Claiming A Common Future

Address to the 19th World Methodist Council
Seoul, Republic of Korea
July 2006
Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia
General Secretary
World Council of Churches

My dear fellow Methodists:

It is with the greatest pleasure that I have come to Seoul to address this meeting of the World Methodist Council. I am deeply grateful for the invitation extended by Robert Gribben and Geoffrey Wainwright on behalf of the WMC's Standing Committee on Ecumenics and Dialogues. "Ecumenics" is a topic in the best Wesleyan tradition, for we remember that the founder of Methodism viewed the world as his parish - in Greek, the whole, inhabited world is the "oikoumene", from which the word "ecumenical" originates. And the importance of "Dialogues" is attested by another of John Wesley's observations, that "the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion". Jesus entered into dialogues with those around him - the disciples, the crowds, the religious and political authorities, the Samaritan woman at the well, the centurion whose child was ill, the Greeks who came to see him. Indeed, our theme this week is "God was in Christ, reconciling". Reconciliation cannot be a solitary activity. The good news is that "God was in Christ, reconciling" …reconciling the whole world to God, and human beings to one another. And in this way, God is calling us, as one people, to claim our common future.

I have come to talk with you about our future together. But to build a common future, we must first understand the tools and materials at hand today, as well as the historical foundations on which new habitations may arise. So I shall begin with a brief review of key elements that have shaped the modern ecumenical movement and the institution of the World Council of Churches. This will bring us to recent explorations of the potential for a common ecumenical future, and a vision of what may be possible for people of faith within the providence of God.

* * *

I. The modern ecumenical movement

Just outside my office door at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland,

there hangs a portrait of John R. Mott. While he was by no means the only founder of modern ecumenism, there is no single person who had greater influence on the formation of the movement, and eventually of the World Council of Churches, than this Methodist layman from the United States. In his life story we can trace many of the themes and concerns that continue to be central to the ecumenical agenda.

The product of Methodist Sunday school classes and church meetings in his native New York state, in his university days Mott became active in the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. He went to work for the Young Men's Christian Association, the "YMCA", and in 1895 at a conference in Sweden he became a founder of the World Student Christian Federation. Mott was committed to the cause of Christian unity, "that the world may believe" (John 17:21), and he was one of the principal organizers of a World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910. He chaired the Edinburgh conference, which is seen by historians as a key moment in the quest for world-wide reconciliation and co-operation among Christians. We will be celebrating the centennial of that event in just four years' time.

Edinburgh 1910 was the impetus for the foundation of the International Missionary Council in 1921. Following the first world war, Protestant and Anglican participants from Edinburgh also joined a number of Orthodox leaders and activists in developing international conferences on "Faith and Order" - focusing on theology, doctrine, sacraments and ministry - and "Life and Work" - focusing on the churches' co-operation in addressing matters of human need and social justice. In those years between the two world wars, there was growing interest in advancing the cause of peace through turning the churches' attention to international affairs. In all these aspects of the 20th-century ecumenical movement, John R. Mott was a prominent figure. Methodism had instilled in him a commitment to mission and evangelism, to church discipline consistent with the gospel, to social activism that provided a voice to the voiceless and aid to all those in need, and he believed that people of diverse backgrounds could find peace together, despite all the cultural circumstances and human failings that conspire to divide us.

As you may know, I am the sixth general secretary since the founding of the World Council of Churches. Of the six general secretaries to date, three of us have been Methodist: Philip Potter, a Methodist minister from the Caribbean; Emilio Castro, a Methodist minister from South America; and myself, a Methodist minister from Africa. But I am reminded daily, as I enter or exit my office, that the Methodist featured most pre-eminently in the Ecumenical Centre is that lay leader of youth and student movements who, late in life, was acclaimed unanimously at the WCC's 1948 Amsterdam assembly as our first Honorary President: John Raleigh Mott.

Through the years, the World Council of Churches has adapted its structure to the times, its membership, its partnerships and sometimes to financial realities of the moment. This summer, in the aftermath of our 9th Assembly that was held earlier this year, we are re-organizing again on the basis of new directions and priorities suggested by delegates and other participants at Porto Alegre, Brazil as they helped us look forward through the seven years until our 10th Assembly.

But whatever the organizational structure at a given time, the basic concerns and commitments remain those that inspired John R. Mott and the other women and men who brought the WCC to birth: commitment to Christian unity in faith and spirit, mission and evangelism, education and formation in discipleship, social action for justice and peace among all peoples, as well as dialogue with the contemporary world in all the diversity of its technologies, philosophies, ideologies and religions.

Reconciliation is foundational to all these activities. It is because of God's reconciling work in Jesus Christ that unity is possible among Christians, among churches, among peoples of different cultures. Meeting here on the Korean peninsula, so tragically divided between south and north for more than half a century, I cannot help but remember how the World Council of Churches has grappled with other rifts in the international fabric when missiles have flown and populations have trembled. Since 1984 the WCC has been deeply involved in the search for peace and reconciliation in the Korean peninsula. Guided by the spirit of Tozanso, the WCC provided a framework for the churches' contribution to the reconciliation process, understanding the following tasks for the churches: "The churches are called to provide hope, to witness for peace, justice and unity. They must become a model for dialogue and participation for all who have been affected by the tragedy of division. Christians must surround one another in love, supporting one another in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit." There could be no better words to describe the role and witness of churches for peace and reconciliation in cooperation with one another.

At the close of the second world war churches and Christian movements of youth and students, men and women, worked together - especially in Europe, Asia and the Pacific, where the flames of war had burned so fiercely, to rebuild and to achieve both repentance and forgiveness among people whose lives and nations had been torn apart. Such reconciliation was also the churches' goal during the long, twilight struggle between east and west from the late 1940s through the 1980s and early 1990s. It remains our goal in Israel and Palestine. The ecumenical movement has helped heal the relationships of former colonies and former colonial powers, as we have made common cause in struggles for the liberation and rights of all. In South Africa, the World Council of Churches took a stand against apartheid that was not always popular; yet, partly because of the churches' influence, that period of history concluded not in widespread acts of vengeance but in a process of "truth and reconciliation" led by our friend and colleague, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

When he came to address the WCC Harare Assembly in 1998, the then President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, himself a Methodist, said he came to acknowledge fifty years of achievement in activating the conscience of the world for peace and reconciliation on behalf of the poor, the disadvantaged and the dispossessed. He said that the most precious gift the church could offer to the world today was to enable the people to gain greater capacity for reconciliation. He spoke from his heart and out of the brief experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

God was in Christ reconciling, and Christ empowered his church on earth, and reconciliation has proven possible time and time again. So it shall be for those who are alienated from one another in today's world, and particularly for this divided land of Korea.

II. The present moment

At the 9th Assembly of the WCC last February, we took as our theme a simple

prayer: "God, in your grace, transform the world." At the same time, we recognized that the World Council of Churches is, itself, in the midst of transformation.

In recent years, the World Council of Churches has come to realize that the

ecumenical movement is at a turning point in its history. Within the institution, we have been conducting a lively exchange between representatives of Protestant and Orthodox member churches - again, in the spirit of "ecumenics and dialogues". We have been examining the ethos of the WCC in its first half century of operations, and we have been honest with ourselves in admitting the stumbling blocks to full participation in the fellowship we seek. The Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC has already made changes in our life together; for example, at our assembly in Porto Alegre we adopted a new, consensus-oriented approach to decision-making, and we are re-examining the meaning of "membership" in a conciliar fellowship of churches, as we reaffirm the necessity of common prayer to assure that all we say and do is rooted in Christian faith and spirituality.

We have been exploring, too, the potential for widening our fellowship. For more than forty years, the Council has co-operated closely with the Roman Catholic Church in matters of Faith and Order, and through our Joint Working Group, as well as in various programmatic initiatives. Great progress has been evident at times, as in the ecumenical breakthroughs of the Second Vatican Council, the doctrinal convergence noted in responses to the Faith and Order document Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry, as well as the many bi-lateral dialogues among world Christian communions that have resulted in landmark agreements, such as the Catholic-Lutheran joint statement on Justification which has inspired further dialogue with communions like the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the World Methodist Council. The WCC has supported bi-lateral dialogues, organized multi-lateral engagements and published many of the resulting reports in our Growth in Agreement book series.

The World Council of Churches tries to provide an "ecumenical space" where relationships may be safely discussed and enhanced. We have invited representatives of many churches, communions, regional organizations and para-church bodies to consider the creation of a "global Christian forum", and consultations on that subject continue. At the WCC-sponsored world mission and evangelism conference near Athens in May 2005, and again at the Porto Alegre Assembly this year, there were large and active delegations from the Catholic church as well as Pentecostal and Evangelical churches that are not members of the World Council. The WCC has been a key instigator in international convocations on "mapping" and "reconfiguring" the ecumenical movement to encourage an ever broader and deeper fellowship among Christians. Increasingly, we also have served as a sponsor or co-sponsor of significant inter-religious conferences confronting the world's most pressing issues.

The most recent was the Critical Moment Conference, held in Geneva just over a year ago, where the main emphasis was the challenge to move from dialogue to cooperation and action. To achieve this new paradigm, it is necessary for faith communities to work together in advocacy around issues of common concern. During this conference the critical moment was often characterized by fears for our common future, because of the many dire threats posed by the crises of our time. Yet, we are called now to act with humility and hope to make this critical moment a time for the renewal of our faith. Recasting inter-religious dialogue as a practice of humility offers a way of building greater trust among those who are now suspicious of our motives. Repenting the wrong done in our name and for the sake of all that is holy opens a way to move from a dialogue of strangers to a dialogue of neighbours. Renouncing our desire to promote a religious fix for the human failure of others allows us to accept their call to seek justice, to love mercy, and to be reconciled.

In all these examples of giving people an "ecumenical space" for dialogue, the Council's activity reflects a dynamic that has been a hallmark of the Methodist movement. Like the Wesleys, like John R. Mott, we have been encouraging all manner of believers to gather in encounters that are open to all, to have their say, to learn from one another, to go out again into the world bearing good news. Let me illustrate this with an example from the WCC's 9th Assembly at Porto Alegre:

While the WCC Assembly is the highest decision-making body of the World Council of Churches, it also provides an opportunity for the larger ecumenical family to come together. In Brazil, the Portuguese word "Mutirão" means "coming together to make a difference", and it may be used when a community organizes to build a community centre or to protest an eviction. In my language, Swahili, there is a similar word Harambee which is a beautiful expression of pooling energies for the common good. Through Harambee the people of Kenya pool their resources together to enable even the poorest of the poor to get education and medical attention. The experience shows that through Harambee poverty can be transformed into riches.

At the WCC Assembly in Porto Alegre, people came together in a variety of experiences called "the Mutirão" to meet, reflect, discuss, argue and celebrate the ecumenical movement. Over 3,000 people participated in the Mutirão - more than three times the number of official delegates. They included laity and ordained ministers, women and men, people of differing ages and backgrounds. Some 250 workshops were organized by churches and ecumenical partners from every region, as well as 100 exhibits, 30 cultural presentations and many, many informal events. The Mutirão provided a space for the broader ecumenical family to gather around the 9th Assembly. It surrounded the official business in Porto Alegre and was an influential force at this first assembly in which most of our decisions were made by consensus.

Our experience with the Mutirão suggests several conclusions about the state of the ecumenical movement today.

First, the ecumenical movement is alive and well. Mutirão participants were excited to be together and to have the opportunity to explore issues with people from other Christian traditions and from other regions of the world. As one Latin American Orthodox participant said, "it was so wonderful to see in the Mutirão that people genuinely wanted to be together. I was so moved to see so many people committed to the unity of the church." This yearning for unity by Christians from all corners of the globe is something we need to uphold and nurture.

Second, the Mutirão demonstrated that the churches are engaged in a rich diversity of issues. For example, the topics of workshops ranged from new forms of spirituality to the landless movement in Brazil, and from feminist theology to addressing the stigma of HIV and AIDS. Participants came from different backgrounds - from activist networks, theological institutions, interfaith groups and ecumenical organizations of all kinds. The variety of issues and participants indicates that the ecumenical movement is far broader than its institutional expressions.

Third, the Mutirão also suggests that the World Council of Churches does have an important role to play in providing a space for the broader ecumenical family to gather. The WCC set the parameters for the Mutirão and provided the space for the Mutirão to happen, but we did not try to control the content of the various presentations. Because it wasn't part of the official programme, participants were free to discuss issues in an open manner. Thus, participants in the Mutirão were able to confront difficult, church-dividing issues - such as sexuality - with each other and without the impediments or compromises of some officially sanctioned events.

Fourth, the Mutirão was also a time of celebration. Cultural performances by many groups - street children from Botswana, circus performers from Argentina, a choir from Cuba and a street theatre group from Sri Lanka, and many others - reminded participants that ecumenism is expressed in music, dance and theatre as well as in formal documents and theological studies.

Some of the themes which came out of the Mutirão are ones that have preoccupied the ecumenical movement over recent years. The largest number of workshops on a single issue was on HIV and AIDS. Most of these workshops drew attention to the need for churches to go beyond a humanitarian response by facing up to the issues of belief and fellowship raised by HIV and AIDS. Too often, churches have stigmatized those who live with HIV and AIDS, and Christian communions are not always perceived as safe havens to which people can turn in confidence.

A good number of the workshops focussed on violence, encouraged by the work of the WCC programme, the Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Peace and Reconciliation (2001-2010). Violence permeates local and global community, and strategies were shared for responding to types of violence ranging from domestic abuse to international conflict.

Even in these less formal confines, relationships between WCC member churches and the Roman Catholic Church, and the implications of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation, were a topic that people eagerly explored. The boundaries of the ecumenical movement were considered in regard to the involvement of Pentecostal and evangelical churches and the "wider ecumenism" of inter-religious relations. Face-to-face encounter was demanded as vital, if interfaith relations are to take us beyond a mere dialogue between experts.

There was a common theme running through reflection on issues such as fair trade, climate change, human sexuality, asylum as well as other topics I have mentioned - they all require a greater degree of theological analysis. Our work should be founded in our faith and not just in the common wisdom of Non-Governmental Organizations. We need to rediscover spirituality as a primary way of engaging the ecumenical agenda. The transformation that needs to take place is as much of ourselves and of our churches as of the world.

How does all this relate to the historical experience of Methodism?

It is said of the British Labour Party that it owes its existence as much to Methodism as Marxism. It was the genius of the early Methodists in 18th century Britain to organize people into "classes" that met weekly. In these participatory spaces, ordinary people learned to be socially and theologically articulate whilst deepening their personal faith in Christ. They were not only interested in welfare, they were concerned to remedy social injustice. The Methodist movement changed the ecclesial and the social landscape of the time. In the Mutirão we have seen again the power of safe and participatory spaces in enabling people to engage with and articulate, from a theological basis, the issues facing this generation. We pray that, by continuing to work in this way, the WCC can be an instrument of renewal for the ecumenical movement, and for the transformation of the world.

III. An invitation to participate more fully

And now, as I conclude these remarks, I would like to offer you an invitation - to you and all the Methodist churches around the world which you represent.

Among the many results from the WCC's 9th Assembly at Porto Alegre, one of the most remarkable is the text on ecclesiology which was adopted there. It is known as "Called to be the One Church", and in adopting this text the WCC member churches also committed themselves to respond to it by the time of the next assembly, the 10th Assembly, as an expression of a renewed commitment to the search for unity, and as part of a renewed discussion on the key issues which unite them - and sometimes divide them - today. I hope that you and your church will want to share this commitment, and be part of this process!

The Ninth Assembly: called upon each member church to respond to the ten questions at the conclusion of the Ecclesiology Text with the expectation that, by the Tenth Assembly, each member church will have so responded.

So the 9th Assembly was not the end, but the beginning of a process of reflection on the text as a tool for ecumenical encounter and engagement. The "ten questions", mentioned here, are direct - more direct than most ecumenical texts.

Rather than a general exhortation to recognize each other's baptisms, the text asks: "Does your church recognize…" the baptism of others? Rather than the usual cautious hints about eucharistic hospitality, the text asks "Why does your church believe" that it is possible (or not possible!) to share the Lord's Supper?

This process of response and discussion should culminate at the next WCC Assembly in 2013. At that point the churches will take stock of all the responses received, and mark their progress on the way to unity.

The ecclesiology text - "Called to be the One Church" - is not a perfect text. Some churches felt that it does not take the differences among the churches seriously enough, and wanted stronger language about the problems of the ecumenical movement today. But in the end, even these churches did not want to prevent the 9th Assembly from adopting the text as a basis - indeed, as a challenge - for further ecclesiological dialogue and work towards the visible unity of the church.

Perhaps just as important as the text itself is the very fact that the assembly adopted it. What does it mean that among the few documents actually adopted by the 9th Assembly, we find a rather technical statement on ecclesiology, or "the doctrine of the church", of all things? It means that there was a remarkable desire on the part of the assembly - and especially the WCC member churches - to engage seriously once again in the quest for unity. When the text came to the delegates for decision there was, in the plenary hall, a sense that an opportunity missed at the Harare Assembly in 1998 had now to be grasped, that the member churches had to speak out now on behalf of the search for visible unity as the fundamental task of the WCC. And speak they did!

Friends, as the WCC's general secretary, but also as a Methodist, I am hoping that many Methodist churches around the world will engage with this text, and through it will deepen their engagement with the churches around them and with the whole ecumenical movement. If we do not take advantage of this rich opportunity, then we - and the whole ecumenical movement - will be the poorer for it.


One of the traditions of the ecumenical movement is that major conferences end with the issuing of a "Message" to the churches and the world. The committee that drafted the Porto Alegre message was chaired by a young woman, Wendy Evans, from the United Church of Canada. It was the first time in the history of the WCC that an assembly committee was chaired by a youth delegate, and Wendy's family comes from the Methodist stream that flowed into the United Church of Canada.

I have noted that the theme of the assembly at Porto Alegre was a brief prayer: "God, in your grace, transform the world." In the end, the assembly adopted as its Message an invitation to prayer.

I conclude with this passage from the Message, a prayer of the 9th Assembly:

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 nonviolent 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 wait 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.