April 26, 2006

Destination Unknown

1512 page8 capINCE THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL gathering of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam in 1948, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has carefully monitored events and trends in this most prominent Christian interchurch movement, even as it has steadfastly chosen not to seek membership or actively participate in the body’s efforts to promote Christian unity. Mainline Protestant denominations, Anglicans, European evangelical churches, the various national churches of Orthodox Christianity, and the Coptic churches of Africa have been joined by large observer delegations of Roman Catholics every seven years at such assemblies to shape the organization’s plans and strategies.
At the ninth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, which convened this February in Porto Alegre, Brazil, more than 700 delegates from nearly 350 member churches gathered to discuss the uncertain future of the organization. Prominent Christian leaders, including a Roman Catholic cardinal, retired archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and Orthodox leaders also traveled to the industrial city of 2 million to lend their influence and voice to the 10-day meeting. Another 3,000 youth participants, media representatives, laypersons, and advocacy group members attended workshops, joined in public worship events, and met for Bible study during the event.
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For all the rhetoric about unified Christian witness and fellowship, tensions within the WCC have been growing in recent decades. Years of strident advocacy by the WCC on a variety of social, political, and economic issues have caused many evangelical Protestants to keep their distance--and their contributions--fearing that gospel witness will be lost in an emphasis on societal change. Longtime member churches from the Orthodox faiths have been complaining that they should have a greater role in governing the WCC by reason of their membership and scale. While the organization is still officially committed to the goal of visibly uniting the various branches of Christianity into one global entity, many members are acknowledging that this greatest goal of the organization is probably unreachable. Other commentators predict declining influence for the WCC in the decades ahead, especially as the Roman Catholic Church moves ever more boldly onto the international stage.

Three Adventist leaders traveled to Porto Alegre to witness the ninth WCC Assembly from February 14-23. John Graz, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty director of the General Conference, is also the secretary of the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions, an interfaith fellowship of even broader membership range than the WCC. Eugene Hsu, a General Conference vice president, was an official observer on behalf of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Bill Knott, associate editor of the Adventist Review, made the trip as an accredited media representative to report on the event for the Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines. All three men attended plenary sessions, Bible studies, press conferences, and dialogues to learn more about the WCC’s goals and plans, especially those that could have an impact on Adventist faith and witness.
The interviews and photos that follow record their impressions of the ninth WCC Assembly, and offer insights into why Seventh-day Adventists need to pay careful attention to developments in Christian ecumenism.--Editors.