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Moderator's report

06 September 2006

FRATERNAL SHARING IN A FELLOWSHIP OF FAITH 

1. As a central committee we are at the beginning of a journey which will be, I hope and trust, a common journey of gratitude for God's marvellous gift of unity. This common journey arises from a beautiful, though difficult, ecumenical commitment which has brought us together, in spite of the many differences that exist among us. Perhaps this beauty is to some extent there, not despite our differences, but rather because of the mutual enrichment we derive from them.  

2. This first report of the moderator will have more of a testimonial character than the tenor of an analysis of the world we live in. It will make references to my own context, but it will not attempt to draw a comprehensive picture of the ecumenical scenery. Yet I do hope to raise paradigmatically one or more key issues the ecumenical movement, and therefore the WCC itself, confronts today. Leo Tolstoy once wrote (I'm quoting from memory) that if you are capable of knowing your own village well, you are capable of becoming a citizen of the world. One of the great authors from the country I come from, João Guimarães Rosa, wrote something similar when, in his masterpiece "Grande Sertão: Veredas", he resumed the existentialist analysis of a lonely inhabitant of remote spaces with the sentence "o sertão é o mundo" ("the hinterland is the world"). These two authors, one from Russia and the other from Brazil, have much to teach with their similar insights. They come from very dissimilar contexts and tell quite different stories - yet, they have the same perception of our existence in the world. 

3. This report is intended to be a sharing of faith and hope, in the expectation that you yourselves will join me in such sharing in the dialogue that will follow. For the very first task we have to perform does not consist in debating and adopting a new programme for the WCC, although the greatest part of our agenda and time will be devoted precisely to trying to cope with the challenge of establishing a programme faithful to the decisions of the assembly, responsible in its stewardship of the resources available while getting accustomed to the fact that they are not as abundant as we might wish, and strengthening the witness and service (martyria and koinonia) of our churches.  

4. Our primary and fundamental task will consist in re-establishing between ourselves the deep bonds of fellowship that characterized the gathering we experienced during the assembly in Porto Alegre, in worship and Bible study, in ecumenical conversations and dialogue at the mutirão, and yes, also in our assembly committees and plenary sessions. At our very first meeting as the central committee, in Porto Alegre, right after the closure of the assembly, we actually did not have the time for this exercise of fraternal sharing, and perhaps we were not in the mood to do so, either, under the heavy weight of the important decisions we then had to take in the course of one evening session. However, we owe it to ourselves and to the churches we represent to live out as a central committee the fellowship that the Holy Spirit is constantly willing to concede us and foster among us.   

Recalling the 9th Assembly 

5. I speak now from the perspective of the host churches. The preparation of the 9th assembly of the WCC was a work of many hands. It was also a unique opportunity for our congregations in Brazil to serve as a protagonist of the ecumenical movement in a wider sense. They responded well to the call for solidarity with the WCC in several areas of preparation of the assembly. The preparation itself was truly an ecumenical "mutirão" -that Portuguese word you know all too well by now- hundreds of people offered time and strength to show how Latin American and Brazilian churches were committed to build with the WCC the appropriate space for the ecumenical movement to meet, pray and discuss its own future.  

6. During the months of preparation, a question we asked ourselves was how we could be supportive in interacting with our guests and yet also be protagonists in the process of reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement. Could what we had been experiencing in our own context be helpful to brothers and sisters living in different contexts? The main motivation given to encourage people to join the work was that every one of them, in his or her own context would have something to contribute to this global endeavour. That sort of contribution is also what we wished to offer from the experience of our churches. Each of our confessions and expressions of faith cherish vital elements that are present in various forms in the other partner churches that are gathered in the fellowship of the WCC. The common prayer and the lively music at the assembly, in their beautiful variety, serve as a symbol of these riches. We tried to convey to people how wonderful it would be for us to experience together diverse forms of celebration from so many churches and different confessional families; we longed to share, as well, our way of expressing the one faith we have in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. After the assembly, people involved in organizing the event described their participation as an experience of great spiritual fellowship, a space for meeting and exchange, an opportunity for dialogue with the whole ecumenical family. 

7. In a sense the assembly did not end for us on February 23. The ecumenical choir, for example, has met for church events since then. A few weeks ago, at the beginning of this month, the National Council of Christian Churches in Brazil (CONIC) promoted a seminar to discuss and evaluate the ecclesiological consequences of the 9th Assembly of the WCC for the churches in our country. The seminar took place in Guarulhos, São Paulo, under the theme "God, in your grace, transform our country". You can perceive the undertone: a reference to the deep corruption scandals that have come to the surface of the political landscape lately in Brazil. But we also talked about relations among our churches, the religious scenery in Brazil, the necessity and possibilities for inter-religious dialogue and cooperation, and the practical implications of the assembly's document Called to be the one Church. It was an inspiring event, but it did not consist entirely of grounds for rejoicing. On the contrary, we also experienced great pain, since we met under the heavy shadow of the decision taken by the Convention of the Brazilian Methodist Church in July to withdraw from "organizations with the presence of the Roman Catholic Church and non-Christian groups", thus dropping its membership from CONIC. (This grave decision seems to me to be symbolic of the difficulties faced by the ecumenical movement today, not only in Brazil. But I'll come back to that later. ) At the same time, I express my joy at the fact that the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil, fraternally present at the assembly in Porto Alegre, has applied for membership in the WCC, a matter which will be taken up at this central committee meeting. 

8. In this context, we reminded and recommitted ourselves at the CONIC seminar to the vision of fellowship as expressed in the words of the Canberra Statement, confirmed in Porto Alegre: "Our churches have affirmed that the unity for which we pray, hope and work is a ‘koinonia' given and expressed in the common confession of the apostolic faith; a common sacramental life entered by the one baptism and celebrated together in one eucharistic fellowship; a common life in which members and ministries are mutually recognized and reconciled; and a common mission witnessing to the gospel of God's grace to all people and serving the whole of creation." (Called to be the One Church). 

"An accounting for the hope that is in us" 

9. Let me place this report in the context of the biblical motto: "In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you." (1 Peter 3:15, NRSV) Our task is to give an accounting for the hope that is in us, as the apostle says, and for this task we are called always to be ready. Thus, we meet as a fellowship of hope. I am sure we are keenly aware of the responsibilities we have taken upon ourselves in accepting nomination and then being elected to the central committee. We see it as part of a calling from God, to which we aim to respond and, with God's help, to correspond. We have services to render on behalf of our churches. Each one of us probably also has plans and, beyond our plans, dreams of a WCC that is truly a privileged instrument of the wider ecumenical movement. Each one of us responds to a calling as members of the people of God, members elected by our churches at a worldwide ecumenical assembly.  

10. We certainly do all this with the assurance of Jesus' promise to his disciples: "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:20) I repeat: We constitute a fellowship of hope. When speaking about hope, in one sense we refer to it as a natural gift, a universal feature of all humankind. In fact, our lives and the history of humankind are driven by hope. The hope that moves us may be a set of expectations we have and nurture in regard to the future. Parents hope their children will grow well physically and spiritually into maturity, will succeed as persons and as professionals, will treasure values at least similar to their own. Peoples and nations expect better conditions for the lives of their citizens and deeper fraternal relations among them. How dry and cold are the proposals and projects of political parties, for example, when they cannot convey to the people any hope, they don't share any dreams and have no vision of a more humane future! Humanity longs for peace, justice and integrity of creation, to use the name of one of the historically most significant programmatic areas of the WCC.  

11. And yet our hope is permanently challenged by a tremendous array of forces and events that intend to destroy it, apparently unmasking the best hopes as naïve and unrealistic expectations. Our hopes can be categorized by the word "utopia". And we know all too well the possible double-meaning of the word utopia. On one side, it consists of far more than mere future events which might take place or not, but primarily highlight that inner force which compels us to move on towards a goal we have set or projected. On the other hand, it may also be perceived as an expression of so high a standard that it is found to be totally unrealistic (and even dangerous, because illusionary). It will never be realized. Our historic and daily experiences give ample evidence to the latter failing. Yet humanity cannot live without hope. And so we find ourselves standing in the tension between our motivating vision and, at the same time, the temptation to impose our vision upon others who may have visions and hopes different from ours.  

12. The harsh contrast between these two ways of experiencing and dealing with hope leads us inevitably to the question of the reasons we have for our hope, as the apostle states in 1 Peter. He exhorts us to be ready to give an accounting of the hope we have. Is there an ultimate hope which can prevail vis-à-vis the hard realities of this life?  

13. Let us suspend this question for a while, and consider further the dramatic contrast between our expectations and standards of goodness and the sobering reality of disillusionment and evil in this world. Let us face these matters in relation to our churches and the ecumenical movement. Don't we often feel the necessity of crying out loudly, or within our hearts, at the contradictions in Christian history and in the life of our churches? Mission is intended as witness to God's love incarnate in Jesus Christ and to the power of the Holy Spirit leading people to faith and love. But mission has also been conceived and developed as an instrument of human power leading to or legitimizing crusades, conquest, colonization and oppression. There are so many examples of love being demonstrated to the point of martyrdom, in the giving of one's own life for the other's sake; on the other hand, tragically, there are also so many examples of marginalizing and even excluding others from the life of church. (Let us remember, to cite a few instances, lay people, women, people of disadvantaged ethnic groups, sick persons or those with disabilities, the impoverished, for all of whom so often there has been no dignified place in our churches). Churches have blessed wars, or even waged wars, legitimized slavery and racism, abandoned the poor to their terrible fate.  

14. However, by no means should we limit ourselves to these extremely dramatic and tragic events and processes. The contradictions between "noble ideals" and "harsh realities" may also be found in the best of our endeavours. Allow me to mention one example from the history of the ecumenical movement. We are approaching the 100th anniversary celebration of the Edinburgh Mission Conference. As we know all too well, its vision of a common Christian witness to Christ decisively shaped the ecumenical movement in the 20th century, alongside other similar visions of common action by the churches in the social arena, and of overcoming doctrinal divergences in a process of dialogue, study and mutual understanding. There is no need to recall the many positive achievements in all these areas over the course of these hundred years. In many, many places the relations among the churches have improved considerably, as compared to previous centuries. Nevertheless, are we really closer to the stated goal of visible unity within the Christian family? Cynics could well claim that the so-called "century of the Church" or the "century of ecumenism", as many have named the 20th century, has failed. And we ourselves, who by no means share the perspective of cynicism, do feel the necessity of reflecting about the "reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement", and since Harare we have looked into the future on the basis of a renewed "common vision and understanding" of the ecumenical movement. Finally, in engaging ourselves in a "global forum" we hope to widen the basis for the ecumenical movement and give it a new impetus.  

The challenge of religious pluralism

15. The Moderator's report is not the place for presenting and discussing the programme areas of the WCC. At best, it may draw attention to key issues the ecumenical movement (and the WCC) is facing. Of course, the ecumenical agenda is vast: theology, mission, public voice. We need to continue with perseverance our dialogue on theological subjects, like questions of ecclesiology and ethics. Our understanding and commitment to mission must remain always among our primary concerns. "Integrity of creation" is one of our key words, "peace and justice" another broad area. Questions like the illegitimate debt of countries from the South have a prominent place in the agenda of churches in the Latin American context from which I come. We are certainly concerned and deeply disappointed with the failure of negotiations on international trade in the Doha round of talks, and with the continuation of protectionism and subsidies by wealthy countries in relation to agricultural goods. We are troubled by the fact that the international community is not willing or does not find ways to strengthen the existing multilateral organizations and instruments. We feel anger at the unashamed recourse to violence and war as means of attempting to solve conflicts (or to impose their own order upon others). The suffering of innocent people cries to heaven, as we have witnessed again in the Middle East and elsewhere. Fostering a culture of peace and calling for peaceful resolution of conflicts acquires more and more relevance and urgency.  

16. All these issues - and others besides - could and should be expanded as essential parts of the ecumenical agenda. But I must limit myself here in the interest of time. However, I do wish to single out the question of religious pluralism and to make a few observations. In many parts of the world, the religious scene today is characterized by an intense mobility and growing diversity. Without doubt this is the case in Latin America and the Caribbean. Pluralism and increasing diversity are also to be noted when we look at Christianity itself. For example, over the centuries Latin America was considered to be a homogeneous region, at least in religious terms. Here "homogeneous" meant Roman Catholic. Today, the region is increasingly defined by its religious pluralism. An astounding shift is taking place. In Brazil a comparison between the census of 1991 and the one of 2000, just nine years later, shows that the percentage of Roman Catholics decreased from 83% to 73.5% of the population, while the "evangelicals", a category including members of all Protestant and Pentecostal churches, increased their share from 9% to 15%. Roughly two-thirds of these are Pentecostals or neo-Pentecostals, with extraordinary growth in the last decades and organized in many, many independent churches.  

17. This is the picture within Christianity. At the same time, we observe another process developing more silently but with profound implications. That is the rediscovery of the religious expressions of indigenous communities and especially those with origins in the spirituality of Afro-descendants, religious expressions that were previously practised clandestinely without the general knowledge or interest of the larger society, often to avoid persecution or discrimination on religious grounds. Statistically the figures in the census are open to interpretation, due to a de facto double religious allegiance that the census does not detect; declarations of personal preference tend to concentrate on the more "official" religious option, even when the respondent's religious practice is a different one. Nonetheless, marked change is underway. 

18. We may be surprised at first sight by the steady increase of people who declare themselves as "without religion". Their numbers have increased in Brazil, between 1991 to 2000, from 4.8% to 7.3%, an increase registered mainly in the cities among people with higher education and among young people.  

19. There are no signs to indicate that the consistent trend towards religious pluralism may be reversed over the coming years. On the contrary, everything leads us to believe that the process will intensify. All indications are that Latin America will, in the future, present an even more colourful spectrum of religious plurality than it does today. Religious pluralism is one of the distinct features of societies in many parts of the contemporary world. 

20. Of course, the reasons for this mobility and diversity are multiple and they are to be found both within the "traditional" churches and in the wider context. I don't wish to go into an analysis of this complex picture at the moment. Let me simply observe that to some extent the reality of increasing religious pluralism runs parallel to similar trends, like a mirror in which are reflected a postmodern fragmentation of society, on one side, and of the "religious marketplace" of a globalized economy, on the other side.  

21. No wonder that a hostile competitiveness has arisen in the religious field, often in aggressive forms of mission and evangelism. Among evangelical churches there is often a strong anti-Catholic sentiment and discourse. Words like "idolatry", "syncretism", "witchcraft" are used without hesitation, when referring to other churches or religious expressions. This "religious climate" is felt and develops ever more intensively, to various degrees, within some of the more "traditional" or "historic churches". In this context we may recall the decision of the Brazilian Methodist Church to withdraw from CONIC, ironically taken just a few days before the Assembly of the World Methodist Council, meeting in Seoul, expressed its support for the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.  

22. Is it our fate to be an all-against-all religious competition? There cannot be the least doubt that our pre-eminent challenge consists in strengthening and finding new ways for ecumenical dialogue and cooperation among the churches, and among different religious expressions, as well. To avoid falling into mutual conflict, if not into new forms of "holy wars" or all-out competition, the only biblical and theologically responsible option is that of ecumenical dialogue and cooperation.  

23. We must confront the divergences within Christianity itself. Burning and divisive issues, both doctrinal and ethical, run to some considerable extent internally through many of our churches, resulting in inner tensions, if not in new divisions. In addition, these tensions run through the ecumenical movement and the WCC. A church leader told me once that he could not support ecumenism because Christianity was actually growing by division, and in particular those churches that acknowledged that fact were growing. My answer was that I did not find it pertinent to discuss this matter on the ground of phenomenology, because I could not see in which way this position would be compatible with the biblical witness and calling of the church. He, however, was convinced that he was only taking Christ's great commission seriously (and the "ecumenicals", according to him, were not).  

24. Given such a scenario, it is no wonder that our churches can be tempted to place their ecumenical commitment as a lower priority and try to "defend themselves" against the centrifugal forces of fragmentation, entrenching themselves within their own theological or institutional walls. Within our own family we will do a better job, we might think. Many Christians are disappointed that the churches have been unnecessarily cautious when it comes to drawing practical consequences from the positive results achieved by theological dialogues. Or they may discern setbacks in the ecumenical journey and perceive continuing division as a lack of coherence with the abundant declarations about the importance of striving towards unity.  

25. We have to delve deeper into the causes of difficulties and dilemmas that we face today in the ecumenical movement. Can we, for example, address ecumenically the issue of hermeneutics, in particular biblical hermeneutics? Divergent interpretations of scripture and of ways to interpret scripture are at the root of many of our tensions and divisions, if not of most of them. We are surrounded by the constant temptation of religious fragmentation on one side, and religious fundamentalisms on the other side. Even those who advocate in favour of common study read and interpret the Bible (and their confessional traditions) from a particular perspective. After the fear of deciding issues like these by majority vote has been removed from the table by the consensus procedures we have adopted, can the WCC become a safe place where we can engage freely and intensely in respectful dialogue about our biblical hermeneutics, always confident that those who express a different interpretation of the Bible do aim, just as we all do, to be faithful to God's Word?

Are we ready to resist any temptation to reject one another as "unfaithful to scripture" but, on the contrary, to persevere in trustful dialogue? In the ecumenical movement we definitely need to take a long, long breath. And let us then pray that the Holy Spirit will assist us and lead us to truth.  

"Hoping against hope" 

26. I stated at the beginning that our primary task lies in building among ourselves a fellowship of faith as sisters and brothers in Christ. But this should not and shall not hinder open and honest discussions on the issues at stake. The WCC cannot be pushed into a minimalist agenda but must remain, as we already have reminded ourselves, the privileged instrument of the ecumenical movement. The ecumenical movement must not be understood as based on a lowest common denominator. The ecumenical movement is driven by a much higher and challenging vision.  

27. We envisage full communion, and it is painful that we have not been able to advance more discernibly towards sharing at the Lord's Table. Ecumenical dialogue and cooperation is not a strategic wrestling with possibilities that we may freely accept or reject. It is a passion for unity arising because we have heard, and received in our hearts, Jesus' prayer to the Father asking that his disciples may be one, as he and the Father are one (John 17.21). We recognize and confess the divisions among us as a sin against God. But we also confess that the Holy Spirit grants us unity through the gospel and baptism, and we receive this God-given unity in faith. On that basis we commit ourselves to strive for full and visible unity among the churches.  

28. Thus, ecumenism is not something optional, but compelling. It belongs to the essence of our faith. We engage with passion in ecumenical relations. It is this passion that brings us here, to a WCC central committee meeting, as well. There are, assuredly, many hindrances and obstacles along the paths of ecumenism. It moves slower than we wish. As I have already mentioned, our churches probably move slower than they could. But, as the apostle Paul says in a different context, writing to the congregation in Corinth that was a local church divided in so many ways, we are "perplexed, but not driven to despair" (2 Co 4:8). 

29. So, in conclusion, let me come back to accounting for our hope. I have raised the question whether there is an ultimate hope which can stand vis-à-vis the hard realities of life, realities which seem to contradict hope so harshly. A well-known Brazilian saying proclaims: "Hope is the last thing to die." This suggests that hope will survive everything else, no matter how much disenchantment and how many frustrations and expectations do become realities. Hope will survive them all. But then, on second thought, we find an unexpected tone of resignation even in that apparently positive saying. "Hope is the last thing to die." This assumes that hope will die, even if it is "at the last". Is there a hope that will not die?  

30. When speaking about the resurrection, the apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians that, if there is no resurrection, as some among them believed, then Christ has not been raised and our faith is in vain (1 Co 15:13-14,17). And he opens our eyes to the magnitude of the hope we have in Christ, to the transcendence of the hope in Christ: "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (v. 19). If for this life only… Let us then reverse the perspective. If our hope transcends this life, it will be a decisive gift of God for life everlasting, and for this life as well. Elsewhere, the apostle Paul reminds the Romans of Abraham (and why not add Sarah to the example?). He believed in God's promise that he and Sarah, already advanced in years, would have a child, and that he would become the father of many nations. By this faith he was justified. His faith was also hope. He hoped "against hope" (Romans 4:18). He compared the many little hopes to the one hope in God. It was ultimately a comparison that was impossible to make. Hope in God transcends all other hopes. Therefore, our prayer may be: "God, in your grace, transform our hope." Transform our feeble hopes into that hope which comes from Christ's resurrection and therefore transforms the whole world. Is this not the hope that will bring new life into the ecumenical movement? Let us hope "against hope".  

Walter Altmann
Moderator