Christians prepare for global ecumenical gathering in South Korea

By Matthew Davies
Posted Oct 21, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] The largest, most diverse gathering of Christians in the world will meet in the Republic of Korea from Oct. 30-Nov. 8 to deepen their fellowship, expand their knowledge of the ecumenical movement and address issues of peace and justice.

About 125 Anglicans will join some 3,000 other Christians at the World Council of Churches 10th General Assembly in Busan.

The Episcopal Church will be represented by Bishop Dean Wolfe of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas; the Rev. Consuela Sanchez, provincial coordinator for the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras; and Jasmine Bostock, from the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii, chair of the Executive Council Committee on Indigenous Ministry.

The WCC Central Committee, based on recommendations from each member church, selects all delegates and volunteers to the assembly.

“It’s easy for all Christians to believe that their expression of the Christian faith is the only expression,” Wolfe, who is leading the Episcopal Church’s official delegation at the septennial gathering, told ENS during a recent telephone interview. But, he added, ecumenical partnerships and encounters such as the WCC General Assembly “broaden our perspective. If Christ is Lord for all of us, how can we more fully live into that relationship?”

Wolfe also acknowledged that the opportunity to be with Anglicans from around the world “is always a great gift to us. This has been a strained period of time, and for us to build relationships and to work to understand our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion is a significant endeavor. Additionally, this is an opportunity to join with 345 member churches from around the world – people representing Christianity in every part of the world. That can help to change the way we look at our mission in the world.”

Sanchez said that she hopes the assembly will enable all churches to strengthen ties and “allow us to live in unity without any discrimination, since we all worship and serve the same God.”

She also hopes the assembly will encourage “a more prophetic church [to] fight for justice and peace in the world [and to] provide opportunities to women, because living in the 21st century there is still gender discrimination.”

Other participants from the Episcopal Church are the Rev. Margaret Rose, ecumenical and interreligious officer; Sarah Eagle Heart, missioner for indigenous ministries; Emma Lee Schauf, Rachel Cosca and Carrie Diaz Littauer, as young adult volunteers in the stewards program; and Carlin Van Schaik, a Young Adult Service Corps volunteer working with the Towards Peace in Korea program based in Seoul.

The World Student Christian Federation will be represented by its director Christine Housel, and several ecumenical partners.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori described the assembly as “an opportunity to stand with others for the purpose of building a society of peace with justice.”

She told ENS that the Episcopal Church’s participation “is our act of solidarity, our joining with other members of the body of Christ to realize this dream of God. We pray with our presence as well as our actions, strategizing, thinking theologically, and building coalitions. I give thanks for the willingness of our representatives to join this assembly in Busan, Korea.”

The theme of the gathering, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace,” is intended to provide a focus for theological reflection, worship and meditation, as well as for planning programmatic activities before, during and after the assembly.

“In a world that is divided by race, economics, politics, it is increasingly important for Christians to gather together and build bridges across the divides,” Wolfe told ENS. “We always have the opportunity as Christians to bring the light of Christ to a darkened world, and the question is will we?”

The Episcopal Church’s full communion partners also will have a strong presence at the assembly, including representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Moravian Church, Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, Philippine Independent Church, and Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India.

Old Catholic Archbishop Joris Vercammen, leader of the Episcopal Church’s longest-standing full communion partner, said the World Council of Churches is central to leading the way in the ecumenical movement. “Ecumenism is a process, it’s a journey, so every assembly adds something to that journey,” he told ENS in a recent interview. “What’s important now is a statement on common vision…so we are on the way to getting an agreement on the theological thinking of the church, of ecclesiology. If we succeed, this document can be one on which a broad diversity of Christians can agree. That’s a major step forward in this ecumenical journey.”

Since the World Council of Churches was established in 1948, this will mark the first time the General Assembly has met in Asia. The Republic of Korea was chosen because the church in recent decades has grown rapidly in Korea, where nearly 25 percent of the population is Christian.

The inter-religious context of Korea highlights the growing experience of living dialogue that other churches around the world face. Korea also remains a politically divided peninsula with many people hoping that one day the north and south will be reunited. “The churches in Korea, together with the ecumenical movement, have been encouraging reunification efforts for decades,” according to the assembly program. “The hope for reconciliation and the assembly witness for reunification will significantly mark the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches.”

Throughout the assembly, in addition to worship and workshops, ecumenical conversations will focus on some 20 themes, and on Sunday, Nov. 3, delegates will fan out across the Republic of Korea to attend worship services with hundreds of faith communities.

Meanwhile, a Peace Train has begun its journey from Berlin, Germany, through Russia and China to northeast Asia and will arrive in Busan for the start of the assembly. The train, a project of the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK) and the Korean Host Committee for the WCC assembly, aims to raise awareness about the 60-year division of the Korean Peninsula.

In another assembly initiative, WCC participants will be encouraged to wear black on Thursday, Oct. 31, in an effort towards reviving “Thursdays in Black,” a campaign against sexual and gender-based violence. “Through this simple gesture, participants are invited to be part of a global movement urging an end to violence against women,” a WCC release noted.

Thursdays in Black was started by the WCC in the 1980s as a form of peaceful protest against rape and violence, especially taking place during wars and conflicts.

Reflecting on the assembly theme, Wolfe asked: “How can the Christian community be a witness for peace and justice in the world?” A piece of the answer, he said, “is in coming to know ourselves, in crossing the boundaries of denominations and nations and finding the essential piece of the Christian faith that binds us together, that helps us to move to address the great issues of the world. A broken church cannot heal the world.”

“Transformation of our societies toward the earthly vision of the Reign of God is fundamental Christian work,” Jefferts Schori told ENS. “This is the center of the prayer Jesus taught: your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Our partners in the Anglican Church of Korea are among the local hosts, and their own witness for peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula gives an example of what this work of building the Reign of God looks like. The Episcopal Church is a partner in that work, and our presence at this assembly will help us discover and support other opportunities for building a world of peace and justice. Pray for our delegation, and for the work of the assembly.”

Vercammen agreed. “If the gospel can’t express itself in justice and peace, it’s losing its soul,” he said.

What is the WCC Assembly?

The assembly is the highest governing body of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and meets every seven years. It is a moment when the fellowship of member churches comes together as a whole in prayer and celebration.

The assembly has the mandate to review programs, to issue public statements and determine the overall policies of the WCC, as well as to elect presidents and a Central Committee that oversees the council’s work until the next assembly.

Along with the WCC member churches, partner organizations and other churches have a strong presence at the event. This makes an assembly of the WCC the most diverse Christian gathering of its size in the world. It is a unique opportunity for the churches to deepen their commitment to visible unity and common witness so that world may believe.

Sharing from the diverse spiritual experiences of churches around the world is a powerful expression of unity shared in Christ. The spiritual life of each assembly – worship, Bible study and prayer – is a particular highlight.

The WCC was established at its 1st Assembly in Amsterdam, Netherlands (1948). Since then assemblies have been in held in Evanston, United States (1954); New Delhi, India (1961); Uppsala, Sweden (1968); Nairobi, Kenya (1975); Vancouver, Canada (1983); Canberra, Australia (1991); Harare, Zimbabwe (1998); and Porto Alegre, Brazil (2006).

— Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. 


Comments (3)

  1. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    I am concerned this report about the upcoming WCC General Assembly says nothing about Pope Francis. His words and deeds have electrified Christendom. Every church leader I know is talking about the radical, new approach he is taking to the exercise of his office. He appears to be the pope we have waited for since the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement. Only a pope can restore the unity of the whole Church. Pope Francis could be the man. Business as usual at this General Assembly would mean that we have not eyes to see or ears to hear what God is saying to the churches though this humble, brave, prophetic leader.

    1. john neir says:

      i do not believe that the Roman Catholics are members of the WCC by their own choosing.

  2. Harry w Shipps says:

    This is the first that I have heard of the WCC Assembly. The report says little about ecumenism as such. I certainly agree with Fr. Fenton above.


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