The admission of its first indigenous African church, lively skirmishes over the Middle East and Nigeria, some significant words on racism, and significant silences on other issues—these were features of the World Council of Churches’ Central Committee meeting last month in Canterbury, England. The twelve-day sessions began with a service in England’s oldest cathedral and continued in one of England’s newest universities.
Some Eastern European churches criticized the WCC’s 1968 statement on Czechoslovakia, but General Secretary Eugene Carson Blake in his report defended that statement, not only because of the principles involved, but because “it had been widely said that the World Council was unable or unwilling to be publicly critical of the U. S. S. R.” as it had been of others. Asked later if, since the present meetings coincided with the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, the WCC proposed to make a further statement, Blake said this was the task of the Churches Commission in International Affairs (CCIA), whose report had not yet been given (and which was in fact making no statement).
One Central Committee member had more to say. United States Congressman John Brademas (D.-Ind.) told journalists the invasion was “so obviously an outrage against human rights that the CCIA’s omission is a rather obvious and glaring one.” On a Russian committeeman’s statement to a previous session that there was no racism in their socialist regime, Brademas commented: “Nobody takes that kind of rhetoric seriously.”
The CCIA report’s reference to Greece was comparatively strong: “In the field of human rights,” it said, “CCIA felt a particular responsibility toward the interior situation in Greece which unfortunately shows no signs of alteration or improvement.” The report nonetheless proposed that no action be taken until the publication this fall of the findings of the European Commission on Human Rights. A Romanian speaker gravely said the CCIA should take up the matter with the Church of Greece. Dr. John Coventry Smith, a WCC president, suggested that if the suppression of civil rights was confirmed, the CCIA should make its own recommendations.
Professor Constantine Bonis of the Greek Orthodox Church denied there was no improvement in the Greek situation and said the Greek prime minister had affirmed recently that there was “complete freedom of the press.” Bonis may have raised the matter again to good effect in the policy-reference committee, for when that body submitted its recommendations, the reference to the Greek situation had disappeared.
Not so successful was a Rhodesian speaker who, while glad the report called on Rhodesians to reject the new constitution, expressed himself “very dismayed” that the CCIA advocated the intensifying of sanctions. They had not worked, said Anglican Dean Wood, and were felt most by the African majority.
After some knockabout stuff from indignant African members, the Committee affirmed by 39 to 37 that it “appreciates the intention of the United Nations’ policy of economic sanctions against Rhodesia, and requests the member churches to press upon their governments the necessity to find more effective measures for the ends sought.”
A Filipino participant wryly pointed out in contrast that they had earlier asked for sanctions to be lifted against Cuba, and had called for the reestablishment of trade and diplomatic relations (two American Lutherans had dissented here).
On Viet Nam the committee was merely asked to “note with approval” a recommendation passed previously by the CCIA executive; but an Australian, noting the “hope that the United States will continue to withdraw its troops from South Viet Nam,” wanted a note appended about his own government’s harder line.
When this was accepted, Dr. R. L. Taylor of the United States swiftly asked that a reference be made also to the withdrawal of “all foreign troops, including those of North Viet Nam.” Officialdom was evidently caught by surprise, asked that the subject be deferred till a later session, and later withdrew the Viet Nam document.
Controversy arose over a proposed statement on the Middle East. The committee finally adopted a statement that “in supporting the establishment of the State of Israel without protecting the rights of Palestinians, injustice has been done to Palestinian Arabs by the great powers which should be redressed.”
Concentration on that section diverted attention from another wherein the committee suggested that “the subject of biblical interpretation be studied in order to avoid the misuse of the Bible in support of partisan political views and to clarify the bearing of faith upon critical political questions.”
The question of Nigeria produced some fireworks, too. The committee reaffirmed that “the immediate urgent need is to open up safe corridors, approved on both sides, through which adequate quantities of humanitarian relief supplies may reach the victims of this conflict.”
Admitted to WCC membership were the Karo Batak Protestant Church of Kabandjahe, North Sumatra (65,000 members); the Moravian Church in Jamaica (23,000); the Church of Christ on Earth by the Prophet, Simon Kimbangu, Congo-Kinshasa (estimated at 1.1 million by the son of the prophet who was present); the Old Catholic Mariavite Church, Poland (24,000); and the Evangelical Pentecostal Church “Brazil for Christ” (1.1 million). Accepted as WCC “associated churches” (having fewer than 10,000 members) were the United Evangelical Lutheran Church, Argentina, and the Presbytery of Liberia.
A number of the committee’s Orthodox members had some soul-searching about the admission of the Congolese church (which has no baptism by water), but after this first indigenous African church to apply had found an unlikely champion in the Russian Nikodim, it was accepted with only two abstentions.
At an earlier session, loud applause greeted some informal remarks by the Rev. Manoel de Mello of the Brazilian applicant-church. If accepted by WCC, he said, his church would maintain its strongly evangelical viewpoint and its emphasis on spiritual revival. While welcoming the five new member churches, WCC officials made it clear that there also was rejoicing in Geneva because the Pope had lifted a Vatican taboo in agreeing to consider the question of Roman Catholic membership.
The vexing topic of racism was tackled by the committee with great verve and determination, despite some zany chairmanship by M. M. Thomas that threatened to disrupt the debate by procedural chaos. The committee affirmed the need for “an ecumenical act of solidarity which would help to stem the deterioration in race relations.”
It agreed that the concept of reparations raised in the United States and at the May consultation in London this year was inadequate, since “it seeks simply to apportion guilt for the past and highlights a method of action which leaves out of account the need for acts of compassion, brotherhood and community which go beyond any financial payment.”
A new unit was set up, initially as the responsibility of the General Secretary, with an annual budget of $150, 000 for five years, a special fund created by the transfer of $200,000 from reserves, and an appeal for $300,000 from member churches.
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