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Churches must build unity, reach young people, WCC leader says

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A Web-only photo courtesy by Paulino Menezes, WCC

Brazilian dancers add color and movement to the opening plenary session of the World Council of Churches assembly.

Feb. 16, 2006

By Linda Bloom*

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (UMNS) — Churches have new opportunities to influence global policies and “bring a moral voice to the world,” but that cannot happen unless they relate to each other more closely, according to the leader of the World Council of Churches.

“We can no longer separate ethics and ecclesiology, the search for unity of the church and the unity of humankind,” said the Rev. Samuel Kobia, a Methodist pastor from Kenya and the WCC’s chief executive. “They are closely intertwined with each other.”

Kobia delivered his report Feb. 15 to participants at the World Council of Churches’ 9th Assembly in Porto Alegre. Besides the 18-member official United Methodist delegation, a number of United Methodists are attending the assembly as participants in the “mutirao” — an informal, mid-day gathering of workshops, discussions and exhibits — or are present in some other capacity.

During the Feb. 14 opening worship, Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania took up the assembly’s theme of transformation and noted the “transformative journey (of) our church communities cannot occur on the basis of criteria occasionally proposed by fashion and vogue, but through the guidance of ?the gospel of grace.’”

In Kobia’s opinion, an ecumenical movement that is open to signs of God’s transformative grace must be grounded in spirituality, take ecumenical formation and youth seriously, work for transformative justice, take risks to develop new and creative ways of working, and firmly put relationships at the center.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A Web-only photo by Paulino Menezes, WCC

Members of the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches gather in prayer on the opening day.
He considers the spiritual base of the ecumenical movement to be the “festa da vida, the feast of life” — a grace and invitation from God. “The wonder of grace is that it is a gift, which we don’t deserve, a reward which we don’t earn, but it is freely given and is ours for the partaking.”

Kobia issued a strong call for the nurturing and involvement of young people in the ecumenical movement. Just as an earlier generation of young adults created today’s movement, so must that opportunity for participation be transmitted to future generations.

“Young people need opportunities to experience the joy of working and praying with others from different traditions and different contexts,” he said. “They need support and mentoring to participate fully in ecumenical gatherings with their sometimes intimidating elders.

“We need to go out to where young people are, to schools and universities. We need to be willing to change to respond to the demands of young people. We must offer opportunities to know and learn from others through scholarships and travel. At a time when information technology is forever advancing, we must enable our youth to interact more deeply and to discover creative ways of using virtual spaces for ecumenical formation.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Paulino Menezes, WCC

The Rev. Samuel Kobia speaks at the World Council of Churches' assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Kobia noted that while some young people may reject traditional church structures, they still have a hunger for spirituality. He told the story of a WCC colleague who, out of desperation, enlisted the help of her 22-year-old daughter to format the mutirao schedule for the assembly on Excel spreadsheets. The daughter was so intrigued by the workshops being planned that she wanted to attend the assembly herself.

“I had no idea that this was what ecumenism is all about,” she told her mother. “It makes me want to get involved.”

Young people are attracted to the issues engaging today’s ecumenical movement, according to Kobia, “but they need to be invited in. And they need to be equipped and supported to participate.”

Some of those issues — hunger, poverty, violence and economic and social inequalities — are issues of transformative justice. “As churches, we are called to plan together, to speak together and to take action together in the face of conditions that we know to be wrong in this world,” Kobia said.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A Web-only photo courtesy of the World Council of Churches

"Mutiraos," informal gatherings of workshops, exhibits and discussions, are offered daily at the assembly.

Today’s biggest challenges — for both the world and for churches — have root in “the lack of human capacity to relate to each other, to creation, and to God as we ought to,” he said.

“We will be best equipped to promote human relationships in the world around us if, as churches, we shall learn how to share with one another all the gifts of grace which we have received from God,” Kobia told participants. “To a very large extent, our disunity as churches is due to our incapacity to practice this genuine sharing of gifts.”

More than 3,000 participants — representing nearly all Christian traditions and all geographic regions — are expected to attend the assembly, which ends Feb. 23.

Continuing information about the WCC assembly and its actions can be found at, the official assembly Web site.

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

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759; Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470; or

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