The 50th Anniversary of the World Council of Churches at the Harare Assembly and its relevance to local churches

(This paper was first given as an address to Churches Together in Brighton and Hove)

The World Council of Churches (WCC) if a fellowship of 500 million Christians (Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican) from over 350 denominations in every continent of the world. It has close relations with the Roman Catholic Church, particularly on questions of faith and order.

At its eighth general Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe, last year the WCC celebrated its ‘Jubilee’ — the 50th anniversary of its founding in 1948.

We began by looking at a ten-minute extract from a video, ‘Staying Together’, which charts the WCC’s history and work. The beginnings of the modern ecumenical movement are to be found in the missionary impulses of the last century. These took the Gospel across the world, but sadly they also reproduced the divisions of the churches and their colonial heritage. Today mission is not from ‘the West to the rest’, but from ‘everywhere to everywhere’ (Bishop M Nazir-Ali).

The WCC began just after the second world war, and was part of the wave of reconstruction. It is not the sum total of the ecumenical movement, but it is still its most widely representative instrument. The WCC aims not just to foster cooperation and agreement among churches, but to serve God’s purposes for the world. This involves things like development work, inter-faith relations and concern for the environment alongside (and as part of) the proclamation of the Gospel.

All this might seem remote from the local context.  But we too are part of the world-wide Body of Christ, and there are a number of surprising links. For a start, several people from this area (including two from Brighton) attended the last gathering of the WCC in Harare. Also the first ever meeting of the Central Committee of the WCC was held in Chichester in 1949 and chaired by Bishop George Bell.

Most important of all, there are challenges and inspirations for us which came out of Harare, with its colourful multi-cultural worship and its reminder of the vibrancy of the churches of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania.  Here then are five ‘signs of hope’ for the world church. Each arose from a comment at Harare. Each is followed by a prayer for our own local contribution to ecumenism and to the work of God in this place.

1. Remember that the church is not an end in itself!

It has been given a task by God to announce the Good News about the coming of the Kingdom. The New Testament word for ‘ecumenical’ is oikumene – meaning whole inhabited earth.  It is also derived from oikos, the household – that’s where we get our word economics from.

So we pray for all in our churches who are contributing to the local ‘economy’ along with others, especially in  neighbourhood care.

2. Expect unity not disunity!

“Always be ready to give an account of the form and  shape of the hope within you” (I Peter).  How are others going to believe us about the wholeness Christ brings if it is not reflected in how we are as Christian people?  Seek common ground. Disunity is a scandal. Seek the oneness of Christ . Be willing to be rebuffed if necessary, but keep trying.

We pray for all in the churches of Brighton and Hove who seek to work together for the sake of the Gospel, especially in preparing for the Millennium.

3. Expand your world!

Christian faith isn’t just about Jesus and me, it’s about a new community … responding to the entirety of God’s future extended to us and way beyond us in Christ. We seek guidance from the past, but not to be trapped in it! The future is safe because it is God’s.

We pray that our churches will be enabled to do something to reflect or gain a world-wide concern, and we pray for the Christian mission and development agencies supporting the world church.

4. Remember the neighbour beyond your doorstep!

Remember that charity begins at home but doesn’t end there (otherwise it’s not charity). The WCC Assembly focus on Africa, and on the debt burden of the poorest, is something we are asked to support

We give thanks and pray for the success of the Jubilee 2000 campaign.

5. Look back with gratitude, and forward with hope!

The Aboriginal people of Australia have a saying that you have to back into the future. What can orient you is your past.  (We, by contrast, foolishly think we can control the future and turn our backs on the past.)

We give thanks to God for each other, for our forbears in faith, and for what we can learn from the past which will prepare us for God’s future in Brighton and Hove.

And remember…


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