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Ecumenical council gathers in shadow of bleeding Mother Africa

By Patricia Lefevere
Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Harare, Zimbabwe

The world church turned its attention to Africa this month, visiting a continent where the Body of Christ is growing faster than anywhere else on earth. It also saw that body mortally wounded, impoverished and diseased.

War, communal and domestic violence, a towering debt burden, corruption, human rights violations and the growing specter of HIV-AIDS were never far from the deliberations of the nearly 5,000 persons who attended the World Council of Churches Eighth Assembly here Dec. 3-14.

Participants arrived from 339 Protestant and Orthodox churches in some 100 lands, speaking and praying in scores of languages. Many expressed joy at hearing the gospel in the unique rhythms and flavors of “Mother Africa, so easily forgotten and ignored by the powerful when convenient, so unknown by so many, so exploited and stepped upon by others,” noted Disciples of Christ pastor Eunice Santana of Puerto Rico. Santana preached the homily at the opening service, reminding those in the huge worship tent that it was in Africa where Jesus received asylum as an infant 2,000 years ago.

Alongside Zimbabwe’s grim tallies -- unemployment, more than 50 percent; inflation, 45 percent in 1998; and AIDS deaths, 700 recorded weekly -- hung the assembly theme, “Turn to God, Rejoice in Hope.”

Turning to God meant turning to one’s neighbor in active love, justice and reconciliation, urged Greek Orthodox Archbishop Anastasios of Albania. Many got the message. When the basket was passed, a rarity at a World Council event, $5,000 was collected: $2,500 for victims of AIDS, the same for survivors of Hurricane Mitch. But the world’s suffering people wanted more than a handout. They sought assurances that the World Council’s member churches would pressure their governments and the banking world to repeal Africa’s $227 billion debt, which is costing $379 for every African each year on a continent where most people earn under $2 a day.

Two of Africa’s presidents -- Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Nelson Mandela of South Africa -- addressed the assembly, appealing to the consciences of those World Council leaders and their followers, who, 30 years ago, approved the organization’s controversial Program to Combat Racism.

“The name of the WCC struck fear in the hearts of those who ruled our country during the inhuman days of apartheid,” Mandela told a cheering throng on hand to mark the anniversary of the World Council’s founding in Amsterdam 50 years ago.

Mugabe’s appearance won less praise. Polite applause greeted his 50-minute speech, much of it extolling the contributions made by white Catholic and Protestant missionaries to Southern Africa. Mugabe is Catholic, Mandela a Methodist.

Journalists questioned whether the World Council had lost an opportunity to engage Mugabe about the effects his policies are having on the nation’s economy and work force. World Council representatives responded that it would have been improper for them, as guests in Zimbabwe, to criticize Mugabe’s one-party state or his spending $1 million daily to support an unpopular war in the Congo.

On the eve of the assembly, Ecumenical Support Services, a progressive Christian organization based in Zimbabwe, issued the “Zimbabwe Kairos Document,” which states that the country has been plunged into a political, economic and moral crisis “that is shaking its very foundations.” It pointed to a trampling of democracy by a Soviet-style state that used “tanks and bullets” against unarmed demonstrators last January, who protested against rising food and fuel prices.

And it regretted that “new black political and economic elites ... have replaced the old colonial elites.” Although the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of Zimbabwe has consistently challenged injustices, both before and after independence in 1980, few other churches have done so, according to the document, which blamed churches for not educating their members about abuses of power by authorities. Assembly speakers acknowledged the complexities of debt and corruption issues, noting that corruption affects all nations.

The 960 voting delegates appealed to leaders of developed nations to cancel the debts of the poorest nations “to enable them to enter the new millennium with a fresh start and to reduce substantially the debts of middle-income nations.”

In their message, they called for a new, independent arbitration process for negotiating debt cancellation. Acknowledging that “tough conditions should be imposed on debtor governments,” the World Council asked that these not be a prerequisite for cancellation. It suggested that community organizations, including churches, determine and monitor the conditions for canceling debts.

An idea floated by World Council General Secretary Konrad Raiser for the past two years for the Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organizations, appeared to win favor here.

Some at Harare were already calling the forum a “pan-Christian council.” The initiative has been included in the World Council’s newest study document, “Toward a Common Understanding and Vision,” the process by which the council hopes to guide the ecumenical movement into the new millennium.

Paulist Fr. Thomas Stransky, reacting to the idea of the forum, said he did not rule out “some sort of future restructuring” that might allow the Roman Catholic church to reverse its 1972 decision to not seek World Council membership. Stransky, one of 23 Catholic observers at Harare, directs the Tantur Ecumenical Institute near Jerusalem and was handpicked by the Vatican to attend the session here.

Stransky emphasized that the Catholic church is already a full member of 56 of the 88 national councils of churches worldwide.

Far more pressing, for the moment at Harare, were concerns about who would enter the World Council fellowship and which of the current members would bolt. The assembly voted to delay the membership application of the Celestial Church of Christ in Nigeria because the church still has a polygamous clergy, even though in 1986 it stopped ordaining people with more than one spouse and now requests its new clergy to live monogamously.

The Georgian and Bulgarian Orthodox churches have quit the council in recent months, and the Russian Orthodox church has threatened to leave the World Council’s Central Committee. Some 70 Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches comprise about one-third of the World Council’s Christians. Currently, they “are nervously reluctant participants,” and yet “the future of the WCC is uncertain without them,” according to Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey.

The Anglican primate, in his Dec. 13 homily here, reflected the mood of many who see the council’s greatest challenge as that of balancing the needs of the ancient, tradition-bound churches and those of the more liberal Reformation communions. Harsh words emerged in the debate. A Russian Orthodox priest wanted to know why it was “divisive” to talk about the veneration of Mary or of icons, but “not divisive” to talk about women’s ordination. Another Russian Orthodox delegate said that the call for inclusive language in church doctrine and liturgy was “blasphemous,” while Albanian Orthodox Archbishop Anastasios said: “Keep your Common Understanding and Vision. We will go out.”

Yet a majority of delegates gave sustained applause to Anglican priest Rose Hudson-Wilkin when she said that the struggle was really about power. It’s about: “My church is bigger than yours,” or “I have more money than you” or “My church has this long and important tradition.”

She said if churches want to listen to each other, they cannot do it from a distance. It “means walking side by side with me, even if you are uncomfortable.” It is hoped that some of the discomfort will be overcome by the establishment of a special theological commission that will deliberate on Orthodox participation in the World Council and other concerns for at least three years.

Although the 50-year milestone led to reflection on the achievements of the ecumenical movement and the council, it also prompted Carey to “almost agree” with those who call the World Council “a cul-de-sac into which ideas are lured and quietly strangled.”

Despite the tripling of Christendom’s members this century and the growth of the visible unity of the church, the “splits are wider now,” Carey said. “Our sense of mission is under attack. Western Christianity’s preoccupation with single issue matters [is] sapping the church’s energy” and claiming nearly its full attention, Carey said. “In some sections of the world, we are bleeding to death,” the prelate said, referring to questions of gay and lesbian participation, women’s ordination and left-right polarities over doctrine and church polity.

Carey said he thanked God “for the enormous vitality of Africa’s faith,” but added that Africa was “bleeding” from all that it had to bear. He recalled the words of Catholic Bishop Paridi Taban of Torit, Sudan, who talked about the difficulty of evangelism in refugee camps. “Empty stomachs have no ears,” he said.

Taban preached at the assembly’s African churches service Dec. 5. Pleading before thousands in a soccer stadium, he asked the world’s churches to demand a no-fly zone over the southern Sudan so that the Khartoum government would stop the “devilish bombs,” which have killed many and left deep psychological scars, he said. Survivors have asked the world, through Taban, to test them for suspected chemical poisoning from the bombs.

Muslim observers were among a number of non-Christian representatives and visitors at the assembly. Jews, Hindus and Buddhists also took part causing Atonement friar Ellias Mellon of New York to applaud the interfaith dimensions of Harare.

As participants gathered each day for worship on the grounds of the University of Zimbabwe, they confronted a teak cross 14 feet high with a carved continent of Africa across its center.

It was before this cross that “the very sandals of God are removed,” read a part of the assembly’s message to a poor and bleeding Africa and to a church not yet one, not yet truly catholic, at times unholy and still struggling with apostolic questions.

Leaders of the world’s churches, still unable to take Intercommunion after a century of meetings and 35 years of ecumenical dialogues, exchanged crosses as a sign of their unity and their brokenness in a service of recommitment Dec. 13.

World Council of Churches: http://wccx.wcc-coe.org/

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998