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WCC meeting concludes with seven-year plan for ecumenical action and advocacy

By Matthew Davies
9/15/2006
[Episcopal News Service] 

A new framework of ecumenical action and advocacy was adopted by the World Council of Churches' (WCC) central committee, meeting, held August 30-September 6 in Geneva, Switzerland, which endorsed a reorganized program strategy highlighting six focus areas for the next seven years.

Bishop Christopher Epting, deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, represented Episcopal WCC delegate and executive council member Sarah Harte at the meeting. "The meeting was the first since the Porto Alegre Assembly," he said, "And our task was to translate the challenges and priorities of that assembly into some kind of programmatic design." 

The six focus areas were identified as: WCC and the ecumenical movement in the 21st century; unity, mission, evangelism and spirituality; public witness: addressing power, affirming peace; justice, diakonia and responsibility for creation; ecumenical and faith formation; and interreligious dialogue and cooperation.

Communication will also receive renewed priority as the WCC reinforces efforts to raise its own profile and to influence the international agenda, according to a WCC press release.

The central committee serves as the main decision-making body of the WCC between assemblies. This is the first meeting of the new committee, elected in February 2006 at the 9th Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Fifteen Anglicans were elected as members of the 150-person body, representing 10 percent of the total. They come from many different churches and regions of the Anglican Communion, including Australia, Burundi, Canada, England, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa, Spain, Uganda, the U.S., Wales, West Africa, and the West Indies. The Anglican membership includes eight women and seven men, seven lay persons and eight ordained persons, as well as three youth.

Epting underscored the importance of prioritizing interfaith dialogue and cooperation. "This is an area the WCC should 'major in,'" he said, noting that the issues are not just Episcopal-Muslim-Jewish dialogue, but Christian-Muslim-Jewish dialogue.

At the close of the meeting, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, WCC secretary general, emphasized the "urgently critical nature" of interreligious dialogue in all aspects of the Council's work.

A series of statements on issues of international concern and the approval of a new ecumenical advocacy initiative for peace in the Middle East emerged from the meeting. The committee called for "a sustainable and unconditional ceasefire and lifting the blockade in Lebanon."

"The statement on Lebanon showed a certain maturity," Epting said. "It achieved more balance to Israel's legitimate security concerns and our ongoing commitment to justice for the Palestinians and for innocent civilians on all sides who are the primary victims of terrorism and war."

Other international issues on which the committee agreed included the ongoing conflicts in Northern Uganda, Sri Lanka, the Darfur region of Sudan, a compassionate response to HIV/AIDS, extra-judicial killings in the Philippines, and a report on just trade presented by the Church of England's Bishop Tom Butler of the Diocese of Southwark.

Epting said that the Episcopal Church has special concern with all conflict areas of the world, but particularly the Philippines as it enjoys a full communion relationship with the Philippine Independent Church. "It was reassuring to observe the WCC stand alongside Christians such as these who are making courageous witness for justice in that troubled country," he said.

In line with priorities agreed at the WCC's 9th Assembly, which met February 14-23 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a new 25-member youth body was established to foster greater participation and support for young ecumenical leaders in the life and work of the Council.

"The ecumenical movement in general, and the WCC in particular, desperately needs the energy, vision and leadership of young people today," said Epting, noting his excitement for the new development. "Hopefully, this new youth body can be one more way of providing this."

Improved financial stability for the Council was reported at the meeting. Epting, who served on the finance committee from 2002 to 2005, said it was encouraging that the WCC seemed to have turned a corner with regard to its finances. "This was the third straight year of a balanced budget, and I believe responsible decisions have been made for the future," he said.

A leading Anglican ecumenist from the Church of England, Dr. Mary Tanner, is one of eight regional presidents of the WCC.

A member of the WCC Faith and Order Commission since 1974 -- serving as moderator from 1991 to 1998 -- and a member of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC since its inception in 1991, Tanner has been involved in various ecumenical conversations on behalf of the Anglican Communion.

An interview with Tanner, titled "People in the pew ask why can't we worship, live and work together now?" is available at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_77838_ENG_HTM.htm

She made an impassioned plea, Epting said, "for us not to forget the faith and order component of the WCC's work." In particular, churches are asked to respond over the next few years to two new documents, "Called to be One" and "The Nature and Mission of the Church." Epting said that the Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations and his office will ensure that happens.

Concluding his first meeting as central committee moderator, the Rev. Dr. Walter Altmann underscored that the churches in the WCC were continuing "a journey of gratitude for God's marvelous gift of unity," and at a press conference following the meeting he said, "Ecumenical commitment is more necessary than ever."

Further information about the WCC meeting is available at: http://www.oikoumene.org/en/events-sections/cc2006.html.