In a meeting with a format and focus dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the executive committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) this week addressed vital international developments and situations.
In its 20-24 July online meeting, the committee expressed concern and apprehension at multiple concurrent crises and pledged support and solidarity with churches across the world,
the committee also approved new dates for the WCC 11th Assembly, discussed plans for a transversal on overcoming racism, and developed plans for 2021 in light of the effect of COVID-19 on budget and programmes.
A brief update from the executive committee
The executive committee acknowledged with deep sadness that on the concluding day of the executive committee meeting, 24 July 2020, the reconversion of Hagia Sophia as a mosque took place, and invited prayerful solidarity and support by WCC member churches around the world for the Ecumenical Patriarchate in its efforts to challenge and reverse this gravely regressive decision.
The WCC 11th Assembly 2022
The executive committee approved new dates for the WCC 11th Assembly, to be held in Karlsruhe, Germany, 31 August – 8 September 2022.
Opening remarks and reports
In her opening remarks, WCC moderator Dr Agnes Abuom focused on how churches can continue to be beacons of hope and accurate information during the COVID-19 pandemic, how to address sexual and gender-based violence and lessen the risk of violence against children, and how the WCC can continue to use online approaches to listen to the fellowship and be a voice of reason and support.
“Humanity and not least men and women of faith stand today on the edge of a cliff of life and are called to decide whether to jump or strive to climb upwards and discern the risks and strategies to manage,” she said. “The aim is for the executive committee to find relevant approaches of listening to and consulting with churches in order to be a voice of reason and support.”
Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca, interim WCC general secretary, also shared a report that highlighted the WCC’s engagement with the fellowship of churches, and plans for addressing both sustainability and racism.
“When the executive committee met in June, you gave us the mandate to develop special plans for the sustainability of WCC programmatic work in 2021 in light of a revised budget for 2020 and the ongoing impact of COVID-19,” said Sauca. “You also reinforced the mandate to scale up the response to racism.”
In approaching the mandate, Sauca said, “we sought to be strategic, responsive and responsible; asking not only how to ensure that our work is planned with the financial means available, but trying to anticipate the needs of the churches in the time of COVID and increasing social unrest.”
Called to Transformative Action: Ecumenical Diakonia
The executive committee received the revised document “Called to Transformative Action: Ecumenical Diakonia,” as recommended by the executive committee in November 2019 and asked the editorial group to provide an additional resource on the diaconal work of the churches in the context of COVID-19. They also approved sharing the document as a working resource for internal use with member churches and ecumenical partners until the central committee receives the document, and they approved the communication plan for the document.
New transversal on overcoming racism 2021
Racism in its different expressions has been an ongoing concern of the fellowship of churches, indeed of the whole ecumenical movement. A detailed description of the history of the WCC engagement on racism was presented in the document “A Concept Paper on Programmatic Initiative on Overcoming Racism, Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia.” The executive committee requested that detailed plans and budget for the transversal on overcoming racism be presented at the executive committee meeting in November 2020.
Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre
The executive committee received and discussed the “Evaluation Report of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre and the WCC Management Response.” They addressed the need to consolidate the work of the different WCC initiatives in the Middle East region, to secure their sustainability and to increase their ownership by local member churches.
Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace
The executive committee highlighted the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace with Asia as an excellent example of moving together with WCC member churches and regional ecumenical organizations in justice and peace. Also important to underline from the reports, they said, was the necessity of addressing racism in its different manifestations and continuing importance of eco-justice.
Impact of COVID-19
In light of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the way WCC governing bodies make decisions and the experience of the executive committee in using electronic communications (Rule XVIII.8), some of the recommendations made by the working group on constitution and rules may need to be reconsidered. The executive committee appointed a group to review the report on constitution and rules; the relevant recommendations of the permanent committee on consensus and collaboration; and further considerations regarding the use of electronic communications for consultation and decision (Rule XVIII.8); and to report to the executive committee in November for further consideration with recommendations on how to proceed in reporting to the central committee for decision.
The finance sub-committee discussed the financial overview, which presented the results to May 2020 compared to budget; the actions taken in relation to prior recommendations; and a report of progress against indicators set in the WCC financial strategy 2018-2021. The executive committee required that the financial strategy be updated in draft to include the year 2022, for discussion at the executive committee meeting in November 2020, before submission to central committee in June 2021.
Public statements from the executive committee
Nigeria, long plagued by insurgencies in the northeast, has recently suffered extremist attacks in the northwest as well, creating “a situation of endemic insecurity for many communities and vast numbers of people,” according to the statement from the executive committee. Further, alarming rises in food insecurity and gender-based violence have accompanied the coronavirus pandemic, prompting calls for legal and social reforms. The statement acknowledged and encouraged the extensive ecumenical and interreligious engagement there and expressed “deep solidarity and prayers for the churches of Nigeria.”
Lebanon, too, has suffered. With the advent of the pandemic, Lebanon’s decades-long civil struggle has spiralled into economic collapse and governmental paralysis. The executive committee this week called for “urgent structural reforms needed to ensure Lebanon’s stability, unity and sovereignty” and encouraged religious leaders, among others, “to insulate the country from the wider regional political and social forces driving the region to division and destruction.”
Jerusalem and the struggles of its Christian communities also engaged the committee, as it publicly assured churches in Jerusalem of ecumenical solidarity in their efforts to ensure their rights and the Christian presence in the Old City. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has been appealing Jerusalem District Court judgments about a disputed 2004 sale of church properties near the historic Jaffe Gate, entry to the city’s Christian quarter.
The work of the public-issues subcommittee
The committee’s international work is spearheaded by its pubic-issues subcommittee (PIC), which discussed and addressed a range of other pressing concerns.
Hagia Sophia, heritage of humanity: The PIC strongly affirmed the WCC interim general secretary’s letter of 11 July concerning re-conversion of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum back to a mosque, underlining the negative impacts on inter-religious relations, and appealing for this decision to be reversed and for Hagia Sophia to be retained as the shared heritage of humanity. PIC welcomed the very high level of media attention that this initiative received around the world. PIC also gratefully acknowledged the support expressed for WCC’s stance by leading Muslim counterparts, as referred to in the WCC news release issued on 21 July.
European peacemaking: The committee affirmed the statement of the interim general secretary on 16 July regarding the recent hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia and reiterated the call for de-escalation of the confrontation and renewed engagement in diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the root causes of the conflict.
The PIC drew attention to the anniversary of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus – which commenced on 20 July 1974 – as an occasion to bring this matter back to the minds and prayers of WCC member churches around the world.
The impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable marginalized communities in Brazil: The PIC expressed grave concern over the situation in Brazil in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly its impact on Indigenous Peoples and Quilombola communities in Brazil. The WCC is currently pursuing a multi-faceted response to this issue.
Peacemaking in Korea: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War (25 June). The committee noted that the WCC and its partners have worked to lift up this anniversary as an occasion for fresh initiatives for peace on the Korean Peninsula at a time when recent high-level political dialogue seems to have foundered. Initiatives have included the Global Prayer Campaign for peace on the Korean Peninsula, the Joint Ecumenical Peace Message launched by WCC on 22 June, the Women of Faith Virtual Pilgrim Team Visit to South Korea on 13-15 July, and the People’s Korea Peace Agreement promoted by the National Council of Churches in Korea and launched on 23 July.
No to nuclear weapons: The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place on 6 and 9 August 1945 – 75 years ago this year. The committee affirmed the initiatives being taken by WCC to mark this occasion – including through a series of blog-posts from different perspectives around the world – as an opportunity to leverage further commitment and engagement in the ecumenical movement’s work for the global elimination of nuclear weapons.
United Nations at 75: The United Nations has been a close partner of the WCC since both organizations were founded. The committee welcomed the initiatives taken by the WCC to mark this important anniversary, including publication of Voices of Faith at the United Nations, an historical overview of the relationship between the WCC and the UN.