number 9, december 14, 1998

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50 years ago:
Report from Amsterdam

WCC on the map

One of the final items in Assembly News form Amsterdam in 1948 was headed, "On the map". The map showed countries with churches in the new WCC. Missing were the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, most of Africa, Syria and Egypt, and the west of South America.

The caption briefly gave the first set of numbers for the new World Council of Churches. Read now, it also indicates something of the change to the world in the last half century.

The assembly, it said, "had representatives from 147 churches in 44 countries out of a potential of 165 churches in 46 countries who could be represented. Countries represented only by minority churches are Ceylon, East Africa, West Africa and the Rhodesias.

Drawn together

Most of the final issue of the paper was given to sections from the reports, and the first of those was "Unity":

"Whenever we find ourselves ... speaking together of our unity, we also find ourselves faced by some stubborn problems. In dealing with them we discover disagreements which are to be traced back into our different ways of understanding the whole and, beneath those disagreements, we find again an agreement in a unity which drew us together and will not let us go."

Divided churches

"Within our divided churches it is our shame that we have so often lived in preoccupation with our internal affairs, looking inward upon our own concern instead of forgetting ourselves in outgoing love and service," said another part of the assembly’s Section I report.

"Our churches are too much dominated by ecclesiastic officialdom, clerical or lay. Instead of giving vigorous expression to the full rights of the living congregation and the sharing of clergy and people in the common life of the body of Christ."

Into the world

"The church must find its way to the places where men really live," said the Section II report, adding that it had to "penetrate the alien world from within".

"This can be done ... fully only if, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the church recovers the spirit of prophecy to discern the signs of the times, to see the purpose of God working in the immense movements and revolutions of the present age, and again to speak to the nations with the authority of God."

New technology

Technical developments had relieved people of much drudgery and poverty, said the Section III report, but they had their limits, said Section 3's report. Moreover, regions such as Africa and Asia, needed "the benefits of more machine production".

People there "may learn to avoid the mechanisation of all life and the other dangers of a misbalanced economy which impair the social health of the older industrial peoples", it said.

Women’s ministry

Committee IV reported that the churches "are not agreed on the important question of admission of women to the full ministry".

"Some churches for theological reasons are not prepared to consider the question of such ordination; some find no objection in principle but see administrative or social difficulties; some permit partial but not full participation in the work of the ministry; in others women are eligible for all offices of the church. Even in the last group social custom and public opinion still create obstacles. In some countries a shortage of clergy raises urgent practical and spiritual problems.

"Those who desire the admission of women to the full ministry believe that until this is achieved the church will not come to full health and power. We are agreed that this whole subject requires a further careful and objective study."

Debate on socialism

The Section III report at Amsterdam was clear about the problems with communism -- its "materialistic and deterministic teachings -- are incompatible with the Christian belief in man as a person, made in God’s image and responsible to him -- but it was not so clear about socialism.

It acknowledged that the church could not resolve the debate between socialism and capitalism, but it offered cautions to both.

Their word to the advocates of socialism was that "the institution of property is not the root of evil. We must equally say to the defenders of existing property relations that ownership is not an unconditional right. Therefore, it must be preserved, curtailed or distributed in accordance with the requirements of justice."

Moral foundations

"We believe that the Christian churches have an important part to play in creating that common foundation of moral conviction without which any system of law is certain to break down," said the report from Section IV.

"They (churches) should give their support to every effort to deal on a universal basis with the many specific questions of international concern which face mankind today, such as the use of atomic power, the reduction of armaments and the provision of health and food for all (people)."

The last word

The last word in the final issue of Assembly News went to Section I: "But we embark upon our work in the World Council of Churches in penitence for what we are and in hope for what we shall be.

"At this inaugural assembly we ask for the continual prayer of all participating churches that God may guide it in his wisdom, saving us both from false claims and from faithless timidity."

Fifty years later, Amen.

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Read other articles in this issue:

Mandela to WCC: tribute, and the development goal
Four fundamental questions for churches
Experiences people have had: Living the ecumenical connection
Orthodox preachers shares testimony about being lost
Visitors take home gift of a covenant
Bulgarian Orthodox quit WCC
Looking for the vision
WCC to set up commission with Orthodox churches
Trees will be reminder of the 8th assembly
Listen! Children can work
Letters: Provocative, misleading
50 years ago: Report from Amsterdam
Zimbabwe Christians criticise government
WCC celebrates 50th anniversary
Assembly yes to Christian 'forum'

8th Assembly and 50th Anniversary

copyright 1998 World Council of Churches. Remarks to webeditor