Fr Michael Gaine reports from Geneva on the work of the central committee which has been preparing the ground for the World Council of Churches' plenary assembly in Vancouver this month.
THE MODERATOR of the Central Committee (Archbishop Edward Scott, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada) opened the proceedings with an official report on the activities of the Council during the previous twelve months.
Although this was routine it constituted an impressive list: research reports on transnational corporations and on political ethics are part of the response to Nairobi's insistence on the quest for a 'just, participatory, and sustainable society' for all men.
The consultation on nuclear disarmament held in Amsterdam with its pessimistic findings reflected the concern for a 'sustainable' society. However, the most impressive achievement came from the Faith and Order Commission.
After many years of discussion, with over a hundred Churches having submitted comments on earlier drafts, at a meeting at Lima the Commission . arrived at an agreed statement on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.
It does not represent a consensus among the participating Churches: although Roman Catholic theologians helped in its foundation, it does not represent an adequate expression of Catholic Theology in these points.
However, it did highlight growing convergences in the understanding of the faith despite much diversity in theological expression. This text has now been sent to all member churches with a request for a tangible response in the forum of some official action by each Church.
This document will clearly have to be read in close conjunction with the Arcic Final Report and the subsequent Observations from the Congregation ;1 for the Doctrine of the Faith.
It will undo-ubtedly provide a focus for the forthcoming International I,' Commission announced in the Common Declaration signed by Pope John . Paul and Archbishop Runcie at Canterbury.
The Holy Father did not go to the WCC Ecumenical Centre when he visited the international organisations in Geneva. This was not a Vatican snub to the work of the World Council, but was negotiated so that a visit to the Ecumenical Centre could take place in conjunction with the Pope's
1, pastoral visit to the Churches in Switzerland, which wilt probably take place in 1983.
16 Meanwhile, although the machinery structures for collaboration between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC remain in existence, their vTt significant output seems to have been curtailed. The effective body Sodepax, sri which specialised in issues of world development and peace, has been
replaced by a joint consultative group.
It is significant that its one publication consisted simply of existing official declarations by the WCC and the Vatican, rather than attempting to break new ground.
A joint working group, which has a wider remit, met once in September, 1981, and again in March of this year. It has discussed three priority areas: unity, common witness, and social collaboration.
The report from this group notes that relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC member churches are "somewhat more complex than in earlier years."
Asked at a press conference to elaborate the reasons for this, Archbishop . Scott pointed to the recent emphasis on papal visits to various countries when , there is no parallel symbolism in other denominations.
.., This was not a veiled criticism of what some Ch-urches regard as a re„, emerging personality cult, but private conversations did reveal some anxiety as to how it would influence ecumenical dialogue locally if there was a warm , response to the Holy Father as a charismatic person almost to the neglect of „ the fluctuating content of his addresses.
There was also a problem of how to relate the bilateral negotiations between Roman Catholics and Anglicans to the wider ecumenical context.
, Finally, he pointed to the fact that national Roman Catholic bishops' conferences have acquired increasing freedom in their relationships with other Christians.
As a result the official Roman Catholic position on various issues is not always expressed in the same way in different parts of the world.
In some concluding reflections, the Archbishop spoke of a continual danger facing churches, instancing the Anglican Church in Canada as just one example of a universal problem: "I would contend that every political system, every culture, seeks either deliberately or unconsciously to 'domesticate' the church, to use the church for its own purposes. We all have to face the problem of whether our ultimate loyalty is to God, or to the state or culture in which we live."
The 'report' of the General Secretary, Dr Philip Potter, consisted of an analysis of the biblical concepts of 'righteousness' (which he saw in terms of relationship, primarily man's relationship with God) the people, and the coming of the Kingdom. He saw these as a firm foundation for the quest for the 'just, participatory and sustainable society.' He translated them into ' practical terms of people's participation in the life of society and of the church, and of solidarity with the poor. In prophetic vein he chided the member churches for having failed on both counts: "Many of our churches, though being the people of God, are dominated by an hierarchical elite who claim to speak for the people and are hardly conscious of the fact that they are themselves captive to traditional and ideological vested interests . . . Our Churces are not generally people's churches, but churches which are socially accepted or dominated by privileged persons." He went on to say: "Our churches have had a long history of giving aid and attending to the poor by charitable works . . . they have hardly addressed themselves to the structdres which perpetuate poverty, and have generally not been willing to enter into the struggle for justice for the poor." Indeed, Potter argued, these convictions about people's participation and solidarity with the poor have constituted more of a threat than a promise to the churches.
Inevitably, there were strong reactions against such hard-hitting criticisms. The 'Russian Orthodox Archbishop Kirill accepted that some WCC programmes represented a more effective response to world issues than effort by member churches, but he pointed to the danger that they could also be programmes of an 'ecumenical elite.'
As others pointed out, some of the so-called hierarchical elite have suffered at the hands of their congregation for their defence of the World Council: it is not always a situation as the people against reluctant church leaders in support of ecumenical initiatives. As Preslyter Elliott of the Anglican Church of Ireland put it: "If WCC initiatives are not always welcomed by the churches, it may sometimes be because the churches are correct in their judgement."
Although the World Council had much to report of which it might well be proud, obviously this meeting of the Central Committee was not simply an exercise in mutual back-slapping. It is one of the great strengths of the World Council that it provides a forum in which churches can criticise and be criticised in a supportive atmosphere of mutual trust.