The atmosphere was very much Latino, almost more of a Christian festival than the solemn proceedings of an ecumenical movement facing spiritual, membership and financial challenges. At its ninth Assembly, The World Council of Churches reaffirmed its reason for being: "The quest for the visible unity of the church remains at the heart of the WCC."
The Assembly, Feb. 14-23, went to Latin America for the first time in its 58-year history. The southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, famed for the activism of the Global Economic Forum, hosted a meeting of 4,000 participants from 120 countries.
The WCC ended its once-every-seven-years Assembly with calls to reach out to Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and evangelical churches that do not belong to the 340-member, Geneva-based Council. Members are currently drawn mainly from Protestant, Anglican and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions.
Billed as a youth-oriented, activist assembly, with major presentations on global water shortages, poverty, environment, peace and war, the gathering of more than 700 official delegates made decisions without votes, using a consensus method for the first time.
Women and youth have usually been on the periphery of WCC decision-making. This time, 45 percent of the delegates were women. The greatest tension in the closing days was how to get more youth on the 150-member central committee, which runs the WCC between Assemblies. Youth up to 30 years of age wound up comprising just 15 percent of the membership on the central committee. The United Church's Carmen Rae Lansdowne, an Aboriginal youth currently studying at the Vancouver School of Theology, will join the central committee for its next seven-year term. In all, United Church delegates, participants, staff and visitors totalled more than 75.
Most prominent among them was former United Church moderator Marion Best, retiring after serving 15 years on the executive committee and as vice-moderator of the central committee. To Best fell the difficult task of making consensus decision-making work among a whirling diversity of churches, bishops, patriarchs and plain Protestants, all with their own hierarchies and rulebooks.
Masterfully and profoundly, Best mixed spirituality and prayer, cajoling delegates to listen, explaining over and over the complicated system of showing support by coloured cards. Her patience, good humour and rare flashes of frustration held the unwieldy Assembly together and moving forward. Best's leadership and deep spirituality will be sorely missed at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva.
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The gathering urged an easing of Latin America's debt burden, describing it as "unjust, illegitimate and immoral," noting that according to UN statistics, 40 percent of Latin Americans live in poverty.
With Brazilian Lutheran Walter Altmann elected as moderator of the central committee, and with Kenyan Methodist Samuel Kobia as general secretary, participants said they will look to the WCC to articulate the voice of the global South in coming debates about globalization and economic injustice.
Some speakers noted that in addition to affecting economic relations, globalization is underscoring the WCC's task to promote Christian unity. "It is not only a dream," said Orthodox Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania, one of the newly elected WCC presidents. "It is a duty and it is a necessity."
The Assembly was also the first meeting of the WCC's highest decision-making body since the election in 2005 of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.
The Catholic Church does not belong to the WCC but co- operates with the Council in many areas, and, in a message to the assembly, Pope Benedict spoke of the need for a "solid partnership" with the WCC.
The mid-point of the WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence was marked by a 2,000-strong march through the streets of Porto Alegre led by Nobel Peace Prize laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina. "You know, they marched in Berlin, and the Berlin Wall fell," Tutu told the crowd. "They marched in South Africa, and apartheid fell. Now we march in Porto Alegre, and violence will end." *
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