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World Council of Churches

World Council of Churches, an international, interdenominational organization of most major Protestant, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox Christian churches; founded in Amsterdam in 1948, its headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland. The idea of a world fellowship of Christian churches took concrete form in 1937, when two ecumenical conferences—on life and work and on faith and order—elected a joint committee to formulate plans for a world council. This provisional committee met at Utrecht in 1938 under the organization's first general secretary, Willem Adolf Visser't Hooft, but it was not until after World War II that the first assembly took place (1948) and formally ratified the constitution. At Amsterdam there were 147 Christian churches from 44 countries; today there are 341 member churches from over 100 countries.

The governing body of the council is the assembly, which meets every seven years. The assembly appoints a central committee of 150 members, which meets five times between assemblies; this committee in turn elects a 26-member executive committee. The council also has a presidium to which eight persons are appointed. The council, which has no legislative power over its member churches, provides an opportunity for its constituents to act together in matters of common concern under their common calling "to accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior." Its concerns include international relations, environmental justice, education, and mission. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the council but sends delegated observers to its assemblies; it has full membership on the council's Commission of Faith and Order and on its Joint Working Group.

See ecumenical movement.

See W. A. Visser't Hooft, The Genesis and Formation of the World Council of Churches (1982); J. A. A. Vermaat, The World Council of Churches and Politics (1989); M. Van Elderen, Introducing the World Council of Churches (1990).

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World Council of Churches

World Council of Churches International fellowship of Christian Churches formed in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1948. Its aim is to work for the reunion of all Christian Churches and to establish a united Christian presence in the world. Its membership consists of some 300 churches. Its headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland.

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World Council of Churches:

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World Council of Churches

World Council of Churches

Throughout 1998 the World Council of Churches (WCC) celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, culminating in a service of recommitment by member churches to the ecumenical movement at its eighth World Assembly, in Harare, Zimbabwe. As a hopeful effort in the aftermath of World War II, Christian leaders from around the world brought together two strains of ecumenism at Amsterdam in 1948. The actual birth of the ecumenical movement, however, is generally dated from a meeting of missionary societies in 1910 at Edinburgh, Scotland. In Lausanne, in 1927, the Faith and Order Commission was formed; the Life and Work Commission began in Stockholm in 1925. Both of these commissions were united in Amsterdam to form the World Council of Churches, to which the International Missionary Council was added in 1961.

When founded, the WCC had 147 member churches, mostly Anglican and Protestant from North America and Western Europe. Gradually churches from all parts of the world have joined—332 Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churches, totaling roughly 500 million Christians by 1998. Although it cooperates on several key issues, the Roman Catholic Church is not a member. In their pursuit of Christian unity, WCC member churches, confessing the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior, have been moving toward an essential identity as a "fellowship of churches" rather than as an agency conducting programs and activities apart from its members. They also have become more conscious of the WCC as one part of a many-centered network of ecumenical partners that includes a wide variety of ecumenical bodies, churches not affiliated with the WCC (the Roman Catholic Church and Pentecostal and Evangelical bodies especially), and less formal organizations and groups.

Throughout its more than fifty years the WCC has undergone various restructurings. It has entered another as it tries to integrate its work in four basic areas under one administrative whole:

  1. Selected issue and theme priorities (including the historic groupings of Faith and Order; Mission and Evangelism; Justice, Peace, and Creation; and Education and Ecumenical Formation).
  2. Ecumenical, regional, interreligious, and international relations.
  3. Communication, public information, publications, and documents.
  4. Finances, personnel, house services, and computer and technology services.

Participation in the WCC has always been strenuous for its member churches. The issues of faith and order often took priority in the early years of its formation and were marked by dominant European scholarship. After World War II, much work was done immediately to provide aid to refugees and displaced persons and to serve in the rebuilding of communities torn apart during the war. The 1966 Geneva conference "Church and Society" brought many more participants from the Third World, who have continued to press for WCC priorities toward systemic change and justice issues, especially for the poor, ethnic/racial groups, and women. The WCC's Program to Combat Racism has been one of its most controversial efforts, because it attempted to alleviate suffering in areas of Africa, especially where conflict between political groups was occurring. The WCC has been at the forefront of concern for the degradation of the environment and has significantly tied this concern to justice and peace in its 1990 world convocation "Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation" in Seoul, South Korea. It has also championed the dignity of women through the "Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women" program.

Approximately every seven or eight years the WCC holds its World Assembly, which is the highest decision-making body. Past World Assemblies have been held, each with a central theme, in the United States (1954), India (1961), Sweden (1968), Kenya (1975), Canada (1983), and Australia (1991). The theme at the 1998 Harare, Zimbabwe, Assembly was "Turn to God—Rejoice in Hope." At this eighth World Assembly the delegates considered a major policy document titled "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches," which was intended as a point of reference and charter for the future.

Between assemblies, a 156-member Central Committee, elected by the World Assembly, meets annually to monitor and develop policies set by the Assembly. There is a general secretary of the WCC, who since January 1993 has been Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser, a member of the Evangelical Church in Germany. He meets semiannually with the Central Committee's Executive Committee, including its several presidents and officers.

The Administrative Center of the WCC is in Geneva, at 150 route de Ferney, P.O. Box 2100, 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland. A modest U.S. WCC office is at 475 Riverside Drive, Room 915, New York, NY 10115.

See alsoEcumenical Movement; National Councilofthe Churchesof Christinthe U.S.A.

Bibliography

Nicholas Lossky et al., eds., Dictionary of the EcumenicalMovement, pp. 1080–1100. 1991.

World Council of Churches Yearbook 1998 and selected brochures from Geneva and U.S. offices.

Peggy L. Shriver

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World Council of Churches

WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES

This article treats the origins, basis, membership, purposes, and organization of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Origins. The WCC is the organized expression of three streams of ecumenical life. Two of theselife and work and faith and ordermerged at the constituting assembly of the Council at Amsterdam (1948). The third stream, the missionary movement, organized in the international missionary council, had its confluence with the WCC at the assembly at New Delhi (1961).

In a sense the modern ecumenical movement received its chief inspiration and impetus in the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh (1910). As a result, a network of interdenominational councils in a score of countries was established in the succeeding decade, while many of the pioneers of the WCC were recruited from the missionary movement.

The institution of the WCC resulted from the decisions of the leaders of two ecumenical organizations. The Life and Work movement, associated especially with the name of Archbishop Nathan sÖderblom, had called the churches to manifest Jesus Christ as Lord not only of the individual but of every realm of social, economic, and political life, and provided an international means for them to do so. The Faith and Order movement, associated especially with the name of Bishop Charles brent, provided an organization in which the separated bodies of Christendom could come together to study the areas of doctrinal and ecclesiological agreement and difference in the conviction that the churches have an essential unity in Christ. By 1937 it was becoming clear that Life and Work could not go forward without dealing with the theological issues of Christian unity, and that Faith and Order could not progress unless the churches began to work together in those areas in which they had found that there was a substantial measure of agreement.

On the eve of their conferences at Oxford and Edinburgh in 1937, representatives of the two movements met and proposed combining the two in a world council of churches, and recommended the establishing of a Committee of Fourteen to work out a plan for such a council. The conferences accepted the proposals. A conference at Utrecht (1938) agreed on the questions of basis and authority of the proposed world council, and completed interim arrangements that would serve until the council could be formally constituted at an assembly. The Committee of Fourteen approved the proposals, including one to establish a Provisional Committee for the WCC in process of formation. The International Missionary Council meeting in 1938 at Madras agreed to negotiate with the proposed WCC.

The second meeting of the Provisional Committee (January 1939) planned to hold the first assembly of the WCC in August 1941, but World War II intervened. Although no full Provisional Committee met between 1940 and 1946, the members gathered in geographical groups in the United States, and Great Britain, and Europe (Geneva).

When the Provisional Committee met in February 1946 it was discovered that World War II had furthered the formation of the WCC.

Basis of Membership. The First Assembly at Amsterdam, declared: "The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which accept the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour." This was the formula on which the original invitation had been issued; by the time of the meeting of the Provisional Committee in Geneva, 1946, it had been accepted by 95 churches. At the time of the First Assembly 145 churches accepted membership on this basis. Soon the formulation of the basis gave rise to questions, inquiries, and requests for a clearer definition of its Christocentricity, a more explicit expression of Trinitarian belief, and a specific reference to the Holy Scriptures. The result was the formulation adopted by the Third Assembly at New Delhi (1961) stating: "The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

Membership. The First Assembly was constituted by invitation, but since then membership of the WCC has been by application. The assembly and the central committee have from time to time formulated criteria of membership other than acceptance of the basis. These criteria include autonomy, stability, size, and relationship with other churches. The Third Assembly decided that as a rule no church with an inclusive membership of less than 10,000 should be admitted, and authorized the creation of a special category of associated churches for churches that satisfy the criteria except the one concerning size.

The WCC enters into working relationship with national and regional councils that accept its basis and invites such councils to send fraternal delegates to the assembly and representatives to the central committee. The WCC also maintains relationships with such world confessional bodies as may be designated by the central committee, and bodies so designated are invited to send fraternal delegates to the assembly and advisers to the central committee.

Purposes. The WCC is a council of Churches. It has no legislative authority over members. It exists to facilitate common action by the churches, to promote cooperation in study, to stimulate the growth of ecumenical and missionary consciousness in all the churches, to support the churches in their missionary and evangelistic task, to maintain relations with national and regional councils, world confessional bodies and other ecumenical organizations, and to call world conferences on specific subjects as occasion may require.

This formal list of functions does not adequately reveal the rich and full life that the WCC increasingly enjoys, or the variety and scope of its tasks. The council exists to serve the churches and to help them view their task as a part of the task of the whole Church in the whole world. It provides a forum for the churches to share theological insights and experiences of renewal. They thus receive correction from each other, learn to speak and act together on vital issues, and are prepared for that deeper unity that they seek.

As custodian of the tradition of faith and order, the WCC seeks "to proclaim the essential oneness of the Church of Christ and to keep prominently before the churches the obligation to manifest that unity and its urgency for the work of evangelism." As guardian of the tradition of life and work and of the International Missionary Council it holds continually before the churches the concern for unity understood in the context of the total calling of the Church. In providing the means whereby the churches may fulfil their common calling, the council seeks increasingly to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit for Church renewal.

The integration of the International Missionary Council into the WCC meant that the churches now see their task in mission and evangelism within a total ecumenical context. In this setting questions such as proselytism and religious liberty, the missionary task on all six continents, and confrontation with men of other faiths and no faith have gained a wholly new connotation.

Organization. The WCC has legislative and executive committees and officers.

The principle authority is that of the assembly, which is composed of official representatives appointed by the churches or groups of churches that make up the council. Seats in the assembly are allocated by the central committee to the member churches with regard for such factors as numerical size, adequate confessional representation, and geographical distribution. The members of the assembly are both clerical and lay, men and women.

The main committee of the assembly is the central committee, elected by the assembly from among its delegates. It normally meets annually in different parts of the world and acts in lieu of the assembly. The central committee appoints an executive committee, which normally meets twice a year. The chairman and vice chairman of the Central Committee, together with the general secretary of the WCC, are the recognized officers of the council.

The WCC experienced a significant growth in the first 25 years of its existence, growing from 145 churches in 1948 to more than 260, including all the major Orthodox and most of the larger Protestant churches. The entrance into membership of the WCC of the majority of the Orthodox Churches strengthened the WCC as an instrument of the ecumenical movement. Orthodoxy has played an important role from the very beginning of the WCC, especially in Faith and Order. The situation of many of these churches, their openness in giving to and receiving from their fellow member churches, means that no aspect of the WCC's life is uninfluenced by their tradition, experience, and understanding of the Christian faith.

From the late 1960s onwards, the WCC broadened its constituency, with the admission in 1969 of the Kimbanguists of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) its first member from the native African churches. Admitted at the same time was the Evangelical Pentecostal church "Brazil for Christ," strengthening Pentecostal participation significantly, though two Pentecostal churches of Chile had joined earlier. This would be followed by other such churches.

Third World Issues. The growth of Third World participation in the WCC also led to a greater influence in its leadership. Philip Potter, a black Methodist from the Caribbean, became general secretary in 1972, succeeding Eugene Carson Blake, an American who had become general secretary in 1966. In 1968 M. M. Thomas of India became chairman of the central committee, succeeding Franklin Clark Fry, also of the United States.

From the 1970s onwards, tensions began to emerge in the WCC. Many of the tensions were the result of its increased emphasis on Third World issues, a trend first given impetus by a 1966 Church and Society conference in Geneva. In 1973 Potter told the central committee that the shift to Third World emphases had brought problems: U.S. churches feeling less involved; European churches charging a decrease in WCC theological and churchly concern; Orthodox Churches criticizing decreased emphasis on Christian unity while attention was focused on overcoming war, racism, economic injustice, and other evils blocking unity of the whole human community. The central committee received a message from the Moscow patriarchate charging that a 1973 conference on Salvation Today, sponsored by the WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, showed insufficient concern with salvation as eternal life in God. A message from Patriarch Demetrios of Istanbul warned against letting social and political concerns overshadow religious goals. Many of these tensions remained through the next two decades. Several Orthodox Churches threatened to leave the WCC if things did not improve.

Conclusion. To the question "What is the World Council of Churches?" the answer has been given by the first general secretary of the council, Dr. W. A. vissert hooft, in his address to the First Assembly: "We are a Council of Churches, not the Council of the one undivided Church. Our name indicates our weakness and our shame before God, for there can be and is finally only one Church of Christ on earth. But our name indicates that we are aware of that situation, that we do not accept it passively, that we move forward towards the manifestation of the one Holy Church. Our Council represents therefore an emergency solutiona stage on the roada body living between the time of complete isolation of the churches from each other and the timeon earth as in heavenwhen it will be visibly true that there is one shepherd and one flock."

As the WCC entered the third Christian millennium, it counted on its membership rolls 342 churches, an increase from the 145 member churches at its founding. The WCC represented over 450 million Christians in more than 115 countries. These churches belonged to the following traditions: Anglican (34), Eastern Orthodox (15), Oriental Orthodox (6), Old Catholic (5), and Protestant (235); among these were Uniting and United (23), Pentecostal (7), and African Instituted churches (10). While the Roman Catholic Church maintained observer status at the WCC, it was a full member of the Faith and Order Commission, and served in a consultative capacity on the Mission & Evangelism board. The headquarters of the WCC is in Geneva, Switzerland.

Bibliography: r. rouse and s. c. neill, eds., A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 15171948 (London 1954). n. goodall, The Ecumenical Movement (2d ed. London 1964). world council of churches, The First Assembly of the World Council of Churches: The Official Report, ed. w. a. visser 't hooft, v. 5 of Man's Disorder and God's Design, 5 v. in 2 (New York 1949); The Evanston Report: The Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, 1954, ed. w. a. visser 't hooft (New York 1955); The New Delhi Report, ed. w. a. visser 't hooft (New York 1962), contains constitution and rules of the World Council of Churches; The World Council of Churches: Its Process of Formation (Geneva 1946); The First Six Years (Geneva 1954); Evanston to New Delhi, 19541961 (Geneva 1961). Ecumenical Review (Geneva 1948). e. duff, The Social Thought of the World Council of Churches (New York 1956). n. godall, ed., The Uppsala Report, 1968 (Geneva 1968).

[w. a. vissert hooft/

l. e. cooke/

t. early/eds.]

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