The top concern of this year’s World Council of Churches (WCC) Assembly was unquestionably climate change, says Canon Scott Sharman, the Anglican Church of Canada’s animator for ecumenical and interfaith relations.
The assembly also released statements on issues of reconciliation and unity, the war between Russia and Ukraine and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. But Sharman says the amount of discussion on climate change; the way it cropped up throughout plenary sessions on other topics, like racism and Indigenous issues; and even a march for environmental justice organized by delegates to the assembly all served to stress one central theme. In the words of a statement the WCC delegates released on the meeting’s last day, “We are running out of time. This Assembly is the last chance we have to act together to prevent the planet from becoming uninhabitable. In particular, no further delay is possible if we are to have any chance of staying within the safer limit of +1.5°C global warming and of avoiding vastly more catastrophic climate change.”
With the WCC only meeting every eight years, says Sharman, he and other attendees felt a sense of urgency to come together on an effective response.
The WCC Assembly, a gathering of members from Christian denominations around the globe every eight years, met for the 11th time Aug. 31 – Sept. 8 in Karlsruhe, Germany. According to the delegates who attended on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, this year’s conference was an opportunity to take stock of the issues facing churches from each region of the globe locally, and those that affect them all together.
The Rev. Cynthia Haines-Turner, who has held numerous roles in the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund and General Synod, says being at the assembly provided her with an interesting shift of perspective.
“Most of our work and our lives are centred on North America. Here [At the WCC] it was centered on the rest of the world, not in a sense of taking care of the Third World, but in a sense of ‘this is what they’re dealing with, and here’s how we as churches can help.,’” she says.
The stated theme of this year’s assembly, “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity,” drew a special connection between the voices of Indigenous peoples and the challenge of climate change, says Canon Murray Still, co-chair of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples and pastor in the parish of St. Stephen and St. Bede in Winnipeg. While it has become common for organizations talking about climate change to stress the importance of listening to Indigenous peoples about its impacts and urgency, Still says, this year’s WCC Assembly provided an important opportunity to talk about the reason why. The close relationship their traditional ways of life require them to keep with their environments make them especially sensitive to its state and susceptible to any disruption.
“The voices of Indigenous peoples, then, are lifted up because these are the kind of cries that are going out around the globe,” he says. “People know their environments, they know what they were like and they know what they’re [like] now.” He gives a host of examples from Canada, including polar bears coming inland for food when late-forming sea ice leaves them stranded on shore and fires and flooding that forced thousands of Indigenous people to relocate from northern Canada to his home in Winnipeg.
One key takeaway from this year’s WCC assembly is that, having heard testimony from other regions that are facing the effects of climate change, members of the Canadian church can add the weight of their urgency to their talks with the Canadian government, Still says.
“It is certainly a matter of influence because global leaders of our churches are at the world stage able to speak to political leaders to advance the same causes. Their influence can move the leaders to understand the importance of working together on issues that will save the planet—save ourselves—but also bring the people of the planet together in a better way.” In the short term, he says, that starts with discussing the issues raised at the WCC Assembly at the meetings of the Council of General Synod this year and at the joint assembly of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada in 2023.
One issue that was conspicuously absent from conversations at the Assembly was the question of same-sex marriage, says Brendon Neilson, vision animator for the diocese of British Columbia. At this summer’s Lambeth Conference, which drew together bishops of the Anglican Communion from around the world, divisions in the church on whether to bless marriages between same-sex partners were a centrepiece of discussion. But despite the even wider differences of belief at the WCC, Neilson says the ecumenical focus of its assembly naturally keeps delegates on the topics they agree on, rather than encouraging them to clash on their points of disagreement.
“It is a fragile unity that’s held at the World Council of Churches … There are things just not talked about because of their divisive nature,” he says. “I think it would have been an uncomfortable place for a lot of people who care very deeply about those particular issues that were not talked about.”