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Called to be one

Address by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, General Secretary, World Council of Churches Birmingham, 2 May 2007

02 May 2007

Called to Be One

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland
Senior Representatives Forum

Address by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, General Secretary, World Council of Churches
Birmingham, 2 May 2007

In the last few days I have had the opportunity of experiencing and learning about some of the ecumenical aspirations and activities in the four nations of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I am grateful to all those who have made this visit possible. I hope this visit has been a time of strengthening our relations within the global ecumenical movement.

The churches of Britain and Ireland have been on a journey together which you know much better than I. In this meeting you will be considering how you travel together in Churches Together in Britain and Ireland on the next stage of the journey. Before I talk about my understanding of what faces the global ecumenical movement in the twenty-first century and how the World Council of Churches intends to respond, we should recognise with thanks to God what has been already achieved here.

It is not so far back in your history that deep suspicion and outright hostility between churches were the norm rather than an exception. Ecumenical pioneers who established the first councils of churches in towns and cities in the 1920's were often working against prevailing attitudes between congregations and parishes. Now Christians meet together for prayer, study, public witness and service across the boundaries of denomination without thinking they are doing anything extraordinary. This represents a real change. The collaborative work undertaken by the British Council of Churches and the succeeding ecumenical instruments has enriched the life of the churches and enabled them to engage with society more effectively. In all of this we recognise, with gratitude and humility, the work of Christ.

The churches from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have made important contributions to the global ecumenical movement in the past. Let us remember outstanding conferences, such as the First World Mission Conference in 1910 in Edinburgh, which is for many the starting point of the modern ecumenical movement. Let us recall the great COPEC (Christian Politics, Economics and Citizenship) conference of 1924 in Birmingham that was a landmark event in the history of the Life and Work movement, leading to the 1925 Life and Work Conference in Stockholm and later to the 1937 World Conference in Oxford.

These conferences would not have been possible without the energy and ecumenical commitment of Bishop William Temple and J.H. Oldham, two of the architects of the World Council Churches. Next to these two men, I would also like to mention a woman to whom I pay my tribute and respect: Pauline Webb, co-moderator of the World Council from 1968 to 1975. She gave her energy and all her many skills to support the Programme to Combat Racism that was definitely one of the most important and most successful programmes of the World Council. There are many others who have served in Central Committees and Commissions of the World Council or on the staff of the Geneva secretariat. The Irish School of Ecumenics has contributed to the work on reconciliation and healing and of the Faith and Order Commission. We owe your churches a lot.

Much has changed, however, since the early days of William Temple and J.H. Oldham. The older generation of ecumenists was really compelled and driven by their commitment to the visible unity of the church. They had seen Christians killing each other on the battlefields of two World Wars. They wanted to assist their churches in confronting the new challenges of the social realities and of modern science and technologies. It was clear to them that churches which had blessed arms and armies had lost their credibility. They had seen the crimes of colonialism and racism. They were in solidarity with those struggling for the liberation from colonial oppression and for the independence of their nations.

Work for the unity of the one body of Christ and for the unity of humankind was a must for our predecessors. It was a must for them, not just because of strong contextual factors, but for theological reasons. The parallel existence of different denominations and world communions or the formation of functional bodies facilitating common witness to the world would not have been sufficient for them. They were searching for the one holy, catholic and apostolic church that would truly respond to Christ's prayer that all may be one so that the world may believe (John 17:21).

The new ecumenical context

It seems as if after the end of the cold war and under the strong influence of an increasingly globalised economy, such vigour, energy and commitment to ecumenism got lost. There are striking parallels between rise and crisis of the United Nations' system and of conciliar ecumenism with the World Council, Regional Ecumenical Organisations and National Councils of Churches. The post World War II multilateralism the UN system stands for has lost much of its appeal. We often hear that the search for visible unity of the church is no longer a priority for churches and Christian World Communions who centre on their particular identities.

The hegemonic role of Western culture which is an essential feature of the process of economic globalisation has provoked new politics of identity that emphasise ethnic, cultural and religious particularities over against the homogenising influence of the market economy and modern media. It seems as if fragmentation and the need to safeguard particular identities grow almost proportionately with increasing interdependence and mobility of people. What is often described as the rise of religion is in many ways influenced by these developments. In its most extreme forms, this process harbours sectarianism and even terrorism.

At the same time as interdependence is growing and migration is increasing with people trying to escape poverty and death or searching for better conditions to earn a decent living with the skills they have acquired, mistrust and fear are growing too, fuelling hatred and violence. The terrorist attacks in the centre of London have left their scars in the souls and minds of people and threaten to undermine confidence and trust that churches have built through their work with migrants and communities of other faiths.

In this context, it seems, new forms of multilateralism are emerging, but in rather tentative and less committed ways. The more recent experience of worldwide protest against the war in Iraq or the rise of the World Social Forum as the nucleus for a global civil society has not so far had the same formative and unifying power as the two World Wars and the struggle for independence and self-determination. The still existing threat of destruction of our planet through nuclear warfare is no longer perceived in the same pressing way as it was during the cold war in Europe, although the danger is still pertinent.

Climate Change, however, seems to push us beyond the threshold and presents us with a strong case for new multilateralism. Global warming confronts us with a phenomenon that calls essentially for a multilateral approach. While the victims of the consequences of climate change are predominately the poorest and most vulnerable communities, the main perpetrators are the rich and powerful with their over-consumption and their affluent and energy intensive life-styles. The impact of climate change does not stop at national borders or the fences and walls of the compounds of the rich.

I am convinced that with the rise of new forms of multilateralism also conciliar ecumenism will have greater meaning again for churches and ecumenical partners in their search for visible unity. The World Council of Churches is the best placed multilateral instrument of the wider ecumenical movement to move forward towards this goal.

It is clear that for the time being more tentative and less committed common platforms such as the Global Christian Forum are the preferred spaces for dialogue and mutual encounter by those churches that are not or not yet members of the World Council. Such forms of working together which do not have the stated goal of "the search for unity" allow balancing the need of affirming particular identities with some very specific forms of common witness. They do not require the same level of mutual commitment and mutual accountability the World Council is striving for and intends to guarantee through the application of the consensus principle.

Similar dynamics occur among specialised ministries that concentrate on ecumenical diakonia. While they do not see the unity of the churches as their primary task or mandate, , they are also struggling to find better ways of working together with greater impact. One way of addressing this issue is the formation of ACT Development whose work started this year.

We obviously need to assure those among us who do not have the confidence and trust in conciliar ecumenism in general and the World Council in particular that we respect their needs and want to facilitate the best possible ways for them to discover and to develop the ecumenical dimension of Christian faith within their own communities and in fellowship with other churches. But we cannot compromise or hide our conviction that Christ himself wants the churches to be one so that the world may believe. In him, everything is reconciled with God. In him and through him, humankind and creation are brought back to their original purpose and meaning in relationship with the Triune God (Col. 1, Eph 2 and 4). In Christ, the vision of the oikoumene, of the inhabited earth as part and parcel of God's household of life (Ps 104), and of the fellowship of the churches as sign and foretaste of God's reign find their common origin and goal.

In this way, we might rediscover our common calling and our common strength to respond to the challenges of today and to do so in close co-operation with communities of other faith and without the fear or suspicion that we would lose our own identities and common basis in Jesus Christ if we go beyond our own circles. Honestly, I do not understand why many Christians are still afraid to lose their identities if they co-operate with others. To me this is more a sign of fear and uncertainty than of strength and confidence in our faith in Jesus Christ. If we were sure of our faith in him, we could move beyond the borders that he crossed when he encountered the Syro-Phoenician women (Mt 15:21ff. and Mk 7:24ff.). He wanted us to go beyond these borders when he sent us in the world as a whole (Mt 28:16ff).

The work of the World Council through to 2013

As you have recognised in developing the work of the ecumenical instruments in Britain and Ireland, we have to remain alert to the consequences and challenges of the changing contexts in which we serve Christ. Following the World Council's 9th Assembly in Porto Alegre last year, we have given considerable thought to how we interpret the outcomes of the Assembly in the light of our constitutional requirements and the ecumenical context I have just described. This has led us to produce both a new programme structure through which we deploy our resources and, most significantly, a new way of focussing and describing all the World Council's work.

To communicate the World Council in action we will be using the metaphor of oikoumene, the New Testament Greek word from which we get ecumenism. The root meaning of the word is house or household. As a unique global fellowship of churches, the World Council is called to play a leading role within the wider ecumenical community as part of the human household and sharing its common home. We can visualise this by imagining three concentric circles with the ecumenical community surrounded by the human household, which in turn is surrounded by the common home in which we all live. This gives us three foci for our work and self-understanding.

1. Living out Christian unity more fully - ecumenical community. The World Council is about churches seeking unity and being committed to working and witnessing together. Our activities will be directed towards working together for visible unity and new forms of mission, providing space for deepening relationships and broadening participation.

2. Being neighbours to all - the human household. The phrase ‘neighbours to all' was given to us in the Message from the assembly. The World Council is about churches addressing power and threats to human community, with their neighbours. Our activities will be directed towards working together to overcome the threats that divide the human community and to work for peace and the common good through shared values of justice and equality.

3. Taking greater care of creation - the common home. The World Council is about churches protecting the earth and the peoples of the earth. Our activities will be directed towards working together to promote the practice and culture of sustaining life.

These are not to be understood as three programme areas but each relates, in varying degrees, to all the programmes and projects undertaken by the World Council. They are ways of understanding, motivating and describing the totality of the World Council as a fellowship of churches rather than just as an agency of the churches. This is particularly important as the participation of the churches gives the work both legitimacy and power.

As I have described them so far, the foci may appear to be too general to be of great use to us. Therefore we have tried to flesh out more concretely what we would expect to see by the next assembly in 2013. So I will return to each and give some headlines for our expectations, highlighting two issues where I want to especially encourage your participation.

1. Living out Christian unity more fully

Even though we have seen great advances through the ecumenical movement, the disunity of the church remains a scandal. We recognise that the church is one in Christ yet we find it difficult to have a common mind on what that means. The churches too often remain divided on fundamental theological and ethical issues, and by memories of past conflicts. Sinful and divisive forces such as racism, ethnicity and national identity also challenge our unity.

Previous assemblies of the World Council have adopted texts offering a vision or identifying the qualities of the ‘unity we seek' for their time. Following this pattern, the 9th Assembly adopted the text: Called to be the One Church: An invitation to the churches to renew their commitment to the search for unity and to deepen their dialogue. Through this, the assembly invited the churches to continue their journey together, as a further step towards full visible unity.

I want to encourage your churches to participate in this process: (a) to reflect what you, at this point on your ecumenical journey, can say together about some important aspects of the Church; and (b) to invite you into a renewed conversation - mutually supportive, yet open and searching - about the quality and degree of your fellowship and communion, and about the issues which still divide us.

The final paragraph of Called to be the One Church says:

Our churches journey together in conversation and common action, confident that the risen Christ will continue to disclose himself as he did in the breaking of bread at Emmaus, and that he will unveil the deeper meaning of fellowship and communion (Luke 24.13-35). Noting the progress made in the ecumenical movement, we encourage our churches to continue on this arduous yet joyous path, trusting in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whose grace transforms our struggles for unity into the fruits of communion.

Let us listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches!

I urge you to re-commit yourselves to this journey towards unity and participate in the Called to be the One Church process.

Moving on to other developments we look for under the first focus, the numbers of actors in the ecumenical movement has grown over the years. As well as the churches, we have Regional Ecumenical Organisations, National Councils of Churches, Christian World Communions, international ecumenical organisations dealing with specialist sectors, agencies and other organisations. We aim to encourage a growing fellowship among churches and ecumenical partners so that we can recognise and value what we all bring to the ecumenical movement. On a practical level, a new distribution of tasks among ecumenical bodies can give greater coherence to our common tasks and strengthened synergies.

The celebration of the centenary of the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference will give an impetus to the development of an ecumenical understanding of mission and evangelism which can be accepted by member churches, ecumenical bodies and shared with the wider Christian community.

Through encouraging the participation of young adults in all aspects of the work of the World Council and its membership, we aim to form a new generation of ecumenists. It is a living experience of worship, reflection and action in these different contexts that can deepen and broaden discipleship and commitment. The Ecumenical Institute, Bossey and the other ecumenical formation activities now based there enable focussed and rigorous ecumenical learning.

2. Being neighbours to all

Community life of all kinds comes under pressure from many different internal and external forces. We can name HIV/AIDS, violence, poverty and the movement of peoples as some of things to which we need to respond if communities are to be healed. We will work together on strengthening the capacity of the churches to build healthy communities - that is communities whose life is whole and whose presence and activities promote health in all its aspects.

The World Council has a long tradition of involvement in inter-religious dialogue, a concern that has become more pressing in almost every part of the world. We believe we have reached the point where a new self-understanding of being Christian amidst many religions is needed. We are committed to work on articulating a theological understanding of different faiths and a new code of conduct on conversion.

The systemic threats to life faced by humanity require us to set new ecumenical standards for addressing power that integrate the advocacy and actions of different actors and strengthens resistance. One area of particular concern will be peace in the Middle East where the World Council will mobilise churches and partners through the establishment of a platform for engagement and action by the churches in the region and globally.

The second area where I want to particularly encourage the participation of your churches is in the preparation of an Ecumenical Declaration on Just Peace. The 9th Assembly agreed that the end of the Decade to Overcome Violence should be marked by an International Ecumenical Peace Convocation. It is proposed that this takes place in May 2011 with the theme ‘Glory to God and Peace on Earth'. The central act of the Convocation will be to agree an Ecumenical Declaration on Just Peace. Rather than have this produced by a small number of people, we are asking people in the churches, "If we were to write an ecumenical declaration on just peace, what would we put into it?". Theological collages and seminaries are being encouraged to make this an aspect of their courses. This gives opportunities for inter-disciplinary working and the integration of theological reflection around violence and peace. Member churches will receive an invitation to encourage their congregations and parishes to engage in a similar exercise. House groups, Bible study groups and the like could take up the issue of just peace and make a real contribution to the process of preparing the Declaration. More importantly, it can help to create an alternative culture to the culture of violence that dominates our lives.

3. Taking greater care of creation

Churches in Britain and Ireland were enthusiastic supporters of the Make Poverty History campaign. Poverty is certainly one of the greatest threats to life and needs to be placed in a broader context as well as addressed directly. The World Council plans to enable our member churches to discuss and act on the proposition that impoverishment and environmental destruction are related to how wealth is created and distributed.

The member churches of the World Council, our ecumenical partners and other faith communities will co-operate systematically to advocate for changes of production patterns and life-styles that reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and will support people affected by climate change to make their voice heard. Bob Fyffe tells me that this is an issue that CTBI is taking very seriously.

The Ecumenical Water Network is one of the newest ecumenical network and has linked churches and other partners on the issue of water rights. It is a means of exchanging resources and creating a collection of best practices in community-based initiatives. The network will help the churches strengthen and improve their advocacy efforts for the human right to water.

Developments in science and technology constantly raise new questions that churches may be ill equipped to respond to on their own. The World Council will create a platform to raise awareness about the risks to life posed by genetic engineering and other new technologies. Approaching science and technology with respect for the sanctity of God's creation, places an emphasis on what serves life rather than threatens it.


I hope that what I have briefly mentioned under the three foci, give an indication of the concerns of the World Council in the period to 2013. This is not the full content of the programmatic work of the World Council. And, as I said earlier, the three foci are not the World Council's organisational programme structure but the way of understanding all programmes and projects.

I have constantly stressed the participation of the churches and other partners. The staff of the World Council may offer encouragement, facilitation and leadership, they may create space and make links between people, they may collect and disseminate knowledge, skills and good practice, they may help us to pray and learn together. But if the staff of the World Council are the only actors in the programmes and projects, then we have failed in our purpose. It is the participation of the churches and other partners that gives legitimacy to the work I have outlined and makes it effective and powerful.

My closing words are those of the final section of the Message from the 9th Assembly. They are in the form of a prayer:

By the power and guidance of your Holy Spirit, O God,
may our prayers never be empty words
but an urgent response to your living Word -
in non-violent direct action for positive change,
in bold, clear, specific acts of solidarity, liberation, healing and compassion,
readily sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.
Open our hearts to love and to see that all people are made in your image,
to care for creation and affirm life in all its wondrous diversity.

Transform us in the offering of ourselves so that we may be your partners in transformation
to strive for the full, visible unity of the one Church of Jesus Christ,
to become neighbours to all,
as we await with eager longing the full revelation of your rule
in the coming of a new heaven and a new earth.

God, in your grace, transform the world. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Amen.