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May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in their world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

This prayer of benediction written by the Benedictine Sr Ruth Fox, OSB, formed the conclusion of the sermon by Father Michael Lapsley, SSM, at the closing prayer gathering of the 10th Assembly of the WCC in Busan, Republic of Korea.1 After ten days of exhilarating and inspiring fellowship of Christians from all corners of the world, these were apt words, blessing and motivating our return to the villages, cities, communities, and churches from which we came to be the catalysts for a healed world. Lapsley's sermon was testimonial to the courage, generosity, compassion, and accompaniment that the gospel of Jesus engenders among his followers.

The words of the benediction potently imply that suffering, exclusion, divisions, and inadequacy continue to challenge Christian mission. Put another way, the margins and victims of exploitative structures and human greed persist and cannot be ignored by the church. Furthermore, rigid divisions that weaken common witness of God's people remain within the church. In his opening speech, WCC General Secretary Olav Tveit Fykse highlighted the continual call for solidarity within the church, which is fundamental to the identity derived from the cross of Jesus Christ, wherein God took the decisive step to be in preferential mode for the poor. The global gathering of Christians creates opportunities, forums, and space to hear diverse voices, to encounter difference, to engage in honest dialogue, and to become aware of the plurality and diversity of God's people.

Such was the gathering of the 10th Assembly of the WCC from 30 October to 8 November 2013. Delegates and representatives of different Christian traditions, sharing a basic common identity as followers of Jesus Christ, gathered to deliberate, share, encounter, decide, and envision the next phase of the ecumenical movement.

As a reflection from a mission perspective, this essay identifies areas of concern that continue to inform mission challenges and opportunities for the church. In a brief sketch of the assembly, underlining some of the salient features, followed by the main section, I will discuss critically the continuing mission tasks for the ecumenical movement and its churches. While this essay recognizes the fellowship of solidarity, practice of hospitality, and robust engagement of the WCC in the lives of communities – as was creatively reflected in the many aspects of the assembly – it also takes a critical posture in listening to the voices, concerns, emphasis, decisions, omissions, and actions observed during the assembly. This critical reflection is put forward only to generate deeper conversation and motivate the vibrant involvement of people of God in seeking the common good, a healed creation, and an inclusive community. God's mission as lived out in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth is life in all its fullness to every creature. This essay, by positioning itself at the location of those concerns and areas comprising the space of marginality through exclusion, complacency, and resistance, argues that God's mission of a healed, flourishing life for all requires radical solidarity, prophetic engagement, and an embrace of humility that is open to the surprises the Holy Spirit makes possible.

A sketch of the assembly

  1. Top of page
  2. A sketch of the assembly
  3. Salient features of the assembly
  4. WCC 10th Assembly: A reflection
  5. Biography

The theme of the 10th Assembly was “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.” This was the second WCC assembly in the continent of Asia, the first being in New Delhi in 1961. A number of factors made South Korea a momentous country to host the assembly: the painful division of the Korean people between two politically divided states and the desire for re-unification of the peninsula; the significant growth and subsequent role of Korean Christians in the global Christian community; the opportunity for the many strands of Christian traditions in Korea to host the ecumenical gathering; and the opportunity for the fellowship of global Christians to appreciate living amidst other religions practised in Korea, such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Shamanism.

According to Madang, the daily newspaper of the assembly, there were 2663 registered participants representing 141 countries from all regions – Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, North America, and the Pacific. The ten-day programme was composed of morning/evening prayers, Bible studies, six plenaries, business sessions, 21 ecumenical conversations, confessional meetings, and multiple Madang worshops and exhibitions. The Korean term and concept of Madang, the courtyard in a traditional Korean home where visitors and strangers are welcomed and hospitality shared, was used during the assembly. The Madang space was created so that the assembly participants could encounter Korean culture. The Madang also created space for the many ecumenical partners and churches to share, celebrate, and exchange gifts, and inform through exhibitions, live performances, and conversations. The colours of diverse cultures and peoples, the passionate voices of activists, the energy and creativity of the young, the fervent hope of the faithful from different parts of the world – all were palpable in the Madang, the space of encounter and hospitality. The effervescence of the crowd of participants and the hurried steps of earnest participants finding their ways to the halls/auditorium for the rich events of the assembly could be taken as measures of a vibrant global Christian community, committed to the ecumenical journey forged in 1948 in Amsterdam within the crucible of war, conflict, and immense human suffering.

Salient features of the assembly

  1. Top of page
  2. A sketch of the assembly
  3. Salient features of the assembly
  4. WCC 10th Assembly: A reflection
  5. Biography

The hospitality of the Korean Christians as hosts was unparalleled, perhaps in the whole history of the ecumenical movement. The friendly assembly volunteers in their orange t-shirts were shining examples of Christian hospitality shared with warm smile and untiring helpfulness. Assembly participants also experienced the legendary hospitality of Korean culture as they visited local Korean churches and places of worship. Despite language barriers, pastors and members of the congregation made extra efforts to welcome the ecumenical visitors and share warm fellowship. Charles B. “Chip” Hardwick, director of theology, worship and education of PCUSA, wrote of his visit to a small Presbyterian church where the pastor and wife presented a duet of the Lutheran hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” as a gesture of welcome to the Lutheran visitors. The sharing of such resources has been a vital part of the ecumenical fellowship; to worship together has been one of the earliest achievements of the ecumenical movement.

Related to the famous hospitality of the Korean people, the assembly also extended and accepted hospitality from different groups, both from global Christians and from members of other religions. During the plenaries, time was allotted to hear and receive greetings from many, such as the general secretary of All Africa Conference of Churches, Rev. D. Andre Karamaga; the executive secretary of the Lausanne Committee on Evangelisation, Michael Oh; Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations; Prof. Dr Din Syamsuddin, president/moderator of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace (ACRP), and many others.

The feature of hospitality of the 10th Assembly was also remarkable in the deliberate embrace of the “other” in many senses of the term. Korea has its own rich and vibrant cultural heritage and many skilled and talented artists, and along with Korean cultural exhibitions and performances, there were other Asian, Pacific cultural troupes that provided enriching cultural encounters beyond the host nations' culture.

Another significant feature was the role and presence of the media in all its form. The 10th Assembly will perhaps be a milestone in its making use of the latest information technology and social media to connect real time with the world beyond the immediate environ of the assembly.

As mentioned earlier, the Madang, the courtyard space, was a resourceful and unique feature of the 10th Assembly. The art displays, exhibitions, local crafts, café, information kiosk, WCC book stall, and performing stage in the Madang were informative, inspiring, and celebratory, and formed an excellent resource centre for networking as well as an “oasis” from the overwhelming daily schedules of structured gatherings.

The WCC assembly combines both business and Christian fellowship, where worship, debate, discussions, and presentations take place around the theme from different perspectives. The six thematic plenary sessions are a defining feature of the assembly; it was in these plenaries that scholars, theologians, missiologists, and activists presented their insights and analysis of the issues and concerns facing the church. The six plenaries were: Theme Plenary: God of Life, Lead Us to Justice and Peace; Asia Plenary: Living Together in God's Justice and Peace; Mission Plenary: A Call to Life-Affirming Witness; Unity Plenary: Unity in Christ, The Journey of the Fellowship; Justice Plenary: God of Life, Lead Us to Do Justice in Today's World; and Peace Plenary: God of Life, Lead Us to Build Peace in Today's World.

The plenaries were a vital part of the assembly, highlighting the issues and challenges for the churches as observed and understood by church leaders, activists, theologians, and scholars. A resourceful team of theologians, each expert in their area of scholarship and involvement, presented their reading of the times and crucial issues for the churches and the ecumenical movement. Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostals, young leaders, and renowned scholars, men and women, comprised the presenters of the thematic plenaries.

Ecumenical conversations were another feature of the assembly. There were 21 ecumenical conversations on topics of concerns and involvement of the churches. The topics ranged from justice to unity issues, and peace and mission concerns and included the following: “We must pray together if we are to stay together”; “Exploring Christian self-identity in a world of many faiths”; “Religions working together for peace and freedom”; “Economic of life: Overcoming greed to eradicate poverty”; “Middle East: Whose justice, what peace?”; “Churches' advocacy for children's rights”; “Ecumenical health and healing ministries”; and “Evangelism today: New ways for authentic discipleship.” Ecumenical conversations brought people together for sustained and critical dialogue on pressing issues for the churches in the ecumenical movement.

Madang workshops were another feature of the assembly that brought participants together in candid discussions to share practical wisdom from different contexts on a variety of issues. There were 88 such Madang workshops on issues such as “The many faces of global Pentecostalism”; “How to convert the private sector”; “Dialogue on sexuality”; “Just peace in Burma”; “Nuclear phaseout or a new atomic age”; “Eco-justice of Palestine”; “Gender and inter-religious dialogue”; and “We are workers, not slaves: Justice for migrants.” This list indicates the range and flavour of the diverse topics that the global ecumenical movement and the churches wrestle with in their effort to be the salt of the earth.

The Global Ecumenical Theological Institute (GETI) was another unique event. GETI was organized alongside the assembly and, under the leadership of Dietrich Werner and Cliff Kirkpatrick, brought together over 150 theological students representing different Christian traditions from around 60 countries. It was recognized as an innovative project by the team moderating the ecumenical conversation on “Developing effective leadership: Contextual ecumenical formation an theological education, with potential for global relevance in the formation of future ecumenical leaders.” This creative ecumenical project on global theological education provided excellent on-site ecumenical experience, leading the GETI participants to affirm: “On the basis of this experience we have come to the conclusion that there is a great need for theological education pursued in an ecumenical and dialogical way … we call on the WCC for the continuation of the GETI as part of its programme.”

The aspect of theological education pursued collectively in an ecumenical setting is emphasized here. It recognizes that the mission of theological education in the global church provides a life-line and energy to Christianity that is tuned to the times and can participate in articulating a vision both grounded in the gospel and informed by the expanding knowledge of the world. Bishop Desmond Tutu underscores the significance of ecumenical education and prophetic Christian leadership as he writes, “My stint with the T.E.F gave me the best possible preparation for my work in South Africa as we struggle against the viciousness of apartheid.”2

While the variety of media has provided ample descriptions of the 10th Assembly, the above recounting highlights the defining features to locate the present reflection. One note to mention: although voices and shared conversations are woven into the larger canvas of subjective reflection, rumination by nature is deliberately subjective. Here, I glean insights, observations, and critical remarks from other participants in an effort to create an – albeit limited – shared vision.3

WCC 10th Assembly: A reflection

  1. Top of page
  2. A sketch of the assembly
  3. Salient features of the assembly
  4. WCC 10th Assembly: A reflection
  5. Biography

The hospitality of the Korean host church, the lively conversations, the inspiring presentations, the uplifting worship, and the many other events of the WCC 10th Assembly created a truly affirmative experience for the global ecumenical movement and its churches. The business deliberations and reports of the many committees illustrate a community of Christians in robust conversation witnessing the values of the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth to a world that is divided, broken, and in conflict. The many decisions made reveal that the ecumenical movement is still a valued fellowship of Christians. Despite the diversity of traditions and theology, we share a common identity in confessing Christ together. The undecided and excluded business is also telling, revealing that unity amidst multiple diversities requires respectful yet radically honest conversation among the churches. It reveals the urgent relevance of the ecumenical movement and the platform it provides churches for critical and crucial conversation on pressing issues faced by the global church. Yet, the prophetic witness of the global Christian community need not be muted in the warm fellowship of followers of Jesus Christ. Uta Andree, Director of Missions Academy, University of Hamburg, Germany, contends that

the ecumenical movement has surely embraced a large spectrum of churches, bringing with it diversity, but also the difficulty in creating consensus for clear theological statements on pressing issues faced by the church. From a European perspective, the apparent indifference towards ethical and theological questions on matters such as nuclear energy, rights of LGBTs, human rights, runs the risk of making Christianity meaningless to the larger society today.

As powerfully emphasized in the new mission document of the WCC/CWME, Together Towards Life (TTL), mission is above all flourishing of life, which entails welfare, goodness, acceptance, freedom, human dignity, equality, and nurturing of all life as the values derived from the good news of Jesus of Nazareth. A church that is committed to the flourishing of life is an inclusive community, hence the TTL states, “Christians are called to acknowledge the sinful nature of all forms of discrimination and to transform unjust structures” (§49)

The gathering of the 10th Assembly provided the member churches of the WCC opportunity to deliberate on many issues, yet it was tellingly muted on certain topics. Srdjan Sremac, a younger theologian, laments candidly,

I missed discussion on other important topics such as sexuality, migration and the like. The question of homosexuality will be one of the most important theological issues in the 21st century but I did not hear anyone talking about this issue except a few examples on the margins of the assembly. How can we talk about justice if we are not going to include everyone in the discussion?

To exclude or to judge anyone who is different in sexual orientation, geographical location, or economic abilities is to err on the vision of a flourishing life. Sexual minorities and their rights, migrants and their human rights, human trafficking, and women's equality are issues that cannot be left to side-events like the Madang workshops and ecumenical conversations. The underlying human exploitation, dynamics of global economic structures, and violation of human dignity within these issues behove the church to a bold mission proclaiming the abundant life the triune God gives to all its creation (TTL, §1).

Despite the diversity of the Christian fellowship and the many theological positions it entails, the ecumenical movement and its churches have traversed a long journey of solidarity and share a rich history of growing together, attaining a certain degree of maturity. This heritage of ecumenical journey and achievements should provide the confidence to hear a diversity of opinions on issues that remain divisive, such as women's ordination, full communion, and sexuality, lest the fellowship becomes mere “good neighbourliness and occasional cooperation,” in the words of Michael Kinnamon.

The ecumenical movement and visible unity of sharing one eucharistic fellowship remain other mission challenges within the churches. Kinnamon, in his keynote lecture at the GETI titled, “New Contours of Ecumenism in 21st Century,” stated categorically that “addressing areas of divisions is highest ecumenical priority and basis of authentic Christian witness and mission.”4 Observing that “full communion with the churches still remains elusive” Peter Phan, calls the scenario “an ecumenical winter” caused largely by complacency, institutional interests, and ecclesiastical inertia.5 TTL recognizes the unity of the church as a mission task, the lack of which “still harms the authenticity and credibility of the fulfilment of God's mission in this world” (§61).

Admittedly, the ecumenical movement has achieved remarkable fellowship among the diversity of Christians over the decades. However, the exclusion at the table fellowship of the Lord's supper remains a painful division that makes the witness of the church a mere weak tradition or, at worst, a tolerated hypocrisy. The voice of theologians and learned scholars of the church and the insights of missiologists gleaned from communities of the faithful should provide bold confidence to continue the dialogue on reconciliation and full eucharistic fellowship of people sharing a common identity in confessing Jesus Christ. The petition “God of life, lead us to justice and peace” needs to embrace the unjust divisions and unsettled theological conflicts within the church. The mission of the church towards the kingdom of God, where life flourishes, requires that all boundaries are overcome, as Kinnamon succinctly summed up, “the church's unity is essential to its participation in missio Dei, that our unity is a sign of God's intent for all creation.”

The centenary of the World Missionary Conference in 2010 produced a statement titled “Edinburgh 2010 Common Call.” The fourth item of the statement addresses a vital issue, that is, power and the state: “Disturbed by the asymmetries and imbalances of power that divide and trouble us in church and world, we are called to repentance, to critical reflection on systems of power, and to accountable use of power structures.”6 Structures of power and the matrix of networks that creates the powerful and the powerless remain a constant mission concern for the ecumenical movement and its churches. The TTL reckons with the failure of the church in mission in relation to power: “[S]ometimes in practice [the church] is much more concerned with being in the centres of power, eating with the rich, and lobbying for money to maintain ecclesial bureaucracy” (§48). Despite the rhetoric of justice and inclusivity, there remain rigid power structures that are conventional: male over female, global North over global South, the advantaged over minorities.

Related to the imbalance of power, sadly, there exists within the church abuse of power by authorities. The parallel study group, “Mission and Power,” of Edinburgh 2010 categorical stated, “[D]espite the demographic shift of Christianity, the reality of economic and political dominance by the West remains.”7 The phenomenon of migration, militarization, and materialism are just examples of powerful domination by the interests of the wealthy global North. Rev. Prince Devanandan, Secretary of Methodist Mission and Ecumenical, expresses hope that the new mission document will help the churches to address the environmental and economic circumstances that create imbalances of power, which in turn produce migrants, refugees, and the poor.

Prophetic solidarity, inclusivity, minorities' rights, the hospitality shared in the eucharist, accountable use of power, multiple contextuality, ecumenical movement translated into local congregation, sensitivity to oral cultures for sharing the good news of the gospel, freedom of religions: all these are issues that continue to challenge and inform the missional tasks for the ecumenical movement and its churches. The new mission document of the WCC/CWME has concisely articulated the vision and tasks of mission for the church: mission is about life – abundant life that overflows from the love of the triune God (TTL, §1, §44, §68) for all humanity. Mission envisions life flourishing together in an inclusive community.

There are too many barriers, exclusions, and structures of domination denying life to some and maintaining boundaries. Hence, TTL has rightly emphasized margins, vulnerable people, and victims as central to informing and feeding the mission mandate of the church. Writing on migration, its consequences of human suffering, and the exposure of human failings, Daniel G. Groody states,

[W]hen it comes to commerce, we have borders that are becoming more and more open. When it comes to labor, however, we have borders that have become more and more restrictive. In brief, we have created a society that values goods and money more than human beings and human rights, which contradicts the biblical narrative.8

Consumer products, comfortable lifestyle for the few, and profit for the wealthy are dominant forces that define and direct living for many. The power of the wealthy and the mighty continues to create privileges for the few and marginalization of the many.

Amidst these misplaced priorities and this dominant narrative, the ecumenical movement and its churches are called to be the salt of the earth, witnessing to the good news of Jesus of Nazareth, ushering God's reign where life flourishes for all. This vision of Together Towards Life requires radical commitment, a prophetic vigour, openness to new insights, tolerance of new voices, and resistance to cliché and cliques that maintain status quo.

The WCC 10th Assembly drew to an end with much hope for the ecumenical movement and its churches, as it declares anew its commitment to a healed and inclusive world in its unity statement:

In pursing unity of the Church we will open ourselves to receive the gifts of each other's traditions, and offer our gifts to one another … We will continue theological conversation; giving attention to new voices and different methods of approach … we will work for more just, participatory and inclusive ways of living together.

Footnotes
  1. 1

    All references to the documents and events of the assembly are available at http://wcc2013.info/en/resources/documents.

  2. 2

    Desmond Tutu, “Golden Jubilee: Ecumenical Theological Education,” at wocati.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/MF_110_April_08.pdf.

  3. 3

    Apart from the many public voices and documents available at the 10th Assembly, there were also vibrant, rich, and passionate voices of the participants sharing conversations, discussions and critical responses. I have tried to gather some of these voices from Africa, Asia, Europe, New Zealand, and the US. The responses I have received are included in the reflection.

  4. 4
  5. 5

    Peter Phan, “Interreligious and Ecumenical Dialogue at Vatican II: Some Rethinking Required,” Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education 42 (September 2012), at http://epublications.marquette.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1769&context=conversations

  6. 6

    Edinburgh 2010 Common Call,” in Edinburgh 2010: Mission Today and Tomorrow, ed. Kirsteen Kim and Andrew Anderson (Oxford: Regnum Books International, 2011).

  7. 7

    Ibid., 146.

  8. 8

    Daniel G. Groody, “A Theology of Migration,” in Notre Dame Magazine, Fall 2004. For more on migration from a theological perspective, see Daniel G. Groody and Giocchino Campese , eds., A Promised Land, A Perilous Journey: Theological Perspectives on Migration (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008).

Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. A sketch of the assembly
  3. Salient features of the assembly
  4. WCC 10th Assembly: A reflection
  5. Biography
  • Dr Atola Longkumer teaches religions at the Leonard Theological College, Jabalpur, India. Her research interests are in Christian mission and writing native history; religious conversion; gender issues; inter-religious encounter/dialogue; and Christian mission and indigenous/tribal peoples' identity.