bulletin 2/2013

10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan/South Korea

3 questions and answers for author Martin Hirzel, Executive Secretary for Ecumenism and religious communities.

By Martin Hirzel.

Since the founding event in Amsterdam in 1948, Assemblies are central moments in the life of the World Council of Churches (WCC), with roughly 350 member churches the most representative and diverse community of churches across the globe. The 10th WCC Assembly took place October 30 to November 8, 2013, in the South Korean seaport of Busan.

The important thing is not the size of this mega event with its roughly 3000 attendees. It’s all about compiling issues and tasks the churches are facing today, sharing insights and outlooks, and coming together to praise the Lord who is steering the church through the storms of the ages. Here, the church shows itself as ecclesia peregrinans, the wandering church, or the pilgrim people of God who are traveling the world towards the kingdom of God, which here and there appears to us in glimpses, taking shape already. Accordingly, the preparation process for the Assembly has been called a “pilgrimage to Busan” to show that the churches are on their various ways and paths, sharing the same horizon. In this context, the church turns out to be essentially a community that transcends borders, and the quest for church unity appears primarily as being on the road together. For the first time, the WCC holds its Assembly in East Asia. Korea, with its conflict between North and South Korea, with the upsides and downsides of the booming South Korean economy, and with its growing Christian presence, offers a vivid and exciting context.

The motto guiding the ecumenical gathering in Busan is: “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.” The direction of ecumenical cooperation for the next eight years is determined in plenary meetings on the topics of Christian unity, justice and peace, in ecumenical conversations and workshops on current issues, as well as in business meetings. In conversation with and awareness of the other, as well as in prayer and in joint worship services, attendees look for ways to deepen the existing community and the mission of the church in today’s world. How can the unity of the church be revitalized beyond the barriers between the individual member churches that often seem to be so unshakeable? How can the member churches, through the WCC, answer the call to Jesus Christ’s one church together and with lasting effect; how can they invite people to join the community with God and with each other; how can they prophetically dedicate themselves to peace and justice; and how can they serve humankind? The most recent WCC documents provide some background for this thinking process in Busan: “The Church: Towards a Common Vision,” “Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes,” “Economy of Life, Justice and Peace for All: a Call to Action.” In the context of the WCC’s work on issues of peace and justice in a global dimension, one term that has become more and more important in the ecumenical talks of the last few years is “just peace,” which encompasses the constitutive interconnection of peace and justice and addresses both of these qualities of human coexistence beyond their genuine aspects (absence of military conflicts, balanced distribution of material goods) in the context of various ethical situations (ecology, economy, gender relations, etc.).

In a presentation to students in Cambridge, the WCC’s Secretary General, Norwegian pastor Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, identified three areas of challenges facing the WCC in the course of the coming years: First, the lack of visible unity in the context of the Eucharist; second, the inconsistent positioning of the churches regarding anthropological questions in the context of the gender debate, reproductive medicine, human sexuality and family ethics; and third, the issue of how concrete the churches’ contributions to more justice and peace in the world can and should be.

But the WCC also faces big challenges of a very practical sort: its dwindling financial resources. It was not least of all an urgent need to recapitalize its pension fund that made the WCC start a process of development and improvement of its real estate in an excellent Geneva location some time ago. According to Secretary General Tveit, “Geneva […] represents a legacy and an identity for the ecumenical movement” that is worth maintaining. This process of external structural adaptations is accompanied by a reflection on the WCC’s role that has been going on for some time. According to these reflections, the WCC wants to be a common voice for the churches, to maintain ecumenical cooperation and to promote a sense of shared identity within the ecumenical movement. This also includes strengthening the relationships to the member churches and contemplating the unique added value of the WCC’s work. A prerequisite for these goals is the effective and efficient work of the WCC’s executive bodies and of its Geneva office. For this purpose, the Assembly in Busan adopts a revision of the WCC constitution and bylaws that will provide for a reorganization of the governance structure and essentially involve an improved allocation of tasks between the Central and Executive Committees, as well as a closer involvement of the commissions.

For the Reformed churches in Switzerland, the WCC still is, despite its loss of size and all the justified criticism directed at it, the best way to promote the worldwide unity of churches and to live this unity, to take on the task of preaching the Gospel and to bear joint witness for justice, peace and reconciliation in the world. For these things, the WCC offers the FSPC and its member churches a platform and the opportunity to speak as a community of churches, practicing solidarity among the churches and reminding them of their mutual accountability rooted in the fact that the church receives all things from God. One important example of the WCC’s involvement is its continued support of the churches in the Middle East.

The FSPC is represented by a delegation of four to the Assembly in Busan (Gottfried Locher, Pia Grossholz-Fahrni, Serge Fornerod and Martin Hirzel). In addition, representatives from Bread for All, Mission21 and a large group from the Reformed Churches Berne-Jura- Solothurn, among them many young people, also attend the Assembly.