Text and photos by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren
The World Council of Churches (WCC) 11th Assembly, meeting in Karlsruhe, Germany from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8, met under the theme “Christ’s Love Moves the World to Reconciliation and Unity.”
This was the first WCC Assembly in Europe since 1968, when an assembly was hosted in Uppsala, Sweden. The Church of the Brethren has been a member denomination of the WCC since its start in 1948, when the first assembly was held in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. As a founding communion, the Church of the Brethren has sent delegates, observers, staff, and/or communicators to each of the assemblies that are held about every eight years in different parts of the world.
Two Church of the Brethren delegations attended, from the United States and from Nigeria:
Elizabeth Bidgood Enders, pastor of Ridgeway Community Church of the Brethren in Harrisburg, Pa., was the Church of the Brethren delegate from the US, assisted by advisor Nathan Hosler, director of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy in Washington, D.C., and Jeffrey Carter, president of Bethany Theological Seminary who has been serving a term on the WCC Central Committee. Also in the Church of the Brethren delegation was general secretary David Steele. News director Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford accompanied the group.
Joel S. Billi, president of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria, was the delegate from the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, assisted by Anthony Ndamsai, vice president of EYN who served as advisor to the delegation. Also attending from EYN was Koni Ishaya, a theological student who is studying internationally, and has worked for EYN in the area of peacebuilding.
German churches helped host the event and welcomed more than 3,500 people to the city of Karlsruhe, which–led by mayor Frank Mentrup–extended a generous welcome. In addition to prayer services, business sessions, Bible studies, small group meetings, and more, the local community and congregations helped organize 70 weekend excursions across Germany and into France and Switzerland for participants who were not in the writing committees that met over the weekend. More than 200 cultural and information events took place in the host city itself, including a special light show at the Karlsruhe palace.
The assembly approved four public statements and four “minutes” on pressing issues facing the world and the global Christian community. An assembly message and a unity statement were among traditional actions that are taken by each of the WCC’s assemblies. Also adopted, among other business, was recommendations to guide WCC program priorities for the years until the next assembly.
Moderator Agnes Abuom led the business sessions as moderator of the WCC Central Committee, assisted by vice moderators and acting general secretary Ioan Sauca. From the Anglican Church of Kenya, Abuom was the first woman and the first African ever to serve as assembly moderator.
Business items came to the floor from a variety of committees made up of delegates, which carried out their work onsite, as well as the Central Committee, Nominating Committee, and other groups.
“The Things that Make for Peace; Moving the World to Reconciliation and Unity”
This statement calls for a renewed commitment to peace, following on the life and work of the WCC since the 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea, was framed as a “Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace: drawing on the “Ecumenical Call to Just Peace” and the Busan Assembly’s “Statement on the Way of Just Peace.”
Recognizing the need for “renewed dialogue within the ecumenical movement,” the statement strongly affirms “the commitment of the WCC and its member churches to peace making through inter-religious dialogue and cooperation at all levels,” and calls for a global ceasefire, among other actions and commitments.
The statement urges all states that have not already done so to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, expresses strong support for a global pre-emptive ban on autonomous weapons systems (“Killer Robots” and drones), denounces the military industrial complex that profits from the economics of war and violence and the proliferation and export of weapons, and recognizes the right of conscientious objection. The latter insertion into the paper came about as a result of a comment by a peace church representative, made from the floor.
It acknowledges the crises of this time, saying, in part: “We meet in a time of renewed and escalating global polarization, reconfiguration of governance and geopolitical alignments, division, confrontation, and militarization–as well as of continuing military occupations in situations such as the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Cyprus–with all the appalling risks that attend this context…. Grave concerns are being raised in the ecumenical fellowship about the instrumentalization of religious language, authority, and leadership to justify, support or “bless” armed aggression or any kind of violence and oppression, in sharp contrast to the Christian calling to be peacemakers and contradicting core ecumenical principles.
“We understand that making peace involves addressing racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, hate speech and other forms of hatred of the other (all of which have increased and intensified during these years, in large part encouraged by populist nationalist movements); crisis and competition for essential resources for life; economic injustice and inequality in the marketplace; interstate conflicts and re-emergence of war; and the raising of the specter of nuclear war. These threats to peace fundamentally violate the core tenets of the Christian faith.”
“Living Planet: Seeking a Just and Sustainable Global Community”
This statement raises urgent concerns and demand for climate action by the WCC and the world’s churches. “Together we believe…the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” the statement begins. “Human beings, created in God’s own image, are called to serve as faithful and responsible caretakers of God’s precious unique creation, of which we are at the same time an inherent part and inextricably dependent on the health of the whole natural world. A narrow anthropocentric understanding of our relationship with Creation must be revised to a whole of life understanding, to achieve a sustainable global ecosystem. We are all interdependent in God’s whole creation. As Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity, we are called to metanoia and a renewed and just relationship with Creation, that expresses itself in our practical life. We are running out of time for this metanoia to take place.”
Actions called for include repentance “from our continuing human selfishness, greed, denial of facts and apathy, which threatens the life of all creation,” along with “deep solidarity and a quest for justice for those who have contributed to this emergency the least, yet suffer the most, physically, existentially, and ecologically,” and “a reimagining and deconstructing of the prevailing worldview and theology.”
The document includes a list of action steps for churches, and a list of commitments for the WCC and for churches to make. It recommends that the WCC establish a new commission to address the climate emergency and related economic injustice, that the WCC declare an Ecumenical Decade of repentance and action for a just and flourishing planet, that the WCC reduce its institutional carbon footprint to net-zero by 2030, and as part of that strict limitations on travel for WCC purposes be established.
“War in Ukraine, Peace and Justice in the European Region”
Church of the Brethren delegate Elizabeth Bidgood Enders served on the writing team for this paper, after being nominated the Public Issues Committee by the peace churches. She helped present the paper in the business session, as the person who read the text to the delegate body.
A first section addresses the war in Ukraine. The statement strongly affirms that war is incompatible with God’s very nature. It expresses care for the people of Ukraine, saying, in part: “The thoughts and prayers of all participants in the 11th Assembly of the WCC are focused on the people and country of Ukraine, and the tragic consequences they have and are suffering since the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022, in addition to the thousands of casualties including many civilians in the East of the country and hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people since 2014.”
It appeals “to all sides in the conflict to respect the principles of international humanitarian law…especially with regard to the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, and for the humane treatment of prisoners of war,” and in addition urges care for nuclear power plants and other sensitive areas. “We urge all parties to withdraw and refrain from military action in the vicinity of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and other such locations that may risk unimaginable threats to current and future generations.”
Although ecumenical representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is a member communion of the WCC, spoke against portions of the statement from the floor, and representatives of Ukrainian churches that are applying to become members of the WCC spoke for stronger action against Russia, the paper was adopted. It acknowledges the presence of church representatives from both sides of the conflict, noting that their participation in the assembly was a practical opportunity for dialogue. “We commit ourselves to an intensified dialogue on the issues that divide us–a core purpose of the WCC,” the paper says.
A second section of the paper addresses migration, xenophobia, and racism–situations that have been intensified across Europe by the war in Ukraine.
“Seeking Justice and Peace for All in the Middle East”
The assembly heard increasingly desperate pleas of heads of churches in the Holy Land–Israel and Palestine–and other areas of the Middle East, concerning the existential threats to the Christian community.
The paper acknowledges “upheavals, violent extremism using religion as justification, ongoing military occupations, discrimination and systematic violations of human rights, economic crises and corruption, absence of the rule of law, and other factors have contributed to an existential crisis for all in the region. This is particularly affecting vulnerable communities, including Christians who are facing displacement and mass migration.”
The paper affirms both “the rightful place of Israel in the community of nations, recognizing its legitimate security needs” and also “the right of the Palestinians for self-determination and that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967, as well as settlement construction and expansion in the occupied territories, is illegal under international law and must be ended.”
A paragraph notes the lack of consensus in the assembly about “describing the policies and actions of Israel as amounting to ‘apartheid’ under international law,” and states, “We must continue to struggle with this issue, while we continue working together on this journey of justice and peace. We pray that the WCC continues to provide a safe space for its member churches for conversation and collaboration in pursuing truth, and working for a just peace among all people of the region.”
The assembly also released four “minutes” or brief papers proposed by the Public Issues Committee:
“Minute on Ending the War and Building Peace on the Korean Peninsula,” see www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/minute-on-ending-the-war-and-building-peace-on-the-korean-peninsula.
“Minute on the Situation in West Papua,” see www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/minute-on-the-situation-in-west-papua.
“Minute on Consequences of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War,” see www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/minute-on-consequences-of-the-2020-nagorno-karabakh-war.
“Minute on Syriac-Aramaic Genocide ‘SAYFO,’” see www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/minute-on-syriac-aramaic-genocide-sayfo.
“A Call to Act Together” was adopted as the message of the 11th Assembly, intended to be shared with and used by member denominations and their congregations to increase participation in ecumenism. “We will find a strength to act from a unity founded in Christ’s love, for it enables us to learn the things that make for peace, to transform division into reconciliation, and to work for the healing of our living planet,” the statement says, in part.
Sections titled “Come, Follow Me!” and “Go into the Whole World” are inspired by the common Christian call to discipleship and to follow Jesus in sharing the Good News. A section titled “Our Journey Together” includes this prayer:
“Hearing the word of God together, we recognize our common calling;
Listening and talking together, we become closer neighbors;
Lamenting together, we open ourselves to each other’s pain and suffering;
Working together, we consent to common action;
Celebrating together, we delight in each other’s joys and hopes;
Praying together, we discover the richness of our traditions and the pain of our divisions.”
The assembly’s unity statement addresses the distinctive call to Christian love in today’s 21st century world, the latest in a series of such statements from the WCC assemblies over the decades.
It calls on the concept of “an ecumenism of the heart,” saying, in part: “The quest for a true unity is always founded in love: the love of God revealed in Christ and lived in the Holy Spirit, a love that moves us, and moves the world, to reconciliation and unity. In these times, the vision of unity sometimes seems less clear than we would hope for and more difficult to pursue, but the call to unity is still urgent and compelling. The true goal of Jesus Christ, and with him all Christians, is to reach a visible fellowship, one in holy unity….
“Can we open our hearts so that Christ’s love may move us in ways that breathe new life into the search for full visible communion? And is this note of love, heard for the first time in this way at an assembly, one that will sound clearly also in the world?”
Read the full text at www.oikoumene.org/resources/documents/unity-statement-of-the-wcc-11th-assembly.
Election of new leadership
The assembly elected a new 150-member Central Committee, out of which the Executive Committee, moderator, and vice moderators were chosen.
Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria, Germany, will serve as moderator through the next assembly.
One of two new vice moderators is Archbishop Vicken Aykazian of the Armenian Apostolic Church, who has been a speaker at the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference during commemorations of the Armenian Genocide, remembering the historic Brethren aid to the Armenian people.
Chosen to serve on the Executive Committee is one of the Historic Peace Church delegates, who has been a key leader in the effort to bring a peace church voice and witness into the WCC: Fernando Enns of the Association of Mennonite Congregations in Germany.
Elected as North America president was Angelique Walker-Smith, one of eight presidents representing various regions of the globe. She is national senior associate for Pan African and Orthodox Church Engagement at Bread for the World, and the ecumenical representative for the National Baptist Convention USA.
Find an online album of photos from the assembly at www.brethren.org/photos/world-council-of-churches-assembly-2022.
Find recordings of the live streams from the assembly at www.oikoumene.org/assembly/assembly-live.
Find the assembly homepage at www.oikoumene.org/about-the-wcc/organizational-structure/assembly.
Find more Church of the Brethren news:
- CDS helps care for children and families among asylum seekers in Chicago area
- Church of the Brethren general secretary signs letter from Christian leaders to President Biden
- ‘Prayer Vigil: Ceasefire Now!’ will pray for peace in Israel and Palestine
- Next online meeting of Standing with People of Color process is Nov. 18
- Standing Committee of Annual Conference to hold online meetings open to the public