo in the Assembly’s Unity Statement on how members can ‘magnify their enthusiasm towards Christian unity’. Anyone experiencing the joyful, exuberant, but also prayerful and solemn service that closed these nine intense days together, left the Assembly filled with renewed passion and enthusiasm for unity of our Churches.
During the Assembly eight presidents for the different regions of the world were elected. For Europe it was the Rev Dr Susan Durber of the United Reformed Church in the UK. Asked what the top concerns among Churches in Europe were, she pinpointed the reality of a war within Europe’s borders, underlining that it is
‘a war in which Christians are fighting Christians. The Churches are tangled with war and with the problems that have led to it – we are not above it…’
The Assembly impressed on me the high value of unity and diversity. Christians from all around the world meeting to worship their God, to delve into deep honest discussions, to find friendship despite our varying opinions on Church and scripture, despite our differences in language and culture, and despite the vastly different scenarios we call normal life. (Michael Briggs, delegate for the Methodist Church of Ireland)
We were encouraged to share openly and intimately about our struggles and experiences of self-imposed barriers to reaching out to fellow Christians of other traditions. The honesty everyone displayed was truly moving. Living in a Northern Ireland context where divisions are still so tangible, it was truly encouraging to see how divisions can be embraced and celebrated. (Georgina Copty of the Church of Ireland represented the Irish Council of Churches at the Assembly.)
For further information on the 11th Assembly that includes photos and videos see www.oikoumene.org
Photo: ©courtesy of Joan Back