An Ecumenical ‘Aggiornamento’?

By Rodney L. Petersen

From one point of view, the Ninth World Council of Churches (WCC) General Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, last February, was not very controversial. It opened with a call for aggiornamento, or transformation, by Catholicos of Cilicia Aram I of the Armenian Apostolic Church, moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. The theme of transformation—as coined at Vatican II, personal, ecclesial, and in civil society—was carried through all of the assembly’s deliberations. Messages of support for the WCC were heard from global religious and political leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Yet the WCC has been surrounded by controversy since its founding in 1948, when the churches involved in the first general assembly were caught up in a pro-found identity crisis brought on by the Second World War. And underneath this recent show of polite support are some important and interesting questions that are more controversial than they may appear on the surface. Among them: 1) who supports and funds the work of the council?;  2) who, precisely, is at the table?; and 3) who will be the council’s constituency in the rising generation?

With respect to the funding question, traditional donors who have seen the WCC as an important partner and have been willing to do their development work through the WCC are increasingly doing their own work independently. This reality is reflected in a budget that has fallen 30 percent since 1999. Intentional networking, activity-based costing, and careful budget control will help. In the end, however, the question of support and funding is also a theological and structural problem that must be confronted by the council as it seeks to represent a potentially growing segment of Christian churches worldwide (the WCC represents about 25 percent of global Christianity currently, counting 348 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican, United, and other communions worldwide as members, amounting to 37,400 churches or denominations).

The council faces its financial crisis even as it works to maintain its prophetic image. If controversy came to the council in earlier years around issues of politics and race, today it will come around the WCC’s positions on globalization, economic priorities, and military engagement. The strength of this assembly was its efforts to ground such “of the world” positions in the Bible and in theological reflection. In introducing the plenary session on economic justice, German Evangelical Church Bishop Wolfgang Huber clearly stated that in the WCC, “we are not a global player but a global prayer.” He was followed by the Rev. Dr. Nancy Cordoso, a Methodist minister, who was critical of the prevailing global economic order for being “idolatrous.” And in his address as moderator of the WCC central committee, Catholicos Aram I warned, “Only a church liberated from its self-captivity . . . can become a living source of God’s empowering, transforming and healing grace.”

The issue of who supports and funds the council brings us to the second point, who really is at the table? Everyone is aware that inherited forms of European and North American Protestant churches are on the decline and that evangelical and Pentecostal churches are the ecclesial future, at least in the Protestant world. How to interest and involve these churches in intentional engagement with the ecumenical movement is a driving question before the council. A parallel issue has to do with the ability of the WCC to give leadership to the ecumenical movement in the face of Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditionalism.

Stated simply, how does the worldwide ecumenical movement keep the Roman Catholic Church from establishing its own ecumenical movement, in its own way? Insofar as Roman Catholic participation is real and continues in the Faith and Order Commission and through the Joint Working Group of the WCC, the Catholic Church can be said to join in the WCC’s vision of ecumenism. But insofar as the Roman Catholic Church pursues an ecumenical agenda driven by bilateral considerations and relationships, it crafts a vision for the future that is at variance from that of the council. This agenda marginalizes Faith and Order and to some extent undermines its own efforts in the Joint Working Group. The Catholic Church appears to be hedging its bets at the moment, maintaining its work through the WCC’s Faith and Order agenda while establishing bilateral relationships, especially with the Orthodox.

One interesting point to watch is to see if the consolidating interests of the Catholic Church under Benedict XVI will become more explicitly consonant with traditionalist elements in the Orthodox Church. It is clear that a growing divide in the WCC around certain social issues, particularly traditional Christian understandings of sexuality, may prompt Orthodox churches to consider a tactical alliance with Roman Catholicism to defend traditional Christian values. In Brazil, this point was noted by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the bishop of Vienna and the chief Russian Orthodox delegate.

How successfully the WCC is able to foster discussion among Pentecostals and the Orthodox will determine its own ability to continue to give leadership to the ecumenical movement. This was made abundantly clear in the Latin American context in which the assembly took place, where church growth is occurring largely outide the bounds of the ecumenical movement as traditionally conceived. In South America, Roman Catholic hegemony can no longer be taken for granted, declining to about 74 percent at the end of the twentieth century, with the overwhelming growth among Pentecostal churches. If the WCC is able to manage cooperative conversation among a variety of Christian churches, it may still be able to provide a vision for the future. But can the ecumenical table be enlarged—and by whom? Is it circumscribed by Orthodox, Protestant—and Catholic—definitions? Does the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” include Pentecostal churches or ecclesial bodies?

The Global Christian Forum is the often cited answer to these fissures in the movement, but its makeup, its clarity, and its success are not givens. The genius of the current WCC is that it does represent (in its constituting charter, central documents, and ethos) a Christianity shaped by certain historical and traditional concerns: belief in Jesus Christ according to the scriptures, baptism in the Triune God, a certain (if divided) understanding about eucharist and ministry, confession oriented around the Nicene–Constantinopolitan creed, etc. Who will be the driving force behind the GCF? Will it be inclusive of all Protestants, the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox churches, Pentecostals, evangelicals, etc.? Will the Mormons be members? What about Unitarians? These latter questions alone are ones that may undermine the forum, or they may move it toward a Parliament of World Religions more in line with Hans Küng’s vision of dialogue around a global ethic. There is much that is unclear and still to be determined.

Finally, the issue of who is really at the table raises the third important question: who will be the council’s constituency in the rising generation, given a diminished mainline Protestant church in Europe and in North America? There is a whole new emphasis on youth in the WCC, and this assembly was rife with discussion, papers, and advocacy—particularly in the Mutirão (an indigenous Brazilian word for a meeting place and opportunity to work together for a common purpose)—around issues of interest to youth.

The Orthodox and Pentecostal churches will have to answer some of these questions about the future of the ecumenical movement themselves. At the moment, the Orthodox, in the main, appear to be deepening their work through the council, and the more traditionalist constituencies have been demurring. One of the most interesting developments at the assembly was an offer to take up the challenge of Christian unity by the Rev. Dr. Norberto Saracco, a Pentecostal leader, of the Good News Evangelical Church of Argentina. This offer was supported by a Canadian, the Rev. Geoff Tunnicliffe, CEO of the World Evangelical Alliance. And the Rev. Dr. Michael Ntumy, chairman of the Church of Pentecost in Ghana, also gave an impassioned plea for church unity. “Although time does not necessarily heal all divisions,” he said, “100 years is enough.”

Apparently, these three evangelical and Pentecostal leaders saw new opportunities for work and dialogue with the World Council of Churches. A growing desire for rapprochement between evangelicals and the ecumenical movement, perhaps as led by Latin American and African Pentecostals, illustrates a fresh wind of renewal for global ecumenism. Commenting on Saracco’s remarks and offer to help with a new ecumenism of the people, German Evangelical Church Bishop Margot Kässmann said she was hopeful that “a creative space was opening up in the ecumenical movement for the Holy Spirit to do something new.”

If the Orthodox churches continue to deepen their capacity to give leadership to the ecumenical movement without sectors defecting, new leadership might be found within the council for a way forward. After all, in previous periods of aggiornamento, the Reformed found guidance in the Cappadocian Fathers of Asia Minor, and at another period, the Wesleyans in St. Basil the Great. Vatican II began a period of Roman Catholic re-engagement with the Orthodox, as well as with others as framed by documents such as Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate.

With Pentecostal energy, it just may be that the world’s churches are on the cusp of a new period of aggiornamento appropriate to the social challenges of the twenty-first century. Inevitably, this new birth will not happen without the controversy and the periods of disagreement that have been a part of the WCC since its founding.

Rodney L. Petersen, who received master of divinity and master of theology degrees from HDS in the 1970s, is executive director of the Boston Theological Institute.

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