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An interview with WCC president Dr. Mary Tanner
People in the pew ask why can't we worship, live and work together now

By Stephen Webb
9/15/2006
[World Council of Churches]  Dr. Mary Tanner from the Church of England is a leading theologian and author who has been involved in the ecumenical movement in a variety of ways over the years. Among other contributions, she has led landmark studies and events, and moderated the WCC's Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order at Santiago de Compostela, Spain (1993).

Elected as one of the eight presidents of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at the 9th Assembly in Porto Alegre, Tanner speaks in the following interview about the promises and challenges lying ahead for the ecumenical movement, the role of the WCC, and why she thinks it is essential to work for full Eucharistic communion.

How did you first become involved in the ecumenical movement?

In a sense there never was a time when I was not involved in it. My father's family were Methodist and my mother's family Roman Catholic. They became Anglicans but growing up I often attended Methodist and Roman Catholic services. During the war I went to a Baptist Sunday school. So, from a very early age I became familiar with different traditions. At university I became an active member of the Student Christian Movement. My first contact with the WCC came in 1974 when I was invited to the Plenary Commission meeting of Faith and Order in Accra, Ghana. I went as a proxy for my Professor, Geoffrey Lampe, a committed ecumenist who was also concerned to bring younger theologians and women into the ecumenical movement. That meeting was a life-changing event for me.

You have been involved in the ecumenical movement for many years in many varied roles. What do you hope to accomplish now as a president of the WCC?

I hope to be a faithful and effective ambassador of the fellowship of churches, always open to listen to the experience of others. At a time of such brokenness and violence in the world I hope to be able to get across the message that for Christians being together in witnessing to the reconciling power of the Gospel is a more credible and authentic way than our divided lives. We need to be together in witness, in service, in acting to overcome violence and in helping to protect and safeguard the creation. And we need to work even harder to overcome those things that prevent us from being together in Eucharistic communion. The WCC is a crucial space for helping churches to engage with all of this, while listening more attentively to one another and not simply seeing things from our own perspective.

How do you see the current situation of the ecumenical movement? What is the role of the WCC?

As to the current situation of the ecumenical movement, there are both hopeful signs and also new tensions and challenges.

Attempts at widening the fellowship in the proposed Global Forum, which includes Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and Pentecostal besides WCC member churches, is an important initiative. The central committee has just set in motion important work together on the Middle East, on migration and focused us on the struggle for peace, with an International Peace Convocation at the culmination of the Decade to Overcome Violence in 2011. Dialogue with those of other faiths is gaining increased attention. There are some positive moves in agreements of closer communion between Lutherans, Reformed, Methodists, Old Catholics and Anglicans as well as important advances in some of the bilateral theological dialogues, like the one between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics. The dialogue between the latter and the Orthodox is due to resume its work. So, there are some positive signs that we are not in a winter of ecumenism, and the contribution of young people at the Porto Alegre assembly and again in the central committee are signs of new life and energy.

But there are also signs of fragility and new challenges. Particularly in the area of ethical life, some issues are threatening new divisions both within and between churches. We are all challenged to think about how we use sources of the Christian tradition in finding the mind of Christ for today's church and challenged to confront new forms of fundamentalism. The question of the interpretation of Scripture lies at the heart of some of the hardest issues before us. There remains the challenge of exploring common concerns with those who seem often to be less interested in unity as it has been defined by the classical ecumenical movement, and yet who have so much to teach about Christian commitment and passion for evangelism.

As to the role of the WCC, high priority for me is the primary aim of the Council to call the churches to visible unity. The quest for unity cannot be separated from the quest for human unity and for the preservation and dignity of creation. It can't be separated from issues of justice, terrorism, and everything else that affects the dignity of life. One of the challenges for the churches in the WCC is to go on affirming that integrated vision.

How does worship in a local congregation feed or nurture your faith and how do you relate that local, more intimate experience, to the broader global concerns you must consider as a WCC president?

For more than thirty years our family has lived in a parish in a commuter town outside London. The life of the worshipping community has nourished me and the congregation has supported my ecumenical work by its prayers, showing great interest in my travels and experiences of other Christians around the world. I have been able to tell them something of my ecumenical experiences in my preaching and in writings. And in reverse, wherever I have been in the world, worshipping in different local churches, I have brought greetings from my local congregation. I often remember that oceans divide but the Eucharist, Sunday by Sunday, unites - that's why it is so important that we work for full Eucharistic communion. Locally we have a Churches Together Forum where Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and others meet regularly. Local ecumenism is of primary importance but it has to be held together with what is happening in the wider ecumenical fellowship, both national and international.

What will you take from Geneva that will contribute to or help guide churches in England or Europe?

From the latest meeting of the central committee there are many things that can help and challenge the churches in England. The two emphases in the address of the general secretary, on migration and the Middle East, are certainly areas where the churches in England would benefit from listening to the responses and experiences of those from other regions. And the focusing on a number of global issues - children in conflicts, just trade, our response to HIV and AIDS, issues of the Sudan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines all require our attention. It's so easy to become insular and inward-looking and the WCC is a space to make us think outside our immediate concerns and priorities. Also, the seven-year process on the document Called to be the One Church will be particularly valuable. I hope too that the British churches will get more actively involved in the Decade to Overcome Violence as a part of the Europe focus in 2007 and in the world convocation at the culmination of the Decade.

The central committee makes statements addressing local churches; do members of your congregation ever give you messages to tell the world church leaders?

The constant theme is "tell them to get on with it... why can't we worship, live and work together now?" Many lay people can't see why it takes church leaders and theologians so long.

[Biographical information and a high-resolution photo of Tanner are available at: http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/press_corner/tanner-bio-e.html]