Christians from all over the world are gathering in Germany this week for a major ecumenical event – the 11th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Among those in Wales are three representatives of the Church of Wales – the Bishop of St Asaph, Gregory Cameron, Mandy Bayton, of the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon, and the Reverend Canon Ainsley Griffiths, director of Faith, Order and Unity. The theme is hope and reconciliation, writes Canon Ainsley (pictured).
A long train journey from Carmarthen in southern Germany gave me an excellent opportunity to write these reflections on the Eleventh General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC). During my travels, thousands of others will make similar journeys, many much longer than mine, to attend one of the largest Christian gatherings in the world, an event that only takes place every eighth or nine years. The last one was in Busan, South Korea, in 2013, in a culture both different from and similar to our own European setting, a place of democratic freedom and material prosperity, but where Christianity is often more vibrant than in our own secularized West. setting. This year’s General Assembly (the first to be held in Europe since 1968) is taking place in the thriving city of Karlsruhe on the Rhine, just a few kilometers from the border with France. While relations with immediate neighbors are good today, it is an area that has experienced conflict in fairly recent times, with land disputes in regions such as Alsace and Lorraine. Although these regions now belong to France, the many German-sounding place names allude to past tensions.
Gathering in a place of borders and conflict, of hope and healing, may not be a bad thing for a major ecumenical event like this. For centuries, the divided body of Christ was not the answer to Jesus’ prayer to the Father on the eve of his death, “that all may be one…that the world may believe” (John 17:21-23 ). For too long we have been divided into Orthodox, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Reformed, Pentecostals and a host of other traditions. We have allowed our disagreements over certain doctrines and practices to separate us rather than inspiring us to discover a deeper unity through our common belonging to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Like the French and Germans vying for land in the past, we have sought to assert our own exclusive claim to truth rather than being open to what is true – and good and beautiful – in others who claim to believe. to the risen Saviour. Our arrogance has led us to close our hearts to those who also belong to Christ and instead of heeding his command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12), we let the lack of love take root, often at terrible times. Cost.
With all of this in mind, the theme for this year’s WCC General Assembly is particularly fitting, even more so considering the violence and fragility in so many parts of the world today. Drawing inspiration from 2 Corinthians 5:14, she declares that “the love of Christ moves the world towards reconciliation and unity”, a transformation that our violent and fragile world desperately needs. The preparatory manual tells us that the theme draws from the very heart of the gospel which offers the world the depth and wonder of the love of God the Holy Trinity. It is rooted in God’s plan for the unity and reconciliation of all, a plan made visible in the incarnation of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
Thus, the love of God consists in establishing unity among all men, a unity which echoes the deepest unity imaginable, namely the perfect communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is not a beautiful religious sentiment or a pious thought to save for Sunday, but an expensive and life-changing commitment to see a world reconciled with God and with itself. So it’s not just about bringing separated Christians together in worship and witness (although that’s still vital) but it’s about our relationship with those whose beliefs and practices are very different from ours. It is also about justice and the integrity of creation, as the WCC’s impressive list of areas of activity shows – from strengthening Christian concern for human rights, gender justice, migration and health to an in-depth reflection on the challenges posed by xenophobia, racism and populist nationalism .
One area that will be of particular interest to me will be the WCC’s strong commitment to environmental issues and its prophetic work. We have heard in recent days of the devastating floods in Pakistan, almost certainly made worse by climate change, but also of terrible fires in many areas as well as drought-induced famine in others. Our weather is becoming more and more unpredictable and people are suffering greatly. And we know that the changes are not just happening in faraway countries, but also in our own, as we experienced (or endured) record high temperatures this summer as well as the drought issues that still plague many regions.
Obviously, the WCC alone cannot solve these problems, but it can provide a forum for Christians around the world who can be agents of change in their own way.
It will bring together those in the Pacific Islands who are seeing their homes gradually lost to rising sea levels to meet those who must move their homes and herds as already arid regions become uninhabitable. Whether there is too much water or not enough, climate change is forcing people to migrate in large numbers, dividing families from their ancestral lands, increasing misery, conflict and tension. And we of the rich, polluting and guilty West will see how our wealth and greed have brought terrible and unimaginable destruction. It will be sobering to hear stories of suffering but also voices of hope, a hope that springs from faith in God who loves the world and desires to see it flourish.
While many of the issues I’ve mentioned are broad and abstract, theological and technological, an event like this can cut them down to size, helping us to see that these are really human lives like yours. and mine. I end with an opening thanksgiving that will be prayed at the Assembly:
God of love,
We gather from all over the world,
Of the eight regions of the World Council of Churches,
from various contexts,
each of us created in your image.
We share the hope of meeting each other
in the warm embrace of Christ’s love,
that drives us to reconciliation and unity.
We share the hope that our faith can be kept alive
and that our commitment to your promise of a new world
could be renewed.
Amen. So be it.