We all remember March 2020. The world went into lockdown as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe. The central committee was supposed to meet in Geneva in March 2020. Only now is it possible to meet again in person.
Over the last two years, we experienced things we never imagined possible. The executive committee normally meets twice a year. Since March 2020, the executive committee has met 11 times – 9 times online and twice in person. The central committee, which meets every two years, met twice online and once in person in twelve months. You have seen the accountability reports that demonstrate how our programme work adapted and thrived during the pandemic.
The WCC remains a vibrant fellowship of churches working with councils, communions, specialized ministries, and sister churches to respond to the challenges of our time. I want to thank the leadership of the central committee, members of the executive committee, you, the members of the central committee; our ecumenical partners, and the entire staff for your tremendous commitment and dedication to the World Council of Churches. Without you, we would not be here today to complete the business entrusted to the central committee elected at the assembly in Busan in 2013.
In my report, I want to share some of the pain, some of the joy, and some signs of hope that I see as we move together to the 11th Assembly, inspired by the love of Christ for a world in need of reconciliation and unity.
Visiting the wounds
Since the last assembly, the fellowship has been moving together on a pilgrimage of justice and peace. On the way, we visited many wounds in many places. We saw the suffering and pain of people and creation. Wars and conflicts have erupted in different parts of the world, bringing loss of lives, destruction, famine, dislocations of populations, refugees. All of these have been of great concern for the WCC fellowship, and we did our best to respond to them and affirm solidarity with the suffering people and our member Churches.
a) War in Ukraine. When the central committee met online in February, the conflict in Ukraine had not yet broken. Since this war is in Europe, where our assembly is to take place this year, and since it has worldwide implications due to the nuclear threat and the food crisis that affect people in many parts of the world, I will reflect on it more extensively.
From the beginning, the WCC condemned the war, called for an immediate end to armed hostilities, the respect of international laws, the sovereignty of Ukraine and appealed for an immediate end to indiscriminate attacks with an escalating impact on civilians. The WCC was in the media spotlight since day one of the war, and until now, over 5,000 articles have mentioned the role of the WCC.
The WCC response has been consistent in:
- denouncing violence as a solution to conflict
- calling for the protection of innocent and vulnerable people
- maintaining contact and dialogue with the churches in Russia and Ukraine
- engaging churches from the neighbouring countries in round table dialogue
- advocating for humanitarian assistance with visible expressions of accompaniment in Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, and Russia
At every step, it has been my prayer that the WCC can be a space for dialogue, for listening and caring for one another, and for just peace and reconciliation. We are and should continue to be alternatives to geopolitical solutions that seek to deepen divisions today.
During this time, we have received individual letters and messages asking us to “expel” the Russian Orthodox Church from the fellowship of WCC. In consultation with the leadership of the central committee, I responded to such requests based on the history of the Council when our fellowship was confronted with similar situations and cases. The conclusion was clear in all cases: WCC was created as an open platform for dialogue and encounter, for discussion and challenging one another on the way to unity. If it was not for the theological reasons mentioned in its basis, WCC did not exclude anybody unless they excluded themselves. This was even the case of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, which supported and argued theologically for apartheid. That created strong debates and condemnations from other WCC member churches. In the end, it was the church that “excluded” itself from the WCC as she felt she did not belong there anymore. But it was not the WCC that suspended or excluded the DRC.
Like many others, I suffer a lot, particularly as acting general secretary of the WCC. However, I also suffer as an Orthodox priest since I am aware that both in Russia and in Ukraine, the Orthodox Churches have great numbers of faithful. We all feel hopeless, angry, frustrated, disappointed—and humanly and emotionally tend to go towards immediate radical decisions.
Yet, as followers of Christ, we were entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation, and the theme of the WCC 11th Assembly reminds us all that the love of Christ moves the world to reconciliation and unity. It would be very easy to use the language of the politicians, but we are called to use the language of faith, of our faith. It is easy to exclude, excommunicate, and demonize, but we are called as WCC to use a free and safe platform of encounter and dialogue, to meet and listen to one another even if and when we disagree. This has always been the way of the WCC. I believe in the power of dialogue in the process toward reconciliation. Imposed peace is not peace; a lasting peace has to be a just peace. War cannot be just or holy; killing is killing, which must be avoided through dialogue and negotiations.
What I came to admire is the wisdom of our predecessors. Visser ’t Hooft made such great efforts to bring the churches from the Soviet bloc into the WCC, despite their “support” for the ugly Communist ideology and their “support” of the totalitarian regimes. They were asked to join the international fellowship as churches. And the churches who lived under that oppression have gained so much.
To conclude with my personal reflection: In this time, until the end of my responsibility as acting general secretary that you have entrusted to me, I will not stop speaking against any aggression, invasion, or war, I will continue being prophetic, but I will do my best to keep the WCC what it was meant to be and to keep the table of dialogue open. Because if we exclude those that we do not like or do not agree with, with whom are we going to speak, how can we advance to reconciliation and lasting just peace?
b) Visit to our member Churches in Syria: When the central committee met in February, I announced that we were planning to visit the churches in Syria. The visit is pending, but it is still a priority to visit the churches in Syria before meeting in Karlsruhe.
Together with the moderator, we did succeed in meeting with the representatives of the churches in Syria who came for a consultation at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute in April. We agreed that the WCC Syria programme continues with the full participation of the churches in Syria, listening to their concerns and expectations, planning, and working together.
3)Visit to the Holy Land. This is also planned to take place before the assembly. Our restructured office in Jerusalem is working well, and we keep receiving many signs of hope as outcomes of the work and presence of our staff there. Yet, there are still many challenges and hardships, and we have made great efforts to respond to them and increase our advocacy work. At the same time, we tried to keep a balanced approach, speak equally, and denounce any violation of human rights and dignity, be it for Palestinians or Israelis. Our relationship with the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations( IJCIC) and World Jewish Congress made good progress. Though we often have different points of view on specific situations or events, we keep a sincere, friendly, and open dialogue.
Yet, as we prepare ourselves for the assembly, we are faced with other increasing challenges. As was the case in the past, certain well-known groups, particularly in Germany, started to speak against us and to portray the WCC again as an anti-Semitic organization. At the same time, from the Palestinian side, we are challenged for being soft and not bold enough in denouncing and condemning human rights violations. Furthermore, based on the recent report of Amnesty International, we have received letters, requests, and proposals from some of our WCC constituency in the West to change the WCC policy at the assembly in Karlsruhe and denounce Israel as an Apartheid state for its treatment of Palestinians. All these developments are complex and sensitive, with profound implications.
Being first of all a fellowship of churches, our wish is to visit, meet, and hear the voices and opinions of our member churches and our fellow Christians in the Holy Land. Even the WCC program running there still today started at the request of our member churches. Their views and opinions are fundamental as they know best what is best and suitable for them and their survival and work in their concrete situation. I will bring their view and voice to the assembly.
Celebrating the gifts
On our pilgrimage of justice and peace, we have celebrated the gifts discovered through solidarity and sharing; the gifts of faith, hope and love; the gifts of compassion and togetherness; the gifts of common witness to the challenges of the world as Christ’s disciples.
The assembly is around the corner, and nearly 90% of the member churches will be present. It will be a great celebration of faith, a reunion of the churches, and a meaningful sign to the world.
On our way to Karlsruhe, we have experienced many challenges, and no doubt, there are more to come. This is an assembly of resilience. We continue planning and revising in response to all that is happening in the world and the life of the churches. For two years, we have been monitoring the impact of the pandemic. Our meeting in Geneva is a concrete sign that the pandemic no longer stands in our way but that precaution is still needed.
Though the pandemic caused many delays, it also made new things possible, like preparing online. Together, with many of you, we have organized a series of regional, sub-regional, and national online preparatory meetings with delegates and other participants. More is still to come.
The pre-assembly with specialized ministries held in March strongly affirmed that the “commitment to unity and sharing could not be limited to the life of the churches and their wellbeing. It is a calling to serve in the world, participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation, and of lifting signs of hope, announcing by word and deed God’s reign, God’s justice and peace.”
Last month the Inter-Orthodox Pre-Assembly took place in Cyprus. It was a historic meeting with more than fifty participants from both the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox families. Despite divisions and tensions within the two families, all participated in a spirit of dialogue, love, and communion. All prayed together, actively took part in discussions, and in drafting the final report and communique. As we move to the assembly, the theological input is an important resource for all of us.
Particular attention was given to discussing sensitive issues which may require a clear and articulate Orthodox contribution at the assembly, such as Israel and Palestine, human sexuality, and the war in Ukraine. A special hearing was organized with the delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church in which there was sincere, honest, and open discussions. The final communique, which condemns the war and violence, asking for peace and reconciliation, was agreed upon by consensus.
Our pre-assembly work continues with online meetings. We can also look forward to the pre-assemblies in Karlsruhe. The ecumenical youth gathering will strengthen the engagement of young people in the ecumenical movement. The pre-assemblies will strengthen our commitment to a just community of women and men, our advocacy and inclusion of people with disabilities, and our solidarity and learning with Indigenous Peoples.
The assembly's focus on love, compassion, reconciliation, healing, and unity in the context of a global pandemic and war will mark this assembly, the assembly in Karlsruhe, in the history of the WCC.
Our pilgrimage is rooted in the kingdom's vision of God’s justice and peace; a vision of metanoia in which swords become ploughshares; a vision of the fullness of life for all in which no one is left behind; a vision of transforming injustices with justice, peace, reconciliation, and unity.
Our pilgrimage is not over. Our work is not done. The pilgrimage of justice and peace has become a tangible and dynamic expression of a fellowship committed to moving together on a common journey of faith. The pilgrim team visits have been an effective methodology for mutual encounter and encouragement, making the concerns and experiences of the churches more visible.
The executive committee commissioned a pre-assembly programme evaluation to help the assembly understand how the pilgrimage of justice and peace helped strengthen the fellowship over the past nine years. The evaluation team included central committee members and advisors. Their report was completed last week and will be forwarded to the assembly. Many of you responded to the survey conducted by the evaluation team, offering deeply insightful comments and suggestions.
With considerable evidence, the evaluation recommends “continuing the pilgrimage as an expression of commitment to visible Christian unity, rooted in Gospel values and engaging the churches’ common witness for justice, peace, reconciliation, and unity”. The evaluation affirms that the WCC strategic plan, adopted by the central committee in 2014 and renewed in 2018, helped promote an integrated approach to our work and that, over time, WCC's work contributes to transformational change.
Most importantly, the evaluation offers advice for strengthening the fellowship, pointing to the need to be more attentive to the churches’ concerns. It challenges us to be more rooted in our common understanding and vision for deepening the fellowship between and among the churches. It recommends strengthening our regional engagement in collaboration with relevant ecumenical partners. It affirms the need to interpret the importance of WCC activities, not simply make the WCC more visible as an institution. Based on the experience of the pandemic, it recommends continuing our digital adaption as a way of bringing the fellowship together, delivering programmes, and addressing issues of justice related to new communication technologies.
As I begin to prepare my report to the assembly, I, too, am convinced that we must continue to affirm our common ecumenical journey as a pilgrimage. We are a movement, not a static institution, and the image of pilgrimage speaks best to our identity. Furthermore, the very concept has strong biblical and patristic bases. The first Christians were called “people of the way” (Acts 9,2). In the early Christian sources, the Christians were called those who walk together (syn-odoi), while for St John Chrisostomos, the Church was even called a syn-odos. The theme of the assembly, though questioned and even contested when it was chosen, shows today that it was providential. What else could be more timely than the search for reconciliation and unity? The pilgrimage of reconciliation and unity could be a strong guidance and direction for the future. Since reconciliation and unity cannot be achieved without affirming justice and peace, it can be an overarching theme for the period after Karlsruhe.
In closing, I want to express my gratitude again for your dedication to the fellowship. I also want to thank you for your prayers, support, and confidence in me as acting general secretary. It is an honour for me and for all the staff of the WCC to serve in strengthening the fellowship of member churches to fulfil their common calling to the glory of the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
For all the matters of decision on the agenda of this meeting, I pray for a spirit of togetherness and fellowship in which the members can speak, listen, discuss, and discern God’s will with honesty, trusting that God is changing hearts and minds and that God is leading the churches on the path of just peace, reconciliation, and love.
We are at the turning point in history, and many speak of the situation today as similar to 1946/48 when the WCC was founded. We need to stay together with strong bonds of love and commitment, our legacy for the period post-Karlsruhe being a strong and meaningful WCC.