Sunday, 25 July 2010

Taking water to the Jordan

Rev. Dr Walter Altmann delivering the sermon at the opening worship service A plea to "bring new life into the ecumenical movement" was issued by Rev. Dr Walter Altmann in his first report as World Council of Churches (WCC) central committee moderator. He also emphasized the Council's role as "the privileged instrument of the ecumenical movement" and rejected the possibility of "a minimalist agenda".

Opening the first meeting of the WCC's governing body, elected at its 9th Assembly in Porto Alegre last February, Altmann spoke about the "beautiful, though difficult, ecumenical commitment which has brought us together, in spite of the many differences that exist among us".

"The ecumenical movement," he argued, "must not be understood as based on a lowest common denominator". Instead, it is "driven by a much higher and challenging vision". That vision is "full and visible unity among the churches", its basis is the unity that the Holy Spirit grants "through the gospel and baptism," and it is received "in faith".

On those terms, "ecumenism is not optional, but compelling". Ecumenical dialogue and cooperation amount not to some kind of strategic planning, but rather to "a passion for unity". Those committed to ecumenism envisage "full communion" as its goal, although they don't lose sight of "the divisions among us," which are "a sin against God".

The ecumenical movement "moves slower than we wish", and "our churches probably move slower than they could," Altmann recognized. In a sober assessment of the "century of ecumenism," he affirmed that "in many places the relations among the churches have improved considerably," but observed that the question of whether churches are "closer to the stated goal of visible unity" remains open.

Since "burning and divisive issues, both doctrinal and ethical," create "inner tensions" in many churches, they experience the temptation "to 'defend themselves' against the centrifugal forces of fragmentation, entrenching themselves within their own theological or institutional walls". As a result, they may regard "their ecumenical commitment as a lower priority".

In this context, Altmann affirmed, the WCC is "a fellowship of hope". He challenged the central committee members to consider that their "primary and fundamental task" is to "live out" that fellowship among themselves.

This also has institutional implications: at its first meeting, the committee's agenda is to be devoted mostly "to trying to cope with the challenge" of establishing a new programme structure for the Council. The result must be "faithful to the decisions of the Assembly, responsible in its stewardship of resources

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