Tomorrow, I board a Swiss Air liner for Geneva and a meeting of ecumenical officers of the World Council of Churches. This historic Council, formed after World War II out of the same spirit as the United Nations in the belief that global cooperation was indeed possible, has had its ups and downs in recent years. However, there is no broader body of Orthodox and Protestant Christians in the world. And it is important for us to meet, learn from each other, and share what each of us is doing in our own nations and communions.
The following recent statement from the General Secratary of the WCC should prove instructive:
Churches rediscovering the biblical call to unity and caring for life together is the World Council of Churches’ vision for re-invigorating ecumenism in the 21st century, according to Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, the general secretary of the WCC.
Speaking to leaders of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) in Birmingham on 2 May, Kobia outlined his understanding of what faces the global ecumenical movement in the 21st century, and how the World Council of Churches intends to respond.
In the contemporary ecumenical landscape, it seems that the original “vigour, energy and commitment to ecumenism got lost,” Kobia observed. “The search for visible unity of the church is no longer a priority for churches and Christian World Communions who centre on their particular identities,” he said. Nevertheless, he argued, “We cannot compromise or hide our conviction that Christ himself wants the churches to be one so that the world may believe.”
Given this biblical call behind the churches’ search for unity, the WCC needs to assure those who have lost confidence and trust in ‘conciliar’ ecumenism in general and the World Council in particular that “we respect their needs and want to facilitate the best possible ways for them to discover and to develop the ecumenical dimension of Christian faith within their own communities and in fellowship with other churches”.
New programmes, activities
With that in mind, the WCC reshaped its work after its Ninth Assembly in 2006. Kobia noted that the WCC’s programmes now have three main foci:
Living out Christian unity more fully. WCC member churches are called to seek unity and to work and witness together. The Council’s activities for the years ahead are focused on working together for visible unity, new forms of mission, and providing space for deepening relationships and broader participation.
Being neighbours to all. This phrase in the Ninth Assembly’s message conveys the idea that, in the WCC, churches advocate for the good of all and, with their neighbours, address threats to the human ‘household’. Efforts will focus on working together to overcome threats that divide the human community, and on the pursuit of peace and the common good through living out shared values of justice and equality.
Taking greater care of creation. Churches in the WCC are committed to protecting the earth as well as its peoples. In this area, churches will work together to promote the culture and the practices of sustaining life.
These three foci are not the World Council’s organizational structure, Kobia said, but “a way of understanding all its programmes and projects.” He also stressed that “it is the participation of the churches and other partners that gives legitimacy” to the Council’s work and “makes it effective and powerful”.
In this regard, Kobia acknowledged “with thanks to God what has been already achieved” by the churches of the UK and Ireland. These churches “have made important contributions to the global ecumenical movement,” while their ecumenical instruments have “enriched the life of the churches and enabled them to engage with society more effectively,” he said.
Kobia encouraged CTBI member churches to participate in the preparation of an Ecumenical Declaration on Just Peace, to be issued in May 2011 at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation which will mark the culmination of the Decade to Overcome Violence.
The WCC general secretary is nearing the end of a 24 April – 4 May visit to the UK and Ireland.