New church forum approved

Published January 1, 1999

At the same time as some Orthodox churches are threatening to desert the World Council of Churches, the eighth assembly of the council has endorsed creating a new forum that could extend its ecumenical reach far beyond its 330-plus member churches.

The more than 900 delegates approved a proposed Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organizations at its 10-day meeting that wrapped up in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Dec. 14. The forum could bring to a single ecumenical table nearly all the main Christian churches in the world, including the Roman Catholic Church and major Pentecostal and Evangelical churches.

The council’s general secretary, Konrad Raiser, has pushed for the forum for several years. He said in an interview it is needed because the organized ecumenical movement, including the council, increasingly represented “only one segment of world Christianity.” Currently, the council includes Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox churches.

The forum might meet for the first time in 2001. It has not been suggested as a replacement for the WCC, Dr. Raiser said.

The assembly, which meets once every seven years, also agreed to set up a special commission to consider grievances by the Orthodox churches. The commission will be staffed equally by Orthodox and non-Orthodox member churches.

The Russian Orthodox Church says it will leave the WCC unless the commission comes up with results it likes. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church officially withdrew from the council during the assembly, following the withdrawal of the Georgian Orthodox Church last year.

Orthodox members have complained about practices followed by some of the more liberal churches, including women’s ordination, inclusive language in reference to God, and discussions of homosexuality.

“The commission should not concentrate only on the structure of the WCC but it should go to the roots of the feeling of marginalization and alienation of the Orthodox Church,” Dr. Raiser said. “That will be good for the ecumenical movement.”

The Russian church said it will suspend its participation in the council’s central committee while the commission deliberates.

The assembly was far behind schedule as it met for the last day. Consequently, some resolutions were passed in whirlwind fashion. The assembly summarily approved a motion from the floor by a delegate from the Mennonite Church in Germany, to establish the years 2000 to 2010 as the Decade to Overcome Violence.

The most contentious decision of the final day was the election of the eight presidents of the WCC, only two of whom are women _ one less than the previous number _ despite the stated intention of the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women to increase women’s participation in church structures.

Lennart Henriksson of the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden declared angrily that “the meagre gains by women during the Ecumenical Decade have been blown away.”

Two of the presidents are Anglican _ Agnes Abuom of Kenya and Bishop Jabez Bryce of Aotearoa/New Zealand and Polynesia.In other highlights from the assembly:

  • A resolution was passed calling for debt cancellation for poor nations, debt reduction for middle-income nations and international economic reforms to prevent debt recurrence, coupled with tough conditions imposed on borrowing countries.
  • The financial crisis which has plagued the council for a number of years is over, finance committee chair Birgitta Rantakari told delegates. A series of budget and staff cuts, begun in 1991, combined with extraordinary investment results in 1996 had made financial officials “cautiously optimistic.” Only about half the member churches make any contribution at all to the council’s budget.
  • The assembly recommitted itself to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the occasion of the declaration’s 50th anniversary, and vowed to promote and defend them.
  • Another resolution declares that the status of Jerusalem must be decided by three faith groups, Jews, Muslims and Christians, and two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians.
  • South African President Nelson Mandela made a passionate appeal to the World Council of Churches to give the same support to the struggle for development and entrenchment of democracy in Africa that it gave to liberation movements fighting white rule in southern Africa.

Mr. Mandela praised the council for its support of the struggle in his country. One of the most controversial programs of the council’s 50-year history has been its program to combat racism, launched in 1969, and the special fund from which humanitarian grants were given to liberation movements in southern Africa. The grants were frequently criticized because they were made directly to liberation movements engaged in armed struggle.

“To us in South and southern Africa, and indeed the entire continent, the WCC has always been known as a champion of the oppressed and the exploited,” Mr. Mandela said.

  • Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe challenged the world’s churches to decide whether they stood with the “oppressed” or the “oppressors” over his government’s plans for land reform, which entails the forced acquisition of 841 farms, most owned by whites.

The government has yet to announce what compensation will be paid to the farmers but has come under international pressure to make reasonable payments. Dr. Mugabe, a Roman Catholic, said that 4,000 whites owned half of Zimbabwe’s arable land while the other half was shared between 11 million people.

  • The general secretary of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, Densen Mafinyani, has urged the council to stop quibbling over whether an African church which tolerates polygamy should be accepted as a member. The Celestial Church of Christ, an indigenous church established in Nigeria after the Second World War, was one of nine churches seeking membership of the WCC. The other eight were accepted but the Celestial Church’s application was deferred, apparently because of its tolerance of polygamy among clergy.

According to the church, it tolerated polygamy among clergy until 1986 but has allowed clergy who lived in polygamous unions before that date to continue doing so. Many of the African Instituted Churches have polygamous leaders, Mr. Mafinyani said, and that should not be a problem.

  • Leading representatives of international and local homosexual groups called on the churches to press Zimbabwe to respect the rights of gays and lesbians. Keith Goddard, a spokesman for Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, a group with 300 mostly black members, called Zimbabwe “one of the most vocally homophobic countries in the world. Our president (Robert Mugabe) is world famous for his (verbal) gay bashing.”
  • Children at the assembly issued a number of challenges to the council and its churches, ranging from making a commitment to work against the sexual exploitation of children to setting up children’s networks in parishes. They also challenged the council and churches to give moral, financial and spiritual support to the Global Ecumenical Children’s Network. Canada’s high-profile children’s rights activist, Craig Kielburger, was at the conference.
  • In an interview, Dr. Raiser said the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood in Orthodox churches is not closed.

Vsevolod Chaplin, an official in the Russian Orthodox Church, described the ordination of women and inclusive language as “blasphemy.”

But Dr. Raiser pointed to recent research about women’s ordination by two respected Orthodox theologians, Bishop Kallistos Ware and Elisabeth Behr-Siegel, which, he said, had concluded there are no essential theological grounds for excluding women from ordination. Instead, the Orthodox churches exclude women for reasons of history, tradition and canon law, he said.

  • Catholicos Aram I of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Lebanon was re-elected moderator of the central committee. The vice-moderators are Justice Sophia Adinyira of the Anglican Church of the Province of West Africa, Ghana and Dr. Marion Best of the United Church of Canada.


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