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The World Council of Churches (WCC) is the Koinonia ton Ekklesion (league of churches) that unites most Christian churches and denominations for ecumenical cooperation. It is not a “super-church” but an organ of common discussion and action. Most major churches, except the Roman Catholic Church and almost the whole family of Pentecostal churches, are members of the WCC.
The roots of the WCC are in three ecumenical movements, namely the International Missionary Council, Life and Work Movement, and Faith and Order Movement. However, the three lay ecumenical movements (YMCA, YWCA, and Student Christian Movement) influenced greatly the first two and supplied the WCC its early leaders. One of the leading figures in these organizations was the GS of the North American YMCA, John R. Mott. In the First General Assembly in Amsterdam in 1948, probably four fifths of the delegates had roots in those three lay organizations.
After 1948, the assemblies have been held in Evanston (1954), New Delhi (1961), Uppsala (1968), Nairobi (1975), Vancouver (1983), Canberra (1991), Harare (1998), and Porto Alegre (2006).
The organization’s emphasis on global political issues like causes of poverty, racism, women’s rights, etc. instead of focusing purely on doctrinal issues has sometimes raised criticism, and this has led to the withdrawal of some churches from the WCC. In general, however, the slogan “Doctrine divides, service unites” has been true. Practical cooperation has kept the churches together while in doctrinal issues the results have remained in understanding where the differences are.
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The WCC focuses in three core areas. The first field of action concerns doctrinal negotiations between churches and the goal is “visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship.” The second field of action is to “promote common witness in work for mission and evangelism,” and the third is to “engage in Christian service by meeting human need, breaking down barriers between people, seeking justice and peace, and upholding the integrity of creation,” which practically means Christian diaconia work and preservation of nature.
During the seven-year period starting from 2006, these aims will be promoted by six prior programs: “The WCC and the ecumenical movement in the 21st century,” “Unity, mission, evangelism and spirituality,” “Public witness: addressing power, affirming peace,” “Justice, diakonia and responsibility for creation,” “Education and ecumenical formation,” and “Inter-religious dialogue and cooperation.”
In addition to these programs, WCC offers scholarships for students and has a publishing division that releases a significant number of books and other materials every year. These include “study guides and other resources, interpretive books on major ecumenical concerns, biblical, historical, theological, ethical and reference works, preparatory materials for and official documents of WCC meetings, audio-visual resources and general periodicals.”
The legislative body of the WCC is the Assembly which meets every seventh year. Under it is the Central Committee, which is the governing body of the WCC and meets every 12–18 months between the assemblies. The Assembly also elects the president but the Central Committee elects the Executive Committee. The GS of the WCC acts ex officio as the secretary of both committees.
Along the governing bodies there are five Consultative Commissions (Mission and Evangelism, Churches and International Affairs, Education and Ecumenical Formation, Youth in the Ecumenical Movement, as well as Faith and Order, which also includes nonmember churches) and three joint bodies with Catholic Church and other Ecumenical organizations.
The WCC has been in economic trouble for a long time. During the last inter-Assembly period of 1999–2006 the yearly income decreased 30% from CHF 61.2 million to CHF 42.2 million. Of this decrease, 65% is in the category of multilateral sharing contributions, 75% of the income is restricted to defined special projects, and only 25% is free to be determined by the WCC. During the same period (especially during 2001/2) the funds of the WCC decreased from CHF 61 million to CHF 38 million.
The yearly expenditures during 1999–2006 ranged from CHF 45.5 million (2003) to CHF 58.6 million (2001). Of this, Institutional Costs form some 15% average while the rest are program costs.
The WCC’s major contribution has been in promoting ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, which in turn promotes understanding between different religious groups. This, hopefully, will reduce the creation of enemy views based on religious doctrines.
In addition to the search for doctrinal agreements, Assemblies have been influential initiators of discussion, especially in the field of Christian social ethics. For example, WCC’s program “Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation” between Canberra (1983) and Vancouver (1991) Assemblies contributed greatly to the churches’ commitment to social and environmental issues.