United Methodists attend the Eleventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches

Rev. Dr. Jean Hawxhurst
Ecumenical Staff Officer - Council of Bishops

September 12, 2022
More than 60 representatives of The United Methodist Church (UMC)  attended the recently ended Eleventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) held in Karlsruhe in Germany August 30 through September 9, 2022.
The World Council of Churches (WCC) is a fellowship of 352 communions (churches or denominations) from around the world who covenant together to reflect visible unity, to join each other in mission, and to offer a joint voice on issues of justice around the world.
Every eight years, the WCC gathers representatives from member churches in a global assembly which focuses on worship, Bible study, fellowship, hearing from each other, electing new officers and setting the agenda for the subsequent eight years.
Present at this Eleventh Assembly were 883 delegates and advisors, 1,184 participants and observers, 974 local volunteers and interpreters, 137 students and faculty for the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute (GETI) and 150 young adult stewards.  Additionally, there were eleven representatives of churches from Ukraine who were invited as special guests, so the global church could offer a tangible sign of support. Since the last assembly seven new churches have joined, including the Dutch Reformed Church, the Africa Brotherhood, the Apostolic Faith Mission of Southern Africa and others.

The official and voting delegation representing The UMC was made up of Mr. Byrd Bonner (Texas), Bishop Harald Rückert (Local Advisor, Bishop of Germany), Bishop Gaspar Domingos (Bishop of East Angola), Rev. Ann Jacob (Washington), Mr. Paul Gomez (UMCom), Bishop Mary Ann Swenson (WCC Vice Moderator), Rev. Joshua Swanson (Georgia), Rev. Dr. Jean Hawxhurst (Advisor to the Delegation), Bishop Sally Dyck (Ecumenical Officer), Rev. Jessica Lowe (Louisiana), Rev. Sarah Bach (Switzerland), Mr. Roland Fernandes (GBGM) and Rev. Dr. Connie Semy Mella (Philippines).
However, in addition to the voting delegation, United Methodists from around the Connection participated as presenters, participants and stewards.  There were also five young adults in the GETI program, including: Mr. Tavis Tinsley (Gammon Seminary), Mr. Felix Seuß (Germany), Rev. Almuth Zipf (Germany), Ms. Hannah Andres (South Dakota) and Ms. Ericka Jallah (Liberia and Bossey student).  These participants received training on the global Ecumenical Movement parallel to the assembly. 
Two full days of pre-assembly gatherings were convened, including one for young people, one for indigenous people, one for differently-abled people, and one for women and men wanting to work together for gender justice.  Each group wrote a report with recommendations to be sent to the assembly for programmatic consideration between now and the next assembly. 
At the beginning of the assembly greetings and reports were offered.  Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, one of the two Vice-Moderators recalled the actions of the Central Committee over the previous nine years and reminded all present that “we are called both to act for justice and to deepen our relationships. Justice and unity,” she said, “are inseparable.”
Fr. Ioan Sauca, who served as the Interim General Secretary for the last few years, offered advice for the assembly moving forward stating, “The Ecumenical Movement means strengthening relationships.”  In reference to the war between Russia and Ukraine, he strongly stated, “We bring people to dialogue, we don’t expel people” noting the presence of both Russian Orthodox and invited Ukrainian representatives.  He also uplifted the WCC document on human sexuality and recommended all churches study it as a way to further dialogue.
Dr. Agnes Abuom, the Moderator, thanked the leadership and named the foci that had risen to the surface as: 1. Truth and justice, 2. Gender justice, 3. Anti-racism, 4. Hurt and trauma, and 5. Health and healing.  She clearly said, “In Christ’s Love lies the key to our unity.”  The assembly was also greeted by German government officials, including the President of the German Federation, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.  He forcefully stated that he expected the WCC to tell the Russian Orthodox Church leaders present that they are helping to perpetuate killing and injustice, and that they should go home and work to make it stop. 
Each day the assembly received greetings from global religions leaders.  Some of them included the following:
  • Cardinal Koch of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity read a statement of encouragement from Pope Francis. 
  • The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew spoke of the importance of joining together to work against the climate crisis. 
  • Ukrainian Orthodox leaders spoke of the pain and politics of war.
  • Dr. Azza Karam of Religions for Peace International (pictured above with one of the assembly sign language interpreters) spoke of the power of faith leaders and how it exceeds the power of political leaders.  She asked the assembly if Christ’s Love was meant only for the followers of Christianity.  If not, then she strongly suggested that Christians should consider how much more of Christ’s Love can be spread when religions work together. 
  • Rev. Dr. William Wilson of the Pentecostal World Fellowship noted Pentecostals stand ready to reach across the chasms of division, so the world will believe. 
  • Bishop Prof. Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher, of the World Evangelical Alliance spoke of the overlaps of the two organizations and stated that “violence and division are against God’s shalom.” 
  • Rabbi David Fox Sandnel of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations reminded all “reconciliation between people is a prerequisite for forgiveness from God.” 
  • Marcelo Leites, the General Secretary of the World Student Christian Foundation who said, “Our responsibility to provide hope is enormous.”  
  • Brother Alois of Taizé who stated that he believes prayer is what brings Christians together. He said, “Prayer is from where unity comes.” 
  • The Rt. Rev. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury also offered his thoughts, saying, “only in the conversion of human beings is found the hope of unity,” and “The luxurious expense of Christian division is no longer affordable.”
Each day of the assembly had a theme, Including: climate crisis, racism and xenophobia, the war in the Ukraine, Middle East peace, global health pandemic and violence against women and children.  Drama, the Pacific tradition of “talanoa,” Scripture reading, wheelchair ballet, panel discussions, speakers and video were used to help the assembly understand the issues involved in each of the themes.
Each of the delegates was also assigned to a “Home group,” in which they could talk on a more personal level about the issues being raised.  They were also assigned to an “Ecumenical Conversation” group, in which they could offer ideas and suggestions for programmatic foci for the WCC.
A “Networking Zone” was always available, and it provided the venue for several smaller workshops on various topics.  For example, the WCC Faith and Order Commission offered a presentation on their newly produced consensus document entitled Facilitating Dialogue to Build Koinonia. The commission reported they listened deeply and came up with a way to facilitate deep dialogue, noting that the basis of dialogue is mutual recognition of some element of Christ in each dialogue partner. 
There were also a couple Methodist Family gatherings held in the local Methodist Church.  The first one was a time to introduce the many gathered to the World Methodist Council.  Bishop Ivan Abrahams welcomed Methodists from every global region and spoke about the WMC.  We returned on Sunday for morning worship, at which time Bishop Abrahams preached and Bishop Rückert offered the Communion liturgy.  That evening there was a reception for all Methodist/Wesleyan/Uniting participants.
Of course, there was also business conducted at the assembly, particularly during the final four days. The following people were named as the Presidents of the WCC: Most Rev. Dr. Rufus Okiliola Ositelu from Africa, Rev. Dr. Henriete Hutabarat-Legang from Asia, Rt. Rev. Philip Wright from the Caribbean and Latin America, Rev. Dr. Susan Durber from Europe, Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith from North America, Rev. Francois Phiaatae from the Pacific, H.E. Metropolitan Dr. Vasilios of Canstantia- Ammochostos from the Eastern Orthodox Church, and H.H. Catholicos Aram I of the Oriental Orthodox Church.
The UMC will have two representatives on the Central Committee: Bishop Sally Dyck (who will also serve on the Executive Committee) and Rev. Ann Jacob. 
The finance report was received and approved.  Many programmatic suggestions were made for the Central Committee to discern, including adding a desk for youth to the WCC staff, forming a Health and Healing Commission, making a clear united response to the climate crisis and creating a library of resources.  Additionally, several statements were made, including one on the war in Ukraine, one on peace in the Middle East, one on the Armenians being held captive, one on peace on the Korean Peninsula, and one on the situation in West Papua.
A unity statement of the assembly called member churches to work together in unity, through an “ecumenism of the heart, and to bring Love into the public sphere.  A message statement from the assembly, entitled “A Call to Act Together,” was also offered, which offers a summary of the issues discussed.
The new General Secretary, Professor Dr. Jerry Pillay of South Africa will assume his position January 1, 2023. He affirmed the WCC mission, and the pilgrimage of justice and peace pivoting to the pilgrimage of reconciliation and unity.  He also shared what his foci would be for his term in leadership.
There were several take-aways from the global assembly.  I will conclude here with three:
  • First, the global church is alive and carrying forward the call to unity.  The combination of fellowship and diversity that is core to a WCC assembly is a beautifully divine thing to witness.  At the assembly Russian Orthodox, Pacific Island Methodists, Church of England members, and African Indigenous leaders sit at the same table and worship under the same tent. 
  • Second, there is a huge amount of pain in the global church currently.  Individuals and groups were given the time to share their pain, and the assembly was given the ability to commit to walking with them.  Decolonizing world Christianity, equal places at the table, and recognition of the intersections between one regions’ consumerism and another’s oppression were a part of every day’s conversations.
  • And, third, there is a shift happening in the WCC, and it will both help marginalized voices to be heard and reduce the visible leadership of The United Methodist Church.  With unity being the focus, The UMC now has two seats on the Central Committee.  That is a reduction from the three of the previous nine years and the five from the eight years prior to then.  This will cause some in The UMC to feel frustration. However, there are 352 member communions in the WCC and only 150 seats on the Central Committee.  That means some communions receive no seat at all.  It is time for The UMC to humbly live into a place that continues our strong voice but also recognizes equity at the table is necessary for the healthy functioning of the WCC in this time.
 The eleventh assembly of the World Council of Churches is now concluded.  The newly named Central Committee met together to begin their work.  They will gather again in June of 2023 to set program for the next eight years, and The United Methodist Church will continue to be a vital part of that work.  God has blessed this fellowship of communions, and the results of that blessing will continue to be realized around God’s Creation.  Thanks be to God.