1st Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1948. Photo: WCC Archive

1st Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1948. Photo: WCC Archive

By Odair Pedroso Mateus*

Amsterdam Concert Hall, 23 August 1948, 10:00. Sunday worship leads to Monday work. So, as you enter the Concert Hall, don’t let your aesthetic imagination be captured by the bust of the sublime Johann Sebastian Bach.

And remember to keep your IBM earphone at hand if you need simultaneous interpretation into English (channel 5), French (6) or German (7). You can listen to the speaker on channel 4. One feels here like in a meeting of the United Nations.

The moderator of this first plenary session is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. At the end of his future mandate as one of the seven WCC presidents, Fisher will remark, not without humour that he had been appointed to do nothing and did it well.

The first speaker is none other than the New York Presbyterian Samuel McCrea Cavert. Eleven years ago, in a meeting about the foundation of the WCC held in London in 1937, the future “chief architect” of the US National Council of Churches proposed the name “World Council of Churches” in response to Archbishop William Temple’s question “what name shall we now give the child?” Temple agreed with Cavert’s “World Council of Churches”: “Why not? That’s what we really need and want.”

On channel 5 Cavert warns the delegates that this is not “just another ecumenical conference”: it’s an assembly meant to create “a permanent instrument of fellowship and co-operation on a world-wide scale”. He explains that the assembly has three main components: worship, work, study. Robert Bilheimer, right now sitting behind the chairman, will write in 1988 that “Many years later I marvelled at how Benedictine was this triumvirate”.

Now is the time.

Rev. Marc Boegner, a symbol of Protestant resistance to the recent German occupation of France, introduces in French a resolution ending with the following words: “… and that the formation of the World Council of Churches be declared to be and is hereby completed”.

The resolution is adopted by consensus or, as the WCC general secretary Willem Visser ‘t Hooft likes to say, nemine contradicente.

Archbishop Fisher rises and faces the assembly: “By the vote you’ve just given, the World Council of Churches is constituted and established”. Applause. Then a strange silence: apparently no plan for a commemoration have been made. The chairman calls for silent prayer. “In this strange simplicity”, Bilheimer will write, “the event stood by itself”.

But what exactly has just been “constituted and established”?

Is the WCC the embryo of a Geneva-governed global church bringing together Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants against the Church of Rome and its Pope? Is it right that by becoming a member of the WCC, my Reformed Church must re-establish the office of bishop and embrace the Orthodox veneration of icons, relics and saints? Is the WCC the new global arm of the western capitalist powers in their cold war against the growing oikoumene of proletarians of all nations?

Without precedent in church history, while inseparable from its shameful record of schisms, anathemas and violence, the WCC will spend part of the Amsterdam assembly time and the coming fifteen years trying to explain (and first of all trying to understand) itself.

Visser ‘t Hooft tries it first, at the end of this Monday morning session. He published an article on the issue two years ago. We are a fellowship (or koinonia) of churches in which “common witness is rendered to the Lordship of Christ” he says. He is certainly thinking of the theological basis of the WCC, the first article of its new constitution: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour”. With roots in youth inter-denominational work of the 19th century, the WCC basis has taken a fresh new meaning prophetic during the struggle of the Confessing Church against Nazism in Germany.

This Christocentric confession points to God’s gift of unity and brings the churches together in the WCC. Right. But the churches do not yet live in full visible unity expressed in breaking the one bread. That is why, he goes on to say, “we are a Council of Churches, not the Council of the undivided Church”. What?

We are “a Council” not in the sense of the early “ecumenical councils” but in the sense of ecumenical “counsel”: as churches that accept the Lord Jesus Christ we are covenanting to be a fellowship of churches which “counsel” each other. This means that the WCC is not above the churches but of the churches.

Finally, the word “churches” in the WCC name, Visser ‘t Hooft concludes, “indicates our weakness and our shame before God, for there can be and there is finally only one Church of Christ”.

Although this proves helpful to clarify the authority of the WCC, it does not seem to be enough. During the assembly, Committee II will shed further light. The WCC does not desire “to usurp any of the functions which already belong to its constituent churches”, or to legislate for them; it disavows “any thought of becoming a single unified church structure independent of the churches…”

While the spectre of a Geneva-governed global church seems to be defused, the question of the meaning of WCC membership for the way in which each church understands itself and the other churches in relation to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church begs urgent further clarification. What looks like the subject of a PhD thesis is in fact a very concrete, sensitive question: no less than the future of Orthodox participation in the WCC is at stake in it.

Strangely enough, or providentially, it is a meeting to be held confidentially at the Istina Centre in Paris in 1949, involving WCC and Roman Catholic theologians such as the Dominican Yves Congar and the Jesuit Jean Danielou, that will prepare the ground for a lasting clarification of the nature of the relations among churches in the WCC, later embodied in the 1950 Central Committee document “The Church, the Churches, and the World Council of Churches” or simply “The Toronto Statement”. Orthodox participation will be secured. The discussion will continue at least until the 1963 Faith and Order World Conference.

But this is no longer Amsterdam’s Concert Hall, where the assembly of prayer and work will in the coming days turn into an assembly of serious study about “Man’s Disorder and God’s Design”.

*Odair Pedroso Mateus is a director of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

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