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World Council of Churches is not a costly irrelevance

02 September 2022

The body, holding its 11th Assembly, remains as needed as ever, argues Jeremy Morris


The opening service of the first Assembly of the World Council of Churches, in the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, August 1948

The opening service of the first Assembly of the World Council of Churches, in the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, August 1948

THOUSANDS of delegates, press, and church officials descended on the German city of Karlsruhe this week for the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC). Rather like the Lambeth Conference — but on an even larger scale — this gathering of Christians from around the world is so complicated to organise that it can happen only every seven years or so. This will be the 11th in a series that stretches back to the first ever such Assembly, held in Amsterdam, in 1948.

It was appropriate — inevitable, even — that the first Assembly should take place in the context of war-torn Western Europe. The modern ecumenical movement was not a product simply of Western imperialism, as some have claimed, but, above all, of growing European and American concern about the waste of effort which denominational rivalries implied in the mission field.

Much of this concern was actually rooted in a dissatisfaction with imperial administration and ethics, and in an aspiration for a Christian unity that transcended the specificities of national and denominational contexts. It was often missionaries and their co-workers on the ground in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific Rim who articulated increasing criticism of the imperial powers. The Bible did not always go hand in hand with the flag, or with commerce. Missionaries were often awkward critical colleagues for colonial officials.

Yet it was the very global reach of the imperial powers which gave Western missionaries the conviction — misplaced, as it turned out — that the completion of the gospel mandate to preach the gospel to all the world was within their grasp. “The evangelization of all the world in this generation” — the motto that the American evangelist John R. Mott coined, and which became the motto for the great 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh — may now sound outrageously complacent and over-optimistic, but it was not so hollow in its time.

But war in Europe, and then in the world at large, led to a rapid reassessment. After 1918, the impetus for the creation of international ecumenical instruments broadened out from the specific goal of unity in mission to a new-found idealism about possibilities for deeper theological and spiritual agreement, and greater co-operation in pursuit of peace and justice.

The hope that the three “founding” institutions of modern ecumenism — the International Missionary Council, and the Faith and Order and the Life and Work movements — could come together under an overarching council and assembly to represent all Christian Churches was already in place before 1939, but was delayed in its implementation by the Second World War. Once again, war spurred on organisation and action, leading to the creation of the permanent WCC and its first Assembly.

HOPES were very high then — and much has been achieved over the years. Common action across a whole range of issues has been stimulated and encouraged by the WCC. The sea-change in Roman Catholic attitudes to the ecumenical movement after the Second Vatican Council, which has brought the RC Church into the Faith and Order Commission, though not into the WCC as a full member, underlined how necessary and important this meeting-point for world Christianity really is.

And yet, at the same time, it has been plagued by controversy and by the shattering of hopes. The world has changed dramatically since 1948. Decolonisation, the Cold War, and then the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, an ascendant, aggressive Islamic extremism, rapid decline in churchgoing in parts of the West, the amazing growth of African and East Asian Christianity — these are just some of the issues that have fed through into changing relationships between Churches and changing expectations.

Accusations that the WCC supported terrorism in the 1970s, although overblown, left some lasting damage. More recently, the discomfort of Orthodox member Churches at the voting method and at the apparent claim to doctrinal authority of some WCC documents led to prolonged internal soul-searching, and, finally, a decision to move to consensus decision-making.

Disillusionment about ecumenism, or indifference to it, is a common reaction in the UK. The failure of successive Anglican-Methodist schemes (Books, 5 August), as well as the seemingly bureaucratic complexity of national as well as international ecumenical instruments, has underlined a common sense that the greater challenge for Churches here is evangelism and renewal, not structural realignment.

What practical difference does such a bureaucratic behemoth as the WCC make to the thousands of struggling parishes and congregations the length and breadth of Britain? Not much — at least, on the surface. Little will come out of Karlsruhe which is likely to change fundamentally the basic challenges that the Church of England faces at the local level.

BUT it would be a mistake to write off the WCC as a costly irrelevance. Running through the New Testament, both in Jesus’s own teaching (especially in St John’s Gospel) and in the Pauline and other texts, is a strong implication that Christian faith manifests itself in the unity of all Jesus’s followers — to the extent that, if they are divided against each other and incapable of common witness, life, and action, they are failing in their discipleship. If we do not, will not, or cannot understand our sisters and brothers in other Churches, we are blinding ourselves to the life of Christ in others.

That is obviously the general point, and it is powerful enough on its own to mandate the ecumenical task. But there are also more practical benefits for Churches. One is, quite simply, that the ecumenical movement — in its broadest sense — has been a great conduit for inspiration and ideas that have shaped church life by cross-fertilising ecclesial cultures.

Theology in the Church of England has been enriched by learning from Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Lutheran, and other theologians, especially in the past century or so. Who are the great modern theologians who have influenced Anglican thinking today? Karl Barth (Reformed), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran), Karl Rahner, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and a string of others (Roman Catholic); Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (also RC); John Zizioulas (Orthodox); James Cone (Methodist). And so one could go on.

The liturgical movement in Anglicanism, pioneered by people such as Gabriel Hebert, drew inspiration from trends in Roman Catholicism. Anglicans picked up ideas about evangelisation from Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and many others.

Participation in ecumenical dialogue and relationships has also expressed, for the Church of England, a Christian internationalism that transcends the limitations of national self-interest. It was George Bell’s deep commitment to Christian unity, as well as his simple humanity, which underlay his determination to maintain a relationship with Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church throughout the Second World War; even when he was most critical of Nazism, he was equally forcefully committed to the search for peace.

Love of our own, of our communities, of our “little platoons”, as Edmund Burke put it, is a vital part of what it means to be human, but it always needs to be counterbalanced by an openness to the horizon of other cultures and traditions. If Christ’s Church is to be truly one throughout the world, as he is one, it needs places of encounter and decision which draw Christians of many different cultures together. That, for me, in practical terms, is the great value of international ecumenical bodies such as the WCC. And it is summed in this Assembly’s theme: “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.”

SO, WHAT should we expect of Karlsruhe? The Assembly will be grappling with a number of pressing contemporary problems. Probably, the leading ones are the implications of the war in Ukraine for Christian relations, and especially the participation of the Russian Orthodox Church in the WCC; and the threats to Christianity in the Middle East, with possible controversy around discussion of the policy of the State of Israel.

Broader concerns include global inequalities and the situation of marginalised communities, climate change, the pandemic, and the legacy of empire and colonialism. Probably none of that is unexpected. There may be attention-grabbing headlines. But I don’t suppose there will be dramatic outcomes: consensus decision-making probably precludes them.

Christian unity is a long, long journey of mutual learning, and the WCC is not the Church, and certainly not a body with legislative authority sitting over and above all the scattered and divided Churches of Christ. It is only one means by which Christians the world over are trying to repair the wounds that they have made in the body of Christ over many centuries. But it is an essential part of the work of repair, and it is worth the prayer that its encounters and reflections will bear fruit, draw delegates into a deeper appreciation of their mutual belonging in Christ, and ripple out into its members’ churches.

Canon Jeremy Morris is National Adviser on Ecumenical Relations for the Church of England.

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