Ecumenism must Be More Popular, less Elitist, Says WCC Official

 — Aug. 30, 199930 aoüt 1999

GENEVA – The ecumenical movement of the 21st century must focus less on church institutions and more on the church as “the whole people of God,” the moderator of the World Council of Churches‘ (WCC) central committee said on August 26.

At a press conference following his report to the 158 members of the central committee, who were elected in Harare last December by the WCC’s 8th assembly, Catholicos Aram I, of the Armenian Apostolic Church, said: “The church is not just institutions but the people of God … we in the World Council of Churches must deepen our collaboration with all people.”

Aram’s remarks echoed the WCC’s determination to reinvent itself for the new millennium as an institution that is less programmatic and more focused on the relationships between member churches and with other, non-member Christian bodies.

“The church is not a museum, destined to remain immutable and untouchable,” Catholicos Aram said. “The church is not a self-centered and self-sufficient reality … the church must search constantly for more relevant modes of being church.”

Catholicos Aram said that a clear message from the Harare assembly and the basic challenge of “Common Understanding and Vision” – the restructuring of the WCC adopted by the 8th assembly – “is that the council should go beyond its institutional obligations and manifestations – it should focus less on programs and more on fellowship-building.”

The past failure of the WCC to work more closely with its member churches had, Catholicos Aram said, “made the council’s work less relevant to the life of the churches, and has opened a gap between the council and the churches.”

To achieve such global ecumenism, Aram said, a number of 20th-century legacies must be overcome, including:

* “predominant anthropocentrism,” in which humanity fancies itself the master of creation at the same time that such domination “accelerates the process of the earth’s destruction”; * the predominance of ethnic identity over faith, leading to a “failure to respond to the gospel”; * the emergence of power as “the absolute criterion of human life,” thus creating a moral vacuum; * the clash of civilizations brought on by globalization and differing world views.

Catholicos Aram, who is beginning his second seven-year term as moderator of the central committee, said one of the effects of globalization in many parts of the world was the introduction of “Western liberal values that are threatening coexistence, shared values, local traditions, cultures and communities.” Catholicos Aram said “the church is ready to open itself up to new horizons.” Similarly the ecumenical movement was willing to be transformed from a concern of the elite to an “instrument of the people.”

At the press conference, Aram was asked about what is perhaps the most serious difficulty facing the WCC – difficulties in its relationship with some of its Orthodox member churches. Orthodox Christians are often critical of WCC policies and projects, which the Orthodox believe are overly influenced by Protestant and Western attitudes. A feared walk-out by some Orthodox members at the assembly in Harare was averted by the creation of a “Special Commission” to discuss the relationship.

However, the commission has not yet held a meeting. Asked why the body had not yet met, Catholicos Aram said he expected commission members who were in Geneva for the central committee meeting to meet informally within the next few days. A meeting of the full commission would be scheduled “before the end of the year.”

Orthodox churches were “fully committed” to the commission, Catholicos Aram said, “but there are difficulties with some of the churches – internal difficulties and the Kosovo crisis primarily.”

In his report Catholicos Aram also described as “premature” assumptions that a financial crisis at the WCC was over. “Growing economic crises in some regions and constant fluctuation of major currencies may continue their negative impact on the financial stability of the council,” he said.

(ENI would like to thank the Presbyterian Church (USA) for making the services of Jerry L. Van Marter, director of Presbyterian News Service, available to ENI during the WCC’s central committee meeting.)

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