Transforming the world together
The immense challenges which face humankind at this time call for courageous visions of hope from the ecumenical movement.
© Peter Williams/ WCC
The first Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in the 21st century "will mark the beginning of a new phase in the search for Christian unity," says WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia in the following article, in which he reflects on his hopes for the WCC's 9th Assembly, to take place in Porto Alegre from 14-23 February.
WCC assemblies have been landmark events in the life of the ecumenical movement for almost 60 years, gathering together a unique and comprehensive spectrum of Christians and churches. I hope that this Assembly, being the first one in the 21st century, will mark the beginning of a new phase in the search for Christian unity, and will be characterized by its vision of a new culture and forms for the modern ecumenical movement.
A changing global context
The 9th Assembly is being held at a time of widespread injustice, poverty and despair. The immense challenges which face humankind at this time call for careful discernment of the "signs of the times", and courageous visions of hope from the ecumenical movement. Our world is in need of profound transformation.
We live in an era marked by destructive power and disgraced human dignity. Economic and cultural globalization, new forms of militarism and domination, and ecological destruction have rarely been so evident. The prevailing international economic and political models have failed to stem the tide of injustice and inequality.
The religious context is also evolving, and religious identity has returned to the public sphere in various ways. While the 20th century was dominated by confrontations between ideologies, "identity" is emerging as one of the characteristic divisive features of the 21st century. All Christians are being challenged to look at their identity in the context of a new religious plurality.
A renewed ecumenical agenda
"God, in your grace, transform the world", the theme of the Assembly, is both a prayer and a hope. It reminds us that God, in Christ, has offered humankind and the whole creation reconciliation and new life. This inspires me to believe that the Assembly can give an impulse towards a renewed ecumenical agenda for the 21st century.
Against the background of continuing conflict in Iraq and a war on terror, the Assembly will mark the completion of the first five years of the Decade to Overcome Violence. The Decade was launched by the WCC in 2001 as a way of mobilizing the churches' peace-making efforts and resources. The question for the churches remains: how can we together foster a culture of peace, seeking to restore the authentic nature of our humanity, in a context where violence has become so prevalent?
At the 8th Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1998, the WCC and the ecumenical movement made a commitment to walk in solidarity with Africa. Yet, as we meet, entire regions of the continent are once more facing famine. The condition of Africa challenges us to rethink what it would take to lift the continent out of poverty. It is evident that aid alone, however massive, is not the answer, and that Africans' moral strength must be at the centre of any durable solution.
There are, of course, other critical issues that the churches cannot avoid addressing at the Assembly, including social and ethical ones. Since the Harare Assembly, the WCC has successfully provided a platform for churches to discuss critical differences in a responsible way. It must continue to enable the churches to confront their differences in dialogue, and to rediscover a common voice wherever possible.
I would like to give greater attention to two particular areas in the future. I hope that the presence and participation of young people will be visible and substantial throughout the Assembly. Their aspirations and interests need to be heard and their involvement needs to continue well beyond the event. Secondly, I am convinced that the ecumenical movement will have to take spirituality much more seriously in order to nourish and more fully undergird our ecumenical experience together.
A new culture and new forms
The WCC is, first and foremost, a fellowship of churches. In recent years, we have consistently stated our desire to both deepen and broaden this fellowship. The Assembly is a unique opportunity for the churches to listen to one another. As we do so, I hope that we will find ways of working together that will strengthen our sense of ownership and participation.
The Special Commission on Orthodox participation in the WCC, which was mandated by the last Assembly, has opened the way to important changes in the ethos and culture of the Council that will benefit our work and life together. I am convinced that the adoption of a consensus model of decision-making will greatly assist us to deepen the sense of fellowship and to approach difficult questions with discernment.
As the ecumenical movement has looked at the proliferation of its structures at all levels, it has become clear that such a multiplication of bodies is not sustainable. This can divert human and financial resources away from ecumenical activities in the churches and society into the maintenance of overlapping structures. I am keen that we develop a new approach to ecumenism in the 21st century, and that we seriously consider new forms and configurations.
Refocused priorities within the WCC
Promoting visible Christian unity remains the core mission of the Council. The Assembly may also give an impetus to new forms of work. However, as we evaluated our programme work during the last period, it became clear that the WCC should do less and do it well.
The modern ecumenical movement emerged out of a series of historical streams - faith and order, life and work, the mission movement - as well as the dynamic efforts of the youth movements. These have provided the framework for the activities of the WCC. In the early 21st century, it is increasingly clear that the ecumenical movement has reached an important point of transition, and that new categories of activity may be needed.
I therefore expect the Council to engage in less programmatic activities, but to deepen its involvement in strategic areas. We have to find new ways of relating to and communicating with our member churches and ecumenical partners and to move towards a more integrated, interactive and dynamic way of working with our constituencies.
Areas such as advocacy and diakonia are central to the mission and being of the churches. In these, we will need to re-organize our work to adapt to new opportunities so that we can integrate our reflection and action on issues of just economy, ecology and sustainable development.
Churches nurturing a culture of peace, equipping themselves to become moral communities and refusing the intolerable will remain a central focus of the WCC's work. The ongoing tension between different religious traditions points to the necessity of deepening our relations with neighbours of other faiths, moving beyond dialogue to active collaboration in areas of common concern.
In all areas, we need to find new ways of enabling youth participation, and creative approaches to ecumenical formation and leadership training, in order that we may see young people becoming central actors in the WCC, now and in the future.
Signs of hope
We meet in Latin America where many of the concerns and challenges that I have mentioned are matters of daily life and survival. The witness of the Latin American churches in the midst of extreme injustice and the impact of globalization can offer a model of prophetic resistance and hope, to inspire us all.
We should not underestimate the real potential of the churches together to contribute to the transformation of the world, in spite of the reality of the difficulties we face. With common faith and a renewed hope, anything is possible. May this Assembly once more "set up signs" of a common and visible Christian voice and witness, for a transformed world.
(*) Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia is an ordained minister in the Methodist Church in Kenya. He became WCC general secretary in January 2004, having previously served the Council in various capacities since 1978, most recently as its special representative for Africa, and as director of its cluster on "issues and themes". In 1984, he returned to Kenya to the National Council of Churches (NCCK), serving as its general secretary from 1987 to 1993.