Welcome and gratitude

Your Eminences, Your Graces, Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ, welcome to the second online WCC central committee meeting. I regret we could not meet in person in Geneva as hoped. We thank God for providing another way to meet – to pray together, to share with one another and to move together on our pilgrimage of justice and peace.

I would like to begin with words of gratitude to the leadership of the central committee – to our moderator, Dr Agnes Abuom, and to our vice-moderators, His Eminence Metropolitan Prof. Dr Gennadios of Sassima and Bishop Mary Ann Swenson. Their leadership provides great strength and encouragement. I want also to recognize the members of the executive committee for their accompaniment and wisdom in providing direction.

I am deeply grateful to each one of you here today – to the members of the central committee and our advisors. Your commitment to the WCC fellowship of member churches and the one ecumenical movement is remarkable.

“Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.” This is the theme of our meeting and the theme taking us to the assembly in Karlsruhe in just seven months. The theme announces the love of God in Christ for all creation. It speaks to the heart of our faith and the reason for our fellowship. It inspires our common calling to walk, pray and work together for justice and peace – for reconciliation and unity – for renewal and healing. 

A story of inspired commitment and resilience

We are living through an extraordinary time together – a time of great loss, a time of physical separation, a time of increased vulnerability and injustice, a time of great change. The commitment and resilience of the churches to continue their ministry and diaconal service to all God’s people have been inspiring and transformative. 

It continues to amaze me how much we have achieved together as a fellowship of churches in spite of the pandemic. Our governing bodies, committees, commissions, working groups, advisory groups and ecumenical networks have all continued to function with inspired commitment and resilience. We have made this more visible through monthly accountability reports to the central committee and also through new technologies, webinars and other ways of sharing our work and witness with the world.

I am often asked what the WCC has learned during the pandemic. My response has been to reflect on how we have more deeply encountered our shared vulnerability and shared fate as one humanity. We feel more keenly the fragility of human life, indeed, of all life on this planet. The pandemic has not only reinforced the experience of our shared vulnerability, but also our community as human beings, our solidarity across divides and borders, and our capacity for empathy, understanding, and even sacrifice.

Fundamentally, we have learned the real importance of our work as the WCC, grounded in our faith identity, indeed because of it. Our identity as a global Christian fellowship has enabled us to address this crisis in its deeper cultural and spiritual dimensions, to break barriers and build bridges, and to work relationally with one another.

I believe the pandemic has strengthened the spiritual dimension of our work and our togetherness as a fellowship of churches. It has been important to offer an affirmation of our hope and trust in God, even amid our vulnerability.

In the past, we said that the WCC was a faith-based organization. Now I would describe the WCC as a spiritual-based organization. The heart of our fellowship is the ecumenical spirituality we share, as the flame that fuels our drive for justice and sparks our work for peace. This spiritually inspired work of the WCC has a much broader reach. It aims to achieve the unity of Christians and of all creation and overcome divisions to serve all humanity in its quest for justice and peace.

Over the past two years I have seen how important it is to speak with a spiritual language in WCC statements and speeches, a language that people in the churches can identify with but which is also recognized by people in other faith communities. Despite our different faith identities, when we speak a spiritual language and speak to one another as people of faith, we discover that we have something in common that brings us closer.

On the way to the WCC 11th Assembly

We are on our way to the WCC 11th Assembly in Karlsruhe. The assembly will be a milestone in the journey of the churches as they gather together in a spirit of prayer to advance the primary purpose of the WCC as a “fellowship of churches calling one another to visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ, through witness and service to the world, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe.”[1]

“Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.” The theme of the assembly has become increasingly important in our work. It is deeply theological and deeply spiritual. Not only does it affirm the love of God in Christ for all creation, but it inspires our response as disciples of Christ, following the example of his compassionate and healing love.

The pandemic will not stop us from meeting in Germany. We may have questions about how we will meet, but I am convinced we must meet in Karlsruhe. We have in place the processes needed to monitor the situation, mitigate risks and ensure delegates and others will meet safely. We have strengthened collaboration with our hosts and the German Foreign Ministry to facilitate health and visa requirements.

We can all be inspired by the response of the churches to the central committee invitation to meet in Germany. Nearly 90 percent of the member churches have nominated their delegations. This is unprecedented. It shows the commitment and yearning of the churches to be together.

The assembly comes at a time when the world seems more divided than ever, with increasing disparities, increasing racism, increasing populism and increasing violence. The theme of the assembly will encourage the delegates to meet in a spirit of love, calling one another to visible unity in one faith in order that the world may believe.

Our world needs love, reconciliation and unity more than ever. The focus on love and compassion – on reconciliation, unity and healing – in the context of a global pandemic will mark this assembly in the history of the World Council of Churches.

Signs of hope on the way

What gives me hope in times of uncertainty are the life and witness of our member churches. Much of our work is still online, but it has become possible to travel again. I was able to visit many churches in the past months. The attached list of travel, visits and meetings provides an itinerary since the central committee met in June last year.

Every visit is unique and every church is a blessing to our fellowship. I was deeply moved by my visit to Lebanon in December, where I was able to visit our WCC president, His Beatitude John X, primate of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East. The people of Beirut in particular have suffered tremendously and I was moved to witness their resilience. I was inspired by His Beatitude’s statement that “there is not selection and priority when we try to help; all people are in the image of God and are our brothers and sisters who are waiting for our accompaniment and support.”

Also in Lebanon, I met with the Middle East Council of Churches general secretary and staff. The situation in the region is critical. We have all seen the statement of the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem on the threat to the Christian presence in the Holy Land. Our newly restructured Jerusalem Liaison Office is monitoring the situation and in cooperation with the local churches continues in a meaningful way our work and presence in the Holy Land. As a fellowship of churches, we must stand in solidarity and act with determination to oppose attacks and incursions by radical groups who seek to destroy the religious and cultural diversity of the region.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, with a focus on the Middle East this year, has helped the fellowship deepen its commitment and solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the region. We must continue.

Our work on interreligious dialogue and cooperation has continued and strengthened. The list of visits and events of cooperation with interfaith partners in the attached list speaks for itself. I want just to share shortly about my most recent experience. I just returned to Geneva from a meeting of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity in Dubai. The Higher Committee on Human Fraternity was founded following the signing in February 2019 of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Prof. Dr Ahmed Al-Tayeb. Why is this important? Because it brings together representatives from the three Abrahamic faiths and personalities from the secular world. Its whole basis is that we share one humanity. We are all God’s children. We come from one family, and we are sisters and brothers despite our differences.  The WCC has a high profile in all such meetings, and its vision and spiritual perspective as a faith-based organization are deeply appreciated.

A strong foundation for our future

As acting general secretary, I have made the assembly a priority because it is the moment when the fellowship will set direction for the future and renew the churches’ commitment to unity and common witness in Christ.

My commitment to the fellowship extends beyond the assembly to ensure a strong foundation for my successor and the next central committee. Following the decision of the executive committee during its meeting of November 2021, we have posted openings for three staff leadership positions and announced the search for two new programme directors to lead WCC work on unity, mission, public witness and diakonia. We are also recruiting directors for the Faith and Order Commission and the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. Together with the executive committee, we want to ensure that the WCC secretariat has the skills and experience needed to serve the fellowship in the years to come.

Looking ahead to WCC’s long-term future in international Geneva, my commitment to a strong foundation includes providing leadership for the Green Village property development. Since the central committee last met, I am pleased to report that WCC and Implenia have received in November a non-binding offer for the sale of the Kyoto land and project. Kyoto will be the largest building on the estate; its sale is critical to the project and is keenly awaited. The potential investor is one of the major Swiss institutional investors in real estate in Europe. Following some challenges suffered under the pandemic conditions, we trust that now we have a good way forward. Further to the recommendation of the steering committee, executive committee has supported the approach to banks to seek bridging finance for the Kyoto construction, in case this may be required. The reasons and the risks implied, should such a strategy prove necessary, are described in the Green Village Update (GEN FIN 05).

With gratitude for the solidarity of all ecumenical partners, and member churches, I report that the preliminary financial results 2021 present total income of CHF 21.9 million, increased from 2020 (when compared without land sales). With total expenditure at CHF 20.9 million, WCC reports a net increase in funds and reserves of CHF 1 million. While preliminary at this stage, these results also present a solid basis for this year, with general reserves steady, and the opportunity to meet executive committee’s guidance concerning the allocation of membership contributions to the assembly fund in our financial closing for 2021.

The work of this central committee will also strengthen our foundation – both spiritually and in terms of the decisions you will make by consensus. Document GEN 05 presents an overview of matters for referral and decisions at this meeting. It will be presented tomorrow by the moderators of our standing committees. I would like to mention a few items.

Before you are a number of important resource documents that reflect the dialogue, consultation and commitment of many years of work. They are resources for the churches, for the assembly and for our pilgrimage of justice and peace together. 

Also before you is the report of the working group on constitution and rules. I have worked closely with the group and appreciate their wisdom and experience. Their proposals for revision will strengthen the WCC commitment to the ethos and practice of consensus decision-making.

Also on the agenda is discussion on a draft unity statement. The response of the central committee will encourage further work in anticipation of the assembly unity statement. 

Finally, it gives me great joy to report that a consensus has developed in favour of the applications for membership in the WCC of the First African Mission Church (in Nigeria) and the Apostolic Faith Mission of South Africa. Both the permanent committee on consensus and collaboration and the executive committee recommend receiving both churches as new members. Receiving new member churches will be a cause for celebration.

Before I conclude, I would like to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation to the entire WCC staff. Their dedication to the fellowship and their innovations during the pandemic have helped maintain a vibrant fellowship.

When the churches met in Amsterdam in 1948, in the aftermath of World War II, they made the commitment to “stay together.” At the WCC 10th Assembly in Busan in the fall of 2013, the churches made the commitment to “move together” on a pilgrimage of justice and peace. Together with the climate emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a strong and brutal reminder that human beings belong to creation and have been given the mandate to care for it. The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and exposed still further existing structural injustice.

The assembly needs to address this situation and speak to the world in clear and direct ways that all may understand. It cannot gloss over the deep, multifaceted civilizational crisis that faces the world. The assembly has the chance to explore how Christ’s love opens a horizon of hope. This biblical and theological approach also obliges us to enter into dialogue with people of other faiths and people who have no faith but share the same values as us because they are also members of the same human family assumed in the incarnation.

I pray that as we journey to Karlsruhe and beyond the WCC 11th Assembly, our pilgrimage will continue as a response to God’s amazing love for all creation. I pray that the love and compassion of Christ will inspire the churches’ commitment to reconciliation and unity, for the whole human family.

Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca
acting general secretary
World Council of Churches

 


[1] Purpose and Functions, Article III, WCC Constitution and Rules.