Communion Service at the WCC Amsterdam assembly, 1948. Photo: WCC Archive

Communion Service at the WCC Amsterdam assembly, 1948. Photo: WCC Archive

By Odair Pedroso Mateus*

Have you ever thought of composing an oratorio about the ecumenical movement and dedicating it to the World Council of Churches?

The Dutch Old Catholics did it, I mean Bishop Engelbertus Lagerwey of Deventer and Alexander de Jong.

Called “The Song of Unity”, the oratorio was performed on Sunday afternoon at the Old Church. The presentation was followed by a reception offered by the Ecumenical Council of the Churches of the Netherlands.

On my way back to the hotel, still impressed by “the beauty of the music” and by what the libretto says about the ecumenical vision, I suddenly realised that the theme of the assembly is not the assembly’s theme.

And now that I have seen the reports of the four sections as they were presented in plenary, then received by the assembly and commended to the churches “for their serious consideration and appropriate action” that insight became even stronger in my generalist mind of theological journalist.

So after interviewing the Anglican Ruth Rouse and the Syrian Orthodox Sarah Chakko after  lunch, I shared my insight with them. By the way, women are not very prominent in this assembly. Statistics related to attendance show that, of the delegates, 270 are clerics and only 81 are “lay men or women”.

Rouse’s curriculum vitae is impressive: she was secretary of the World Student Christian Federation 1905 to1924; the author of Rebuilding Europe, published in 1925; president of the World’s YWCA from 1936 until two years ago.

Rouse tells me that she is embarking on a new venture with some other old friends: the writing of a History of the Ecumenical Movement in which the different ecumenical movements, like small rivers, are converging to become one single large river, the WCC. This may be the first major editorial project of the newly created Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, near Geneva, where Suzanne de Dietrich is now teaching.

Chakko is no less impressive. She had to brave cultural prejudices in order to become a renowned educator. She teaches history at a Methodist school in Lucknow, India. But she hasn’t stopped there.

During the past fifteen years she has embraced the student Christian movement, which has taken her to Indonesia, USA, China. Here in Amsterdam she is the Chairman (sic) of the Committee on “The Life and Work of Women in the Church”. I won’t be surprised if one day Sarah is appointed on the WCC staff in Geneva or becomes the WCC’s first female president.

Sarah and Ruth agree with my journalistic theological insight that the theme of the assembly is not the assembly’s theme.

The theme of this assembly is in fact… the Church or, more precisely the churches and the pressure of their common calling: the report of Section I is about the churches covenanting to manifest the One Church in “God’s Design”; the churches covenanting for renewal, mission and unity in obedience to “God’s Design” is the theme of Section II; the churches covenanting to respond to “Man’s Disorder” in society and in international affairs is the theme of sections III and IV.

In an assembly in which the churches are finally taking responsibility for the ecumenical movement by covenanting as a “Council of Churches”, the assembly’s theme could only be the  pilgrim churches in history.

What does it mean to be pilgrim churches responding together to “man’s disorder” in today’s world in light of “God’s design”? Think of world wars, of the atomic bomb, of racism, and of the increasingly global struggle between capitalism and communism.

The lucid and critical report of Section III offers perspectives for an answer. Come and see.

The deepest root of the world’s disorder, says the report, “is the refusal of men to see and admit that their responsibility to God stands over and above their loyalty to any earthly community and their obedience to any worldly power”.

The Christian Church “approaches the disorder of our society with faith in the Lordship of Jesus Christ”. In the light of his kingdom, “Christians are conscious of the sins which corrupt human communities and institutions in every age”. At the same time “they are also assured of the final victory over all sin and death through Christ”. Thus Christian faith leaves no room for today’s despair.

Which are the main factors of contemporary disorder? The first is the vast concentrations of power. In capitalism they are mainly economic; in Communism they are both economic and political. The second factor is that society is dominated by technics and its ambivalent consequences.

The Christian Churches have the urgent responsibility today “to help men to achieve fuller personal life within the technical society”, without forgetting that they “have often given religious sanction to the special privileges of dominant classes, races and political groups”; they have often “concentrated on a purely spiritual or other-worldly or individualistic interpretation of their message and their responsibility”; they have often “failed to understand the forces which have shaped society around them”.

In the industrial revolution, notes the report, “economic activity was freed from previous social controls and outgrew its modest place in human life”. But justice “demands that economic activities be subordinated to social ends”.

The Church cannot resolve the economic debate between socialists and capitalists. But in light of its understanding of man it says that “the institution of property is not the root of the corruption of human nature” and that “ownership is not an unconditional right”.

The Church must vindicate the supremacy of persons over  “subordinating economic processes and cherished rights to the needs of the community as a whole”. A major need is therefore a “coherent and purposeful ordering of society”.

At this point the report introduces the concept of “responsible society”.

I don’t know whether you have heard of Oldham’s “middle axioms”. Despite its kind of “gnostic” name, this approach to societal issues played a key role in the Life and Work World Conference 11 years ago and ever since it has been helping the churches to develop together a common, prophetic and constructive approach to contemporary social problems, something you could call an “ecumenical social ethics”.

“Responsible society” is a middle axiom formulated by Oldham and Visser ‘t Hooft last year in London. What is a responsible society according to the report? A responsible society “is one where freedom is the freedom of men who acknowledge responsibility to justice and public order, and where those who hold political authority or economic power are responsible for its exercise to God and the people whose welfare is affected by it”.

A modern society can be a responsible society if “people have freedom to control, to criticise and to change their governments”; if power is distributed “as widely as possible through the whole community”.

Concerning Communism and Capitalism, Christians should recognise the hand of God “in the revolt of multitudes against injustice that gives Communism much of its strength”. For many young men and women, “Communism seems to stand for a vision of human equality and universal brotherhood for which they were prepared by Christian influences”.

Christianity, on the other hand, has points of conflict with “atheistic Marxian Communism” such as the promise of a complete redemption of man in history; the belief that a particular social class is free from sins and ambiguities; materialistic and deterministic teachings; “the ruthless methods of Communists in dealing with their opponents”; the Communist party’s demand “for an exclusive and unqualified loyalty”. Churches should reject “the ideologies of both Communism and laissez-faire capitalism…”

I must stop here and rush to the West Church for the closing service. The Amsterdam assembly has just finished its work. We will soon be scattered throughout the world. But we intend to stay together…

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

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