KNOTT: Were Adventists welcomed at the Assembly of the World Council of Churches?
GRAZ: Adventists attending this very important Assembly were well accepted, even though our church is not a member of the World Council of Churches [WCC]. We were treated well--like all the observers from other nonmember faiths. Nobody attacked either me or my church, nor did anyone say something negative about us. We had good talks with delegates and participants, and overall, I think it was a very useful meeting for us. Of course the contacts with Baptists, Pentecostals, and other Protestants were easier than with some member churches who see us as proselytizing in areas they consider historically their territory.
What impressed you most about the Assembly?
The WCC’s strong opposition to poverty, discrimination, and racism, and its openness toward others. The organization lives out its commitment to having a fair representation of young people, women, and lay members in all its committees and commissions. It’s also a special moment when you get to be among almost 5,000 Christians representing more than 300 churches who are working together, praying together, without apparent discrimination. That makes the Assembly a unique event. In some ways it is like a United Nations session for Christianity. The majority of the participants came from Africa, Europe, Latin America, Euro-Asia, and Asia. North Americans were a distinct minority. The Assembly was well organized and the working sessions very well managed. And for the first time in my life, at a large international meeting, I heard the chairperson encouraging delegates not to try to speak English if English was not their mother tongue! Five languages were used regularly, allowing the large majority of delegates the chance to be part of the discussion.
What did you find problematic at the Assembly?
In spite of being very open to many viewpoints, the Assembly expressed its strong ideological bias on some issues. If I were to summarize that bias, I would say that “neoliberalism is the equivalent of the sin against the Holy Spirit,” and “The U.S.A. is the beast of Revelation.” A more balanced approach would certainly give the WCC greater credibility when it deals with politics and economic issues. I would have also expected more interest in religious freedom. Some delegates came from countries where Christians are persecuted: they deserved strong support from their counterparts living in democratic countries where religious freedom is understood as a basic human right. I noted that while President Lula of Brazil and the archbishop of Canterbury were applauded for speaking against social injustice, there was no special enthusiasm when they talked about religious freedom. To be fair, however, religious freedom wasn’t mentioned very often during the recent General Conference session in St. Louis. We can’t really say that the absence of mention means that people are indifferent to their persecuted brothers and sisters.
The role of Orthodox Christians in the WCC has been a sore point in recent years. How is the relationship between the WCC and the Orthodox?
A commission between the Orthodox and the WCC had been working for some years to deal with complaints from the Orthodox. There are still some disagreements and tensions, but I think the Orthodox will not leave the WCC, as was at one time contemplated. The differences between member churches, however, are not minor. I would guess that the main complaint of the Orthodox is that they are not adequately well represented on the WCC’s Central Committee. Orthodox Christians make up between 45 and 50 percent of the aggregate membership of WCC churches, but had only 25 percent of the seats on the Central Committee, which is something like our GC Executive Committee. The new configuration will give them only slightly more--26 percent. But membership is not the only factor; financial contribution is another aspect that has to be assessed. Perhaps the most important change the Orthodox achieved was a fundamental change in the decision-making process. For the first time, a major international religious organization has chosen to make its key decisions on the basis of consensus, not majority rule.
This must have seemed like a revolutionary innovation, after decades of operating on a parliamentary system.
It really was. It is a major concession from the Protestants on the WCC. It means that a proposal cannot be passed if it does not get at least 80 percent support. To block an action, you must have at least 25 percent opposed. If after discussion and explanation there is still disagreement, a majority vote will prevail. This rule change will give the Orthodox--who now make up more than 25 percent--the chance to block any decision or statement if they disagree. With this process in place, an action in favor of same-sex marriage, for instance, or gay priesthood has no chance of succeeding. Will the official voice of the WCC become more conservative as a result? On moral issues, undoubtedly. On the other hand, statements in favor of religious freedom will have more difficulty passing. The WCC’s historic openness to Protestant minorities--such as Seventh-day Adventists--may change. Does this signal the end of the progressive and liberal WCC? We will see!
In that respect, at least for moral issues, Adventists might find themselves more at home with the positions the WCC will take in the future?
On moral and social issues, probably so. On issues such as religious freedom, evangelism, the so-called “visible unity of the Christian church,” Adventists will find the new process challenging.
Is the visible unity of all Christians still a driving purpose of the WCC?
Of course! But as the president of the WCC said, it is a dream and a journey. And I would add, a long journey, if one thinks in terms of one visible church. As a Catholic cardinal said to me: “Significant progress has been achieved. When I was a young boy, attending a religious service in a Protestant church would have been impossible to imagine.” The ecumenical movement and the WCC have played an important role in encouraging dialogues and understanding between Christians and promoting respect for religious minorities. But in terms of theological and ecclesiological unity, the results are not so spectacular. WCC members are still divided about recognizing the validity of each other’s baptismal rites, and about celebrating the Eucharist, or Communion. After more than 50 years of meetings and commissions, Communion is still celebrated in different places at the Assembly for different churches. Some church leaders believe that building visible unity is an unachievable dream, and that the WCC should focus on being an open space or forum for all Christians and churches, accepting the fact they are and will remain different.
Is the WCC a friend of Adventists?
I don’t know if the WCC as an institution can be described as a friend of Adventists. It has not been an enemy, for sure. Some leaders of member churches have acted as our friends, but others have attacked us in the media and on TV, accusing us of being a dangerous sect and proselytizing. In Egypt a prominent Christian leader attacked us, claiming that Adventists are pro-Israel and an American fundamentalist group. That was a dangerous thing to say in a country where religious extremists kill for less. It would be naive to think we have only friends in the WCC. On the Adventist side, though, we also have people who believe the WCC is only a Babylonian organization.
I appreciate the fact that the WCC invited us as observers and welcomed us. I also appreciate the times when WCC leaders have helped us when we had problems with civil authorities, and have defended religious freedom and justice. As long as the WCC continues to invite us as observers, we will go. The Adventist Church has no plan to become a member of the WCC. But neither do we want to miss this great opportunity to meet children of God from other families to share our common beliefs and to highlight our hope in Jesus’ return.