World Council of Churches

The World Council of Churches (WCC) is the broadest and most inclusive among the many organized expressions of the modern ecumenical movement, a move­ment whose goal is to promote a united Christian voice and witness in the world.

Purpose

The WCC understands itself as a fellowship of churches, and from the outset the search for the visible unity of the churches has been at the heart of the WCC. The constitutional purpose of the fellowship of churches in WCC is "to call one another to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe."

At the founding assembly of the WCC in 1948 a brief Basis was accepted, stat­ing the ground on which the churches were able to join and stay together in the WCC. The Basis was later extended to include references to the scriptures, the Trin­ity and the common calling of the churches. Since 1961 it reads:

"The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit".

Member churches

As a council of churches, the WCC is a body made up of autonomous member churches, most of them organized at the national level of their country, which have made a free choice to join the Council. The WCC has no authority over its member churches and can make no decision that is binding for them. In the words of Arch­bishop Temple, one of the ecumenical pioneers, "any authority that it may have will consist in the weight it carries with the churches by its wisdom".

In 2005, the WCC had a membership of 348 member churches which together claimed 592 million Christian members in more than 120 countries. WCC member churches include nearly all the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches; Anglicans; diverse Protestant churches, including Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, and Bap­tist, and a broad representation of united and independent churches. While most of the WCC's founding churches were European and North American, today the majority are in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific.

The largest Christian church, the Catholic Church, is not a member of the WCC, but has worked closely with the Council for decades and sends observers to all major WCC meetings. A Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC has been functioning since 1965. It celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2005. The Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity nominates twelve members to the WCC's Faith and Order Commission as full members. Catholic missionary organizations are represented on the WCC's Com­mission on World Mission and Evangelism. A Catholic staff person is assigned to the WCC team on Mission and Ecumenical Formation, and a Catholic teacher is on the staff of the Ecumenical Institute Bossey; both are appointed by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

History and origins

Historically, the origins of the modern ecumenical movement can be traced back to the world missionary conference in Edinburgh in 1910. Out of this event grew the "Faith and Order" and "Life and Work" movements which were inspired by individuals who had a vision of unity and cooperation. In 1920 the Patriarch of Constantinople issued an encyclical calling upon all the churches in the world to join in a League of Christian Churches. In the 1930s the leaders of Faith and Order and Life and Work together developed the plan to form a world body for Christ­ian unity.

The founding assembly of the WCC was initially planned for 1941 but had to be postponed because of the war. In 1948 the representatives of 147 churches came together in Amsterdam and founded the WCC.

Other bodies subsequently merged with WCC: the International Missionary Council in 1961, and the World Council of Christian Education, with its roots in the 18th-century Sunday School movement, in 1971.

Programmatic activity

The WCC works with its member churches in a variety of programme initiatives, ranging from theological study to ecumenical education, from conflict resolution to inter-religious dialogue and communication.

For its member churches, the WCC is a unique space: one in which they can reflect, speak, act, worship and work together, challenge and support each other, share and debate with each other. As members of this fellowship, WCC member churches:

  • are called to the goal of visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship;
  • promote their common witness in work for mission and evangelism;
  • engage in Christian service by serving human need, breaking down barriers between people, seeking justice and peace, and upholding the integrity of cre­ation; and
  • foster renewal in unity, worship, mission and service.

Organization

Delegates sent by the member churches meet every seven years in an assembly, which elects a presidium of eight presidents, and a 150-member central commit­tee that governs between assemblies. A smaller executive committee, and a mod­erator and two vice-moderators are elected by the central committee. A variety of other advisory bodies and commissions report to the central committee.

From its inception, the WCC has celebrated the following assemblies, each one under a specific theme reflecting the ecumenical thinking of the time: Amsterdam (Netherlands) 1948 Man's Disorder and God's Design Evanston (USA) 1954 Christ - the Hope of the World New Delhi (India) 1961 Jesus Christ - the Light of the World Uppsala (Sweden) 1968 Behold, I make all things new Nairobi (Kenya) 1975 Jesus Christ Frees and Unites Vancouver (Canada) 1983 Jesus Christ - the Life of the World Canberra (Australia) 1991 Come Holy Spirit - Renew the Whole Creation Harare (Zimbabwe) 1998 Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope Porto Alegre (Brazil) 2006 God in your grace, transform the world

New perspectives

Both the Christian world and the WCC are changing. The majority of Christians are now located in the global South. New forms of ecumenical commitment and spirituality are emerging; young people are finding their own expressions of ecu­menism and church; amidst the multiplicity of ecumenical bodies, the WCC is redi­recting its energies to doing what it does best and is uniquely equipped to do.

The WCC shares the legacy of the one ecumenical movement and the respon­sibility to keep it alive. The Council's role is to address global ecumenical issues and act as a trustee for the inner coherence of the movement.

The churches that make up the World Council live in remarkably different social conditions. Their members speak an array of languages. Their distinctive histories produce different styles of worship and forms of organization and governance. It is this diversity that makes the WCC an exciting and challenging forum. Historic tensions and differences sometimes persist - and new difficulties can come to the surface - yet the fundamental commitment remains to build unity and coopera­tion among the churches, "that the world may believe".

The WCC maintains its headquarters in the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland. It has an office in New York, and a few programmatic offices in other regions.

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Last updated:01/01/06