Friday, 24 August 2018

70 Years of the WCC

Written by Rev. Dr Ji Zhang
Photo: WCC/Albin Hillert Photo: WCC/Albin Hillert

The World Council of Churches (WCC) has marked 70 years of Christian unity and action by returning to the place where the ecumenical council began in 1948. 

Representatives from member churches from across the globe gathered in a 15th Century Church in Amsterdam for an ecumenical service celebrating the fellowship of God’s call for justice and peace.

As part of the commemoration, young people from different continents joined the WCC’s General Secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit in a Youth Pilgrimage aptly named “On the Move”, symbolic of their continued witness on the way to unity in one faith and one fellowship.

The WCC: A brief history

 1910: The need for Christian unity in a missionary context was highlighted at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh.

1920: The proposal for a “fellowship of churches” was put forward by the Orthodox Synod of Constantinople.

1937: Over 100 churches vote to establish a World Council of Churches.

1948: 147 churches attend the First WCC Assembly in Amsterdam.

1940s - 1970s: Four world conferences (Mission, Faith and Order, Life and Work, Christian Education) merged into one council. The spirit of these conferences continued in the renewed contexts in the world.

2013: WCC has grown to 345 churches by the 10th Assembly in Busan.

Theological conviction and biblical witness 

At the core of this ecumenical movement, there is profound theological conviction and attention to biblical witness. 

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. 

Based on a unity of one faith expressed in worship and common life in Christ, it seeks to witness and advance towards this unity, “so that the world may believe”. (John 17:21)

The mission of “oikoumene” – “the inhabited earth” – recognises the spiritual unity of all people of God. 

It was agreed by the 1952 “Faith and Order Conference” in Lund, Switzerland that “church should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately”. This so-called Lund Principle has guided member churches to work towards the common good. The landmark document Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (1982) provided some theological consensus among churches in the quest for full Christian unity. 

Today the WCC is the largest and most diverse ecumenical movement. It brings churches from 120 countries and territories together including Orthodox churches, Anglican and Baptist traditions, Lutheran and Methodist churches.

The Uniting Church in Australia is a member as well as many United and Reformed churches. These member churches and many independent churches collectively represent over 550 million Christians around the world. 

UCA Ecumenical Relations 

The Uniting Church is within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic tradition of Christ’s universal Body, our Basis of Union affirms that unity is both “Christ’s gift and will for the Church” (Paragraph 1). The UCA was formed, not primarily for economic or strategic advantage, nor to realise our ecclesial management strategy. Indeed, it was a profound realisation by three former denominations about God’s mission; it called the UCA into existence in the context of Australia in order to witness to “the risen crucified One” (Paragraph 3).

The UCA therefore relates to other churches “in ways which give expression, however partially, to that unity in faith and mission” (Paragraph 2). One of our greatest contributions to the WCC is the introduction of consensus decision making process

In 2002, a Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC proposed a change of meeting procedures to consensus decision-making to hear better some minority voices. The Uniting Church in Australia had changed its meeting procedures in 1994 from adversarial to a consensus style, so President Dr Jill Tabart was commissioned by the WCC to write a book Coming to Consensus: A Case Study for the Churches about the journey of the UCA in reaching that decision. 

The Changing Faces of the WCC

Over the past 70 years, the world of Christianity has profoundly changed. In 1910, less than 20% of Christian populations were in the Global South; where mission began from the Christian centre into the cultural and religious margins. In 2018, 66% of Christian populations are in the Global South; now with mission from the margins in religiously plural and culturally diverse contexts. 

The world’s 2.3 billion Christians are now spread among many centres, not just the North Atlantic, but also the Asia-Pacific, Africa, and South America – which are now home to 400, 600, and 600 million Christians respectively. The UCA is located in one of fastest growing Christian regions in the world. This year’s 70th celebrations have been taking place in this global context.

On 7 January, the WCC General Secretary led a delegation to the China Christian Council to mark the beginning of this celebration. The WCC delegation saw first hand the significant changes in the largest Protestant church today.

In March, the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism was held in Arusha, Tanzania. The Moderator of WCC Central Committee Dr Agnes Abuom spoke that today Africa and the rest of Global South have become the epicentre of Christianity. The growth of faith came amid struggle through African contexts of pain, suffering, HIV AIDS, racial separation, and how the Gospel calling of hospitality transformed the churches into God’s relational mission. 

In April, the Faith and Order Commission Rev Dr Odair Pedroso Mateus spoke on Global Christian Forum third gathering in Bogota Colombia. He delivered the principle of “broadened participation”, encouraging the WCC and Catholic Church to embrace Evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic traditions that were not previously associated with ecumenical councils.

In June His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew recalled the “League of Churches” proposed by the Orthodox Synod of Constantinople and praised the common pilgrimage on the path to unity since the WCC’s formation. 

In the same month, Pope Francis met the WCC Central Committee members, and said, “all the churches that have this spirit of peace must come together and work together”. Pope Francis acknowledged the special importance of the work carried out by the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission, and desired “to keep contributing to that work through the participation of highly qualified theologians”. During the visit, Christian leaders from North and South Korea also delivered the message to the Catholic tradition about their desire for peace and reunification in Korean Peninsula.

The UCA’s journey in the ecumenical movement continues 

The Uniting Church came to existence as part of the worldwide ecumenical movement. Our future journey will continue to participate in and contribute to through our ecumenical relations.

Being in ecumenical relationship through God’s mission is in our church’s DNA. 

Our post-denominational identity further calls the Church to “bear witness to a unity of faith and life in Christ which transcends cultural and economic, national and racial boundaries, and to this end the Uniting Church commits itself to seek special relationships with Churches in Asia and the Pacific” (Paragraph 2, Basis of Union). In that relationship, we became innately open to the world. We will continue “to learn from their witness and be strengthened by their fellowship” (Paragraph 2).


Prayers of the People 

(Rewritten by Rev. Dr Ji Zhang for the UCA context based on the WCC order of service for its 70th celebration)

Gracious God, we give thanks for your gift of spirit
which, day after day, we receive from your goodness.
Accept this prayer as a sign of our love
and our consecration to your love. 

God, in your mercy,
hear our prayer. 

We pray O Lord, may the entire church manifest
the risen crucified One,  
in communion with Christ’s sufferings and his resurrection,
empowered by the Spirit and grounded in this Land,
we are able to realise the visible unity of Christ’s Body,
in our walking as the pilgrim peoples on the way. 

God, in your mercy,
hear our prayer. 

We pray for those who are marginalised and forgotten,
for those wounded by hardships in life,
for those who must face old age or sickness,
for those who are invisible as the First Peoples on their own land,
O Christ, bring them to the centre of your attention,
and they may be strengthened by your care.

God, in your mercy,
hear our prayer. 

We pray for those who bear great responsibilities,
for leaders in our country and the world,
that they may seek to serve, not dominate;
for us the Uniting Church and all ecumenical councils,
that we may be empowered to discipleship
sharing abundant grace and liberating hope for humanity. 

God, in your mercy,
hear our prayer. 

We pray for our earth, God’s creation,
so that all those who inhabit it may protect
and restore climate harmony with the economy of God’s life;
We pray for peace in conflict areas of the world,
so that all those who are displaced may return home in peace.
We pray for people who are still sinned against by racism,
so that they rejoice in the dignity being created equal in your image. 

God, in your mercy,
hear our prayer. 

We pray for our local community,
May the spirit of hospitality overflow,
where worship and witness are interwoven by languages and cultures,
diversity and unity transform each other in the household of God,
all generations find life in the abiding love of Christ
and we commit to love God and neighbours. 

God, in your mercy,
hear our prayer. 

Living God, accept our prayers,
and take us on a journey
to enter ever deeper into your presence
and to see you face-to-face
our true joy and lasting delight.

We pray this, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.