So what does the World Council of Churches do?

Text and photos by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren

A few weeks ago I was telling some friends about the prospect of attending the World Council of Churches Assembly, the WCC’s 11th, in the city of Karlsruhe, Germany. I’d be participating as an observer and reporter accompanying the Church of the Brethren delegation, I said.

The World Council of Churches Assembly is one of the–if not the–most diverse gathering of Christians, bringing together people from every continent, from more than 300 member denominations representing a wide variety of Christian traditions, plus interfaith and other observers.

“So, what does the World Council of Churches do?” asked one of my friends—not in an antagonistic way, but with implicit wondering in the question: What is the WCC for? Why have such an organization? Why should the Church of the Brethren participate?

On the assembly’s opening day, I quickly realized I was hearing a variety of answers to the question—and I was seeing it proclaimed in full color in the assembly theme and logo: “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.”

That day, each of the major speakers, in one way or another, added their own take on the need for, and the usefulness of a worldwide ecumenical body:

“It is our hope that this assembly will empower the churches to strengthen their reconciliation and unity,” said Christian Krieger, president of the Council of European Churches, adding the hope that the assembly will be “a life-transforming event for the global churches.” He said, “The assembly theme is at the heart of our mission…. We are moved by the love of Christ that embraces the world, the whole world.”

“We may have differences among ourselves, but we have a common confession,” said WCC acting general secretary Ioan Sauca. “The whole world is present in the WCC.”

In his general secretary’s report to the assembly, he added: “According to the scriptures, the purpose of God in Christ is for the unity of all…. [This is] the very identity of our faith.”

“Relationship, relationship, relationship—that is most fundamental to what we do in the WCC and the ecumenical movement,” said Mary Ann Swenson, a bishop and a vice moderator of the WCC Central Committee. “We recognize the neighbor in the stranger.”

WCC acting general secretary Ioan Sauca
Agnes Abuom, moderator of the WCC Central Committee, giving her report to the assembly’s delegate body.

“We are gathered because we are disciples of Jesus Christ,” said Agnes Abuom, moderator of the WCC Central Committee, in her moderator’s report. “We believe his compassion for those on the margins must be lived out and proclaimed…. It is the situation of those who are marginalized… [that] points to the need for justice, reconciliation, and unity.”

She added, later in her report: “The assembly is a spiritual celebration of the power of God’s love…. It does make sense to speak of love” in a time like this, she said, which is marked by suffering and fear brought on by so many factors including the pandemic, climate change, the war in Ukraine, and so much more.

“In Christ’s love we are free. We must be bold and prophetic…. To proclaim Christ’s love…is our call and our mission in this world.”

In a mark of honor to the assembly, Germany’s Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a state visit and brought a speech of welcome and of challenge. Speaking as a political leader but also as a Christian and active church member, he remarked on the symbols in the assembly logo as he called for international church action on a number of fronts.

He commented on the dove, a symbol of peace, of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and—in the story of Noah—of discernment of environmental disaster. “Today it [the dove] is a sign of warning, to do everything possible to avoid the man-made catastrophe that climate change will carry out.”

Christians are no longer the majority of the German population, noted another politician, Minister President Winfriend Krestchmann, serving Baden-Wurttemburg. If Christians want to continue to have a positive influence on society, it will only be possible through the ecumenical movement, he said. And each type of Christian group brings different gifts, together we are the sum of all of our parts.

During the opening prayer service, Ann Jacobs who pastors a United Methodist Church in Washington State, told stories of her congregation’s work with Afghan refugees, and how extending Jesus’ love helps bring reconciliation and peace. One of the key events with that refugee family has been sharing meals together.

“When we break bread together,” she said, “we transform the world…. May our love be a balm healing wounds and tending places of hurt. May our love be radical…and may our love offer Christ to one another.”

Germany’s Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier addresses the assembly.

By the numbers (as of the first morning of the assembly):

352 member church denominations, or “communions,” of which 295 were represented by delegates, advisors, and/or observers

425 delegates from 202 member communions

277 representatives and observers from ecumenical and interfaith partners, and other guests

1,484 international participants

137 theological students and faculty

150 or so young adult “stewards” from around the world, who are serving as volunteer assistants

974 host committee members, volunteers, staff, interpreters, and others who make the assembly happen


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