"God has given us the gift of life and we have abused it." These words are from the report by Dr. Samuel Kobia, Secretary General of the World Council of Churches (WCC), to the gathered delegates of the ninth General Assembly that opened on February 14 in Porto Alegre, Brazil with the theme "God, in your grace, transform the world." Bringing together over 3,000 participants from more than 350 churches, communions, and other Christian organisations, the assembly is the highest governing body of the WCC and meets about every seven years.
As Dr. Kobia, who is a Methodist from Kenya, has consistently said assemblies are often turning points in the life of the World Council, and there are a number of significant issues on the agenda for this event. In his address to a pre-assembly youth event, Dr. Kobia outlined several four major points that he hopes will inform the discussion in plenary sessions at the assembly. First, he raised the question of how each of the member churches of the WCC will find a way to exist in the world today in light of both the shrinking interest in denominations by young people, and also the rise of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements in many parts of the world. Second, he opened the question of the way in which human beings relate to the question of identity, especially as this regards the significant concern about inter-faith dialogue in the world today. Third, he reminded those present about the WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence from 2000-2010, and he reiterated that the churches must unite and further push for a reduction of violence at all levels of life from individual families and communities to international conflicts. In the fourth point he said, "The issue of climate change is the most significant threat to our world at large at the present time and that it is affecting our world in ways of which we are not even aware."
There is a significant Anglican presence at the assembly, with over 200 people from around the world participating as delegates, stewards, invited participants, delegated representatives, as well as a significant number of local Brazilian Anglican volunteers. Especially relevant is the fact that there are at least fifty Anglican youth under the age of thirty attending the event, a development that was highlighted by the Most Revd Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his greetings to the Assembly, presented on his behalf by the Revd Canon Kenneth Kearon, Secretary General of the Anglican Communion: "I very much welcome the participation of young people at this assembly to help maintain a focus on the unfolding needs of the future and not just the patterns of the past." The Archbishop will be attending the Assembly on 17 February, and will address the delegates in a plenary session about Christian Identity and Religious Plurality.
The local Province of the Anglican Communion, Igreja Anglicana Episcopal has taken active in the planning and now the running of the assembly with our Brazilian ecumenical partners. They are offering daily news reports in Portuguese on their website. The local anglicans are also sponsoring hospitality and worship opportunities for their anglican partners.
There are "Anglican" stewards and youth delegates come from all corners of the Communion. Yarany Espinosa, a steward from the Episcopal Church of Panama, said that the assembly is a very good opportunity for youth to to meet other Christians from all over the world and learn about their different cultures. Horatio Smith, a steward from the Anglican Province of the West Indies, agreed. He said, "Learning about these other cultures can help him to come up with new and innovative solutions to the problems that we all face."
The Assembly theme about transformation is central to all aspects of the participants' life together. Canon Kenneth Kearon stated that he believes that the WCC "captured the imagination of the Christian world with this theme". He said, "At a time when many Christian churches seem to be looking inwards, this theme refocuses the view outwards on our ability to act together through God's grace to transform the whole world."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu will be attending the Assembly to speak on the Assembly theme later in the week.
The Rt Revd Duke Akamisoko, bishop of the Diocese of Zonkwa in the Anglican Church of Nigeria, mentioned that the emphasis at the Assembly on inter-faith dialogue was particularly "useful and important" to him because of the level of conflict between Christians and Muslims in his country at this time. There are a number of invited guests from other faiths attending the Assembly and they will participate, along with delegates and youth, in a series of 22 ecumenical conversations about important topics in the world today.
One major change at this Assembly is a move to a consensus model of decision-making, rather than the model of parliamentary debate that had been used in the past, and this is one of the changes to come out of the report of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC that was presented to participants in the opening plenary. The consensus model allows the voices of minority groups at the Assembly to be heard more clearly and also facilitates decision-making where all will come to a consensus on a decision, rather than one party having to loose in a formal vote. Speaking about this change, the Revd Canon Gregory Cameron, Deputy Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, and a expert on canon law, said that by moving to a process of consensus decision-making the WCC is setting a superb example. He said, "The WCC has taken a bold step towards showing how Christians seek to move forward together rather than by division and opposition and this, perhaps, can be a good example to other Christian communities."
The Assembly continues until 23 February.
Report by Jamie McMahon, a student volunteer from Durham, UK. Canon Jim Rosenthal contributed to this story
Daily news and webcasts from the Assembly are available at http://www.wcc-assembly.info