In opening addresses to the World Council of Churches (WCC) central committee Feb. 16, top leaders of the world’s largest ecumenical body seized on the imporatnce of Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17.
“’That they all may be one’ is the rationale behind, beside and before everything we do as the WCC,” said Olav Fykse Tveit, the WCC’s general secretary since September 2009. “We have all received the same call – the call to be one comes from Jesus Christ. It comes from one another as churches, and it comes from the whole of humanity who needs to see the churches giving joint witness about Jesus Christ to bring peace and reconciliation that Christ brought to the world.”
The WCC, which has been in the forefront of numerous political and social movements during its 60+ year history is not about to abandon its commitment to justice and peace, said Walter Altmann, a Brazilian Luthern who is moderator of the central committee.
But with the central committee poised to choose between two proposed themes -- “God of life, lead us to justice and peace” and “In God’s world, called to be one” -- for its 10th Assembly in October 2013 in Busan, South Korea, Altmann argued for the adoption of both.
“The proposed themes should not be seen as basically alternatives,” Altmann said in his address to the 150-member central committee, meeting 16-22 February here. “Each of these two perspectives is part of the one overall understanding of the ecumenical calling and commitment that unites our fellowship.”
The focus on justice and peace is necessary, said Altmann, because events such as the global financial meltdown and recently successful democracy movements in Arab countries “bring to our attention the risks of policies that affront human dignity and oppress whole populations.”
That’s why, Altmann said, “the eradication of poverty, the campaign against hunger and commitment to justice in international economic relations must remain on the WCC’s programme agenda.”
He called for the WCC to “place even more intensively on its agenda our concern for the Middle East, especially also for the Holy Land.” He expressed particular concern for the Christian minorities in many Middle East countries, noting that the WCC’s efforts “contribute to creating and maintaining an atmosphere of mutual respect and recognition on which peace with justice can be built.”
Tveit sounded the same note in his address a short time later. “We are focusing on what it means to be one through the perspective of ‘just peace,’ as we are preparing for the ecumenical peace convocation in Jamaica in May.”
That event marks the culmination of the WCC’s “Decade to Overcome Violence.”
“We are called to be one so that the world may believe,” Tveit said, “that peace is possible.”
Tveit also extensively addressed the Middle East, signalling that the region will be high on the WCC’s agenda. Noting that the WCC has always supported “the internationally legal status of the state of Israel as defined by the United Nations Security Council,” Tveit pressed for an open Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem is a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims,” he said. “The three religions should share this citz and have equal free access to the holy sites within it. The faithful of all three religions need to find wazs of living together in justice and peace so that the cradles of our religions can be signs of hope for the whole of humanity.”
Peace is no less important within the ecumenical movement, Altmann said. Because Christian unity “is a reality in the heart of God,” Altmann said, the task of the churches is “to persevere in that unity, not to depart from it, not to rebel against God and not to break off relations with one another.”
And because unity is not “the result of establishing institutional structures,” Altmann called for a “broadening and deepening” of the ecumenism that recognizes that “there is only one ecumenical movement, of which the WCC is a part.”
Such efforts, he concluded, “require open minds, prayerful attitudes and rigorous theological work.”
Tveit intimated that he, too, supports the dual themes for the next assembly. “The WCC in one way or another must know and focus on how, in everything we do, to respond to the call to be one in our role to bring reconciliation and peace into all contexts.
“I understand that the WCC can have a role far beyond our fellowship of member churches by being ‘the including other’ and not ‘the excluding other.’”