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Church unity remains a dream of God: Tutu

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A UMNS photo by Paulino Menezes, WCC

Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks at a WCC plenary session on “Church Unity: Claiming a Common Future.”
Feb. 21, 2006

By Linda Bloom*

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (UMNS) — A united church helped defeat apartheid in South Africa, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded participants at the World Council of Churches’ 9th Assembly.

He was one of the speakers during a Feb. 20 plenary session on “Church Unity: Claiming a Common Future.”

But apartheid also continued as long as it did “in part because the church was divided,” he said. “Some Christians — many Christians — tried to (provide) scriptural justification for it. See how a divided church has exacerbated the conflict in Northern Ireland.”

The story of the Garden of Eden shows how God “intended us to live in harmony with God, with one another, with the rest of God’s creation,” Tutu said. Despite human sin, God worked to restore harmony and unity, eventually through the birth of the church.

“This church was/is the embodiment of this Jesus Christ, described as he who is our peace coming into a polarized and fragmented and stratified world, the one who broke all barriers between peoples, barriers represented by the middle wall of partition in the Jewish temple that had separated the holy people of God from the gentiles. In this Christ, all were holy, none were profane, all are now seen to be God’s people.

“A united church is no optional extra,” Tutu told the assembly. “A united church is indispensable for the salvation of God’s world, when we will see the fulfillment of the vision of St. John the Divine.”

United Methodist Bishop Ann Sherer, president of the denomination’s Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, said she found inspiration in the message from Tutu, “who rooted his call for unity in the gospel story, in God’s dream that we might be one.”

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Bishop Ann B. Sherer
“Archbishop Tutu has such authority because he not only tells the gospel story, he lives the gospel story,” Sherer added.

Other voices, including a Pentecostal perspective, were part of the session. Speaking on new possibilities for visible unity, the Rev. Norberto Saracco, a Pentecostal pastor and scholar from Argentina, quoted the chorus of a song popular with Latin American evangelicals and restated its simple message: “If you are at the foot of the cross, you belong to the same church as I do; if your heart beats in time with my heart, you are my brother, my sister.”

Saracco noted that evangelical churches do not base the idea of unity on the recognition of authority or dogmas or theological agreements, but they do ecumenism more like the message in the song chorus.

For evangelical churches and churches that are WCC members to relate to one another, he said, they must:

  • Regard one another honestly with mutual respect and appreciation.
  • Understand that the religious map of the world has changed and the gravity of the Christian world also has changed, from North to South.
  • Accept diversity as an expression of the grace of God that itself takes many forms.
  • Realizing God’s dream

    During a press conference following the plenary session, Tutu, who was awarded the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, noted the title of one of his books, God Has a Dream.

    “It really encapsulates what we all are living for,” he told the standing-room-only press conference. “God longs desparately for the time when all God’s children everywhere will know we belong in one family.”

    The WCC is a crucial instrument in realizing God’s dream, Tutu added.

    Archbishop Anastasios, primate of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania, agreed that church unity is being assisted through the WCC. In response to Tutu, he quipped, “I’m not sure about God’s dreams, but I’m sure about human dreams.”

    The real scandal, he said, would be not to pursue unity, “for the churches to remain isolated.”

    Anastasios, who is a member of the WCC’s Commission on Faith and Order and the WCC Central Committee, views the council not as an institution but as a forum of people. The struggle for unity “is the most important task we have in front of us,” he said.

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

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

    Video Highlights from WCC's 9th Assembly

    Archbishop Tutu on Church Unity

    Plenary: Church Unity

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