The World Council of Churches completed its first Assembly 70 years ago this month. Reform writers share their reflections
The World Council of Churches (WCC) is the most comprehensive ecumenical organisation in history. Its inaugural Assembly in Amsterdam, which sat from 22 August to 4 September 1948, brought together representatives from 147 Churches in 44 countries. This was the culmination of a movement that built up throughout the first half of the 20th century and had been delayed because of the Second World War. Today, the WCC has 350 member Churches from 110 countries, the majority in the global south, representing 500 million Christians.
There is an impressive list of programmes that the World Council of Churches is famous for, including the its programme to combat racism and the ‘decade in solidarity with women’. There are documents, like Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, or the Delhi Unity Statement, drafted by Lesslie Newbigin. But the most important thing that the WCC has done, or will do, is to call Christians together so that their unity in Christ becomes visible. The WCC is a fellowship of Churches ‘which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.
A ‘fellowship of churches’ sounds like nothing much at first. But immediately after the Second World War, it meant that German Churches were in fellowship with Churches in the rest of Europe and the world. During the Cold War, Churches of the east were in fellowship with Churches in the west. Today, it means that the old mainline Churches of Europe are in fellowship with the flourishing postcolonial Churches – the African indigenous churches, the Latin American Pentecostal churches, the multiplying Churches in Asia. The Roman Catholic Church now takes a full role in parts of the Council’s meeting and fellowship, as Pope Francis recently affirmed. The conversation and the fellowship are changing along with global Christianity. The WCC holds Churches in fellowship and keeps alive a vision of unity – sorely needed in a world of fragmentation, not only for sake of the Church but also for humankind and for our common home, the earth…
Susan Durber is Minister of Taunton United Reformed Church and moderator of the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order
The World Council of Churches’ 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to reflect on how we mark the past in the present when ecumenical memory seems to be at risk. My connections with the WCC have been through my research and personal encounters with its third General Secretary, Philip Potter, through teaching ecumenical theology for eight years in Birmingham and attending the
Assembly in Busan.
Local ecumenism can risk missing the massive amount of creative work done through the WCC’s programmes. Examples include liturgical renewal, dialogues about faith and order conversations, interreligious conversations, creating space for newer and dynamic theological discourse, giving greater agency to voices and themes from every corner of the globe, and serving as a platform for global issues (the economic system, racism, sexism, integrity of creation, poverty etc). In this sense, the WCC has been at the cutting edge, a platform, a laboratory, a communion, and a movement towards renewal in the Churches…
Michael Jagessar is United Reformed Church Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries
I sometimes get asked: ‘So, what?’ What is the ‘point’ of the World Council of Churches? Is there any point in the United Reformed Church, and other small member churches, investing in it when
its business feels so very far away from many of the concerns and hopes of our local congregations?
I have represented the URC, and the interests of some of our ecumenical partners who do not have their own member, on the WCC’s Central Committee since 2013. Unsurprisingly, my answer to ‘Is there any point?’ is a resounding ‘Yes!’ Partly, precisely because we are small. The WCC is a forum where the concerns of the URC can be put alongside those of other small churches. Together, our voice can be heard…
Sarah Moore serves as Area President of the United Reformed Church in Cumbria
The writing on this page has been extracted from a longer article that was published in the September 2018 edition of Reform