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Oxford or Trondheim? WCC

Or why I missed attending the Central Committee
of the World Council of Churches in June

I missed going to Trondheim in Norway for the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches because of two serious commitments back home. One was the Referendum where my support and not just my vote was much needed before and especially after Brexit. Then my College Commemoration was about celebrating our links with Europe and Resistance to Hitler and I was one of the organisers. So I stayed at home. A pity,  because I have also been asked by the WCC to write a new Introduction to the World Council so I need to know what the WCC is up to.

What did I miss?  Not the Reports. As someone who volunteers to report on WCC events for CTE and has been doing so since the Faith and Order Conference in Santiago de Compostela in 1993, the Media Office keep me well informed. Central Committee, the governing body of the World Council in between Assemblies, has had a busy week, 22-28 June. The Rights of the Child, Recognition of Indigenous People, new Handbook on Mission and Dialogue, Faith and Order issues, Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace, HIV/AIDS,  Christians in the Middle East, plus of course daily prayer and Bible studies and conversations long into the night if you have to produce a report. The WCC has often been warned about attempting too much and was given the advice to do less and do it better. Prioritizing is not that simple.

A bishop from Germany is concerned that there are currently some 60,000 youth or children refugees wandering round the streets of Europe unaccompanied by parents back home and at risk of traffickers. Germany has done more than most to welcome those who risk their lives in search of a safe haven and some hope for the future. We are all called to help. The WCC has helped native peoples in Canada, Australia and elsewhere feel valued and their rights respected. A big delegation in colourful native costumes has come to Trondheim to say thank you. That means thank you and me, members of churches in the World Council. As for the Textbook on Mission, it is published by Regnum Books here in Oxford so I have no need to go to Trondheim for a free copy!

The Faith and Order Plenary is one I would love to have attended. Much of the lead was given by British theologians. My colleague Revd Dr Susan Durber of Taunton is the Moderator and made an impassioned plea for all of us to respond to a document that represents  a long, patient search  by countless people from different churches throughout the world to reach agreement about the Church. Our churches, and any of us as individuals, are urged to study the document, The Church, Towards a Common Vision, and send in comments before the end of this year. Sheilagh Kesting and the Church of Scotland set us all a good example. They discussed the document with their Roman Catholic sisters and brothers and sent in a joint report. [Roman Catholics, though not full members of the WCC are fully involved in Faith and Order thanks to Vatican II [1962-1965]. It is, she said not enough to study a text. We need to find ways of working together. England currently has four people on the Faith and Order Commission so we can be kept well informed.

With the Internet, Facebook, mobile phones, tablets etc, it is easy to get reports while staying at home, but what you miss are the personal encounters. The feeling is mutual. Government and Church leaders in Norway said the Central Committee’s visit was ‘a gift to the Church in Norway’. The Church had recently rethought its constitutional relationship to the state and welcomed the warm and personal way Christians are reminded that we all belong to a world Church without borders. Helga Haugland Byfuglien, the first woman to be bishop in Norway felt supported by the presence of other women, like Agnes Abuom from Kenya, currently Moderator of Central Committee. Support is vital as you wrestle with controversial issues like the marriage of same-sex couples and try to attend to those who disagree. Two prominent leaders of other faiths were present. Reading what they said is not the same as talking with them. Rabbi Sandmel thanked the WCC for the way that right from the start in 1948 it has tackled antisemitism but respect for God’s People, the Jews, is something we have to internalise, not just talk about. I need to hear more. I am sure the way too many churches neglect the Old Testament does not help.  Dr Mohamed Elsanousi spoke about an amazing document produced by 300 Muslim scholars supporting the rights of minorities,. some of them Christians in the land of Jesus’ birth. I must get a copy. And often we hear a forceful challenge. Ambassador Knut Volleback, former Foreign Minister in Norway, said the nations were now more anxious than ever to have help from the churches, not because religious people have a good reputation for making peace but because religion is too often distorted into campaigns of fanatical violence.

It is such personal encounters that I missed most. So when the Central Committee meets again in two years’ time, probably in Geneva, I hope to be there. In the meantime and Sunday by Sunday pray with and for the World Church and the World Council by using the Internet Reports and/or In God’s Hands, Common Prayer for the World. Everybody gets a mention and a prayer, at least once a year. Prayer is at the heart of the Ecumenical Movement and not just in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Revd Dr Donald W Norwood, is a United Reformed Church Minister, currently engaged in Ecumenical Research in Oxford. He is the Author of Reforming Rome, Karl Barth and Vatican II, Eerdmans 2015 and World Church Counsels: Introducing the World Council of Churches. WCC Publications forthcoming.

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