Christian Division, Ecumenism a Focus of WCC Assembly

Leaders and representatives from across Christianity gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Tuesday for official start of one of the most ambitious ecumenical conferences in nearly a decade.

The World Council of Churches’ first assembly since 1998 brings together nearly 1,000 delegates from its constituency and about 500 guests from other Christian communities to focus on finding new common ground during times of “radical changes.”

"Christianity is undergoing radical changes," said one of the policy documents for the conference. "While Christianity appears to be on the decline in some parts of the world, it has become a dynamic force to others."

The growth of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches around the world has left many WCC-member churches struggling with shrinking congregations and declining influence. Such Evangelical-style churches have dominated in the developing world where Christianity is spreading the fastest, and have become firmly rooted in Europe and North America where the influence of mainline churches has rapidly declined.

In light of such shifts, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, the General Secretary of the Council, is expected to call on important Pentecostal pastors to end their suspicion of the Switzerland-based WCC, which has largely been seen by the Evangelical community as too liberal or too restrictive for individual church growth and fundraising.

Meanwhile, the Council will also focus on maintaining unity within its own member churches. The 77-million-member Anglican Communion as well as the 66-million-member Lutheran World Federation has faced severe division over the ordination of homosexual priests and blessing of same-sex unions in some parts of the Western world.

A document prepared for the conference said it is no longer avoiding such debates over human sexuality that were once considered “taboo.”

"Churches and Christians are divided and keep diving over such issues," according to the document.

Other topics of debate will be relations with Islam, nuclear disarmament, United Nations reform, Terrorism, and water.

Council members will also be expected to make statements on the ecumenical movement in the 21st century.

The Porto Alegre conference is the ninth assembly since the WCC formed in 1948. About 4,000 clerics, unofficial visitors, and activists are expected to attend the conference, which is slated to end on Feb. 23.

Prominent individuals and guests at the assembly will include: Geoff Tunnicliffe, International Director for the World Evangelical Alliance; Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for the Anglican Communion; Walter Cardinal Kaspar, president of the Pontifical Council of Promoting Christian Unity; and Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad for the Russian Orthodox Church.