The World Council of Churches (WCC) is a worldwide Christian inter-church organization founded in 1948. Its members today include the Assyrian Church of the East, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, most jurisdictions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, the Old Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, most mainline Protestant churches (such as the Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Moravian and Reformed) and some evangelical Protestant churches (such as the Baptist and Pentecostal). Notably, the Catholic Church is not a member, although it sends accredited observers to meetings. The WCC arose out of the ecumenical movement and has as its basis the following statement:
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It is a community of churches on the way to visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and in common life in Christ. It seeks to advance towards this unity, as Jesus prayed for his followers, "so that the world may believe." (John 17:21)
The WCC describes itself as "a worldwide fellowship of 349 global, regional and sub-regional, national and local churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service." It is based at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland. The organization's members include denominations which claim to collectively represent some 590 million people across the world in about 150 countries, including 520,000 local congregations served by 493,000 pastors and priests, in addition to elders, teachers, members of parish councils and others.
The Ecumenical Movement met with initial successes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 (chaired by future WCC Honorary President John R. Mott). In 1920, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Germanus V of Constantinople, wrote a letter "addressed 'To all the Churches of Christ, wherever they may be', urging closer co-operation among separated Christians, and suggesting a 'League of Churches', parallel to the newly founded League of Nations". Church leaders agreed in 1937 to establish a World Council of Churches, based on a merger of the Faith and Order Movement (under Charles Brent of the Episcopal Church of the United States) and Life and Work Movement (under Nathan Söderblom of the Lutheran Church of Sweden) organisations.
Its official establishment was deferred with the outbreak of World War II until August 23, 1948. Delegates of 147 churches assembled in Amsterdam to merge the Faith and Order Movement and Life and Work Movement. This was consolidated by a second meeting at Lund in 1950, for which the British Methodist Robert Newton Flew edited an influential volume of studies, The Nature of the Church. Subsequent mergers were with the International Missionary Council in 1961 and the World Council of Christian Education, with its roots in the 18th century Sunday School movement, in 1971.
WCC member churches include most of the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches; the Anglican Communion; some Old Catholic churches; and numerous Protestant churches, including some Baptists, many Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian and other Reformed, a sampling of united and independent churches, and some Pentecostal churches.
Delegates sent from the member churches meet every seven or eight years in an Assembly, which elects a Central Committee that governs between Assemblies. A variety of other committees and commissions answer to the Central Committee and its staff. Assemblies have been held since 1948.
The "human rights abuses in communist countries evoked grave concern among the leaders of the World Council of Churches." However, historian Christopher Andrew claims that, during the Cold War, a number of important WCC representatives of the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe had been working for the KGB, and that they influenced the policy of the WCC. From 1955 to 1958, Robert S. Bilheimer co-chaired a WCC international commission to prepare a document addressing the threat of nuclear warfare during the Cold War.
At the 1961 conference, a 32-year-old Russian Orthodox Bishop named Aleksey Ridiger was sent as delegate to the assembly, and then appointed to the WCC's central committee. He was later elected as Russian patriarch in 1990 as Alexei II.
The ninth assembly took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil in February 2006, under the theme "God, in your grace, transform the world". During the first Assemblies, theologians Vasileios Ioannidis and Amilkas Alivizatos contributed significantly to the debates that led to the drafting of the "Toronto Statement", a foundational document which facilitated Eastern Orthodox participation in the organization and today it constitutes its ecclesiological charter.
The 10th Assembly was held in Busan, Republic of Korea, from 30 October to 8 November 2013.
In 2013 Dr. Agnes Abuom of Nairobi, from the Anglican Church of Kenya, was elected as moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches; she is the first woman and the first African to hold this position.
The World Council of Churches has held 10 Assemblies to date, starting with the founding assembly in 1948:
Presidents of the current 10th Assembly are:
Former presidents of the World Council of Churches include:
Since the World Council of Churches was officially founded in 1948, the following men have served as general secretary:
|1948–1966||W. A. Visser 't Hooft||Reformed Churches in the Netherlands/Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, Geneva||Netherlands|
|1966–1972||Eugene Carson Blake||United Presbyterian Church (USA)||United States|
|1972–1984||Philip A. Potter||Methodist Church||Dominica|
|1985–1992||Emilio Castro||Evangelical Methodist Church of Uruguay||Uruguay|
|1993–2003||Konrad Raiser||Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD)||Germany|
|2004–2009||Samuel Kobia||Methodist Church in Kenya||Kenya|
|2010–2020||Olav Fykse Tveit||Church of Norway||Norway|
There are two complementary approaches to ecumenism: dialogue and action. The Faith and Order Movement and Life and Work Movement represent these approaches. These approaches are reflected in the work of the WCC in its commissions, these being:
The WCC acts through both its member churches and other religious and social organizations to coordinate ecumenical, evangelical, and social action.
WCC's Faith and Order Commission has been successful in working toward consensus on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, on the date of Easter, on the nature and purpose of the church (ecclesiology), and on ecumenical hermeneutics.
Justice, Peace and Creation has drawn many elements together with an environmental focus. Its mandate is:
To analyze and reflect on justice, peace and creation in their interrelatedness, to promote values and practices that make for a culture of peace, and to work towards a culture of solidarity with young people, women, Indigenous Peoples and racially and ethnically oppressed people.
Attention has been given to issues around:
The largest Christian body, the Catholic Church, is not a member of the WCC, but has worked closely with the Council for more than three decades and sends observers to all major WCC conferences as well as to its Central Committee meetings and the Assemblies (cf. Joint Working Group).
The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity also nominates 12 members to the WCC's Faith and Order Commission as full members. While not a member of the WCC, the Catholic Church is a member of some other ecumenical bodies at regional and national levels, for example, the National Council of Churches in Australia and the National Council of Christian Churches in Brazil (CONIC).
Pope Pius XI stated in 1928, that the only means by which the world Christian community was to return to faith, was to return to Roman Catholic Worship. In this regard, there was the idea that the Papacy had rejected, to a great extent; the participation of the Catholic Church within the World Council of Churches. Pius XI stated that the ‘One true Church’ was that of the Roman Catholic denomination, and therefore there was the implication that the Catholic Church was not permitted at this stage to engage with other denominations, which the Papacy considered to be irrelevant. The Catholic Church therefore did not attend the 1948 meeting of the WCC, in addition to the idea that all members of the church were barred from attending WCC conferences.
Pope John XXIII took a different stance however, and in 1958 he was elected as the head of the Catholic Church. Ecumenism was a new element of catholic ideology which had been permitted, which was signified to a great extent, when John XXIII met with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. This was the first meeting between an Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Pope in the Vatican for 600 years. John XXIII later developed the office of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity; which symbolised a dramatic shift in support for the ecumenical movement, from the Catholic Church, led from the Vatican. 1961 saw Catholic members attend the Delhi conference of the WCC, which marked a significant shift in attitude toward the WCC from the Papacy. There was the idea in addition to this, that the Pope invited non-Catholics to attend the Vatican II council. This new approach to inter-denominational relations was marked within the Unitatis Redintegratino.
This document marked several key reforms within the Catholic approach:
I. ‘Separated brethren’ was the new term for non-Catholics, as opposed to the previously used ‘heretics’
II. Both catholic and non- catholic elements are held responsible for the schism between Catholicism and the Protestant movement
III. Non-Catholics are recognised to the contributions that they make to Christian belief overall
Further reforms have been enacted with regard to the nature of the Catholic Church on the world stage, for instance the 1965 union with the Patriarch of Constantinople, whereby the 1054 schism was undermined. In addition to this, Michael Ramsay, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, received an episcopal ring in 1966; a mark of union which had not been seen since prior to the Reformation. Moreover, the Anglican, Roman Catholic International Committee was additionally established as a means of promoting communication and cohesion between the two denominations. This has since marked a new level of participation of the Catholic Faith in the aforementioned ecumenical movement, and therefore is the basis for increased participation from the faith, in the WCC.
A Special Commission was set up by the eighth Harare Assembly in December 1998 to address Orthodox concerns about WCC membership and the Council's decision-making style, public statements, worship practices, and other issues. It issued its final report in 2006. Specific issues that it clarified were that the WCC does not formulate doctrine, does not have authority to rule on moral issues, nor does it have any ecclesiastical authority. Such authority is entirely internal to each individual member church. It proposed that the WCC adopt a consensus method of decision making. It proposed that Orthodox members be brought in parity with non-Orthodox members. It further proposed clarification that inter-confessional prayer at WCC events is not worship, particularly "it should avoid giving the impression of being the worship of a church", and confessional and inter-confessional prayer each be specifically identified as such at WCC events. It also clarified that the so-called "Lima Liturgy" is not an interfaith eucharistic service: 'the WCC is not 'hosting' a eucharist'.
The WCC is also a prominent supporter and practitioning body for Peace journalism: journalism practice that aims to avoid a value bias in favor of violence that often characterizes coverage of conflict.
The ACT Alliance, bringing together over 100 church-backed relief and development organizations worldwide, was born out of the merger of ACT International (Action by Churches Together International) and ACT Development (Action by Churches Together for Development) in March 2010. Both ACT International, established in 1995, and ACT Development (2007) were created through the leadership of the World Council of Churches (WCC). The two bodies coordinated the work of agencies related to the member churches of the WCC and the Lutheran World Federation in the areas of humanitarian emergencies and poverty reduction respectively.
The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance was officially founded in December 2000 at a meeting convened by the WCC. There are currently 73 churches and Christian organizations that are members of the Alliance, from Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. These members, representing a combined constituency of tens of millions of people around the world, are committed to working together in public witness and action for justice on defined issues of common concern. Current campaigns are on Food and on HIV and AIDS.
The Ecumenical Church Loan Fund (ECLOF) was founded in 1946 as one of the world's first international micro-credit institutions in the service of the poor. Willem Visser 't Hooft, then general secretary of the "WCC in process of formation" played an important role in founding ECLOF. It was he who sketched the prospects and challenges for the proposed institution and gave specific ideas on potential sources of funds. His inspiration and teamwork marked the beginning of a long and fruitful cooperation between ECLOF and the WCC.
The Ecumenical Development Cooperative Society U.A (now known as Oikocredit) was developed from discussions at the 1968 Uppsala 4th Assembly, regarding church divestment from financial institutions supporting apartheid-era South Africa and the war in Vietnam. After several years of planning, the cooperative society was founded in 1975 in the Netherlands to provide an alternative ethical investment vehicle to church institutions, by providing credit to productive enterprises serving economically disadvantaged populations. Originally organized for large institutional members of the WCC, by 1976 local congregations developed Support Associations to enable congregations as well as individuals to participate. EDCS became independent from the WCC in 1977.
Ecumenical News International (ENI) was launched in 1994 as a global news service reporting on ecumenical developments and other news of the churches, and giving religious perspectives on news developments worldwide. The joint sponsors of ENI, which was based at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland, are the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches, which also have their headquarters at the Ecumenical Centre. A shortage of funds led to the suspension of the work of ENI in 2012. As of 2015 ENI remains closed.
The WCC has not sought the organic union of different Christian denominations, but it has, however, facilitated dialogue and supported local, national, and regional dialogue and cooperation.
Membership in a regional or national council does not mean that the particular group is also a member of the WCC.
Many historians, the U.S. State Department and former KGB officers themselves have alleged and provided corroborating evidence that the KGB's influence directly, or through lobbying by means of a front organization, the Christian Peace Conference, resulted in the WCC's failure to recognize or act on calls for help from persecuted East European Christians at the 1983 Vancouver General Assembly.:647–8
It is claimed the KGB has infiltrated and influenced past WCC councils and policy. In 1992, Father Gleb Yakunin, a vice Chairman of a Russian parliamentary commission that investigated the activities of the KGB, citing verbatim KGB reports, claimed that its Fifth Directorate was actively involved in influencing WCC policy from 1967 to 1989. For example, in the 1983 WCC General Assembly in Vancouver, one cited document described the presence and activities of 47 KGB agents to secure the election of an "acceptable" candidate as General Secretary. The Mitrokhin Archive reveals more about the depth of the penetration and influence wielded by the KGB over the WCC. Metropolitan Nikidim was a KGB agent, codenamed ADAMANT, who served as one of six WCC Presidents from 1975 until his death.:729 His earlier intervention had resulted in the WCC making no comment on the invasion of Czechoslovakia.:636 As a result of his influence and that of other agents, it is claimed the USSR was rarely publicly criticised.:637 In 1989, copies of the KGB documents claim "the WCC executive and central committee adopted public statements (eight) and messages (three)" which corresponded to its own political direction.:637 Appeals from suffering dissidents both from within the Russian Orthodox Church and Protestants were ignored in 1983.:647–8 Metropolitan Aleksi Ridiger of Tallinn and Estonia was repeatedly alleged to be a KGB agent codenamed DROZDOV, who in 1988 was awarded an honorary citation for services to the KGB by its chairman.:650 Despite official disavowals, The Guardian described the evidence as "compelling". In 1990 he became Aleksi II, the 15th Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Upon his death in 2008, the WCC's official tribute, by its Council officers, described him as "courageous", "supportive and constructive" and the recipient of "abundant blessing", no reference was made to the allegations.
The World Council of Churches has been described as taking an adversarial position toward the state of Israel. It has also been claimed the council has focused particularly on activities and publications criticizing Israel in comparison with other human rights issues. Because the WCC never opposed or had any official comments on the destruction of Jewish religious sites in the Middle East, but has constantly complained about Israel's alleged crimes towards Christian sites in Israel, Israel has pointedly ignored the WCC for 50 years and often stated that the WCC's opinions on Israel are hypocritical to the point of being bankrupt. It is similarly claimed that it downplayed appeals from Egyptian Copts about human rights abuses under Sadat and Mubarak, in order to focus on its neighbour. In 2009, the Council called for an international boycott on goods produced in Israeli settlements, which it described as 'illegal, unjust' and 'incompatible with peace'. In 2013, the General Secretary was reported to claim in Cairo, "We support the Palestinians. The WCC supports the Palestinians, because they are in the right." The WCC's Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) has been criticised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews for promoting "an inflammatory and partisan programme at the expense of its interfaith relations". The WCC secretariat was involved in preparing and helped disseminate the Kairos Palestine Document, which declares “the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights”, and in the view of one critic, its "authors want to see a single state". On the other hand, the WCC claims "Antisemitism is sin against God and man".
Christian Zionism, which has long represented a substantial proportion of historic and contemporary Protestants, is characterised as a view which "distort(s) the interpretation of the Word of God" and "damage(s) intra-Christian relations".
In this context, what is a source of concern is that Islamic fundamentalisms are giving rise to a counter reaction of other religious fundamentalisms, the most dangerous of which is Jewish fundamentalism which exploits the Islamic fundamentalist phenomenon to justify before western societies the distasteful aberrations of Zionism in Palestine.— WCC working paper, Lebanon, May 2013
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From the beginning of the twentieth century the Ecumenical Patriarchate has shown a special concern for Christian reconciliation. At his accession in 1902, Patriarch Joachim III sent an encyclical letter to all the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches, asking in particular for their opinion on relations with other Christian bodies. In January 1920 the Ecumenical Patriarchate followed this up with a bold and prophetic letter addressed 'To all the Churches of Christ, wherever they may be', urging closer co-operation among separated Christians, and suggesting a 'League of Churches', parallel to the newly founded League of Nations. Many of the ideas in this letter anticipate subsequent developments in the WCC. Constantinople, along with several of the other Eastern Orthodox Churches, was represented at the Faith and Order Conferences at Lausanne in 1927 and at Edinburgh in 1937. The Ecumenical Patriarchate also participated in the first Assembly of the WCC at Amsterdam in 1948, and has been a consistent supporter of the work of the WCC ever since.