Assemblies reveal impact of faith on world
By Mary Stamp
Since 1983, the World Council of Churches and its assemblies have influenced the founding and ongoing publication of The Fig Tree newspaper.
Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp has attended assemblies since the 6th Assembly in Vancouver, BC, in 1983. A document on "Communicating Credibly" was part of the background in founding The Fig Tree in 1984.
This year, The Fig Tree is being represented by Mary, staff member Marijke Fakasiieiki and volunteers Catherine Ferguson and Gen Heywood, all as accredited press.
"We plan in this issue and online at thefigtree.org to provide links for people here to gain a taste of the event. Because the Assembly is Aug. 31 to Sept. 8, we will provide coverage of it in September and October issues," said Mary. "We invite donations to help us print more pages for that coverage.
"Awareness of the life and voice of Christians around the world gives us insights into our faith and the role of our faith in relationship to other faiths and to the intersection of faith with the issues of the world and issues affecting the everyday lives of people," she said.
This summer, Mary conversed via Zoom with Sri Lankan, Australian and Dutch friends from the 1969-70 study program she participated in with 60 people from around the world at the WCC Ecumenical Institute at Bossey in Switzerland.
The Sri Lankan, a 90-year-old former Anglican bishop active in the church, told of petrol shortages, food shortages and struggles of the people as the government was overthrown. Kenneth Fernando was, nonetheless, hopeful.
Two couples who live in Australia rejoiced that their May 21 election chose a new prime minister who, in their opinion, will forward action to reduce climate change destruction. They were hopeful.
The couple from The Netherlands were less hopeful, given the impact of heat and fires in Europe from climate change.
Encounters with people who live far away and face issues in their contexts inspired Mary in founding The Fig Tree. That inspiration continues in sharing stories of people who make a difference because of their faith and values.
Mary offered an overview of previous assemblies she, her daughter Marijke and other family members have attended.
• The first Assembly, which both of Mary's parents, Lloyd and Elizabeth Stamp attended," was Aug. 22 to Sept. 4, 1948, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, on the theme, "Man's Disorder and God's Design."
This assembly officially founded the World Council of Churches with 147 churches from different confessions and many countries. Mary's father also attended the Faith and Order, Life and Work meetings in 1937 leading up to the first assembly.
• The 2nd Assembly, attended by Mary's father, a United Church of Christ minister, was held in August 1954 at Evanston, Ill. Delegates from 161 member churches discussed the theme, "Christ—the Hope of the World," in the midst of Cold War tensions.
• The 3rd Assembly drew 197 member churches in 1961 at New Delhi, India, on the theme, "Jesus Christ – the Light of the World."
• The 4th Assembly drew 235 member churches in 1968 at Uppsala, Sweden on the theme, "Behold, I make all things new." Vatican II led to Catholic observers participating and exploring cooperation.
• The 5th Assembly on "Jesus Christ Frees and Unites" gathered 285 member churches in 1975 at Nairobi, Kenya.
• The 6th Assembly, the first one Mary attended with her children—Marijke, Karen and Malcolm—was July 24 to Aug. 10, 1983, in Vancouver, B.C.
Under the theme, "Jesus Christ - the Life of the World," 301 member churches emphasized and experienced common worship in a great white tent. There was hope from the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM) document and such ecumenical experiments as the Lima Liturgy.
The nuclear threat and neo-colonialism permeated discussions. Groups discussed witnessing in a divided world, taking steps towards unity, moving towards participation, sharing life in community, confronting threats to peace and survival, struggling for justice and human dignity, learning in community and communicating credibly.
• The 7th Assembly, Feb. 7 to 20, 1991, in Canberra, Australia focused on the theme "Come, Holy Spirit—Renew the Whole Creation." Mary and Marijke attended. Delegates from 317 member churches reflected on four sub-themes: sustaining creation, truth setting people free, unity and reconciliation, and calling for the Holy Spirit to transform the world.
• The 8th Assembly, which both attended, gathered 339 member churches to celebrate the 50th year since the foundation of the WCC. They met from Dec. 3 to 14, 1998, at Harare, Zimbabwe, around the theme, "Turn to God-Rejoice in Hope."
Members renewed their commitment to stay together and be in solidarity with their African hosts. The Assembly set up a commission on the participation of the Orthodox churches in the WCC and created a Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organizations to extend ecumenical outreach beyond WCC member churches. The festival of the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women preceded the assembly.
• The 9th Assembly Feb. 14 to 23, 2006, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, gathered 348 member churches with more than 4,000 participants, on the theme "God in your grace, transform the world."
They urged member churches to prioritize unity, catholicity, baptism and prayer. Other key issues were economic justice, the Christian role in religious plurality and youth overcoming violence. Delegates revised the constitution to make WCC decision-making based on consensus.
• The 10th Assembly was Oct. 30 to Nov. 8, 2013, in Busan, Republic of Korea, on the theme "God of life, lead us to justice and peace." The WCC's 345 member churches heard that the search for unity in Korea was a sign of hope for the world—a land divided by poverty and wealth, happiness and violence, welfare and war. The message: "We are not allowed to close our eyes to harsh realities or to rest our hands from God's transforming work. As a fellowship, the WCC stands in solidarity with people and churches in the Korean peninsula, and with all who strive for justice and peace."
Mary explained that assemblies feature daily morning and evening interconfessional worship services with singing, Scriptures, prayers and reflection on each day's theme. Those services offer a sample of the spiritual diversity in the fellowship of the WCC.
In Karlsruhe, representatives of 352 member churches gather from 110 countries, representing more than half a billion Christians "committed in the quest for visible unity grounded in shared faith in God, witness to the saving work of Jesus and imitation of Jesus' self-giving love for all humanity," said Agnes Aboun, Central Committee moderator.
Daily spiritual life also includes small, language-based home group Bible studies with a midday prayer.
As the business sessions and thematic plenaries of the assembly unfold, the spiritual life components nurture the soul and renew the spirit as participants sing, pray, reflect on and discern the future direction and action of the global ecumenical movement.
Worship creates openness to where God is leading delegates as they declare the theme, "Christ's love is moving the world to reconciliation and unity."
A daily plenary focuses on an aspect of the assembly theme.
In business plenaries, delegates from member churches address the assembly and create an overview of the WCC's life until the next assembly. They elect the new central committee and eight WCC presidents.
Delegates participate in a home group with participants from across regions, confessions, professions, age, "old-timers" and "newcomers" at the assembly. The daily groups are spaces for exchange and learning, for sharing at the assembly and with WCC governing bodies, member churches and partners.
An assembly is much more than business. Bible studies give participants an opportunity to discern God's purposes for themselves and the ecumenical movement.
Groups are small enough to allow everyone to contribute and large enough to give a range of perspectives. To be involved in group Bible study is to be open to one another, not to persuade others to a particular point of view. They are a place where participants can integrate what they hear and do in the assembly to discover the possibilities of transformation that God offers.
For information, call 535-1813 or visit oikoumene.org/about-the-wcc/organizational-structure/assembly