World Council of Churches Office of Communication
Press Release
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15 December 1998

WCC Eighth Assembly - Press Release No. 57

The Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches adjourned on Monday (14 December) after member churches renewed their half-century commitment "to stay together" and delegates promised to remain in solidarity with their African hosts.

More than 5,000 delegates, observers, advisers, stewards, visitors and journalists descended on the campus of the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, 3-14 December, to compose what one local newspaper described as "a mini-world".

As expected, tensions between Orthodox and other delegations were evident during pointed and occasionally angry debates, but Orthodox delegations participated Sunday night (13 December) in a service of recommitment to the WCC.

In many respects, said WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser, the Assembly confounded both friends and critics of the Council. "Despite earlier indications that the Assembly might expose weaknesses of the WCC and fears that the Council might break up," Raiser said, "delegates showed maturity during discussions, even in areas of conflict."

The delegates heard from three legendary African leaders. President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe credited the World Council of Churches for helping them to cast off oppressive apartheid regimes. The Right Rev. Paride Taban, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Torit, Sudan, urged the Assembly on 5 December to help stop the slaughter in Southern Sudan and was apparently the target of a retaliatory bombing in the town of Narus, South Sudan, several days later.

The delegates elected a 150-person Central Committee to preside over the Council until the next Assembly in 2005, participated in hearings to set directions for the Council in the next seven years, and issued statements on a variety of public issues. They also turned down a proposed amendment to the WCC Constitution that would have given the power to elect WCC presidents to the Central Committee, retaining it for themselves.

The Assembly gave its backing to the creation of a "Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organisations" which could extend the organisation's ecumenical outreach far beyond its 339 member churches. The proposed forum could bring to the ecumenical table nearly all of the mainline Christian churches, including many that are not WCC members, such as the Roman Catholic Church and major Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. The forum could also include regional ecumenical organisations, Christian world communions and international ecumenical organisations. (See Policy Reference Committee)

Delegates and visitors participated in more than 600 contributions to a three-day "Padare" in which subjects ranged from Evangelical-Orthodox dialogue to human sexuality. Delegates attended two days of hearings to evaluate the past seven years of WCC work and to make suggestions for future emphases.

Solidarity with Africa

The Assembly rededicated the Council to "the African dream and agenda for the 21st century". A statement adopted on Saturday (12 December) said that the WCC had already "sought to engage creatively and in solidarity with Africa and to stimulate a new way of looking at Africa".

"We are proud in seeing a vision of the journey of hope of African churches for the development of the continent for the 21st century," the WCC said. "We are determined to work out this vision that promises life with dignity for the African people."

This vision, it said:

  • Called the churches and Africa to work together and creatively "to be in solidarity with one another, to accompany those among us with burdens too heavy to carry alone".
  • Compelled the churches and Africa to work to eliminate "the barriers and walls that divide and enslave us".
  • Provided ways "to reconcile broken relationships and heal wounds inflicted by violent ways of resolving misunderstandings and conflict".

Such a vision could be realised "if Africans agree to work together in the spirit of pan-Africanism, and manage their human and natural resources responsibly and ethically, together and in partnership with one another and with Nature".

Orthodox and the WCC

The World Council of Churches will set up a commission on the participation of the Orthodox churches, whose membership has recently been troubled by dissatisfaction among some Orthodox over what they regard as difficulties in making their tradition's voice heard within the otherwise Protestant body.

The Assembly decided on Saturday (12 December) to set up the commission, which will take at least three years on its task. Half the members will be determined by the Orthodox churches and half by the executive committee of the WCC, after consultations with other member churches.

The Rev. Paul Oestreicher (Church of England) told his fellow delegates that the Russian Orthodox Church was "undergoing a turbulent time of inner crisis. However, its immense spiritual wealth, its deep spirituality, are factors we should learn from. More martyrs have died for it than any other church and we must express our deep love for the church and all it has stood for in history."

Tensions between Orthodox and Protestant delegations seemed to boil over in an exchange between the moderator of the nominations committee and the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church onThursday night after an Armenian Orthodox woman nominated to serve on the WCC Central Committee attempted to withdraw her name in favour of an Orthodox male priest.

Archbishop Aghan Baliozian (Armenian Apostolic Church) asked the Assembly to replace the nominating committee's female candidate, Silva Ghazelian, with Father Mikael Ajapahyan. The Assembly rejected the new nomination by a large majority.

At the end of the session, Moderator Soritua Nababan announced that he had received a note from Ghazelian withdrawing her name in favour of Ajapahyan. Bishop Melvin Talbert, moderator of the nominations committee, was visibly angered by the news. "Women are so oppressed they feel that must acquiesce to those who are in authority over them," he told the delegates. "It pains me."

Meanwhile, Professor Ion Bria, an Orthodox scholar from Romania, told a Padare session that the Orthodox Church is experiencing "an internal fermentation" that is provoking misplaced criticisms against the World Council of Churches. The fermentation, caused by "the problem of ecumenical formation", increased after the end of the Cold War, Bria said. Leaders of the Orthodox churches in the former Eastern bloc "were shocked by a new beginning they were not ready for, but people embraced the change, they were exposed to literature in libraries across their borders hitherto inaccessible, and new voices from new movements were formed."

On the participation of the Orthodox churches during the Assembly, General Secretary Raiser said although the Russian and Greek Orthodox did not always vote and they did not attend the worship, they had shown a willingness to talk and to engage in dialogue. The decision to set up a commission on the participation of churches in the WCC is one indication of wanting to find ways to reach better understanding. The Assembly has clarified the agenda, which was now realistic, Raiser said, and most Orthodox churches were eager to be involved.

Mandela and Mugabe Address Assembly

President Nelson Mandela of South Africa called on the WCC to be engaged in the entrenchment of democracy, so helping the fulfilment "of the dreams of African renaissance". His surprise visit on Sunday (13 December) was seen to have heightened the significance of the WCC as he used the occasion to bid its member churches farewell before he relinquishes the leadership of his country next year.

In the past few months, President Mandela has been visiting selected countries and institutions for such farewells. "It is because of the values you promote and what you have stood for that I set aside whatever I was engaged in, to come and join you", he told a capacity audience at the University of Zimbabwe's Great Hall. "As my public life draws to a close, I feel privileged to share my dreams and my thoughts with you."

His Deputy President, Mr Thabo Mbeki, had been expected at the WCC's 50th anniversary celebration. The surprise turn of events, with Mandela accompanied by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, brought all events at the campus to a standstill. Assembly participants thronged his passage when he entered the hall to have a closer glimpse of Africa's most charismatic leader. The scene was repeated on his departure by crowds estimated at more than 3,500 inside and outside the hall.

A few days earlier (8 December), President Mugabe had made a passionate appeal to WCC churches to help to end what he termed "a global conspiracy against poor nations". He said that the global order today belonged to the strong and heartless, a world dominated "by bullies". He went on to paint a bleak picture of "a conservative world where rich nations tumble upon poor ones with disgusting impunity", adding: "We call it a global village in spite of the blatant inequalities of its villagers."

Calling for the WCC's support, he named the debt burden, unequal terms of international trade accompanied by depressed commodity prices, and lately speculative capital as among major factors wrecking economies of poor nations and which require the attention of the international community. Africa's total debt stood at US$227.2 billion, $379 for every man, woman and child in Africa. Zimbabwe's debt stood at US$5,005 million, $447 per person.

Archbishop Taban Calls on Churches to Intercede in Sudan

The churches should intercede with the international community to stop the slaughter in Southern Sudan, Bishop Taban of Torit, Sudan, told the Assembly ( 5 December). He said he witnessed two blitz-style bombing raids by Khartoum on centres where there was no military presence. Referring to the no-fly zone imposed on Iraq to protect the Kurds, he had said: "Our people ask, "Are we not worth human life to be protected from the Sudanese air force by the imposition of a no-fly zone?' "

His call was backed up (10 December) by a meeting of Assembly delegates and visitors from Southern Sudan, who urged the WCC not to be party to a conspiracy of silence on genocide "being perpetrated by the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Khartoum against the people of Southern Sudan".

A week later, a bombing raid was reported to have killed six people and to have damaged a cathedral and school served by Bishop Taban. A letter from the WCC to the foreign minister in Khartoum, Mustafa Ismail Usman, said that according to its information, 14 bombs exploded in Narus town square. In addition to the deaths, 14 people were reported seriously wounded.

The letter told the minister (12 December) that the WCC was shocked by the bombing. "Without judging the motivation until more facts are known, we in any case condemn in the strongest possible terms this act of violence apparently directed at Bishop Paride. We urge you to take immediate measures to ensure his absolute personal security, and to identify and bring to justice the perpetrators of this terrible act."

Central Committee Elects Officers

The newly-elected 150-member Central Committee includes 39.4 per cent women, 14.7 per cent youth (persons under 30), 24.6 per cent Orthodox and 43.3 per cent laypersons In its first meeting on Saturday (12 December), the Central Committee re-elected the Moderator, His Holiness Aram I. The vice-moderators for the next seven years will be Justice Sophia O.A. Adinyira (Church of the Province of West Africa) and Dr. Marion S. Best (United Church of Canada).

The executive committee has four members from Africa, four from Asia, one from the Caribbean, three from Europe, one from Latin America, three from North America and one from the Pacific. It has four members from the Eastern Orthodox churches and two, including the Moderator, from the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

The nominations committee moderator, Bishop Melvin Talbert, expressed regret that the committee was unable to meet its goal to increase the number of women on the Central Committee, which governs the WCC between its seven-yearly Assemblies. This was partly because some churches refused to replace male nominees with female, he said.


The African flavour of the Assembly was underlined by the Rev. Eunice Santana of Puerto Rico, a President of the WCC, in a sermon: "How wonderful and significant to hear the words of Jesus here, in mother Africa, where they take on a unique rhythm and flavour; in mother Africa, so easily forgotten and ignored by the powerful when convenient, so unknown by so many, so exploited and stepped upon by others, but also so beloved by so many of us. Here, in this continent, in Africa, where the same Jesus received asylum and protection as an infant 2,000 years ago."

Zimbabwean churches proclaimed their welcome to participants with exultant singing, dancing, drumming and praises to God. With some dressed in white robes and others in dazzling African attire of every colour, church choirs entertained their guests in rhythmic African style, complete with rattles and ululations.

There was the Voices of Angels choir from neighbouring Botswana, with its song "There Is No Sorrow In Heaven" setting an appropriate mood for the occasion. A brass band, the Christian Marching Band, captivated all attention, particularly with its acrobatics. Then there was the traditional African Christian group Jekenisheni, with heavy drumbeats and whistling, plus other groups whose presentations reverberated through the huge Rufaro stadium at the heart of Harare (5 December). Another key feature of the Assembly was Sunday visits (6 December) to churches in the city and surrounding towns.

More than 600 workshops, dramas, exhibits and discussions were offered in the three-day "Padare" (a Shona word meaning meeting place). The Padare offerings ranged widely on subjects that were not always part of the official agenda of the Assembly, including human sexuality, Orthodox-Evangelical relationships, youth ministries, communications, mission and faith and order issues and economic concerns.

The intent of the Padare, said Dr Raiser, was to "serve as an indicator of the growing points, the problem points, the open questions, the new horizons that people are beginning to explore". Some Padare offerings, including one that featured the president of CNN International and others that dealt with sexuality issues, were popular and attracted 200 people or more. But Padare offerings were strewn all over the university campus, and some presenters complained that few people found their way to their events.


The seven-year road from the Seventh Assembly in Canberra to the Eighth came under scrutiny from delegates (7 December). Each chose to participate in one of five hearings on what the WCC had achieved in its five main areas of work. Later in the week (10 December), delegates began to offer their ideas for emphases in the next seven years in the following areas: Justice and Peace, Unity, Moving Together, Learning, Witness and Solidarity.

Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women

Violence against women is a plague that must be stopped. That was the apparent consensus (7 December) as the Assembly marked the close of the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women. But no delegate at a plenary session of the Assembly was willing to declare the Decade an unqualified success, and comments from Orthodox delegates revealed sharp divisions over what it accomplished and what should happen next.

"We have started down the path toward empowering women to share the fulness of their gifts and toward enabling the Church to be enriched by those gifts," said the Rev. Bertrice Y. Wood (United Church of Christ, USA). But the realisation of full empowerment "is still largely before us".

Most of the delegates seemed to support a letter from the Festival which called on the Assembly "to announce to all the world that violence against women is a sin". One of the panellists at the session, the Rev. Deenabandhu Manchala of India, asked: "Does the Church wish to remain custodian of a culture of violence or as a catalyst to a culture of life? We must stop seeing violence against women as a women's problem."

Another panellist, Metropolitan Ambrosius of Oulu (Orthodox Church of Finland) said the Decade had been "very important" for the churches. "In many places women have remained invisible and ignored, in spite of the fact that . . . the Church should always be the community of women and men," he said.

But Father Vsevolod Chaplin (Russian Orthodox Church) said he considered at least some themes discussed by Decade supporters, including the call for inclusive language in church documents and liturgy and the ordination of women, to be "blasphemous".

WCC Membership Now at 339

Membership of the WCC rose to a record 339 churches as the Assembly welcomed eight more. There are now 306 churches in full membership and 33 in associate membership. Appropriately for the Assembly's venue, six of the additional churches are African: the United Church of Christ in Zimbabwe, the Harrist Church in Ivory Coast, the Council of African Instituted Churches, which is in South Africa, the Reformed Church of Christ in Nigeria, and the Congo's Anglican Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church. The two others are Indonesian: the Christian Protestant Angkola Church and the Christian Church of Sumba.

A request for membership by the Celestial Church of Christ in Nigeria was delayed after delegates expressed concern that the church still has polygamous clergy. A later vote ran into a legal problem and the application will now be considered by the new Central Committee.

Election of WCC Presidents

A proposal that the college of WCC Presidents should be elected by the Central Committee instead of the Assembly was rejected. The policy reference committee had argued that election by the Assembly had proved to be "politicised and painful" in the past, and that giving the task to the smaller Central Committee after an Assembly had dispersed would allow "a more extensive and sensitive consultation process". The Assembly rejected the change on the grounds that not all churches are represented on the committee, as they are in the Assembly, and that any pain in the process was a price worth paying for openness.

The following were elected to the praesidium for the next seven years: Dr. Agnes Abuom, Kenya (Anglican Church of Kenya), the Rev. Kathryn Bannister, USA (United Methodist Church), Bishop Jabez Bryce, Tonga (Anglican Church in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Polynesia), His Eminence Metropolitan Chrysostomos, Ephesus, Turkey (Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople), His Holiness Ignatius Zakka Iwas, Syria, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, Mr Moon Kyu Kang, Korea (Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea), Bishop Federico J. Pagura, Argentina (Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina), and Bishop Eberhardt Renz, Germany (Evangelical Church in Germany).

Public Issues Statements

With the Council's 50th anniversary and the Biblical mandate of a jubilee forgiveness of debts in mind, delegates called upon member churches to work for "debt cancellation for severely indebted, impoverished countries to enable them to enter the new millennium with a fresh start."

Other public issue statements adopted by the delegates included:

  • "Globalisation," which "should become a central emphasis in the work of the WCC" and must be "challenged by an alternative way of life of community in diversity".

  • "Human Rights," which includes a call for the violators of rights to be brought to international justice and welcomes the agreement to set up the International Criminal Court. "No religious community should plead for its own religious liberty without active respect and reverence for the faith and basic human rights of others," the statement declared.

  • "A Statement on the Status of Jerusalem," declaring that settling the city's status must be done by an international tribunal and that access to holy places must be secured for all faiths and Palestinians assured of their rights to free access, property, building and residency.

  • A statement condemning the use of children in warfare. More than 300,000 children are engaged in armed conflicts, delegates were told. Many have been lawfully recruited, others kidnapped or coerced. The statement calls for an immediate moratorium on their recruitment, the demobilisation of those now serving and a United Nations protocol raising recruitment age from 15 to 18. It especially calls on African churches to press their governments for early ratification of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which prohibits recruits under 18.

Message from the Host

The WCC had made an historic impact on the life of the University of Zimbabwe by holding its Assembly on its campus, the university's Vice-Chancellor, Graham Hill, said (14 December). He noted that the event brought two heads of state to the campus, President Mandela and President Mugabe, "leaders whose movements were supported by the WCC during liberation struggles".

Prof. Hill recalled that during the struggles, the university became "an island of democracy; staff and students spoke out against the colonial government, lecturers were deported and students fled to foreign countries . . . it is therefore befitting that you came to the island of democracy."

Contact: John Newbury, WCC Press & Information Officer
Press and Information Office, Harare
Tel: +
E-Mail: WCC media

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 339, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the Assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.