October 31, 2013

World Council of Churches Opens 10th Assembly

“God of life, lead us to justice and peace,” is the slogan for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, and it’s imprinted on the tote bags delegates and attendees received when they checked in for a session located on the southeastern coast of the Republic of Korea. Busan is a commercial center and a vacation spot, with the Haeundae (STET) beach a prominent attraction, as is the annual film festival.

But it is neither sunning nor cinema that attracts WCC delegates. Instead, it’s the serious business of proclaiming a Christian message in a world of stark contrasts and competing ideologies. In the northern hemisphere, by and large, Christianity is challenged by other world religions and a rise of the “nones,” people who declare no affiliation at all. In the “global south,” on the other hand, Christianity is growing in places such as Africa, South America and parts of Asia, despite increased tensions and persecution.OPENING SHOWCASE: Korean and overseas Assembly delegates and participants mingle onstage at the end of Korean presentation at the Opening Plenary of the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, October 30, 2013. [PHOTO:  Peter Williams/WCC]

The WCC meeting is also strong on the theme of “social justice.” Many delegates this weekend will go to Seoul, capital of the Republic of Korea, for a two-day peace vigil, including visits to local congregations. Others will pray for peace here in Busan, and attend worship services in area churches. The serious business of the WCC is expected to take place next week, concluding on November 8.

Though impressive with an attendance of over 4,000 – the opening ceremonies filled the BEXPO Auditorium, a venue the size of two football fields – the WCC meeting is but one of 900 conventions that are held in Busan every year, bringing a total of 3 million visitors to the city. Hotels and restaurants relish the trade, of course, and some stay open 24 hours a day to cater to travelers craving a round-the-clock dining schedule.

As the delegates entered the Busan Exposition Center known locally as BEXPO, it was a parade of clerical garb rarely seen in one place. Robes, cassocks, clerical collars and crosses on chains were in abundance, but so, too, was the utilitarian uniforms of about 20 Korean Salvation Army pastoral trainees, called cadets by the evangelical movement. Longtime friends greeted each other, pausing for pictures and smiling.

Not everyone is happy the WCC is here, however. Protesters greeted the WCC delegates, decrying the group as “anti-Christ.” When I asked one man why he was against the WCC, he gruffly replied, “Haven’t you read the declaration of 1990? Why haven’t you read this document?”

Explaining that this was the first time I have attended a WCC Assembly as a journalist, and merely wanted his perspective, the man, who did not give his name but said he was a professor at a Presbyterian seminary in Korea, softened his tone. He said the WCC allegedly recognizes other paths to salvation than that found in Jesus alone (John 14:6). For this reason, according to him, the WCC should be rejected.

Mark Beach, a WCC spokesman, told a press briefing he couldn’t understand why people were protesting the meeting, “But we’ll welcome them, too.”