World Council of Churches veteran reflects on two decades

 — Jan. 29, 199929 janv. 1999

by United Methodist News Service

As the World Council of Churches heads into a new millennium, it does so with a little less Love than it has had for the last two decades.

For Jan Love, the WCC‘s December meeting in Zimbabwe marked the end of 23 years of heavy involvement in the ecumenical organization. That’s half a lifetime for the 46-year-old United Methodist.

“You get hooked,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Columbia, S.C. “And you get hooked not only on ecumenism … but you get hooked on the reality that this particular institution has an extraordinary gift to give to the search for Christian unity, and there really isn’t anything like it.” Love has worked in the highest circles of the WCC as a member of the Central Committee and the Executive Committee. She has been influential in speaking out on social justice issues and particularly inclusiveness for youth and women in the council. She also has been a cornerstone of the United Methodist Church’s presence at the WCC assemblies, serving as a guide for other delegates by dint of her experience.

“For the last two or three seven-year periods, she has served as a mentor for all of those delegates who have represented our denomination at the assembly meetings and particularly those who were chosen to serve on the Central Committee,” said Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, who served on the central and executive committees from 1991 to 1998. Talbert heads the United Methodist Church’s San Francisco Area.

“For me personally, she was a great resource and a source of comfort, as I used her counsel in many of the decisions I had to make in the continuing work of the council and particularly its Executive Committee,” Talbert said.

Love wondered during the middle of her last term if the time was approaching for her to move on. After two decades, it was “long past time” to make room for someone else, she said.

However, in late 1997, people began talking to her in earnest about being a candidate for moderator, the top elected post in the council. The next election would be at the Eighth Assembly, set for Dec. 3-14, 1998, in Harare.

That idea had been broached with her before, and she had dismissed it. This time, however, one of those encouraging her was His Holiness Aram I, the WCC moderator and Catholicos of Cilicia (the Armenian Orthodox Church). The WCC was approaching the end of its Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, and some felt it was time for a woman to take the top spot in the 50-year-old organization. Love was trusted by the male-dominated Orthodox Church.

During the months preceding the assembly, the dynamic in the WCC changed. Several Orthodox leaders voiced their dissatisfaction with the lack of influence that their churches had in the council, which they perceived as Protestant-dominated. People began talking about re-electing Aram I partly as a step toward easing the “Orthodox crisis.” Shortly after the Harare assembly got under way, Love withdrew her name and gave her support to Aram I.

She wasn’t disappointed at not being elected moderator, she said. The prospect had excited her, she said, but “I never felt it in the same way that other people did.”

“I feel happy about sticking with the process,” she said. “I feel happy that I did it with good spirit and integrity and that I ended up confirming the conviction I had held for quite a few years that it was time to move on.”

Upon her departure, Love was the longest-standing member of the Central Committee from the United Methodist Church. The only other person from the denomination who had such a lengthy tenure was Bishop James Mathews, who served on the committee for 22 years, until 1983.

Love was 23 when she joined the committee, but she was no stranger to the workings of the institutional church. By the time she attended her first assembly in Nairobi in 1975, she had worked in national circles of the United Methodist Church for six years. She had been a member of the Board of Missions, the predecessor of the Board of Global Ministries, at age 17.

She went to Nairobi with a strong sense of her Methodist heritage. “I was eager to make a difference,” she said.

Her initial term on the Central Committee, from 1975 to 1983, led to other committee appointments and more involvement. She was particularly outspoken on social justice issues.

At the 1983 assembly in Vancouver, Canada, she found herself thrust into an “unplanned, prominent role.” She became the rapporteur of the Program Guidelines Committee, taking on the primary task of writing the committee’s report. She ended up addressing the assembly, remaining in front of the delegates for two or three hours while the report was debated.

That led to other decision-making roles and eventually a spot on the Executive Committee. She was then named to head the program unit on justice and service.

“1983 was a very big turning point for me,” she said, “in terms of going from sort of an ordinary participation … to somebody who is intimately involved in lots of the decisions that were made.”

She remained on the Executive Committee until the 1991 assembly in Canberra, Australia. Her 1983-1991 term was a busy period, with full committee meetings every six months and other gatherings in between. It was also personally taxing for someone with a small child and a demanding career as an academic.

Love succeeded in getting Talbert onto the committee in 1991, ensuring a United Methodist presence on that influential board after her term ended. She still maintained a heavy workload, however, taking on another big assignment: chairing the search committee for a new general secretary to succeed the Rev. Emilio Castro of Uruguay, also a Methodist.

“It was an extraordinary opportunity and a wonderful privilege, and very, very tough work, some of the toughest work I’ve ever done in my life,” she said. That assignment culminated with the Rev. Konrad Raiser of the Evangelical Church in Germany becoming general secretary in 1992.

Looking back on her achievements, Love said she played a key role in helping orient the United Methodist Church to the World Council. The council is a significant arena in which the denomination has a contribution to make, she said.

“What I feel consistently rather good about is that I said what I meant, and I meant what I said, in a very consistent way. So I tried hard, and I think I succeeded in helping bring clarity to issues and processes in the council when sometimes they were at very difficult points and hard for many to discern the way.”

Reflecting on highlights of the past two decades, Love said women have made a large imprint on the council. She feels good about the gains women have made, she said. However, she was disappointed that no clear follow-up to the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women festival was written into the council’s program of work, she said. And for only two of the eight regional presidents to be women is a “dramatic reversal” from previous gains, she added.

Inclusiveness has been a constant concern of Love’s. At the Nairobi assembly, the two communion services were carried out entirely by male clergy. Vancouver was a pivotal moment in the life of the WCC because it put women on the map “in a way that couldn’t be denied,” Love said. It reflected the efforts of women and youth pushing for more inclusion.

A striking moment at the Vancouver assembly occurred when an Orthodox leader stopped Love between meetings and said he wanted her to meet his delegation. Suddenly, Love found herself surrounded by the Romanian Orthodox delegates.

“He introduced me and particularly pointed out the sisters in the delegation,” Love said. The women accounted for 20 to 25 percent of the group. “It was impressive. But he wanted to show me. He was being accountable to one of the ‘rabble-rousing women’ on the issue of inclusion.”

At the same assembly, Orthodox women stood up in the business sessions and said they didn’t want to see churches ordain women, Love said. The “paradox of inclusion is it turns out that youth and women are attached to the traditions from which they come, and those traditions don’t match the hopes and aspirations of the folks who always argue for inclusion,” she said.

“For me, the greatest challenge is to go beyond inclusion to matters of ‘included for what?'” she said. .”..What are we asking to be included for?” What are the issues that women or youth feel strongly about? she asked. What is their ecumenical vision?

The Eighth Assembly was a milestone for Love, but she also views it as a significant point in the organization’s history. The churches worked through a difficult challenge to their unity and emerged with the resolve to continue forward together, she said. The assembly was the WCC’s “most crisis-ridden moment. We faced it well. Harare was a good assembly.” Love has given half of her life to WCC work. “That’s a great contribution to make,” she said, “but I have lots of great things to do with my life. I have many other fertile fields to go plow.”

One of the other ecumenical fields that she has been plowing is the National Council of Churches. She has served on the NCC‘s program ministry committee, focusing on international justice and human rights, as well as the burned churches committee.

She plans to go on sabbatical next fall from the University of South Carolina, where she is an associate professor of the Department of Government and International Studies. She is considering writing a book on ecumenical challenges.

“I’m having fun just sitting back and taking a little vacation and thinking through what I want to do next. The road’s not entirely clear, but I have a strong sense that my ecumenical commitment and my ecumenical calling are stronger than ever before, and I’ll find a place to use them.”

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