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#WCC70: Fellowship of women and men – with ups and downs

#WCC70: Fellowship of women and men – with ups and downs

"I have made a handprint, a sacred one, for I am imago Dei, an image bearer of the Divine". Mural created during the Ecumenical Decade Festival in Harare, preceding the 1998 Assembly. Photo: Chris Black/WCC

17 August 2018

In 2018 we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches. In order to create a lively firsthand account of the ecumenical fellowship and of our shared journey, member churches have contributed stories of people, events, achievements and even failures, all of which have deepened our collective search for Christian unity.

This story was written by Rev. Dr Margot Käßmann, Lutheran theologian and former chairperson of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). She was a member of the WCC Central and Executive Committees for many years, until her resignation in 2002.

I have experienced many good stories with the WCC, but unfortunately disappointing ones as well. But what would a story be without ups and downs?

The 1998 WCC Assembly in Harare marked the end of the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women. It came into being in the wake of the International Women’s Decade proclaimed by the United Nations. Bärbel Wartenberg-Potter reported convincingly to the Central Committee in 1985 in Buenos Aires, and it was decided that in 1988, the churches of the world would take up the theme.

There were many encouraging developments. Delegations were sent as “living letters”, with two women and two men each, to member churches to enquire about the role of women. There were many distressing discoveries, such as the often unclear attitude towards violence against women. However, the many visits emboldened women in churches to speak out openly rather than remaining silent.

Margot Käßmann at 1999 WCC Central Committee meeting. Photo: Peter Williams/WCC

Margot Käßmann at 1999 WCC
Central Committee meeting.
Photo: Peter Williams/WCC

At the time, many Central Committee members and WCC staff members thought that at the end of the decade, there had to be a visible signal for the community of women and men in the church.

A woman general secretary was still unthinkable. One unwritten requirement was that the officeholder had to be ordained or a cleric. Given that women were rejected for the ministry in many member churches, that was not an option. However, we were convinced that the election of a woman to chair the Central Committee could send a signal that the churches of the world took the Decade seriously.

Dr Janice Love, a political scientist from the Methodist Church (USA), had been a Central Committee member since 1975 and had also served a term on the Executive Committee. She had a reputation as an excellent moderator capable of counterbalancing very different interests and even emotions. Many were looking forward to a visible sign of the fellowship between women and men in the church.

Then signature lists were circulated. For the sake of peace with the Orthodox Church, it was deemed judicious to elect an Orthodox moderator. And that is what happened. Years later, Agnes Abuom, the first woman, was elected to the post. At the time, however, it simply hurt.


More information about 70 years of the WCC

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