World Council of Churches addresses international issues and its own future

Article by James Solheim

In a 10-day meeting in Geneva, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) addressed a wide range of international issues but also embraced some changes that could reshape the whole ecumenical movement.

In his opening comments on August 26, General Secretary Konrad Raiser called for a “new ecumenical configuration” in the 21st century. His comments were echoed by committee moderator, Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia, who urged member churches to stop emphasizing their differences and move from a “static to a dynamic concept of church.”

The committee also approved sweeping changes in the way the WCC worships and conducts its business, steps that could renew the “structure, style and ethos” of the WCC in response to persistent criticisms from Orthodox members who often feel marginalized in the decision-making process of the council. The Orthodox have objected to what they perceive as a Protestant domination of the council.

The committee voted to replace a parliamentary voting procedures with a consensus model and will more clearly delineate between “confessional” worship, identified with a particular church, and “interconfessional” worship that may blend liturgical elements.

In an effort to enlarge the table, the committee created two categories for participation in the WCC–member churches and “churches in association” who could send non-voting representatives. The proposal elicited heated debate. Dean Anders Gadegaard of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark argued that “creating a whole new level of relationship is contrary to the whole spirit of the WCC, especially after the special commission worked so hard to address the grievances of the Orthodox churches to keep them as full members.”

The Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America praised the proposal as “the art of the possible” and might “persuade some churches to become full members rather than churches in association.”

The 158-member committee also decided to test the consensus model in its future meetings and report the results to the General Assembly which will be held in Brazil in 2006. It appointed an 18-member search committee that will seek candidates to replace Raiser, who plans to retire in 2003 after a decade in the post.

Armed conflict on the agenda 

The Central Committee called on the United States to desist from military threats against Iraq, while also calling on Baghdad to respected resolutions of the United Nations–including demands that it destroy all weapons of mass destruction and cooperate with UN inspectors. The committee’s statement called on the UN to lift immediately all sanctions that have direct effect on the civilian population of Iraq and urged member churches to address “the root causes of the conflict itself.”

The committee also warned against military escalation in Colombia’s 40-year civil war, arguing that it is a threat to the “entire Latin American continent.” It called on the United States to cease its military aid to the Colombian government and end its “Plan Colombia” that provides military aid ostensibly to eradicate the drug trade. Critics contend that the Colombian military has used the aid to further its war with the guerillas.

In other action, the committee called for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and an end to Palestinian suicide bombings “based on our commitment to international law and to peace, justice and reconciliation.” The WCC has launched an Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme as an expression of “dynamic solidarity” with Israelis and Palestinians who are seeking a non-violent solution. A dozen European Christians from Germany and Scandinavia are participating in the first group to enter the region.

The committee also urged the governments of India and Pakistan to dismantle their nuclear arsenals and to stop further nuclear development, warning against confrontations that pose “a major threat to world peace.” It called on the two nuclear powers to put their facilities under civilian political control and promise not to be the first to use the weapons.

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