In the theological world, Liberation theologies express the yearning for human wholeness . . . They reread the Bible and reinterpret Christian tradition and theology from their experience of oppression and liberation. This must be the time we have to reread the Bible from the perspective of birds, water, air, trees, and mountains, the most wretched of the earth in our time. Learning to think like a mountain, changing our center from human beings to all living beings, has become our “responsibility” in order to survive. —Prof. Chung Kyung-Hyung
Professor Chung—Korean Presbyterian, graduate of Claremont and Union Seminary, author of Christianity through Asian Eyes—suggested this theological development as part of her keynote address on the theme of the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Canberra, Australia, “Come Holy Spirit, Renew the Whole Creation.” Accompanied by a troupe of dancers with gongs, drums, and banners, and by Australian aborigines in paint and loincloths, she invoked ancestor spirits and indicated that the best “image of the Holy Spirit comes from the image of Kwan In . . . [who] is venerated as Goddess of compassion and wisdom in East Asian women’s popular religion.” Her message that theology, as well as politics and social life, must cease to be “anthropocentric” and become “life-centric” was not a typical Sunday-morning homily, and not only because she received a standing ovation.
World Council of Churches Assemblies, held every seven years, are always occasions for audits, or portraits, of the trends within, and the forces at work on, the larger church. Assemblies decide little and often leave the churches in some confusion, but they are always taken as milestone events, reference points for organized “Ecumenism” and the cause of Christian unity. The Seventh Assembly, held in Canberra for two weeks in February, was no exception. To the extent that the WCC displays the church universal, the Assembly was a kaleidoscope. Participants came from all continents and traditions; they dressed every imaginable way and spoke a multitude of languages. But for all its diversity, the Assembly was far from “representative” of the church; most of the world’s Christians who are found in Catholic, Pentecostal, and evangelical fellowships would find little of the familiar in Canberra.
The WCC—constitutively a “fellowship of churches from every part of the world, which confesses the common calling of the churches to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”—also displayed at its Seventh Assembly the confusion over the mission and message of the church that follows from uncertainty over the confessional heritage of faith. The Assembly heard “progressive” theologians attempt to advance new formulations of the gospel, and felt the strength of Orthodoxy and evangelical Protestantism in asserting biblical doctrines. Participants worshipped according to ancient confessional liturgies and in sessions that seemed to call for adoration of earthbound “spirits” and even the earth itself.
After vigorous debate, participants issued statements condemning the Gulf war, passed on others to the WCC Central Committee calling for sweeping changes in South Africa, the Baltic states, and other hot spots, and embraced the WCC’s own “new world order” scheme. Yet the Assembly virtually ignored the earthquake in world politics that resulted in democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe and the near demise of socialism. Finally, delegates embraced a plan to carry ecumenical work until the next Assembly in 1998 that emphasizes the “organic unity” of all churches and an extensive ethical agenda concentrating on “justice, peace, and the healing of all creation.”
The Seventh Assembly also demonstrated that, like any permanent structure, the WCC is about power. It has no authority in the life of the member churches, but it does have resources and the ability to attract attention. In the words of one senior staffer, “the WCC does not speak for the churches, it speaks to the churches.” The competition was heavy for control of that message and the instruments that would implement it. Long-time conflicts, inconsistencies, and divisions in WCC ranks threatened to break up the Assembly as governing bodies were elected and priorities set. Many participants had hoped this Assembly would effect the unveiling of a “new, comprehensive, ecumenical theology” built upon creation consciousness and a broadly defined work of the Spirit, but the effort ran headlong into established political and theological commitments. Even the widely supported cause of unity, which scored some advances, faced the competing claims of regional, gender, and confessional blocs.
If World Assemblies are defining moments, as the WCC would have it, the Seventh showed the cracks in the foundation the organization has built for a unified mission and message. At a press conference on the opening day of the Assembly, General Secretary Emilio Castro attempted to sum up his goals for the meeting by first repudiating the notion that it would focus on global crises. “The WCC is not the UN at prayer,” he asserted. But, he said, the church must respond to the new political/social/spiritual environment, which did include the end of the Cold War and other global shifts, as the WCC discerns and defines its purpose.
Three priorities presented themselves to Castro: (1) Since the world is experiencing a resurgence in religion, and the decline of faith in modernity, the churches must resolve theological and philosophical questions: Is the Spirit exclusive, and the Christian faith unique, or is the Spirit (he? it? she?) manifest in all “spiritualities” and religions? (2) Since socialism has collapsed and “western liberalism is bankrupt,” the church must search for alternative models of society. (3) Since the church is still divided, and various communions are at odds with others over diverse matters, progress toward visible unity must be reaffirmed and reasserted. Castro’s categories were reflected in the agenda, and the contradictions inherent in this triad were fully played out.
The identity and purpose of the WCC was really the underlying primary issue of the Assembly, as the multiple priorities competed for attention and resources. Is the WCC a foundation for Christian unity? A joint political/social task force? A forum for speculative theology? A mission and support agency? All of the above? Does the world actually set the agenda for the church, or is the church led by the Spirit, who blows and moves wherever he wills? By the close of the Assembly, the program report once again affirmed the general understanding of the WCC as a “fellowship of churches . . . which confesses the common calling of the churches to the glory of the one God . . . “ But the question remained unanswered—especially to Orthodox and evangelical participants and to Roman Catholic observers—whether this affirmation really undergirds the continual work of the units of the WCC.
Contrary to Castro’s protests, most of the early attention of the Assembly was political, with the major focus being on the war in the Persian Gulf—which was at its height in mid-February as the Assembly met. Beginning with the opening worship of the Assembly, virtually all occasions—sermons, speeches, or statements—included obligatory references to the crisis in the Gulf. Some delegates from the region were unable to attend or chose to stay home for pastoral reasons (an Iraqi delegation did participate). The Executive Council greeted Assembly delegates on the opening day with a statement on the war that reminded participants of previous commitments to “overcoming . . . the institution of war as a means to resolve conflict.” The Council appealed for “an immediate cessation of hostilities” and immediate “resolution of the crisis.” It urged “all concerned to take bold initiatives to stop the spiral of violence and death.” The focus remained on the fact of war as an international crisis, rather than on its causes or rationale. Iraq was cited for occupying Kuwait, but the emphasis was on the allied military response in January, and on the premise that sanctions would have dealt effectively with Iraq.
Early exponents included a Lebanese Orthodox Archbishop, Aram Keshishian—later elected the new Moderator of the Central Committee—who proclaimed that the Gulf war was not a limited, regional conflict, but the beginning of World War III. The war would be long, destructive, and lead to major outbreaks of violence and reaction in the Middle East. Keshishian was the first to use the oft-repeated phrase: “This is neither a holy nor a just war, and cannot be.” U.S. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning, commenting on Keshishian’s speech, agreed with the analysis, and went on to declare the just war tradition dead: “If Augustine arid Aquinas were alive now, and had to contend with the smart bomb, they would be pacifists.”
A strong controlling hand was evident in the construction of the program, the presentation of the themes, and the choice of speakers and formats. Who could dare to differ when a “public hearing” on the Gulf war, held ostensibly to allow the leaders to benefit from open discussion, turned out to be taken up with five disquisitions in vehement opposition to the allied war effort? One presentation by American Jim Wallis of Sojourners, in Canberra as an official WCC Adviser, cast most blame for the war on the “failed political and moral character” of the United States. The atmosphere did not welcome other points of view in the few minutes left for discussion. Some participants felt they were being indoctrinated.
The Assembly also held a required “peace march” through the streets of Canberra led by a group of children bearing a large globe. The march led participants to the Assembly worship tent, where they engaged in “worship on [sic] justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.” The service had many of the characteristics of a mass meeting, with worshippers required to recite their resistance to various social evils and their commitment to remedial measures.
Some did dare to offer other viewpoints. Bishop Barry Rogerson, Church of England, asked during the Gulf hearing whether the WCC wanted simply to “feel good” about its own correctness, or actually to do some good. He and the rest of the British delegation, including the newly elected Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, stood firmly for taking a different line on the Gulf, insisting that a cease-fire call must recognize that Iraq was the initial aggressor and must demand Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and adherence to UN resolutions. Carey insisted that the unjust use of force by Iraq had to be dealt with directly. His view gained little support, and the final statement on the Gulf called for an unconditional cease-fire.
In contrast to their British brethren, church leaders from the U.S., led by National Council of Churches President Leonid Kishkovsky, WCC General Secretary Joan Campbell, and United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert used the occasion to release a “Call to the Churches” that described their opposition to the allied military response to Iraq’s invasion. U.S. church leaders were quite intent on receiving in Canberra the recognition and support for their positions that had been denied them at home. Episcopal Bishop Browning indicated that he was certain that the 80 percent polling support for the war effort in the U.S. amounted only to sentiment for the troops and not support for the policy.
The debate on the final statement concerning the war—which took nearly all the time allotted for discussion of public issues—saw the Assembly initially adopt a repudiation of the Christian moral tradition that justifies the use of force in “last resort” circumstances in favor of a pacifist approach. But when some leaders of the WCC indicated that they could not support a statement that rejected centuries of moral tradition in the heat of a particular debate, the Assembly reconsidered and the pacifist provision was removed.
Other issues on the agenda—South Africa, the Baltics, intra-Soviet conflicts, indigenous peoples. El Salvador—were deferred to the Central Committee for action after time for discussion of public issues ran out. The final call in the Gulf resolution for an immediate cease-fire and a demand that the UN be in charge of the settlement—rather muted after the rhetorical fire—was premised on the beliefs that military force could not deal with the crisis, that sanctions could have been and could still be effective, and that the war would have destructive global impact. It is ironic that events that took so much time and energy in the Assembly had effectively ended by the time delegates got home and the early reports on the meeting were circulating.
One surprising result of the dominance of the Gulf war was that the Assembly avoided taking action on the demands of aboriginal and indigenous peoples. This was significant, because this concern had been (literally) drummed into the heads of delegates. From the opening worship and other opportunities for experiencing “aboriginal spirituality” to plenaries where calls for declarations of “aboriginal sovereignty” over Australia were heard, the efforts to link the Assembly with the aboriginal cause were obvious. Many aborigines left the assembly deeply disappointed after so much had been promised by all the attention.
The aboriginal cause went far beyond redressing the very brutal and horrific legacy of treatment of Australian aborigines by colonists. The tale, in fact, is most disturbing. A presentation depicting the means by which these indigenous groups were broken up, contained in camps, and forced into Western lifestyles was very stirring. The efforts of Christian individuals and churches in the aboriginal cause are acts of both mercy and repentance.
But the aboriginal showcase turned out to have larger purposes as a vehicle for the links forged and unveiled at Canberra between new theologies and environmental causes. This focus is becoming the center of the “justice, peace, and integrity of creation” (JPIC) ethical framework dominant in the WCC. The suggestion is that the complicity of the churches in environmental degradation and exploitation, and the central source of such practices in the doctrines of human dominion and stewardship, require new theological directions. “The earth is crying out” according to a WCC pre-Assembly document, and we therefore must explore what is wrong with our theology of creation. Those who are closest to the land, and whose spiritualities consider the earth to be sacred, are those best able to guide this new process. It is to be regretted, therefore, not only that much evil was done to aboriginal people, but that their very spirituality was violated by the introduction of Christianity in Australia.
An aboriginal theologian told the Assembly that land rights were important to aborigines not only for economic reasons, but because
From the beginning of creation, we have centered our lives in the natural-spiritual world. We are deeply committed to God the Creator and to the earth in consciousness and in instinct. Only through our spiritual connection to the earth can we continue in our own identity. This is why Aboriginal people conceive of themselves in terms of the land. In our view the earth is sacred. It is a living entity in which other living entities have origin and destiny. It is where our identity comes from, where our spirituality begins, where the Dreaming comes from; it is where stewardship begins. Aboriginal people are bound to the earth in their spirit. By means of our involvement in the natural world we ensure our own well-being.
While this session also ended with standing ovations and warm embraces, one also heard cries of “idolatry!” and “paganism!”—cries that the enthusiasts would presumably dismiss as the reactions of jaded Western rationalists.
Some of the underlying purposes for the aboriginal appeal were revealed in the reports of the four major work sections into which Assembly delegates were divided. These sections presented findings on long-term concerns, distinct from the work of the Public Issues committee, which focused on the Gulf and other matters. Section I (Giver of Life, Sustain your Creation!) was devoted to the “integrity of creation” leg of the JPIC triad. Section II (Spirit of Truth, Set us Free!) dealt with the other two legs. Section III folded “unity” issues, including Faith and Order, and missions into one report; Section IV’s mandate was to interpret the doctrine of the Spirit and determine what he is saying to the churches. Section reports were received and accepted, after some discussion, by the Assembly as official findings.
Section I followed closely the results of the 1990 JPIC Consultation in Seoul and other intervening meetings. It lays out a “theology of creation,” elaborates an “ethic of economy and ecology,” and ends with specific demands for action from churches.
The theological section of this report received major modification in the course of debates over early drafts. The original draft suggested that human beings were really nothing special, that we are mere guests and recent arrivals on an earth that could get along just fine without us (a theme repeated by many speakers). It further asserted that the biblical concepts of dominion and stewardship were “arrogant” and to be rejected. This passage received much critical attention from evangelical and Orthodox delegates. Their efforts resulted in the final report asserting the centrality of human community and the image of God in man, as well as the special calling of human stewardship as the basis for environmental responsibility and “sustainability.”
The ethical (read political and economic) program attempts to sketch out the “alternative models of society” called for by the General Secretary. The vision is that “people of different faiths . . . learn from each other’s spirituality” to create “a world in which the needs of all creation are integrated with the workings of governments and international business.” Beyond reforming current institutions, however, the report calls for “reform of the International Economic Order” and reconception of economic thinking to account for sustainability. Specifically, an “Earth Charter” modelled on the Universal Declaration on Human Rights—known as the Universal Declaration of Human Obligations Towards Nature—is to be enacted.
Education is to be altered to proliferate a “sustainable spirituality” based on “global interdependence.” “Only the recognition on a worldwide scale of the oneness of creation can provide the critical global consciousness necessary to chart a new course for a sustainable future.” Such a recognition will lead to
a new type of mission, not into foreign lands but into “foreign” structures. By this term we mean economic, social, and political structures which do not conform to Christian moral standards . . . It is for this reason that the churches have to make a great and continuous effort in morally equipping their people for their missionary work in the foreign structures of our time . . . [Further,] the understanding of creation theology and of an ethic of economy and ecology should be reflected in the life and work of the church, through its study of the Bible, its teachings, hymns, liturgies, prayers, the institution of the sacraments, and through its witness.
The statement goes on to give marching orders to churches in specific regions for political action. As the staffer said, the WCC does speak to the churches, often in disturbing ways.
The Pelagian tone, Utopian schemes, and “spiritual” sources of this manifesto make one wonder what church we are talking about. If fallenness can be attributed to the arrival of white settlers, and the “creation” has its own integrity rather than intrinsic brokenness, redemption becomes a matter of human effort and re-education. While the title of the report evokes the Giver of Life (and demands in the imperative that he sustain the creation) the only reference to Him in the document is in the introduction: the “Holy Spirit manifests God’s energy for life present in all things.” As for the Lord Himself, the introduction affirms that “through Jesus Christ all things have been made, and in him God’s creation comes to its fulfillment.” But other spiritualities and analytical frameworks would seem to have more influence on the ethical and even the ecclesiastical plans of the report.
One wonders why the extensive and Christological approaches to stewardship of such analysts as Britain’s Donald Hay could not have found their way into this section report. Rather, the theological and scientific advisers to the section included a Canadian member of parliament, who is also a United Church minister, quoting William Stringfellow, Rachel Carson, and John Cobb; a theologian from Hong Kong who called for rejecting the “commander” image in Genesis of God giving shape and order to what he has made, in favor of the (female) “brooding spirit” image “which best addresses our current crisis”; and Larry Rasmussen of New York’s Union Seminary, who linked the work of the Spirit with the growing environmental movement. Since a majority of participants were clergy anyway, few voices were heard with direct experience of economic and political institutions. Nor were there any who could bring the venerable Reformation perspective that creation is more than nature and also includes the differentiation of human community into institutions for the pursuit of the order God built into what he has made. Most Christian traditions acknowledge that all creation still bears these orders, and that general revelation, or common grace, or natural law ensure some knowledge of these in all cultures and religions. These traditions have acknowledged general revelation without overthrowing the unique special revelation of Christian faith.
In the midst of all the creation fascination and alternate spiritual modes. Section II (concerned with justice and peace issues) sounded like the old-time WCC religion. Led by the indefatigable Philip Potter, former WCC General Secretary, the report evoked now-familiar liberation themes. In comparison to Section I, the theological portion was meager and sketchy, perhaps because the liberationist writings on which it depends are so well known. In policy terms. Section II calls for the overthrow of Western-run, dependency-creating “Bretton Woods institutions” in favor of UN economic regulation, for a “New World Information and Communication Order,” and for universal demilitarization. This report—as well as Section I’s reiteration of the new economic order and the pervasive call throughout the Assembly for the United Nations to assert itself as the only legitimate international actor—does sing the old familiar songs. Overall, however, these traditional liberation concerns were either absorbed or left behind by the new green paradigm dominant at the Assembly.
The WCC does seem to have learned some things from recent world events. Section reports acknowledge that “the limits to bureaucratic control have become clearly visible” and that freedom is a universal human impulse. The experience of being challenged by Bishop Laszlo Tokes of Romania for past silence in the face of oppression was sobering. However, even with the presence of Tokes and other Eastern Europeans, attention to concerns for religious liberty was minimal. For example, the China Christian Council, successor to the official Three-Self Movement, was welcomed as a member of the WCC without any reference to continued restrictions on Chinese Catholics and other non-recognized churches. Has this created another situation in which the WCC will refuse to speak forcibly on behalf of persecuted Christians because of the membership of government-approved church leaders from a Communist country?
In any case, the lessons of recent history still have not translated in the WCC into some sense of reservation, of tentativeness regarding grand world-order schemes. Perhaps the “lack of a vital, coherent ecumenical theology” is indeed critical. These consistent tendencies may demonstrate the inclination of the WCC to detach ethics from the revelation and confession of the incarnate Word. One never heard in Canberra the Augustinian caution: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek for the city which is to come.” The Assembly planners would have benefited from pondering the wisdom of that great ecumenist and former WCC Mission Director, Lesslie Newbigin, whose recent work, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, challenges both the complacency of conservatism and the constant effort to reconstruct the gospel:
What [Christ] did was to prepare a community chosen to be the bearer of the secret of the kingdom . . . The church is not authorized to represent the reign of God, his justice and peace, in any other way than that in which Jesus represented it, namely by being partners with him in challenging the powers of evil and bearing in its own life the cost of the challenge. When Church and kingdom are set against each other, then the language of the kingdom can be used, and is used, to sacralize whatever is the contemporary program for justice and peace. The message of the kingdom then becomes a form of the law. It is a corpus of ethical demands. It has the effect which law divorced from gospel always has, of hardening the conscience and mightily increasing the power of evil.
It should be no surprise, then, that the crucial concerns of Assembly deliberations even in the midst of the political activity and shifting paradigms turned on basic hermeneutical and confessional questions. Because of its theme and underlying agenda, the Assembly was faced throughout with the task of defining the nature of the Spirit, and the place of the Spirit in the Trinity. Focusing on the Spirit was a new departure for the WCC, undertaken in response to the growing demand in the churches for deeper spiritual reality. The theme was a particular concession to the historic emphases of the Orthodox churches. Other purposes were also at work, as the unsubtle efforts to assault delegates with aboriginal spirituality and other modalities attest. The uniqueness of Christ in relation to other “spiritualities” and the compatibility of Christianity with the “truth” found in other religions thus found its way into debate, becoming a major concern of Section IV, “Holy Spirit, Transform and Sanctify Us!”
The question that emerged at Canberra was a perennial hermeneutical conundrum—what determines the definition of truth: revelation or experience? How will we know in what and when the Spirit is at work? What are the signs? Is it a true Word from a certain authority, or a self-defining perception of need and crisis? Much of the background material and the presentations at Canberra, in the vein of such recent literature as that by John Hick and WCC Mission Director Christopher Duraisingh, posited the spirit without the Logos. They wanted spiritual energy without the Word to define and delineate, and without the Incarnation to give substance. They wanted grace without the body and the blood.
The two keynote addresses on the theme, which set up the major debates of the Assembly, were in great contrast. The first, from Parthenios, Ecumenical (Oriental) Patriarch of Alexandria, carefully argued the Orthodox perspective on the nature of the Spirit and his work. Parthenios asserted, “When we speak about the Holy Spirit, we are speaking about the Holy Trinity. There is no Holy Spirit apart from the Holy Trinity. We live in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. We do not separate them. Our God is One.” His address, delivered in Greek, was polished and careful, serious and restrained. The other keynote address, that of Professor Chung, invoked—with its gongs, drums, and appeals to read Scripture from the perspective of birds, trees, and mountains—a very different spirit.
Professor Chung’s speech resurrected the ancient debate over “syncretism”—the degree to which the Christian faith can and should accommodate other religious practices, and whether other faiths have sufficient truth without being troubled by the gospel of Christ. This question is of course crucial in defining the nature of mission and the identity of the church. Confronted with the charge of syncretism. Professor Chung responded that all churches are syncretistic, having adapted to and adopted aspects of their cultures; this is especially true, she said, of Western churches, with their accommodation of materialism, patriarchy, militarism, etc. Attempts to clarify this problem occupied much of the work in all sections, and it was frequently suggested that other religions offer a better basis for a new “theology of creation” than does Christianity. The debate also affected deliberation on issues of unity, dialogue with “other living faiths,” and determining “what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
One has to wonder again about the degree to which “balance” was sincerely attempted in Assembly presentations. Those who held to orthodox formulations were always in reaction, required to respond to the “progressives.” Was it an accident that Prof. Chung, a Korean Presbyterian, represented a perspective utterly alien and out-of-step with the majority of Korea’s dynamic Presbyterian community?
The final reports, however, issued at the end of the Assembly after all the debates, did contain some clear affirmations, in great part due to Orthodox and evangelical efforts. From the report, for example, of Section IV, on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit: “Spirits must be discerned. Not every spirit is of the Holy Spirit. The primary criterion for discerning the Holy Spirit is that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. The Holy Spirit points to the cross and resurrection and witnesses to the Lordship of Christ.”
It is perhaps naive to have to ask why a church council should even have to debate such questions and have to struggle to reaffirm orthodox positions. This clearly troubled the official Vatican retinue of observers, and cast a shadow on WCC-Catholic dialogue. There is a healthy dimension to being forced to look anew at the familiar; yet the motivation of many participants in Canberra seemed to flow, because of perceived past inadequacies and evils in the church, from regret over and even repudiation of the deposit of tradition and Scripture.
The marks of years of education in praxis-driven theology and in voguish process assumptions were clear in Canberrra. If revelation is expanding and truth perceived through experience, then the past can be both acknowledged and put behind. If the old gospel has served its purpose and “the spirit is doing a new thing” now, then ecumenism can move in radical new directions. If the old Liberalism was an adaptation to modernity, with its assumptions drawn from scientific materialism, in this new age the church must accommodate postmodern pluralism and resurgent spirituality. Historical theories of religious development also cause no embarrassment, as they demonstrate the relevance of past myths in the context of the needs of the day, and permit the development of new myths for our time and place which, according to the prevailing mindset at Canberra, demands religious unity and biospheric consciousness.
The atmosphere established by the Assembly leadership and those controlling the agenda provoked a variety of reactions. Even the final official program report contained some criticisms: “The cumbersome nature and the current patterns of the Assembly call for serious evaluation of the role of the Assembly as an efficient way of democratic policy-making.” Youth delegates felt slighted in the election process and staged a demonstration under a large banner proclaiming “Ecumenical Suicide” because the old guard refused to replenish its ranks.
Yet despite complaints over pre-set agendas and excessive staff control of proceedings, some participants felt that their concerns eventually “were heard” and in some cases incorporated into Assembly reports. This was true in both public policy statements and theological affirmations. In the final days, the public policy debates became more lively and diverse as participants began to react to the directions being pushed by WCC staff. However, one evangelical leader noted: “Liberal Protestant experiential pluralism clearly is in control here.” “Speculative theology” was indeed the norm. Some participants were disturbed by a disconnection between the often Trinitarian, confessional worship and the political and moral rhetoric. An evangelical caucus, formed early in the Assembly, issued programmatic recommendations to the policy committee, and, at the conclusion of the Assembly, released a letter to churches and fellow evangelicals regarding their experiences.
The evangelical letter reported a generally good experience of inclusion at Canberra, but called for that to be translated into representation on WCC commissions and in the staff. The signers raised concerns about the Assembly call for a coherent ecumenical theology, affirming the need for theological work but insisting that the “ecumenical movement needs a theology rooted in the Christian revelation as well as relevant to contemporary problems.” The evangelicals also pointed out that “very inadequate attention was given in the Assembly to the dramatic and far-reaching changes that have taken place in Eastern Europe.” That fact “raised questions about the way in which sections of the ecumenical movement supported the ruling ideologies in Eastern Europe.”
Orthodox participants, whose churches have been members of the WCC since its formation, also issued a statement of concern to summarize their vigorous responses during Assembly debates. They noted the “increasing departure from the basis of the WCC”—which they defined as primarily to restore unity to the Church—and cited “a growing departure from biblically based Christian understandings” of the Trinity, salvation, the gospel, the doctrine of human beings as created in the image of God, and the nature of the church. They indicated that they were asking themselves, and would be considering further, “Has the time come for the Orthodox churches and other members to review their relations with the World Council of Churches?”—a thinly veiled threat to withdraw.
In these responses of Orthodox and evangelical participants are contained the clues to the future patterns of ecumenism. The Assembly clearly elevated “organic unity” above other priorities in its final reports, but it also demonstrated how shallow that call might be. Is it to be based on a generalized “theism” and strong structures, or a strong confession of apostolic faith? Archbishop Carey pointed out that “grass roots ecumenism,” including Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox fellowship and cooperation, was far outpacing the bureaucratic and clerical processes. Evangelicals and Orthodox found each other quickly at Canberra, and marvelled at the common ground they experienced.
Given the decline in the WCC of funds, members, and resources, and the concomitant need to cut staff and programs, the bureaucratic approach—which emphasizes organic (structural) cohesion while insisting on an open-ended dogmatic pluralism—can hardly compete with a catholic, Christocentric faith that is yet flexible and diverse regarding forms.
Surely the growing majority of the world’s Christians—those in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and evangelical communities—will have little in common with a movement that abandons belief in the uniqueness of its Lord and his work of salvation. As he did on so many issues before the Assembly, Archbishop Carey clarified in both frugal and temperate words the questions raised by the Assembly:
What, we must ask ourselves, is the truth that the Holy Spirit will lead us into? Surely it is the truth about God in Jesus Christ. It would be a distortion of John’s gospel to assume that the “truth” mentioned is anything that might develop in the next two millennia. Even though we are agreed that there is such a thing as legitimate [doctrinal] development, the truth that the Holy Spirit leads us into must be Christocentric or it is not Christian. In other words, let us be careful not to separate the work of the Spirit from that of the Lord . . . [The] last Assembly voiced a clear disquiet about the lack of concentrated theological work. And apparently Vancouver called for the development of a “vital and coherent theology.” My experience of the WCC so far compels me to urge the WCC executive to make this a matter of extreme urgency. And, if I may be so bold, I want to suggest that we should look no further than the coherence of a Trinitarian framework of faith which has served the Church well enough for two thousand years. Yes of course we must do our hermeneutical work . . . but we are not required, and have no divine mandate, to create fresh theologies unrelated to the faith delivered to the saints.
This note evoked the work of the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission (of which the Roman Catholic Church is a member) and its 1982 “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” document. BEM provided an important basis for sacramental and confessional fellowship among Christians. Yet this emphasis was seen in Canberra only in the use of its “Lima Liturgy” in one worship service, and in the work of Section III. To many, Faith and Order seemed overshadowed by the exploration of other spiritualities and alternate social models.
WCC leaders and staff do seem eager to capture the energy of Pentecostalism, the assurance and growth of evangelicalism, the authority of Catholicism, and the satisfying and mysterious depths of Orthodoxy for themselves. Nearly all the final documents stressed the importance of “incorporating” (or domesticating?) these groups. The rationalism of “German theology” and the accommodations to modernity of Liberalism have had unhappy effects in the Protestant churches of Europe and North America—out-of-touch bureaucracies and declining parishes. Now the hunger of church members, and the need for institutional survival, have forced some new directions. Yet those so insistent on stamping political correctness on the churches and being guided by praxis apparently find themselves more comfortable with the spirits of the age, or the “new age,” than with the paraclete.
The Assembly, after all was said and done, ended with vague and ambiguous consensus documents and appeals for further studies. Its reports, as is typical of consensus documents, have something for everyone; any emphasis or orientation can find some support in the Assembly’s deliberations and recommendations. Evangelicals and Orthodox participants will have to wait and see whether the reassurances that their concerns were “heard” will be translated into renewed vigor for mission and evangelism and clear biblical commitments. These matters are now in the hands of the new Central Committee, which is still dominated by Western clergy even after the formulaic elections, and the Geneva-based staff. Yet believers may still find in the WCC an opportunity for common fellowship and mission, as did some of the evangelical participants. It is not totally out of the question that along with the Orthodox and others, biblical Christians could lead the ecumenical world in new directions. As the Assembly theme pointed out, this clearly depends on the renewing, transforming, and sustaining work of the Holy Spirit.
I had the delight of going immediately from Canberra to Singapore, where I visited friends who are serving the church there as seminary teachers and preachers. I visited churches filled with new believers, many who came out of animist or Buddhist upbringings, often alone in their families, to confess faith in the risen Christ. The ambiguity regarding the nature of the gospel in the WCC—in contrast to its elaborate world order visions—could not be in starker relief to the clarity and assurance (without smugness and with much charity and mercy) of those missionaries and national Christians I visited in Singapore.
Nor was their faith without learning or indifferent to their pluralistic culture; on the contrary, their scholarship and concern for effective proclamation seemed far more profound than the blurred lines of Canberrra. They knew of Kwan In in Singapore too—she is found on tea mugs, T-shirts, and family altars. People buy joss sticks and burn small sacrifices on street corners and elsewhere to earn a little favor from her.
Pursuing perpetual obeisance to her, and paying “lion dancers” to drive evil spirits out of homes and shops or burning “hell money” to appease ancestors: this is what many believers in Singapore and all over Asia have found deliverance from in the grace and mercy of the gospel of Christ. It is not dissimilar to the deliverance from empty, hopeless secularism that some in the West have experienced. They have forsaken the idols who are but wood, clay, silver, and gold for a living God. If this seems to lack in “inclusiveness” or in sensitivity to “other living faiths,” perhaps it is only part of the offense that has always come when the gospel is truly preached and practiced.
Lawrence E. Adams was Associate for International Affairs with the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and is the author of works on religion and public life, U.S foreign policy, and security policy, including Going Public: Christian Responsibility in a Divided America (2002).