Notebook > Religion

Unity how?

Religion | Leaders of the World Council of Churches say they want unity with those outside their organization, but they seem to be going about it the wrong way

Issue: "Looking for votes," March 11, 2006

One joke making the rounds was that last month's World Council of Churches assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, may have contributed to global warming.

Indeed, the assembly was a 10-day talkathon that brought together 800 delegates and about 3,000 other church leaders, scholars, advisors, visitors, and assorted activists. They discussed and issued statements on a long list of topics, from Muhammad cartoons, interfaith dialogue, and divestment from companies doing business with Israel, to ugly Americanism, poverty, nuclear proliferation, and Christian unity.

It was the ninth such assembly since the WCC's founding in 1948. The WCC has 348 member denominations, representing an estimated 500 million adherents. The Roman Catholic Church, with about 1 billion members, is not a member, but has observer status. Another 500 million Christian adherents outside the WCC are from Pentecostal, charismatic, and a variety of evangelical denominations and churches.

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One of the announced goals of WCC leaders is to forge a greater measure of unity with those outside the WCC fold. They seem to be going about it in the wrong way, though. The leading Orthodox bishop at the assembly, Hilarion Alfeyev, said the gap between traditional Christianity (mainly Orthodox and Catholic churches) and liberal Christianity (mainly Protestant churches) "is only growing day by day." He cited such practices as permitting same-sex marriages and allowing women to serve as clergy.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Vatican's church unity office, said that in the past all Christian churches had the same position on homosexuality, "but now there are not only divisions between our church and other churches, there are also divisions within churches."

Orthodox leaders, who have come close to leaving the WCC in the past over matters of doctrine and governance, suggested it was time they form a "strategic alliance" with the Catholic Church instead. Orthodox churches claim 220 million members.

WCC leaders at the assembly called for member churches to place less emphasis on conversion and more on cooperation with people of other religions-but the head of the World Evangelical Alliance, Rev. Geoff Tunnicliffe, declared at a press conference that converting people to Christ is "at the heart of the evangelical movement."

Mr. Tunnicliffe reminded WCC leaders that evangelical Christians populate many of their churches, especially in the global South. He said evangelicals are working in problems of interest to the WCC such as HIV/AIDS, violence, and poverty, and told both camps, "If we ignore the world, we betray the Word. If we ignore the Word, we have nothing to bring to the world."

In a two-page open letter read to the assembly, a group of religious left leaders who formed "The U.S. Committee of the World Council of Churches" denounced the U.S. government, apologized for all its supposed wrongs, and claimed that the United States is pushing the world toward environmental catastrophe.

The letter claimed that the United States responded to 9/11 "by seeking to reclaim a privileged and secure place in the world, raining down terror on the truly vulnerable among our global neighbors. . . . Nations have been demonized, and God has been enlisted in national agendas that are nothing short of idolatrous." United Church of Christ head John Thomas and National Council of Churches (NCC) president Michael Livingston led a press conference for the group.

The letter was similar to recent missives that NCC head Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman and Methodist minister, has fired at the Bush administration. Orthodox leader Leonid Kishkovsky, moderator of the U.S. group, said the letter was endorsed by denominational leaders but not cleared by the churches. He predicted there would be discontent in congregations over the tone of the message.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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