WCC: Overcoming Institutionalism

WCC opens discussion on a new configuration of the ecumenical movement for the 21st century
Aug 11, 2003 06:11 PM EDT

The core vision of ecumenism remains, but ecumenical structures need to be reassessed in order to reflect changing times.

This perception has led the general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, to call for a consultation on "reconfiguring the ecumenical movement" - to take place 17-20 November, 2003 in Antelias, Lebanon. The consultation will be hosted by the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In his letter of invitation to around 25 people, Raiser notes that the very breadth of ecumenical organizations now existing, the new opportunities to engage with grassroots movements and civil society, and financial realities facing many organizations, point to the need for discussion on new models for ecumenical work at national, regional and global levels.

The consultation objectives are:

* to analyze the main challenges presented by the changing world, and their implications for the configuration of the ecumenical movement;

* to identify the key areas of change and renewal necessary for a reconfiguration;

* to design a process of consultation and study leading to a report on reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement to the Central Committee in 2005, and eventually to the WCC assembly in 2006.

Among those invited to participate in the November consultation are leaders and staff of churches, Christian world communions, regional and national councils of churches, mission bodies, church-related aid agencies and international ecumenical organizations. Each participant will bring individual commitment, knowledge and experience of the ecumenical movement in different contexts and at different levels. Raiser emphasizes that people were selected "not to be representatives of organizations... but with an eye to looking beyond present structures".

In some ways, Raiser notes, the convening of and participation in the meeting echo the 1930's process that eventually led to the founding of the WCC itself, in which key stakeholders in different ecumenical efforts came together to answer the need for greater unity and more effective action at the international level.

A youth consultation immediately prior to the reconfiguration meeting will allow young people - as current ecumenical leaders and as those whose responsibility it is to lead the movement into the future - to contribute their vision and ideas to the discussion.

The need and potential for reconfiguration will also be discussed by key stakeholders before the November consultation, at meetings of:

* the WCC Central and Executive Committees (24 August-2 September)

* the general secretaries of the WCC and regional ecumenical organizations (17-18 September)

* the regional ecumenical organizations and church-related aid agencies (19-20 September)

* the Global Christian Forum continuation committee (18-20 October)

* the Conference of Secretaries of the Christian World Communions (21-24 October).

Why now?

The WCC general secretary sparked off the present discussion about a new configuration of the ecumenical movement during his report to the WCC Central Committee in 2002. "I believe that the time has come," he said, "to review the organizational and structural arrangements in the world-wide ecumenical movement which we have inherited from the generations before us, and to explore a new ecumenical configuration which can respond effectively to the challenges which lie ahead in the 21st century."

Raiser emphasized particularly that what is needed is a common framework for policy-setting and decision-making. Such a framework could reduce duplication of efforts among the various organizations, and increase the coherence of the ecumenical vision and witness. Structures also need to be more open and flexible as the ecumenical organizations address issues of mandates, membership, financial support, governance, and priority-setting, he said.

In his 2002 report, Raiser gave specific reasons why reconfiguration needs to be considered now.

The "success" of ecumenism has meant that many churches have integrated the vision into their own self-understanding. Yet denominationalism - where churches try to sharpen their own institutional profile for reasons of visibility and participation, and for financial support in a competitive civil society - is also increasing, he noted.

The ecumenical vision as articulated from the early days of the movement until today no longer inspires and mobilizes people, and particularly not young people, Raiser said. Another reason is that current structures do not connect with some of the most exciting ecumenical work at the grassroots - like the movement of inter-church families, local ecumenical projects, ecumenical communities, etc.

Yet one of the main reasons why the discussion is necessary now is the complexity of and lack of connection between current ecumenical structures.

In the early days of the ecumenical movement, a number of different ecumenical streams (such as Faith and Order, and the International Missionary Council) became integrated into the WCC. However, over the last several decades, many new ecumenical organizations and structures have been created, often by the WCC itself, to meet specific needs and contexts.

Such initiatives include, among others:

* regional and national councils of churches;

* the Conference of General Secretaries of the Christian World Communions;

* working groups with the Roman Catholic Church and, more recently, with Evangelicals and Pentecostals;

* the Global Christian Forum;

* Action by Churches Together (ACT);

* the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA).

While such organizations are linked, and while several attempts have been made to coordinate their activities, Raiser thinks much more must be done.

In essence, he says, the reconfiguration discussion "must recapture the sense of an ecumenical 'movement'." "The ecumenical movement has outgrown the churches as organized bodies, and has been overcome by institutionalism. Therefore, we need to envisage a new configuration that is more flexible and responsive."

New potential for change

This new debate has its roots in a longstanding concern. The document "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches" (CUV) adopted by the Central Committee in 1997 "was the point of entry, and has been part of our thinking for the last eight years," Raiser notes.

The CUV, along with the progress of the Global Christian Forum, the work of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, and of a WCC membership study group, all show that a new ethos and culture of ecumenical organization is emerging. "This would be an incentive to shape an alternative to the vision of globalization," Raiser suggests.

The WCC is facilitating the discussion on reconfiguration because "it is still the most comprehensive and representative ecumenical organization world-wide", with particular responsibility for the coherence of the ecumenical movement, Raiser notes.

He emphasizes that the discussions beginning now have far more potential to effect change than earlier discussions on coordination. The challenge, he says, is that "all the structures now involved in the ecumenical movement must be open to potentially far-reaching changes, and be willing to open themselves up to new partnerships and ways of working."

Change, too, must be led by the churches themselves, he emphasizes. "We need to capture the original spirit that led to the founding of the WCC...Then, there was an understanding that, if churches joined the World Council of Churches, they were open to change. This openness is the spirit we must recapture."