Ecumenical talks key focus of gathering

By on February 1, 1999
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Canadian Anglicans who participated in the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare, Zimbabwe, say the highlight of the 10-day gathering didn’t come on the floor during debate, but from the opportunity to meet personally with Christians from all over the globe in all their diversity.

The large assembly became personal when delegates gathered each morning for Bible study in small groups. Rev. Arthur Anderson, rector of a four point parish in Lumsden Saskatchewan, said as important as what he termed “church politics” was, the chance to meet people individually and exchange stories about our lives as the gathering went on, was the highlight for him.

Mr. Anderson, the only Native Anglican delegate, said it was a “phenomenal experience” to share in the expression of Christian faith with people from so many different cultures. ” Ecumenism is very important. We have one Lord.”

For Alice Jean Finlay, of Toronto, who is one of Canada’s members on the WCC Central Committee, the high point actually came before the assembly at the womens’ event, marking the end of the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women.

“There was a tremendous level of openness and trust among the 1,200 people who attended. We talked about crucial issues involving women and the churches. And there was honest and open discussion.”

However, she found the assembly not as focused as she expected. There was no one issue which captured the imagination of delegates. “The one time the assembly really came to life was when Nelson Mandela spoke. He was very affirming of the WCC. There was a real sense of excitement.”

Ms. Finlay found the assembly to be focused inward, struggling with issues of unity and how to respond to the unhappiness of the Orthodox churches, an issue which will be addressed by a commission set up by the assembly.

The assembly marked the 50th anniversary of the WCC, and that in itself was a remarkable feat in the eyes of the Archbishop Michael Peers, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, attending the assembly not as a delegate but as a retiring member of the Central Committee.

“It’s amazing how far we’ve come in 50 years. That is not long in the life of the church,” said the Primate. From its European Protestant roots in the late 1940s the WCC now encompasses a much broader expression of Christian faith.

Some of the speeches by Orthodox delegates which caused tension have to be seen in context, said Archbishop Peers. “We have to remember they have enormous difficulties of their own. Many of these speeches are not aimed at delegates but for domestic consumption.”

The Primate compared some of the addresses to the “passport speeches” the WCC has frequently heard at previous assemblies including Vancouver’s in 1983. Speeches are made to ensure that delegates from closed societies continue to get their passports.

Archbishop Peers is optimistic about the future of the WCC despite agreeing with the assessment of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Robert Runcie, that it is now “the winter of ecumenism.”

“This is not a time of great adventure, or leaps of faith in ecumenism.” he says.

“But if the WCC didn’t exist we’d have to invent it.” The Harare assembly didn’t have the drama of Vancouver when delegates joined under a big tent for the first time to celebrate the Lima liturgy, an ecumenical eucharist which broke new ground.

One of the aspects of the assembly which surprised and disappointed youth delegate Paul Hinton, a teacher from Quebec City, was the high level of politicking even among youth delegates.

The future of the WCC lies in how it reflects evangelism and witness in its work, not in the more rarefied issues of faith and order, Mr. Hinton said. Like other delegates, he found the assembly debates highly controlled. “You couldn’t just get up and say something. You had to fill out a form and wait.”

Another Anglican delegate who found one of her most powerful experiences outside the assembly hall was Rev. Wendy Fletcher-Marsh, a professor from Huron College, London, Ont. She preached at a small Methodist Church in nearby Parktown. “I wondered how well the Gospel would translate into a different cultural context. And it worked fine.”

Ms. Fletcher-Marsh said the tensions involving the Orthodox churches were reflected in a high degree of hostility during debate. But she also found that many Orthodox have a strong commitment to ecumenism and the Orthodox churches are far from unanimous in their views.

The WCC assembly agreed on the creation of a new forum to bring to a single ecumenical table all the Christian churches including Roman Catholics, Pentecostals and Evangelicals. But Ms. Fletcher-Marsh says Canadian delegates voted against the plan because they fear it will detract from the efforts the WCC already makes through its Faith and Order Committee.

“It was never made clear what the difference would be from existing Faith and Order work. It could end up undercutting it,” she said.

Bob Bettson is a Toronto-based freelance writer.