A Reflection on the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches
Before arriving to the 11th Assembly on the World Council of Churches, I had no expectations or really any idea as to what I was about to attend. “Reconciliation” and “unity” were heavily sprinkled throughout the merchandise and materials we received, and those words were heard and seen more than any other throughout the entirety of the assembly. As those words echoed through the halls and auditoriums, the diversity of the world’s Christian traditions gathered. From the most progressive denominations to the most orthodox, Christian leaders from all over the globe came together to discuss the injustices of our current time. Friends and colleagues who haven’t seen each other for years were found laughing and reminiscing about times long past when they had worked together. It was truly an amazing experience to behold, and yet it was a haunting and mind-blowing event, at least for me.
From the most progressive denominations to the most orthodox, Christian leaders from all over the globe came together to discuss the injustices of our current time.
Three major issues, among others of course, stood out to me during the assembly. The war in Ukraine was an event that did not go unnoticed nor was it ignored, even though the Russian Orthodox Church was present. In fact, the war in Ukraine was a major issue brought to a climax by the speech and the attendance of the Federal President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Steinmeier did not hold back on the contempt of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the involvement and support of the Russian Orthodox Church (though he acknowledged that some in the church denounced the war). His passionate speech against the war was felt with even more vigor because of the direct comparison to the speech given by the Secretary General of the WCC just moments before that offered a more diplomatic and ecumenical discourse on the war in Ukraine. Political figure alongside ecumenical leader…the difference was most notable.
Young people and the empowerment of young voices alongside the climate crisis was an issue experienced throughout the assembly. It was a tale as old as time, how do we empower young people in the church? Many young folks involved in the assembly stressed the importance of battling the climate crisis and were met with hesitation to even label the global climate dilemma a “crisis”. The passion and the grit of the young people at this assembly was truly an inspiration and yet, hearing from some of them, they had a tinge of dismay. They longed to be heard and longed for this body to take up a more critical measure to involve the voices of young people. They wanted to be taken seriously and not to be seen or used as workers or technicians. They longed for a voice because they will be the ones most impacted by the decisions especially when it comes to the climate crisis.
It was a tale as old as time, how do we empower young people in the church?
The most difficult part for me was the discussions surrounding the issues of human sexuality. Sexuality has been a topic that the World Council of Churches has long tried to deal with while at the same time tried to neutralize. The theological and ideological make-up of the WCC is diverse, making discussion of full inclusion of queer people an issue almost impossible to contain. The discussions were also heavily chaotic due to the way in which all things sex were incorporated into discourse about sexuality. Sexual abuse, HIV/AIDs, rape were all included in the discourse surrounding human sexuality which made many of us ponder the question, what does sexuality mean and how are we defining it? For queer Christians attending the assembly (myself included), there were few spaces to process and have conversation, but there were some. Organizations like Rainbow Pilgrims who have been hard at work for the inclusion of queer people from all over the world, was present. Young queer Christians held space to build community and to process. Workshops discussing the issues were also held. All in all, the issue of human sexuality at the WCC can be summarized as complicated, disheartening, and for some of us, traumatizing.
And yet, this assembly changed me. As we spoke to international partners and colleagues, we reconnected and felt, again, the deepness of our connectedness as human beings and as people of faith. Being apart for so long was something that possibly numbed us to the ways in which our actions impact others. The absence of presence was felt in ways that many of us could not have ever understood until we listened to the people most impacted by the pandemic and systems of oppression. Our colleagues in Cameroon, spoke to the ways in which young people, hopeless and poor, are being militarized by militias. People in Lebanon are consistently without internet and ways to safely secure their finances. Our Palestinian siblings are enduring an apartheid by a government that deems them unworthy and unhuman.
The absence of presence was felt in ways that many of us could not have ever understood until we listened to the people most impacted by the pandemic and systems of oppression.
These issues, though far removed because of space, deeply impact us here in the US not only because of our human connection and our faith, but because the US has had its hand in creating these atrocities. Faith communities in the US, yes, have also had its hand in perpetuating these systems of oppression through toxic mission and evangelism. I found it more important than ever before to be present in these ecumenical spaces because our presence and our commitment to partner and walk with our siblings is vital for our soul as a member of the global body of Christ. We are not called to come in and take over, which we have long done in our history. But that does not mean we should be absent. We learned that our partners value our input, value our resources, and value our presence with them.
The status and the power of the church here in the US may be waning; however, in other parts of the world the church is thriving with much influence on the culture and politics. For some areas of the world, what the church says, goes. And it is this that we cannot take for granted nor can we ignore. As issues arise when it comes to the dignity and the authenticity of humanity, I must beg of each person of faith to ask themselves, is our faith bringing life to those who are dying? From queer people all over the world, to those who are starving, those who are living the realities of war, all of us who are suffering from the climate crisis, to women who are oppressed by their societies, and the persecutions of people of any faith, are we proclaiming a life-giving faith to all?
The status and the power of the church here in the US may be waning; however, in other parts of the world the church is thriving with much influence on the culture and politics.
“Reconciliation” and “unity” are now etched into my mind not because of their constant usage during the assembly but because of their complexity and the attempt to use them as a means of silence or false ideal. This assembly with its focus on the many issues of our time ebbed and flowed through the waters of proclamation and indifference. It intensely reminded us of the importance of presence and partnership and called us into a world of less isolation and giving into absence of certain issues. It was a rollercoaster of theological expressions creating tension all the while bursts of laughter, joy, prayer, and song bubbled up to soothe it all for a moment. Maybe this is “reconciliation” and “unity”. Maybe that is the walk of faith. And maybe, we should be asking ourselves, is that what we signed up for?
Rev. Lee Catoe is the Editor of Unbound and the writer for the Unbound Column, “Out of the Tombs”.