World Council and host Zimbabwe each at crossroads

By on January 1, 1999

It was a tentative 50th anniversary but with an infectious dose of vibrant African hospitality, the World Council of Churches recently concluded its eighth assembly in Harare since first meeting in Amsterdam 50 years ago.

For most people, the council is probably remote, if known about at all. But Anglicans around the world are members, including the Anglican Church of Canada which gave $525,000 to the organization in 1997.

The church will be represented on the body’s governing Central Committee by Alice Jean Finlay of Toronto. Previously, Primate Michael Peers served that role and former primate Ted Scott was once a moderator of the council.

Members of the council include representatives of Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed Protestants. Roman Catholics, Pentecostals and more conservative Evangelicals have yet to join, although Roman Catholics participate in some aspects of the WCC.

Anglicans, of course, have been active in ecumenical affairs for a long time. We have had considerable discussions with Roman Catholics and Orthodox for a long time and more recently, as in Canada, relations with Lutherans have been high on the agenda. That history and the church’s reformed catholic history may well find its place in the coming months.

The future of the council going in to the meeting in Harare was in some doubt. Declining revenue, a lack of clarity about its vision for the future and often testy relations with the Orthodox church members, had created a large cloud over the proceedings.

It was perhaps appropriate that the meeting took place in Zimbabwe at the start of the rainy season. The former British colony of Rhodesia, which proclaimed unilateral independence in 1965 under white rule and gained black majority rule in 1980 after civil strife, is a country full of history and promise, but is currently in a considerable rut.

Ruled by a virtual dictator, Robert Mugabe, the mostly white rich and the black government officials are doing well. But an increasing number of blacks are not doing so well, with chronic malnutrition and AIDS affecting increasing numbers. In fact, Zimbabwe is said to have the worst situation in the world regarding AIDS, with one in 10 people carrying HIV and 700 dying of AIDS complications each week.

Mr. Mugabe has little support among his people and less among the business community which fears another attempt at a socialist economy by the government.

Despite this, Zimbabwe has relatively good roads and telecommunications. Digital cell phones abound, there are several Internet providers and the black middle class continues to grow. In the arid sections of Matabeleland, however, medical clinics deal with poorly educated people trying to survive off subsistence farming of maize (corn) and children born with AIDS and suffering directly or indirectly from malnutrition. The male-dominated rural society mostly rejects the use of condoms, encouraged by the anti-condom-stance of the Roman Catholic Church which dominates the black population. And heterosexual promiscuity by men is the leading cause of the spread of AIDS.

For Zimbabwe, the next few years will determine whether it pulls out of the rut quickly or remains mired for another decade or more.

So too for the World Council of Churches. It has a noble, scriptural dream _ the unity of all Christians. But it often seems more committed to left-wing politics than finding and developing commonalities in faith. Challenged on this point at the final news conference, vice-moderator Marion Best (former moderator of the United Church of Canada) said Christians have to make sure that their actions are firmly rooted in Scripture and a deep-seated spirituality. She also agreed that it is dangerous for churches to propose new world economic orders and that it is best to stick to critique and analysis of existing economic situations. There is also the Orthodox problem. Although they make up about a quarter of the membership of the WCC, internal divisions within the Orthodox family have resulted in considerable posturing at the WCC. The Harare assembly approved the creation of a commission to investigate numerous Orthodox complaints about the WCC but it didn’t satisfy the Russians who said they are withdrawing from the work of the Central Committee until they see the fruit of the commission.

Holding two of eight presidential posts and the moderator’s position, as well as equal seats on the special commission, the Orthodox cannot say the WCC isn’t paying attention to their concerns. Coupled with the fact they barely contribute a penny to WCC operations, one has to wonder at the Orthodox commitment to ecumenism.

Anglicans also complained during the assembly that they felt marginalized and are often lumped in with Protestants in WCC politics. They argued the church is in a unique position to facilitate dialogue between the Orthodox and Protestants. Since the break from papal authority in the 16th century, Anglicans – including Archbishop Thomas Cranmer – have been the most interested catholic denomination in Orthodox theology and liturgy. And the influence of Protestantism on the church is undeniable. With a foot in each camp, the church should play a leading role in future talks. With two Anglican presidents, as well as one of the two vice-moderators, the WCC has presented the Anglican Church with a solid chance to play the role it desires.

Like its host country, the next few months may well decide the next many years for the WCC.

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