Struggling About Fairness

BY BILL KNOTT                                                                                                                            Back to WCC Menu

ny organization as broad and diverse as the World Council of Churches is certain to reveal the stresses and tensions of human politics, even when it proceeds with the lofty goal of being the “undivided body of Christ in service to the world.”

A day that began with a colorful and vibrant interfaith worship experience highlighting Jesus’ counsel that “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,” ended Monday evening with a litany of complaints from women, laypersons, member churches, and young adults that they were being unfairly excluded from the WCC’s leadership council. Many of the 100 youth delegates carried their protest to the floor of the plenary session, where with symbolic handcuffs and gags they demonstrated against the organization’s reversal of the promise that they would be guaranteed 25 percent of the members on the central governing committee of the WCC.

More than 700 delegates representing 348 churches are attending the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches here in Porto Alegré, Brazil, drawn from Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, and Coptic churches worldwide. Another 105 observers from 21 other faiths--including the Seventh-day Adventist Church--have come to witness the WCC gathering, held every seven years. Though attendance varies from event to event, nearly 4,000 persons--delegates, observers, media personnel, youth attendees, and guests--have participated in key moments of the 10-day event.

Rev. Samuel Kobia (pictured right), general secretary of the WCC, celebrated the increased presence of young adults in this Assembly in his opening address, noting that 41 percent of those participating in Assembly events were under the age of 30, and that 100 of the 704 delegates were young adults. According to Kobia, the WCC 9th Assembly is the “youngest assembly in the history of the WCC.” Unless young people are seriously included in all levels of the organization, he urged, the “ecumenical family is incomplete.”

Kobia reminded the Assembly in his keynote speech that the Nominations Committee had been instructed to fill the 150 seats of the Central Committee with 50 percent women, 25 percent youth and young adults, and 50 percent laypersons, even though attendance by these groups lagged below those numbers at this Assembly.

Thus on Monday when the Nominations Committee, which had acknowledged the mandate to gender, youth, and lay inclusion in its first report, laid out its plan to present a slate with only 41 percent women, 15 percent youth, and 35 percent laypersons, the criticisms from the floor were loud and sharp, culminating in the demonstration by the youth delegates.

According to one young adult “steward,” charged with helping to coordinate the participation of youth in the Assembly, the promise of 25 percent of the seats on the Central Committee had raised expectations and hopes that were now being dashed. He reported that the disillusionment of young delegates was widespread.

Other Monday highlights included a speech by Archbishop (Emeritus) Desmond Tutu (left) of South Africa, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to the racial system of apartheid that ruled his country from the 1940s to the 1990s. Alternately humorous and serious in his 20-minute presentation, Tutu thanked the member churches of the WCC for their active support in the struggle against apartheid, and called them to continue to oppose dehumanizing political and economic systems that oppress people groups.

Dr. J. Noberto Saracco, an evangelical minister from Argentina, spoke at a Monday plenary session about the tensions that have existed between evangelicals and Catholics--and evangelicals and the WCC member churches--in Latin America. Candidly addressing the failure of most efforts to promote interfaith unity through theological agreements and alliances between institutions, Saracco urged an “ecumenism of the future,” in which mutual respect, appreciation for diversity, and Spirit-inspired fellowship create whatever unity may be possible.

Bill Knott is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.

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