Over 3,000 participants representing 345 member churches, as well as observers from non-member churches from more than 100 different countries gathered in Busan, South Korea for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, meeting from October 30-November 8, 2013. The assembly theme, “God of Life: Lead us to Justice and Peace,” framed the common work of prayer, worship and deliberation at the assembly.
Included on the agenda, among other items, was consideration of the study document, The Church: Towards a Common Vision, a new statement on mission, Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes, and vigorous debate and discussion about how member churches around the world can work together to forge a common witness to address the problems and challenges associated with climate change, human trafficking, the growing gap between rich and poor, statelessness and its effects on women and children, religious freedom and persecution, and the protection of water resources around the globe, among other items.
With the assembly well underway, Baptists from the around the world gathered together on the second night to fellowship and voice their hopes and concerns for the work of the WCC and the broader ecumenical movement. In a meeting hosted by Dr. John Upton, President of the Baptist World Alliance, and Rev. Neville Callam, General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, Baptists from Nigeria, Tanzania, Ireland, Cuba, the United Kingdom, Myanmar, Congo, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Canada, Japan, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Germany, Uganda, Jamaica, India and the United States offered “testimony-style” introductions in which they described their experiences at the assembly thus far.
“Enriching” was a common descriptor—the experience of common prayer and worship, of conversation and deliberation with Christians from around the world—creates a mutually enriching context in which Christians from a variety of traditions, languages and locations find both commonality and difference. Dr. Upton opened the meeting by acknowledging that Baptists have not always been enthusiastic participants of the ecumenical movement, but that the Baptist experience itself—one marked by both painful division and joyful reconciliation—gives Baptists an advantage for participating in ecumenical life. As Rev. Neville Callam put it, “the tensions within our own tradition prepare us for ecumenical participation in a unique way.”
American Baptists continue to play a substantial role in mediating a Baptist witness to the ecumenical world. As outgoing ABC (USA) President Ruth Clark notes, “With our heritage of soul liberty, we bring the reminder that we choose our faith tradition based on our reading and understanding of Scripture and want all believers to have that same opportunity.”
General Secretary Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley agrees that Baptist distinctives have made important contributions to the wider ecumenical family. “As I engaged in conversations with a Roman Catholic from Europe and an Anglican from Canada, both expressed appreciation for the Baptist witness to discipleship and the personal nature of faith.” Dr. Medley came to this assembly as an official ABCUSA delegate, served on the nominations committee and led a workshop on “Just Peace in Burma,” which deals with the issue of religious freedom and persecution in Burma/Myanmar.
Another American Baptist who has made a substantial contribution to the WCC is Rev. Rothangliani Chhangte. She served as the Ecumenical Coordinator of American Baptist Churches, though she is now Director of Baptist World Aid in the Baptist World Alliance. She was elected to the Central Committee at the 9th Assembly in Porto Allegra in 2006. Rev. Chhangte notes that not only do American Baptists bring much to the table—not the least being their experience of being a remarkably diverse body that places great value on giving all voices a place at the table—but that Baptists also have much to gain from the experience of ecumenical engagement: “We learn that there are many ways of being church….By being engaged ecumenically, we help amplify the concerns of the wider church to the world through our prayers and advocacy….There is much that we can learn about the wider Christian family in the world.”
Rev. Dr. June Totten, who will replace Rev. Chhangte on the Central Committee, echoes her predecessor, saying, “As a person who lives with many privileges, sharing and exchanging with fellow Christians who live in differing circumstances broadens my understanding and commitment to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”
With eight Baptists from around the world elected to the Central Committee until the next Assembly, one can be sure that Baptist issues will be given a voice in the wider ecumenical conversation, a voice marked not only by conviction, but also humility. As Dr. Totten notes, “Divisions in the Christian family do not serve us well in our witness to the world. To the extent that we can come together with common vision and mission, our witness for Christ is strengthened.” The ultimate goal of ecumenical engagement is to enable the church’s witness to be more effective, more faithful, and more fully able to point beyond itself to the living Christ, the humble Savior who comes to redeem all things. Clearly this vision resonates with deeply held Baptist values, and judging from the participants at the 10th Assembly, will continue to animate American Baptist participation in the work of the WCC and the wider ecumenical movement.
Photos used with permission from Teresiah Njoki/World Council of Churches and Young Kun Park/Ecumenical News.
American Baptist Churches is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with over 5,200 local congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.