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Amid diversity, WCC assembly brings show of unity

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A UMNS photo by Aleksander Wasyluk, WCC

Participants at the World Council of Churches' assembly head for buses after the assembly ends.

March 1, 2006

By Linda Bloom*

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (UMNS) — They came in the name of Christian unity.

From Feb. 14-23, the campus of Catholic Pontifical University was transformed into a global village for the World Council of Churches 9th Assembly.

The vitality of the ecumenical movement was evident as some 4,000 people prayed and sang together, engaged in dialogue and debate, and learned a little bit more about one another’s cultures and religions — in five official languages.

More than half of the participants — those attending the informal “mutirão” gatherings — came simply because they wanted to be a part of the event. Overall, the largest number of participants, 34 percent, came from Latin America, followed by Europe, North America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Caribbean and the Pacific. Fifty-five percent of the participants were men, 45 percent women and 19 percent youth — people age 30 and younger.

United Methodist Bishop Sally Dyck of Minneapolis — a delegate who had attended the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland, in 1978 — ran into a few of her old classmates there.

For her, the benefits of the assembly came from interaction with other participants rather than formal plenary sessions. “Just like when I was at Bossey,” she reported, “I never learned so much through conversations, meeting people, talking and networking, and simply seeing myself, my culture and nation, my church and world through the eyes of others. It was a rich and enlightening experience.”

The highlight of each day for Dyck was small-group Bible study, with representatives from a variety of denominations. “My Bible study had people from Malaysia, Indonesia, Ireland, England, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and another person from the United States,” she said.

Jay Williams, a United Methodist youth delegate from New York, noted that the accents of participants from various parts of the world seemed to fade as the assembly progressed.

“We can recognize our differences ? but that doesn’t have to be an end to our conversation,” he said.

The Rev. R Randy Day, another delegation member, said the assembly’s theme of grace and transformation, along with the rich diversity of people, was “very similar” to what his agency, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, experiences through its ministry each day.

He appreciated the fact that “lots of folks had an opportunity to speak and share their concerns and their faith.” It’s important to listen authentically, noted Day, the board’s top staff executive. “You have to give time and you have to provide space.”

Concern for balance

The Board of Global Ministries made a conscious effort to bring women and young people from Latin America and the Caribbean to the assembly in Brazil, according to Tamara Walker, a staff executive. They represented both autonomous Methodist denominations and emerging United Methodist churches, some of which have a high percentage of indigenous members.

The Rev. Forbes Matonga, a United Methodist delegate from Harare, Zimbabwe, pointed to “the concern over the imbalance of the wealthy and the poor” at the assembly and said he found the WCC’s AGAPE document, addressing the need for alternate methods of globalization, to be encouraging.

Comparing the event to the WCC’s 1998 assembly in Zimbabwe, Matonga noticed better relations between the Orthodox and other WCC members. “In Harare, there was almost a visible division with the Orthodox,” he explained. “After seven years, a lot of work has been done.”

That work came through the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, and a report from the assembly policy reference committee urged the WCC to continue to stress the importance of the special commission and its role.

Matonga, who does rural development and relief work through the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, also noticed more visibility of African participants since the Harare assembly. “There is increased participation of Africans in the work and the life of the WCC,” he said. “Given chances, Africans can lead and do everything else.

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The Rev. Forbes Matonga
“As a continent, we are characterized with negatives. There is another positive side,” he added. The fact that the Rev. Samuel Kobia, the WCC’s chief executive, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan are both from Africa “for me, is one big positive.”

The Rev. Larry Pickens, a delegate and chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, believes the WCC has recognized a shift in the ecumenical movement from countries of the North to countries of the South and that the work of the next seven years will reflect that recognition.

“This shift will require greater regional networking in the areas of disaster relief and recovery,” he said. “Renewed emphasis will be drawn around peace concerns and addressing violence in the Middle East.

“There will be more directed and intentional effort designed to address poverty in Africa and Latin America. The work of the council will also focus on ecological concerns and helping people of faith to take better care of our world.”

Pickens noted that the WCC can serve as an “important ally” as United Methodists “confront the significant global and regional realities within our church.”

Wide-ranging actions

In final actions taken as the assembly drew to a close, the delegates:

  • Adopted a revised constitution and rules, moving to decision-making based on consensus — which was used throughout the assembly — and amending membership criteria.
  • Approved a new text, “Called to be the One Church,” and urged renewed efforts to show visible church unity through the ecumenical movement.
  • Decided to reinforce ways of collaboration with the Roman Catholic Church and Pentecostal churches.
  • Supported a proposal to “explore the feasibility of a structure for WCC assemblies” that could be linked to global meetings of other church bodies in the future.
  • Recognized a decline in income and agreed to focus future WCC assemblies on a limited number of core issues.
  • Affirmed the expansion of the council’s work on alternatives to economic globalization, with theological grounding and practical advice from member churches.

Program priorities for the future are unity, spirituality and mission; ecumenical formation focusing on youth in particular; global justice; and bringing a credible voice and prophetic witness to the world.

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A UMNS photo by Peter Williams, WCC

Walter Altmann (left), Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brazil, stands with Samuel Kobia, a Methodist from Kenya and WCC chief executive.
The report of the program guidelines committee also challenged the WCC “to be a strong, credible ethical voice” in the world; emphasized the need for inter-religious cooperation and dialogue; and called for attention to “situations of deep crisis,” including the confinement of nearly 2 million people in camps in northern Uganda, where children are reportedly dying at a rate of 1,000 a week.

United Methodists serving on the new WCC Central Committee, the council’s chief decision-making body between assemblies, include Dyck, Pickens, Lois Dauway of the Women’s Division, Board of Global Ministries, and Motoe Yamada, a youth delegate from San Jose, Calif. Also elected, from the United Methodist Church in Cote d'Ivoire, was Akissi Jeannette Aneye.

At the assembly’s conclusion, the new central committee elected the Rev. Walter Altmann, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil, as moderator. Vice moderators are Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople) and the Rev. Margaretha M. Hendriks-Ririmasse, Protestant Church in the Moluccas (Indonesia).

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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