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Report of the WCC general secretary to the WCC executive committee meeting in Amman, Jordan, November 2017

"The quest for unity in the practice of the WCC", report of the WCC general secretary to the WCC executive committee meeting in Amman, Jordan, November 2017

17 November 2017

World Council of Churches EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE

Amman, Jordan

17 November 2017



The quest for unity in the practice of the WCC

We are gathered here as the executive committee in Amman, hosted by the Greek  Orthodox Patriarch,     His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, and welcomed by the representatives of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and member churches. We thank our hosts and our executive committee member, Dr Audeh Quawas, for all that is done to prepare and facilitate this meeting for us. We are gathered here in a peaceful and hospitable setting, in a region of many conflicts and challenges. We are here to learn more about the realities of those challenges, but also to learn more about the rich traditions, the Christian presence and witness here, and the initiatives to live together in justice and peace for all. We are grateful for the opportunity to encounter our member churches here, and with other representatives of the Christian communities, particularly the Palestinian community.


1. The Strategic Objectives of the WCC and the quest for unity as our basic call

As we move towards the mid-term of the WCC’s life between the 10th and the 11th assemblies, and the end of the first executive committee serving in this period, it is my privilege to express a word of sincere thanks to the executive committee and all its members; those who come to an end of their service here and those who continue for another period. I do this as we are evaluating the first period and looking to the next. I would particularly like to thank you for a very constructive cooperation in making the WCC operational, integrated, and strategic in its work hinging on its basic goal of calling the churches to unity in witness and service in the world.

This period has been challenging for our agenda as we live in a world where the dividing and fragmenting powers are very strong, but also in a time when the willingness to make the Christian unity a sign of another agenda for justice and peace. The approach we have as WCC to be together on a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace has proved its relevance. It is very important that we see both the big picture and the more specific issues of our plans, budgets and reports when we do our midterm-evaluation process. As we prepare for the 70th anniversary we are in a modus of thanksgiving and proving how this body is alive, moving and taking new initiatives for the sake of the unity of Christians and the churches in the world.

In my report to the executive committee in June this year I argued for the need of and the proper time for a new quest for unity. I was genuinely inspired by the response you gave – and to how this theme has been received in different contexts of our constituency and

beyond that. Many others have shared their reflections with me. I find that it is important to report some of my findings and reflections of how this quest for unity is expressed in the last months’ work of the WCC as I have seen it. This is some of my perspective, too.

The five strategic objectives of the WCC have proved to be inspiring and giving directions to our programmatic work and to the work we are doing in council-wide initiatives and in my work as general secretary. I also find them quite relevant for the agenda of a new quest for unity. They represent different dimensions of how the WCC works among the member churches for more visible unity in faith, life and witness, but they also open the agendas towards how we work for unity in the sense of justice and peace and improved qualities of relations and cooperation with many partners. When we share our reflections of what happened the first four years of this period under your leadership as the Executive committee, I think you all should be proud of how you have contributed to all of the five objectives through your many efforts and decisions. Let me add here that actually you are the first to try to do this system of governance and you should be proud of what you have done and continue to do as an Executive committee.


2. Unity in the one world – the visit to the Pacific

One of the great memories of my life as general secretary the last months was a two-week visit to our churches and partners in the Pacific region. In the different encounters with them, I was reminded how the WCC represents the Christian family in the whole world, and how our member churches make significant contributions to this understanding of being united as humanity, as creation and as sisters and brothers in Christ. Together with WCC president for the Pacific Rev. Dr Mele’ana Puloka and Rev. Taaroanui Maraea, member of the executive committee of the WCC from the Pacific region, as well as Dr Katalina Tahaafe- Williams, programme executive for mission in the WCC, I visited Tahiti, Tonga and Fiji, in addition to meetings with the Pacific church leaders one day in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand, and another meeting in Wellington with the church leaders in Aotearoa New Zealand and political leaders there. Let me offer some examples how this visit strengthened our common sense of belonging to a worldwide fellowship sharing the challenges and the blessings of the one globe in which we live.

The Pacific churches live in the area of enormous oceans. The water is their life horizon, what unites them, and what gives life to their people and nations. Therefore, the care for the water and the oceans, and the changes that happen to them are of vital interest for them – and for the whole world.

The COP23 meeting in Bonn is being presided over by Fiji, representing the  whole region. The president of Fiji, as well as the churches there and the secretariat for COP23, urged that the WCC raise our voice together with them in Bonn for a few, clear messages to the whole world: that climate change is not a future threat, it is a current threat to the livelihood of many and it disturbs the balances of the whole world by the increased temperatures in the air and the seas. As I was in Bonn, I saw it was absolutely necessary to help finance the mitigation required to prevent and repair damage, to find solutions to climate refugees that are not ready to move to other countries. The hurricanes and the extreme weather including drought, rain, and wind in many parts of the world have made many more around the world feeling themselves what the peoples from the Pacific have talked about for a while. Another important global message they want the WCC to convey is that we have to have a holistic approach to life on this planet, in the micro-level and at the macro-level. The holistic approach must include the necessary knowledge through experience and research, the economic and political capacities to make necessary changes, but also the attitudes, the spirituality, the ethos to care for and to love the whole creation. We human beings are part of the one global ecosystem and we totally

dependent on how it is balanced and working. I promised that we will continue our  involvement in these of the partners, COP meetings, and I was also present a few days in Bonn, trying to convey our convictions and messages, together with colleagues, including preaching in the special COP23 Sunday worship on 12 November.

In Tonga I was reminded of how the human life in this world is ordered in days, as they experience daily the new morning grace before anybody else in the world. They represent  us all in the first prayer to the triune God, the Creator, the Saviour and the Life-giver. Our spiritual fellowship is related to all dimensions of our faith in God, and I found a strong community of Christian faith, including the cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church in Tonga, praying and worshiping and sharing the word of God with us. I prayed in the morning with  a women’s group, I met with young people who are committed to pursuing the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace among their own people in their own villages, I met with politicians and the head of state in Tonga, and others heads of state in other countries. The Methodist Church there strongly reaffirmed its membership in the WCC, and emphasized that even if they are far away from Geneva, they really want to be a committed member of this global fellowship. The visits there and to the other places had an impact on our mutual relationships in a short and a long-term perspective, I believe. We restored the sense of contact and attention and we shared ideas for the future mutual involvement.

In Mahoi Nui (French Polynesia), the synod for the Maòhi Protestant Church gave me a strong lesson of how the life as church is embedded in cultural life and expressions of joy, fellowship, shared concerns and signs of hope. They gave me a message of their suffering from the effects of the nuclear testing in their region, and how they see what happened as crimes against humanity. The nations that used their islands and waters to test their weapons, knew the high health risks involved. Now the people of Maohi Nui (French Polynesia) suffer from severe health effects. I acknowledged that they raise a genuine case for justice, which we also brought to the Commission for the Churches on International Affairs, but also raise a global  issue of just peace that should include the end of all testing, proliferation, production and use of nuclear weapons.

I saw how much the cultures and spirituality of the Pacific countries and churches are significant assets to our quest for unity with one another and with the whole of God’s creation. Their place in our fellowship is a gift to all of us. God offered a new opportunity for them to strengthen their regional bonds through the visit of the WCC, and they will continue that as they prepare for the assembly of Pacific Conference of Churches next year. The church leaders strongly called for their ownership of the regional body.


3. Unity and catholicity – reflecting on our joint pilgrimage 500 years after the Reformation

This year the 500 years of Reformation is commemorated in many ways, and I have been invited to several events with this agenda. I have been able to accept some of the invitations for events since we met in June – in Wittenberg, Germany (31 August and 31 October), in Hofgeismar, Germany, in Bern, Switzerland, in Minneapolis and Collegeville, MN, USA, in my home village Ås, Norway. The most significant symbolic exposure was probably the invitation from the Evangelical Church in Germany to participate in the official events in Wittenberg on the Reformation Day, 31 October. I was asked to receive in the worship in the Schlosskirche on behalf of the WCC a copy of the 95 theses as a sign of the contribution of the churches of Reformation to the whole oikoumene. Other colleagues have contributed significantly to such events as well. This is also something on which the executive committee will report. I have also reflected on the challenges and the inspiration coming from an ecumenical marking of these events in speeches and publications; some of them are also shared on our web site.

There is a potential in all these events for reconciliation and reorientation, for reflection on what kind of reformation the churches need and should contribute to in our time. The ecumenical eucharist service based on the so-called “Lima liturgy” in Wittenberg in August, with co-celebrants from many church traditions that have declared they are in communion with one another, was a very significant moment of thanksgiving for me as general secretary of the WCC. Many of them can share the eucharist partly due to the reception and use of the Faith and Order document from Lima 1982 on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. There were other churches represented and participating in the prayers, the Roman Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church, reminding us about the ecumenical relations and commitment but not yet a full communion among us. The divisions that became the (some of them unintended) effects of the call for Reformation of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, are one of the reasons why the quest for unity among us needs more focus, more energy and new input.

On the other hand, the many joint events show that we are in a very different place than centuries ago and also since 1948, due to the ecumenical movement and its dialogues and initiatives towards common witness and service. The role of the WCC is to be both a witness to the truth of the realities and an agent of change towards more unity. The invitations we receive also show appreciation for the work of the WCC, and remind us of the significance for unity in theological dialogue as well as in actions of reconciliation and reorientation.

One very significant impulse from many of these events, namely the willingness to call for repentance, transformation and common service in the world, was a topic in the conversation the moderator, Dr Agnes Abuom, and myself had with Pope Francis in Rome on 24 August. We share a common vision for how we can work for unity today in practice, working, walking and praying together (as Pope Francis emphasized, and which is the title of the 2016 WCC annual report). The same was expressed as we reflected together on how God calls us all to a pilgrimage of justice and peace and to serve the world and our fellow human beings together as much as we can. The needs of the world are not waiting for us to solve all the issues of division between us. The Pope affirmed his support and agenda to work with the WCC, and reflected on how this could be expressed in the year of our 70th anniversary.

In the same conversations we had the opportunity to share our joint commitment to peace in the world, and how we can do so together as global fellowships of local churches. We discussed particularly the situation in South Sudan and in the Korean Peninsula.

The significant change in the ecumenical approach of the Vatican under the leadership of Pope Francis towards focus on expressions of unity on relationships, in service, prayer and mission, has opened for us another focus in the year of Reformation anniversary. It is also very significant that many of the churches of the Reformation have used this event to change their focus on confessional markings of the Protestant uniqueness as different from other church traditions towards more focus on what is in common in our faith, in our calling and in our shared challenges of today. A statement from Bishop Prof. Dr Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairperson of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, and  Cardinal Marx, head of the German Bishops’ conference - the Catholic Bishops’ Conference - is another way to emphasize that the churches must now give priority to address the divisions, the conflicts and injustices in the world instead of a priority to focus on the remaining differences among us.

I have been invited to participate in commemorations of the Reformation in many countries and continents. I.e. from Cuba and Egypt, but could not combine that with the meeting of the Executive Committee these days in November. The commemoration of the Reformation has taken a global approach, and become much more than remembering but also become opportunities for new, critical reflections about the life and the practices of the churches.


4. The potential for unity in a new reflection on Ecumenical Diakonia

This year our strategic meeting with funding partners was expanded to many other partners from all of the world into an Ecumenical Strategic Forum. The days in Geneva were very fruitful for our common understanding of ecumenical diakonia. The text has been developed under the leadership of the WCC department for Public Witness and Diakonia as a follow up of the so-called Malawi consultation in 2014. The purpose is both to take stock of the present reflection on diakonia and to develop a further vision for how we can contribute to that as an ecumenical movement with the different agencies. Particularly the relationships between WCC and our member churches and the ACT Alliance have been in focus on how this agenda is shared in our different roles and capacities.

The participants, including several members of the executive committee, concluded that  this was a significant step forward towards more joint agenda and commitment, and a stronger shared identity representing the churches and their call to diakonia in these issues. I also gave my reflection on this event from the perspective of unity, discussing how the study on diakonia as both faith-based and right-based approach to the needs of people of today, and as a genuine ministry of the church that we are called to do together. My text (9.5 Theses for a new quest for unity and peace through Ecumenical Diakonia) is available on the WCC web-site.

The agencies with which we are working were not all represented with their highest officers - which I think we should make sure they are next time. But still the participation from the Lutheran World Federation, ACT Alliance and the regional and some national ecumenical councils was very good, and brought the conversation to a level we  needed. I see this as a sign of hope for improving how ACT allaiance, the WCC and our member churches can work together.


5. Unity as a key issue for the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace in Africa and for the preparations of the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Tanzania next year

The Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace has had a focus this year on Africa. This will also be reported in other ways to the executive committee. I will in this context focus on how the

Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace relating to Africa also has brought substantial contributions to how the WCC also contributes to unity among the churches and in and among the people of Africa.

In visits to Nigeria, both the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace reference group and the women team of living letters have brought clear messages of the global solidarity with the people and the churches in Nigeria facing violence and particular violence against women and children, to some extent religiously-based violence. This is what we address through the Muslim-Christian peace center in Kaduna. But it also needs further involvement among the churches themselves. The churches in Nigeria have a great calling to contribute to the just peace of this huge country, and the pilgrimage approach is a way to find new alliances against violence.

The focus on the unity of the churches is strongly emphasized in the WCC contributions to peace initiatives in Burundi and South Sudan. The need for the churches to stand together, as national councils of churches and beyond, particularly also together with the Roman Catholic Church, is key to counteract political and ethnic divisions that lead to violence, war or risks thereof.

Let me once again mention we have seen now also also the significant initiatives by the National Council of Churches in Zimbabwe for national unity, for initiatives for peace and for the future of the nation.

As the leadership of the central committee (LCC) met in Nairobi, we witnessed how the churches, the national council of churches and leading personalities (including our moderator, Dr Abuom) have taken initiatives for national reconciliation in times of great risks for division and even violence in the country. The call to unity for the nations is much stronger when the churches also find their own credible expressions of unity. The meeting with the heads of our member churches in Kenya became a moment of sharing of the current crisis there, and for recommitment to the ecumenical task. The visit to the school of the Orthodox mission there will result in contributions to our Christmas greetings this year. To see the comprehensive work of the mission of the Orthodox church in Kenya, under the leadership of our brother Archbishop Macharios, was an inspiration to all of us.

We see how the common mission can be developed in different church traditions. This is particularly important also as we are now planning for a Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Africa (Arusha, Tanzania) in March next year. This will be a milestone in the work for mission, but it should also be a milestone in our quest for unity in serving as the disciples of Jesus Christ in this world. It is a World Council of Churches event, organized by the CWME and our busy WCC staff. The preparations for such an event are demanding, and I have taken the initiative to make sure that we have good teamwork in the whole organization to support this event. You have more of a chance to discuss the progress of the work with the director the commission and his colleagues.

The African dimension of this event should be inspiring and mobilizing to the many contributions we have from the African churches to the global mission of the church. This in itself is important for new expressions of unity as mutual accountable relations, sharing the Gospel and the fruits of the Gospel in all continents and between all continents. The countries in the northern hemisphere have much to learn and to receive from the churches in Africa in their holistic practice of mission as diakonia, advocacy for justice and peace, and in preaching, teaching and worshipping the triune God. We will be updated and make important decisions for the WCC about this event in this meeting.

I would also like to mention that I was pleased to attend the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), held in connection with the Asia Mission Conference in Yangon, Myanmar on 15 October. Hundreds of delegates from churches and their partners from all over the world were gathered.

In my speech there, I emphasized that we have to work for unity and we have to work for mission, and we have to show that they belong together in practice. Healthy challenges and shared wisdom will become part of our mission as churches when we are together in mission. The  meeting was a very fruitful meeting and a good sign of the vitality of the vision of the Asian church leaders 60 years ago, merging the organizations for mission and for church unity in Asia.


6. Unity in solidarity and compassion for just peace in the Middle East

As we are gathered here in Amman, we have a unique opportunity to reflect on the  situation of the churches and the peoples in this region. We are aware of the many challenges and conflicts that the peoples in this region have been dealing with, since the first year of the WCC till today, but also particularly in these last years.

We have learned about the sufferings of people of all communities in this region,  particularly in the war in Syria - which is going on now in its sixth year - but also in the atrocities and fighting in Iraq. We had new engagements in visiting Iraq, where we were receiving information about Christian communities and other religious groups that are now seeing possibilities after the military siege over the extremist so-called Islamic State. People are still very vulnerable, and the international community must support the efforts to facilitate that these communities can feel secure enough so that people can return home.

The situation for the Christian communities calls upon our attention in a special way and we are here also to show our unity and solidarity with the suffering Christian sisters and brothers. The persecution and the martyrdom of Christians, as we have seen them and heard about them in this part of the world, is a witness to Christ that unites us in a very special way in our time.

We are here also to celebrate and pray with one another that the Christian witness here has a lot of credibility and is recognized as an absolutely necessary part of the region. Christians are here from the first years and centuries of Christianity, as these regions belong to the Biblical lands and the early church which we also saw yesterday in Petra. We will see examples of this during our stay here, and we are reminded of the roots that unite us all. Also how the Abrahamic heritage is binding all the Abrahamic religions to these lands and to a common heritage that we should honor and use for the justice and peace we all seek.

The WCC has also paid particular attention to the situation in Israel and Palestine, and the injustices, conflicts and occupation that still are obstacles to a just peace for both the Palestinians and the Israelis. The call to just peace is as urgent and significant as before, if not even more. The situation is deteriorating for the Palestinian people under more than 50 years of occupation, and the marking of that fact has called upon a new need to reflect on our contribution to a just peace. We will have the opportunity to talk more and in depth on these issues, and some representatives of the Palestinian churches and Christians will also join us for that purpose. We have received a letter of urgency from Palestinian Christians, and we have for this meeting prepared an upgraded plan for our work as a response to their letter. The situation is urgent, and we need to strengthen our efforts in this time. We can always do more, but we need to make sure that we do whatever we can to stay united and support one another’s efforts as Christians and Churches for just peace and for a future of hope.

We should also respond to the message we receive from the heads of churches in Jerusalem about the challenges to the “status quo” and the potential for further crisis for the Christians in Jerusalem.

The exhibition we have exposed on the web and in several cities in the whole world, the “12 faces of Hope” gives an important message. It brings voices of hope from people in this region, and it has been giving new insight to many. We cannot give up our ambition that we together can develop change and strengthen real hope.


7. Unity in the quest for a nuclear free world – a Nobel Peace Prize to the campaign supported by the WCC

The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a sign of hope and encouragement on the path to peace. We  - in the WCC – are a strong partner in the campaign and the host for their offices in Geneva. We realized they had no idea that this could happen, so we immediately supported them to organize in the Ecumenical Centre a press conference for the world media. They will officially be given the prize in Oslo on 10 December, and they have asked the World Council of Churches to be part of their official delegation to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and I think that is an honor to all of us in the organization.

For the WCC, this is a major landmark on the long path since the 1983 WCC Assembly in Vancouver denounced the production, deployment and use of nuclear weapons as a crime against humanity. Our moral imperative against nuclear weapons is clear and categorical.

We can all urge our governments to sign and ratify the treaty and then to see that it is implemented. In the context of the world today, as in the Korean peninsula, the threat of nuclear conflict jeopardizes the lives and future not only for the people of the peninsula but of the wider region and the globe.

Therefore, the World Council of Churches reaffirms its commitment to advance the campaign for the abolition and elimination of nuclear weapons, and to encouraging and supporting churches across the world and the United Nations in their work for sustainable peace and justice in a world without nuclear weapons.

The WCC 2014 “Statement towards a Nuclear-free World” says that nuclear weapons  cannot indeed be reconciled with real peace. “They inflict unspeakable suffering with blast, heat and radiation,” the statement reads. “As long as nuclear weapons exist, they pose a threat to humanity.”

In December, we are combining our concern for just peace on the Korean Peninsula with our commitment to a nuclear weapons free world in a campaign called “A Light for Peace.” Later on you will hear more about how this campaign will mobilize the churches to pay attention to this issue.


8. Visit to united Churches in India and Germany

In the last month I have had the privilege to visit two of our member churches that have taken the call to visible unity to a very concrete expression as they are organized as united churches. The Church of North India (CNI) invited me to address their General Assembly in New Delhi in October, and the Evangelische Kirche Deutschlands invited me to address their synod in Bonn last week. It is indeed an inspiration to see how these churches have developed their structures of unity for the sake of the stringer mission of the Church, and how they both are committed to contribute to the wider, global ecumenical movement.


9. Words of thanks

It is indeed my privilege to work with very committed colleagues in the World Council of Churches. I appreciate and sometimes also adore their hard work, i.e. as we prepare meetings like this for the Executive Committee. This is done in addition to their many tasks for the organization and for our fellowship.

I also want to thank the Moderator and the Vice-Moderators of the Central Committee, as they work closely with me as General Secretary to prepare our meetings. They also participate in many events and initiatives of the WCC, and are working hard for our common objectives. We owe them our gratitude and support.

In all we do, we give thanks to God, who has called us to this ministry. The faith we share is the faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ, who is with us in all our life experiences and who will never leave us alone. May he grant us the strength and the wisdom to represent him and his presence among others in a way that he can recognize and other can recognize as an answer to his prayer “that they all may be one” and that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17: 21.26).