Simon Barrow is Secretary of the Churches’ Commission on Mission, the official ecumenical body for mission departments and agencies in Britain and Ireland. He attended the eighth Assembly of the WCC in Harare, 3-14 December 1998, as a delegated representative through CWME of the WCC. (This piece was first published in Connections).

The common consensus emerging from the aftermath of the World Council of Churches Assembly in Harare at the end of last year is that — in spite of its marking the 50th anniversary of the WCC — it was a bit of a non-event. That, at least, is the message coming from some quarters. I think it is a very short-sighted, mistaken view.

To be sure, there was little of the drama that has surrounded previous WCC Assemblies. Indeed, the preparation for this great gathering in Africa was loaded with foreboding and controversy. Would the Orthodox walk out?  Would the WCC drown in financial crises and arguments? Was there a future for the ecumenical movement at all?  These were the questions being posed from all sides.

In the event the dire predictions did not come to pass. What we got instead was an Assembly in (and about) transition. The Orthodox churches, many emerging from the chaotic unfreezing of Eastern and Central Europe were seen to be facing huge challenges. They were not frightened to confront the WCC with their concerns. But there was dialogue as well as criticism, and the Commission set up to examine Orthodox issues is part of a broad set of renegotiations affecting evangelicals, Pentecostals, Catholics and mainline Protestants too.

The proposal for a wider ‘ecumenical forum’ in what has been called the ‘hospitality suite of the WCC’ worried many, not least Church of England representatives. But it is simply part and parcel of the way all international institutions are having tore-work themselves into a fast changing, plural, multivalent world. Formal structures alone cannot bear the weight and complexity of this environment. Networks and forums are needed too.  This is something the churches must learn from, not fear. Whether those who used to run a bureaucracy can now galvanise networks is the key practical concern.

Over the next seven years the WCC (like most of its member churches, and most mission agencies) will face the double challenge of being more focused in its programmes and more open in its relationships. The WCC rightly acknowledges itself as part of the world-wide ecumenical movement, not the sum of it: but in spite of the constraints and problems, it is still vital. Like the United Nations and other international instruments which originated from the post-war settlement, if it did not exist in some form we would have to recreate it.  And whatever its weaknesses —  under-representation of evangelicals and so on — an Assembly that brings 4,500 people from over 350 churches (including observers and participants from the billion strong Roman Catholic Church) can still claim to be the single most representative gathering of the varied sections of the Christian community in human history.

“The needs of the oikumene were firmly at the top of the agenda”

But what is it for? The answer, inconveniently, is many different things, all of which have to do with mission, even if the language of mission itself did not loom large at Harare and one of the Assembly’s lacks was more direct input from the 1996 CWME Gospel and Culture Conference in Brazil.  For a start, this assembly placed the needs of the oikumene, the whole inhabited earth (especially those parts swindled of their fair share in God’s bounty) at the top of its agenda.  The calls for debt cancellation and the critique of globalisation were powerful and necessary. That these matters are trying for a media trapped in sound-bite culture does not lessen their importance.

The message from Harare was that the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to an alternative way of living  for the sake of the world, to a wider ecumenism which has space for particularities-in-communion. Out of this struggling, fragile reality a new vision of the Gospel can also emerge.  This requires realism as well as prayer, openness to others as well as commitment to the resources and traditions of our own Christian faith. That much became clear in the Africa plenary, where there was a mature acknowledgement of the problems of governance, a plea not to over romanticise church growth, and a determination to engage fully and critically with African culture and religion.

Mission, witness and church revitalisation linked to the struggle for life in many parts of our globe were themes powerfully picked up in padare, the Shona market-place of workshops which formed part of the life of the Assembly — alongside the formal deliberations, the hugely inspiring worship (which featured Africa’s cross at its heart), the contextual bible studies (showing that theology at its best is local, cross-cultural and demanding), and the busy visitors’ programme.

“Ecumenical space is about living together rather than dying apart”

I was involved in events run by CCBI, the ecumenical programme on the renewal of congregations and Kairos Europa. Some were packed, others sparsely attended. Delegates and participants were frustrated by logistical constraints which were still luxurious by the standards of many in the two-thirds world. There was argument as well as inspiration, disappointment as well as joy. But this is precisely what life is like. One of the rarely-mentioned but significant features of an Assembly on this scale is that it becomes a living laboratory , a microcosm of the globalisation processes (economic, cultural, social, religious) which are reshaping our daily lives. The motto has to be ‘learn by doing, theologise by coping.’ Even the ‘internal business’ of WCC restructuring is relevant here. It is about how we shape our part of the chaos and enormity of life, rather than finding ourselves judging it comfortably from the sidelines. It is an opportunity to perceive a ‘scaffolding of Spirit.’

WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser offered the metaphor of  relational ‘space’ (the biblical ‘many mansions?’) instead of deliberative structure as the call to the WCC of the future. He was right to do so. Space is about living together rather than dying apart; witnessing and hearing, rather than being deafened by isolation; room to develop as people rather than pressure to succeed as consumers. It is about an ‘in-between ethos’ that produces global ethics rather than sectarian ethnics.  This is a true vision of ecumenism.

My two WCC Assembly highlights among all this — moments which I suspect may have more lasting significance than any of us are yet aware of — were a surprise speech and a surprise decision. The speech was Nelson Mandela’s when he attended the Assembly instead of Thabo Mbeki.  Frail and human, Mandela paid warm tribute to his missionary educators. In so doing he affirmed the way of the cross above the way of empire, even though he (like we) knew that it was not always that clear in the missionary enterprise itself.

The surprise decision was that of the Assembly to ignore cautious advice from the platform and heed the call of a young German Mennonite pastor for a WCC Decade for overcoming violence and building a culture of peace, in co-operation with UNESCO’s plans.  How this will be realised is not clear, but the outbreak of a bombing campaign in Iraq and the current bloody war in the Balkans fast on the tails of Harare illustrates its appropriateness in graphic horror. Militarism and violence is a huge liability in an increasingly interconnected world — and the counter-witness of Christian non-violence, challenging the age-old divisions between pacifists and just warriors, may prove to be a central feature of Christian proclamation and missionary vocation in the uncertain future we are seeing carved out by force at ‘the end of history’. If the WCC Assembly begins to point us this Way, it will have done its job well.

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