1. Introduction

It is my privilege to address you and to participate with you in reflecting on the role of religion in addressing the coronavirus pandemic and global health and, for my part, to broach this topic through the recent experience of the World Council of Churches.

2. What we have done and are doing

Let me pose some questions, partly in self-reflection and partly in view of our shared labours:

  • How has the WCC responded to the pandemic?
  • Given our experience at the WCC, what role can we play—with each other, across religious lines, and with governments and civil society—in addressing the pandemic?
  • What promising insights have emerged that can foster deeper engagement and more effective multilateral action by the WCC and faith-based groups and their partners?

In the two years since the pandemic started, the World Council of Churches has, while mostly working remotely, reoriented its work to equip the world’s churches to address the healthcare and pastoral challenges posed by the pandemic and to minister in the presence of illness, death, and enormous disruption.

Since churches and the WCC are historically heavily identified with health and healing, a Ministry Support Team was assembled to field the many pastoral questions and concerns that have arisen in local and regional settings. This service quickly became a ready and much-used resource for churches, pastors, and individuals around the world.

Given that staff travel and conferences were suddenly out of the question, much of the effectiveness of the WCC in this period stemmed from its rapid development of communications vehicles that could share stories from the wider fellowship, report on COVID-related initiatives, and highlight good practices among churches. They have brought to light concrete examples of how faith communities are and can be adapting.

Digital innovations have also enabled the WCC’s many programmes to work together virtually with their key constituencies. Online prayers have become deep spiritual moments of bringing people together, with large participation from different parts of the world.

A number of important publications have been produced, focusing particularly on equipping the fellowship to respond to the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. An Ecumenical Global Health COVID-19 Response Framework laid out parameters of care. A joint statement on Serving a Wounded World in Interreligious Solidarity: A Christian Call to Reflection and Action during COVID-19 and Beyond was issued with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. And Healing the World: Eight Bible Studies for the Pandemic Era invited Christians to wrestle with their fear, grief, and uncertainty from within a biblical perspective.

A signal publication last year was Voices of Lament, Hope, and Courage: A Week of Prayer in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic, which was designed as a resource for use in prayer groups, congregational services, personal prayer, and in the pastoral accompaniment of those directly affected by the pandemic. 

In short, despite the formidable challenges that the pandemic has posed to the WCC, its effectiveness as a convenor of the worldwide fellowship of churches, as a catalyst for public witness, and as a community working in solidarity for justice and peace has, in many respects, actually been enhanced.

A year ago, the WCC appointed nine church leaders to join the 300 other “Vaccine Champions” mobilized by UNICEF, to raise awareness of the benefits of vaccination, to counter misinformation, and to nurture trust in the vaccination programmes

The WCC, through its executive committee,  has strongly condemned the global injustice and inequities emergent in the pandemic. It has called on governments, agencies, religious leaders, boards and leaders of corporations with ownership of patents and materials to exercise leadership and act together urgently to ensure broad, rapid, equitable, and affordable distribution of therapeutics and vaccines worldwide, to overcome this failure and to right this wrong.

5. Conclusion

Has the pandemic revealed any promising elements for our work together?

The learning from this pandemic has been of 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. Now we all more consciously value the connections we share with each other in family and community, nation and world. We evince a new openness to admitting and confronting historic injustices, and a new moral reckoning on race, class, and gender. We also more readily acknowledge and celebrate the concerns and insights of women, youth, Native peoples, and those who are routinely victimized by our economic systems and our systems of healthcare, immigration, asylum, and policing.

In such ways, perhaps the pandemic will seed a new readiness for real social change and commitment to our one humanity in this one world. Let us build on that!

Faith-based organizations—whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other—are uniquely positioned for practical local engagement with issues of healthcare and other local issues, while the formidable healthcare assets of religious groups make them credible advocates with governments and others for “vaccine justice” and enhanced healthcare infrastructure.

For that, I believe, we need a calm, reassuring faith in humanity, a realistic hope for the future, and a steadfast love that is active and all-inclusive. In partnership with all Christians and with all people of good will, we in the fellowship of churches from all over the world hope to contribute to that vital endeavour.

Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca
Acting General Secretary
World Council of Churches