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The task during the World Council of Churches Assembly was to strive toward unity in a very diverse gathering

The Rev. Philip Woods of the PC(USA)’s World Mission says living with difference ‘is one of several great challenges of our time’

by the Rev. Philip Woods for Mission Crossroads | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Diversity at the World Council of Churches Assembly was a given. Finding unity was sometimes elusive. (Photo by Albin Hillert/WCC)

A group of us representing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) were present at the World Council of Churches (WCC) Assembly in Karlsruhe, Germany, in September, where “Christ’s Love Moves the World to Reconciliation and Unity” was the theme.

Bringing together about 4,000 Christians representing almost all the historic Christian traditions from Orthodox to Pentecostal, the Assembly, which normally meets every seven years, is a very diverse gathering. In this respect, the theme was more aspirational than evidenced, although evidence was there to be found, especially for those of us attending from the PC(USA), as we engaged in conversations on the side with several partners who in recent years have distanced themselves from us because of our stance on issues of human sexuality. By creating space for such conversations, the Assembly lived into its theme.

Our own PC(USA) General Assembly this year took a similar step in calling upon the General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations to explore creating a Global Covenant Agreement that will enable us to recognize the ministries and members of global church partners living and ministering in our midst. Arising from requests for mutual recognition from the Gereja Masehi Injili di Minahasa, an Indonesian partner church, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Ghana, both of which have many fellowships and congregations ministering within and alongside us here in the United States, the request is a call to recognize the multicultural diversity of Reformed Christianity and open ourselves up to it as it is increasingly manifested within our own context. 

Living with difference is one of several great challenges of our time. Yet, as the WCC Assembly theme reminds us, Christ’s love is a healing love, moving us to reconciliation and unity. That does not mean skipping over the hard ground of real hurts and injustices; these need to be faced honestly and openly. “Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) is a necessary part of growing together. Listening with love and openness is also called for. Love is the prime mover, enabling us to enter into perspectives and worldviews other than our own. 

The WCC Assembly’s hardest sessions were when churches drew “red lines,” closing off discussion. When the German Protestant Church forcefully stated that the Assembly could not use the term “apartheid” in respect of the situation in Israel Palestine, the Palestinians present felt silenced and shut out of a debate that was supposed to be about lifting up their lived experience.

Recognizing the diversity of global Presbyterianism is to recognize the diversity of people’s lived experience, for our partners’ understanding of church arises from their social and cultural contexts. Even for me as a white Englishman, , the PC(USA) is a different form of Presbyterianism than the one I am familiar with from my context. At times, I am not even sure that it is Presbyterian — at least from my perspective. And that’s the heart of it — “my perspective.” Christ’s love can only move us if we are willing to open ourselves to the richness and diversity of Christ’s revelation across the world, and when we do, we are all the richer for it.

Every WCC Assembly produces a unity statement that speaks to our journey together as churches, facing our own divisions and the challenges of a divided and conflicted world. The statement produced by this Assembly not surprisingly dwelt heavily on our understanding of Christ’s love:

“The search for unity that is inspired by love and rooted in deep and mutual relationship may be termed an ‘ecumenism of the heart.’ It is Christlike love that moves us to walk honestly and wholeheartedly beside one another, to try to see the world through the eyes of others and to have compassion for one another, to build the trust that is such a vital part of our ecumenical journey.

Our own General Assembly’s call to explore a Global Covenant Agreement is a call to open ourselves up to expressions of that love in how we relate to and with the global church in our midst. Beyond that, the WCC Assembly challenges us to rediscover ministries of love in a world increasingly dominated by hate and fear and the seeds of division that both sow. As the WCC Assembly Unity Statement states:

“Let us not be tempted by politics that are shaped by deepened individualism, dangerous nationalism or increasing militarism; or accept as inevitable the systemic inequalities that divide the world; or suffer without resistance the dominance and dangers of consumerism and of those technologies that alienate us from one another or that damage our God-given humanity. Out of love, we commit ourselves to build a world for the common good, for all humankind. We long for the kind of communion that celebrates and affirms the dignity of all people and honors the whole living earth as the work of God the Creator.

Opening ourselves to Christ’s love has real practical application.

The Rev. Philip Woods is World Mission’s associate director for Program.

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