nathan soderblom

World Council of Churches

The World Council of Churches (WCC) is an international Christian ecumenical organization. Based in Geneva, Switzerland , it is a fellowship of about 340 churches of which 157 are members. The fellowship includes denominations involving in total about 550 million Christians throughout more than 120 countries.


After the initial successes of the Ecumenical Movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 (chaired by future WCC Honorary President John R. Mott), church leaders (in 1937) agreed to establish a World Council of Churches, based on a merger of the Faith and Order Movement and Life and Work Movement organisations. Its official establishment was deferred with the outbreak of World War II until August 23, 1948. Delegates of 147 churches assembled in Amsterdam to merge the Faith and Order Movement and Life and Work Movement. Subsequent mergers were with the International Missionary Council in 1961 and the World Council of Christian Education, with its roots in the 18th century Sunday School movement, in 1971.

WCC member churches include most of the Orthodox Churches; numerous Protestant churches, including the Anglican Communion, some Baptists, many Lutheran, Methodist, and Reformed, a broad sampling of united and independent churches, and some Pentecostal churches; and some Old Catholic churches.

The largest Christian body, the Roman Catholic Church, is not a member of the WCC, but has worked closely with the Council for more than three decades and sends observers to all major WCC conferences as well as to its Central Committee meetings and the Assemblies. The Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity also nominates 12 members to the WCC's Faith and Order Commission as full members. While not a member of the WCC, the Roman Catholic Church is a member of some other ecumenical bodies at regional and national levels, for example, the National Council of Churches in Australia and the National Council of Christian Churches in Brazil (CONIC).

Delegates sent from the member churches meet every seven or eight years in an Assembly, which elects a Central Committee that governs between Assemblies. A variety of other committees and commissions answer to the Central Committee and its staff.

These Assemblies have been held since 1948, and last met in Porto Alegre, Brazil in February 2006, under the theme "God, in your grace, transform the world".

Previous Assemblies

Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania was unanimously elected World Council of Churches President in the 9th general assembly meeting held at the University of Porto Alegre in Brazil in February 2006. A former president of the WCC was Rev. Martin Niemöller, the famous Lutheran anti-Nazi theologian.

General Secretaries

Years Name Churches Nationality
1948 - 1966 W. A. Visser 't Hooft Reformed Churches in the Netherlands/Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, Geneva Netherlands
1966 - 1972 Eugene Carson Blake United Presbyterian Church (USA) U.S.
1972 - 1984 Philip A. Potter Methodist Church Dominica
1985 - 1992 Emilio Castro Evangelical Methodist Church of Uruguay Uruguay
1993 - 2003 Konrad Raiser Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) Germany
2004 - 2008 Samuel Kobia Methodist Church in Kenya Kenya

Commissions and Teams

There are two complementary approaches to ecumenism: dialogue and action. The Faith and Order Movement and Life and Work Movement represent these approaches . These approaches are reflected in the work of the WCC in its commissions, these being:

  • Commission of the Churches on Diakonia and Development
  • Commission on Education and Ecumenical Formation
  • Commission of the Churches on International Affairs
  • Commission on Justice, Peace and Creation
  • Commission on World Mission and Evangelism
  • Faith and Order Plenary Commission and the Faith and Order Standing Commission
  • Joint Consultative Group with Pentecostals
  • Joint Working Group WCC – Roman Catholic Church (Vatican)
  • Reference Group on the Decade to Overcome Violence
  • Reference Group on Inter-Religious Relations
  • Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC

Diakonia and Development & International Relations Commissions

The WCC acts through both its member churches and other religious and social organizations to coordinate ecumenical, evangelical, and social action.

Current WCC programmes include a Decade to Overcome Violence, an international campaign to combat AIDS/HIV in Africa and the Justice, Peace and Creation initiative.

Faith and Order Commission

WCC's Faith and Order Commission has been successful in working toward consensus on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, on the date of Easter, on the nature and purpose of the church (ecclesiology), and on ecumenical hermeneutics.

The 1952 meeting of the Faith and Order Commission, held in Lund, Sweden, produced the Lund Principle for ecumenical co-operation.

The Commission has 120 members, including representation of churches who are not members of the World Council of Churches, among them the Roman Catholic Church. Members are men and women from around the world - pastors, laypersons, academics, church leaders nominated by their church.

Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM) was published in 1982. It attempted to express the convergences that had been found over the years. It was sent to all member churches and six volumes of responses compiled. As a result, some churches have changed their liturgical practices, and some have entered into discussions, which in turn led to further agreements and steps towards unity.

A major study on the church (ecclesiology) is being undertaken examining the question 'What it means to be a church, or the Church?'

In particular with a focus on ecclesiology and ethics focusing on the churches/Church's 'prophetic witness and its service to those in need'. .

Faith and Order is collaborating with Justice, Peace and Creation to answer the questions:

  • 'How can the search for unity be a source of renewal for both the Church and the world?
  • 'What does our increasing cooperation on issues of justice, peace and the creation teach us about the nature of the Church?
  • 'What is the relationship between ethnicity, nationalism, and church unity?

Material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is prepared annually with the Roman Catholic Church.

Other work of the Commission includes facilitating the coordination of:

  • results from international bilateral dialogues (the Bilateral Forum),
  • movements towards local church unions.

Important texts

Justice, Peace and Creation Commission

Justice, Peace and Creation has drawn many elements together with an environmental focus. Its mandate is:

To analyze and reflect on justice, peace and creation in their interrelatedness, to promote values and practices that make for a culture of peace, and to work towards a culture of solidarity with young people, women, Indigenous Peoples and racially and ethnically oppressed people.

Focal issues have been globalization and the emergence of new social movements (in terms of people bonding together in the struggle for justice, peace and the protection of creation).

Attention has been given to issues around:

  • economy
  • environment
  • Indigenous Peoples
  • peace
  • people with disabilities
  • racism
  • women
  • youth

Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC

A Special Commission was set up by the eighth Harare Assembly in December 1998 to address Orthodox concerns about WCC membership and the Council's decision-making style, public statements, worship practices and other issues.

The Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC represents the potential for fresh and creative high-level discussion about the structure and life of the Council, a discussion which is explicitly seen as continuing the foundations laid by the process and the policy document "Towards and Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC"


There has been controversy within the WCC about its programs and actions. Orthodox and Evangelical member churches have sought to make clear the nature of their involvement and limits on the authority of the WCC to speak on their behalf. Many churches have opted to stay out of the WCC, accusing it of being dominated by liberals and (or) leftists. Through the Programme to Combat Racism, the council was involved in several activities that caused controversy and criticism, including the funding for humanitarian purposes of groups engaged in liberation struggles during the 1970s, as in South Africa.

As a member based organization, the WCC has needed to address the concerns raised by member churches and has done so. The Programme to Combat Racism has been changed and Orthodox concerns have been and are being addressed through the Special Commission.

Additionally, several conservative Eastern Orthodox Christians consider the Council (as well as any union with non-Orthodox Christians) as heretical, and demand officials from the Eastern Orthodox Church to abdicate their membership.

Accusations of Anti-Semitism

The council has been described by some as taking anti-Semitic positions in connection with its criticisms of Israeli policy. They believe the council has focused more on activities and publications criticizing Israel than on other human rights issues. The council members have been characterized by Israel's former Justice minister Amnon Rubinstein as anti-Semitic, saying "they just hate Israel."

The World Council of Churches has rejected this accusation. In 2005, the General Secretary of the WCC, Samuel Kobia, stated that anti-Semitism is a "sin against God and man" and "absolutely irreconcilable with the profession and practice of the Christian faith," quoting from the first assembly of the WCC in Amsterdam in 1948.

Programme to Combat Racism during the 1970s

There was controversy over the WCC's Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) during the 1970s. It funded a number of humanitarian programs of liberation movements while those groups were involved in violent struggle, examples include:

  • In 1970, Reader's Digest suggested that the PCR was contributing to fourteen groups involved in revolutionary guerrilla activities, some of which were Communist in ideology and receiving arms from the Soviet Union (Reader's Digest, October 1971).
  • In 1977 "The Fraudulent Gospel" by Bernard Smith ISBN 0-89601-007-4 was published in the USA and Britain and carried a graphic photo on the front cover of 27 Black Rhodesians it said were "massacred by WCC-financed terrorists in Eastern Rhodesia in December 1976".
  • Donating $85,000 to the Patriotic Front of Zimbabwe (ZANU) in 1978, months after the group shot down an airliner, killing 38 of the 56 passengers on board. Members are reported to have killed 10 survivors (this was denied by the Front)

This caused much controversy in the past among member churches. In a Time Magazine article entitled "Going Beyond Charity: Should Christian cash be given to terrorists?” (October 2, 1978). Further examination of WCC's political programme appeared in Amsterdam to Nairobi - The World Council of Churches and the Third World by Ernest W. Lefever (1979, Georgetown University, ISBN 0-89633-025-7 . Further criticism has also been cited by the Christian right, for example in March 1983 issue of Jerry Falwell related Fundamentalist Journal:

There has been an 'enormous disturbance' in British churches, says one Executive Committee member. As for West Germany — which now provides 42 percent of the budget for the financially pressed WCC — official protests are muted, but one top churchman reports 'bitter reaction in our churches.'… In the U.S., important elements in such WCC member groups as the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese are upset.


Some of the notable successes of the World Council of Churches are in the area of increased understanding and acceptance between Christian groups and denominations. Mutual understanding has developed through the Faith and Order related activities; the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry process has been positive.

The WCC has not sought the organic union of different Christian denominations — it has however facilitated dialogue and supported local, national, and regional dialogue and cooperation.

Regional/national councils

It should be noted that membership in a regional or national council does not mean that the particular group is also a member of the WCC.


See also


  • World Council of Churches. Churches (lists all churches, members marked with asterisk) Retrieved 2008-07-13

External links

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