Its balmy setting belied the stormy nature of the World Council of Churches Central Committee meeting in Jamaica last month.

The eleven-day sessions on the campus of the University of the West Indies opened placidly enough. The colonial-style chapel, with ceiling checkered by the coats of arms of the Caribbean nations, had its doors and windows flung open, revealing the lush surrounding foliage. The international gathering heard Scripture passages on liberation themes read in three languages from a lectern carved in the shape of a pelican with wings extended.

Subsequent sessions were less placid. Since the last meeting in Geneva in 1977 a mountain of criticism had piled up for the 140-member committee.

In his report, general secretary Philip Potter recalled the inauguration of the WCC thirty years earlier in Amsterdam. “This ought to be a time of celebration,” he said, but he judged that the mood was “more of sober and even anxious reflection.” The WCC was “at a crossroads vis-à-vis its relations with the member churches and the size and direction of its work.”

“In the first twenty years of the life of the Council,” Potter said, “we had a clear mandate to promote the unity of the church.” But, he went on, in more recent years the realization that “the whole life of humankind comes under God’s rule and [is] therefore the concern of the churches” has come to the fore. This led to the perception “that a radical change of economic, social, and political structures is needed.”

“The present debate,” Potter continued “has raged mainly around the Program to Combat Racism [and its $85,000 grant to the guerilla groups fighting against an interim settlement in Rhodesia].… In the last few months the Council has had to face fierce attacks in the public media and in the church press, as well as from numerous local church groups. Three member churches have suspended their membership [The Salvation Army, the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and one of the small German Lutheran Churches]. Many church synods have debated the issue.”

Why, Potter asked, has the grant to the Patriotic Front of Zimbabwe “caused so much fury in some quarters”? His own five-fold analysis:

1) “Humanitarian aid as an expression of solidarity … without control of the expenditure, commits churches in a way which many consider as aligning them with the acts of the oppressed groups.”

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2) The Special Fund, by its commitment to the change of structures in society, promotes fear that the WCC “is promoting socialism and even Marxist communism.”

3) The “highly complex and confused situation” in Southern Africa exposed a communication gap between the WCC and its constituency.

4) “The Fund supports movements in Southern Africa which are engaged in armed struggle … in the course of which innocent people, including missionaries, are killed.”

5) “The Council has risked taking sides.”

A special WCC background paper on Southern Africa stated that “the traditional distinctions between war and non-war, between legal and illegal use of force are becoming less and less recognizable” and that ethical dilemmas are therefore inevitable.

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Potter placed most blame for WCC fiscal woes on the devaluation of income currencies in relation to the Swiss franc, the WCC expenditure currency. But, he admitted, “we have had to face the ugly spectacle that many persons in our major contributing churches are clamoring for the reduction or withdrawal of support … if they disagree strongly with particular actions of the Council.”

Given an opportunity to respond, unhappy central committee members expressed themselves.

E. P. M. Elliott, canon of the Church of Ireland (Anglican), stressed that violence always debases, and that brutalization is inevitable once “the tiger has tasted blood.” While voicing regret at the membership suspension of the Presbyterian Church in his own land, he expressed concern “formed of our own experience.” He asked if WCC funds might not be condoning and even encouraging violence and if the WCC was not in danger of making the mistake of identifying completely with one political entity.

Per Lønning of the Church of Norway (Lutheran, whose bishops voted seven to three in December to remain in the WCC despite heavy protests from the large voluntary organizations within the church), complained about the rejection of the Rhodesia internal group. That action, he charged, indicated “a kind of neo-paternalism” on the part of the WCC. He also noted wryly that the WCC combines prophetic outspokenness in some situations, such as the Rhodesia grant, with diplomatic subtlety in others, such as implementation of the Helsinki final act.

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Harry W. Williams, international secretary of the Salvation Army, made only a mild statement in spite of his denomination’s suspension of membership. The Army had been in Rhodesia for eighty years, he noted, and is committed to combating racism. But it differs with the WCC as to methods, believing in personal involvement. He raised two questions:

1) “Should not the actual expression of concern be by the churches at work in the country concerned, so that WCC funds are mediated through such church councils, rather than directly to a militant organization?”

2) “The WCC has always stressed that Special Fund grants are given for humanitarian purposes. Could not such humanitarian programs be mounted directly by Christian bodies and carried out predominantly by Christian persons?”

André Appel, of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession of Alsace and Lorraine, France, and a WCC president, criticized the grant as too limited in approach. He said that we need to go beyond distributing funds to liberation groups, and witness to them that political liberation will not meet all their needs.

These and other strictures were received in polite silence, whereas members expressing affirmation of the grant often received rounds of applause.

Samuel M. Arends, a colored pastor of the multi-racial United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) from Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and president of its assembly, read a resolution affirmed by his denomination last fall. The UCCSA, it said, “abhors and rejects violence and terrorism in all forms, as self-peipetuating and alienating forces which are contrary to the teaching of Christ.”

Arends asked if the WCC now had adopted as policy a statement he attributed to Anwar M. Barkat of Pakistan, chairman of the Program Unit on Justice and Service, on the necessity of accepting violence as a tactic for combating racism. Barkat denied having made the statement, and central committee moderator Edward W. Scott of Canada hastily ruled Arends out of order.

There is no Rhodesian member on the central committee, but Cornelius D. Watyoka of the Christian Council of Rhodesia was present as an advisor. In conversation, Watyoka expressed appreciation of the confidence in black Rhodesians indicated by the grant, but expressed doubts as to its effectiveness.

The committee upheld the view of a review body that the administration of the Special Fund “has so far been in accordance with the established and accepted criteria” set by it, and endorsed continuation of the Fund “with clearer interpretation.” A proposed amendment to the effect that the Fund should make use “wherever possible of indigenous Christian agencies to deliver the humanitarian services desired” was overwhelmingly defeated.

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A sticking point with member churches who have refused to contribute to the Special Fund has been that its administrative costs were charged to the general budget. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland issued such a protest.

There was talk of entirely separating the Fund from the PCR, but finally the committee merely endorsed the recently established practice of requesting Fund supporters to make an additional 10 per cent grant for Fund administration.

Some objected to a report paragraph that attributed scruples in the churches about use of the Fund to “strong kinship, investment, and other economic ties with racist societies in Southern Africa.” The minority won addition of a sentence: “We are aware also that questions are raised and criticism voiced in good faith by member churches.”

The central committee prescribed only moderate austerity for the WCC, whose reserves were described as “pretty well depleted.” A budget deficit of 4.5 million Swiss francs in a 1979 budget of 29.5 million francs is to be retrieved by a budget cut of 3 million francs in 1980 and a further 3 million francs in 1981. This is expected to involve a reduction of about twenty in staff in 1980.

The report of an advisory committee on “The Search for a Just, Participatory, and Sustainable Society” (JPSS) moved beyond liberation struggle issues to a struggle for reshaping the structures of society. “The unity of the Church is no end in itself,” the paper declared. “In the Kingdom of God the unity of the Church and the unity of humankind will be one. As Christians … we wait and work for a new creation, not for a new Christendom.”

“The liberating power of Jesus Christ and his Spirit,” the report went on, “enables people to challenge existing structures of economic, political, military, and scientific technological power.… The people themselves have to demand [the New International Economic Order] of their governments.… It means changes in the production structure and employment policies which will only be possible through a certain ‘socialization’ of decisions that have so far been taken autonomously on the basis of interests of the private sector.”

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Patriarch Pimen, the new Russian Orthodox primate, in a letter to the central committee, objected to this thrust. “We see the true purpose of the World Council of Churches,” he wrote, “in its being a Council of Churches, their instrument for the achievement of unity in faith and for the success of their common service.”

André Appel spoke for Lutheran protestors when he complained that the WCC fails to differentiate between the justice of God found in the Bible and human justice which, he said, varies with regimes and trends. “All righteousness is accomplished in Jesus Christ,” he asserted. “We haven’t fulfilled our role as witnesses to the Gospel.”

After fielding several critical comments, the east Asian presenter of the report bristled. “You must understand,” he said, “that some of us younger third-world theologians do not like your traditional theology.”

Instead of receiving the report as a basis for further work, the committee accepted it as a progress report, which, together with a discussion in the committee, would form a basis for further work.

Near the beginning of the session, Jamaica prime minister Michael Manley, himself an old New International Economic Order advocate, told the assembly, “We are all very pleased to note the increasing shift in emphasis from the philosophical debate about social activisim in the Christian Church to a concern that activist intentions should be effective.”

Not all central committee members, apparently, were as pleased as their host.


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