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Over decades, Methodists make significant contributions to WCC

Jan. 24, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

Methodist contributions to the World Council of Churches have been significant over the decades since its birth.

Betty Thompson, who participated in five WCC assemblies — beginning with New Delhi in 1961 and ending with Canberra, Australia, in 1991 — knew and worked with some of those contributors and was herself a firm supporter of ecumenism.

A retired executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, she also was a communicator for the WCC from 1955-1956 in Geneva and 1956-64 in New York.

In the beginning, she said, there was John R. Mott, a Methodist layman whom she described as “a visionary” and “a key figure” in the council’s creation.

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John Raleigh Mott
Mott already had organized the World Student Christian Federation, led the International YMCA and presided over the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference that launched the ecumenical movement. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.

The 1948 assembly, in Amsterdam, where the WCC was formed, convened during a period of great hope and expectation for international bodies, Thompson said. Participants from 147 churches in 44 countries represented all Christian confessional families except for the Roman Catholic Church. Mott was named the WCC’s honorary president at that gathering.

Half of the council’s chief executives over the years — Philip Potter of the West Indies, from 1972-84; Emilio Castro of Uruguay, from 1985-92; and Samuel Kobia of Kenya, the current leader since January 2004 — have been Methodist.

Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam served as the council’s first president from 1948-54. Other U.S. United Methodists serving as WCC regional presidents included Charles C. Parlin, 1961-68, and the Rev. Kathryn Bannister, who was elected at the 1998 assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Others from the Methodist tradition who were elected to be a president included Dame Nita Barrow, former governor-general of Barbados, 1983-91; Sarah Chacko of India, who made a report on women and the church at the Amsterdam assembly, 1951 (she died in 1954); D.T. Niles, who also was president of the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka and the Christian Conference of Asia, 1968-75; Sante Uberto Barbieri of Argentina, 1954-61; and Bishop Vinton R. Anderson, African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1991-98.

More recent United Methodist ecumenical leaders involved with the WCC have included Bishop James K Mathews, Bishop Melvin Talbert, the Rev. Bruce Robbins and Jan Love.

“It’s significant, I think, that Methodism has been a supplier of leadership,” Thompson said.

In a January 2004 interview with Ecumenical News International, Kobia, who now leads the council, spoke about why Methodists have been such prominent ecumenical leaders.

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A UMNS file photo by Tim Tanton

Leaders of the World Council of Churches gather for an outdoor worship service at the 1998 assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe.
“I think Methodism combines two very important qualities, that of spirituality and the concern for social justice, and this is a Methodist tradition right from its origins,” he told ENI. “John Wesley once referred to social holiness, and this shows Methodist commitment to social justice and this is part of ecumenism.

“When I think of the ecumenical movement at all levels, and when I think of places where churches are united or uniting, Methodists are at the forefront,” Kobia said.

Ecumenical leaders from other denominations also have emerged through the WCC. Thompson’s seatmate at the 1965 assembly in Nairobi, Kenya — by accident of the alphabet — was Desmond Tutu. They were both WCC staff members at the time.

By the time of the 1983 assembly in Vancouver, Archbishop Tutu had become a great ecumenical figure, one that Thompson was proud to know. At her invitation, he was a keynote speaker at the first Global Gathering of the Board of Global Ministries in 1987.

In recent years, the ecumenical movement has lost some of its luster, in Thompson’s opinion. “The mainline churches themselves have lost members, money and prestige,” she explained. “The ecumenical bodies have suffered accordingly.”

WCC membership — which numbers 347 churches in more than 120 countries — also has shifted to include more churches from non-Western countries that cannot contribute as much financially. And the belief, in 1948, that “theologically, disunity was a scandal,” seems to have faded, she added.

“It turns out, that in some ways, the ecumenical movement was a luxury, not a necessity,” she said.

Thompson also attributes part of the ecumenical decline to a lack of interpretation from church leaders to local congregations. “The churches never translated the enthusiasm of the assemblies to the local churches,” she said.

The exception for the United Methodist Church has been the work of the Women’s Division, which has made “very effective” contributions to ecumenical education, she explained.

Two previous leaders of the Women’s Division — Dorothy McConnell and Theressa Hoover — were “prominent and outspoken in their support of ecumenism.” Jan Love, the division’s current chief executive, has been involved with the WCC since she was a young adult. Under her leadership, the division remains a place “of enthusiasm and support for the ecumenical ideal,” Thompson said.

Thompson has not lost faith in the ecumenical movement, and she believes one of its most significant achievements has been the improvement of relations between Roman Catholics and other Christians. “The hostility and disregard that used to exist doesn’t exist in the local communities anymore,” she explained.

She said the fact that the 2006 assembly is occurring at a Roman Catholic university in Brazil, with an emphasis on Latin American churches and on youth is “all good.”

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

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

Audio Interview with Betty Thompson

Methodists have been prominent in the WCC.?

?The Women?s Division has been one of the principal educating forces.?

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