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Something to celebrate? 70 years of the World Council of Churches  


Baptist minister Simon Oxley spent 13 years of his ministerial service in Geneva as a staff member of the World Council of Churches (WCC). He reflects on the organisation's 70th anniversary 



Nelson Mandela, addressing the WCC Assembly in Harare in 1998, talked about its “achievement in activating the conscience of the world for peace and on behalf of the poor, the disadvantaged and the dispossessed.”  He said that “the vast majority of our people heard the name of the WCC with joy. It encouraged and inspired us.”

That joy might have been true of those liberated from apartheid but many churches and individual Christians in the UK have found the WCC disturbing. Its history includes the period when the colonies of western nations were becoming independent. Their churches desired to take their own place at the table. The WCC was active in encouraging this. The religious press might have recognised the gospel imperative of oneness in Christ; the secular press, in the main, saw only power and influence being threatened.    

The WCC brings together in fellowship member churches from the Orthodox, Protestant and Pentecostal traditions and many evangelical and independent churches. The Roman Catholic Church is not formally a member of the WCC member but participates in its activities and processes, often more assiduously than some members. Some Baptist national unions, like our own, have been involved from the beginning.

The global ecumenical movement which the WCC serves is in reality a combination of movements where Christians felt impelled to work, study, pray and act together across the divisions between the churches. The earliest of these were the missionary movement and the Sunday school movement. William Carey, for example, had a vision of collaboration for the evangelisation of the world and called for a world conference to be held in 1810. This did happen but only one hundred years later

In the early part of the 20th century, the Life and Work movement said that differences in theology and ecclesiology were not on the table when it came to unity in addressing social and international issues. This was a period of world war and depression. The Faith and Order movement said that such differences had to be addressed for divisions to be healed so that we could be truly one in Christ. Unity has been a watchword of the WCC. Not just because it’s nice for Christians to get along with one another. Not just because the unity of Christians and churches is a powerful sign of the love of God – as in Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17. God’s purpose is the unity of all things in Christ (eg Ephesians1.10). The unity of the church is a means to that end.

The WCC was inaugurated at its first assembly in 1948 in Amsterdam. It was the same period when the United Nations and other international bodies were formed after the Second World War in the spirit of developing international collaboration and mutual accountability. That may have been motivated by liberal and democratic ideals but the WCC saw its motivation in the gospel. Even though agencies of collaboration and mutual accountability may not be flavour of the month for the powerful, we still need them for nations and for churches.

I spent 13 years of my ministerial service in Geneva as a staff member of the WCC. I met Christians in places I’d never heard of before and saw what being faithful means in almost impossible circumstances. I saw how important it was for people to feel that they were part of a worldwide fellowship of believers. And, yes, I had the odd gun pointed at me and the odd stone lobbed at me. I was given a hard time by some security officials. That’s the daily reality for many. And, of course, working for any large organisation brings its frustrations. But I don’t carry those moments of alarm and despondency at the forefront of my memories. It is more about the amazing and joyful nature of Christian faith practised here, there and everywhere.

At its best, the WCC helps us glorify God across the divisions between churches:

  • working together to put into practice the unity of the church;

  • praying together – the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity predates the WCC but the material used around the world each year is coordinated by the WCC with the Roman Catholic Church;

  • challenging together self-serving power inside and outside the churches;

  • encouraging global action together on issues like racism, climate change, AIDS and our proclivity for violence - in some of these, such as climate change, being initiators in raising awareness;

  • reflecting together on our commonality in Christ in areas of difference, such as baptism, eucharist, ministry and the mission of the church - most of the conversations denominations have with one another on thorny issues are based on the groundwork done through the WCC;

  • learning together about what we already know and what God needs us to know – more than learning from one another’s experience of God, as important as that is, but being open to that which none of us yet have heard;

  • sharing resources together;

  • discovering together the wealth of different worship traditions – gathering to worship across denominations and cultures has enriched us all.

As we discovered in our own ecumenical bodies in the UK, the word “together” is key. If we see the WCC as a global organisation with its headquarters and all the institutional paraphernalia as separate from the churches, then it might have some use but it is not what it is called to be. It must be the churches relating and doing together.

It may be unfashionable to say so but, just as we need opportunities for associating at a local level, we need to have the means for associating at a global level. The world is far more complex and connected than it was in 1948. The WCC has spent 70 years sailing together through storms, calm and doldrums. The world’s waters are rough but the demands and opportunities of the kingdom of God remain for us together.


Image | The chief governing body of the WCC, the Central Committee, gathers for its biennial meeting in Geneva earlier this year

Simon Oxley has served as a university chaplain, general secretary of the National Christian Education Council and a staff member of the World Council of Churches as well as in local churches.  In retirement, he works with the Centre for Theology and Justice and sits on various committees relating to ministerial recognition and theological education.

The World Council of Churches marked its 70th anniversary this year.

Today the WCC focuses its work in three programme areas: Unity, Mission, and Ecumenical RelationsPublic Witness and Diakonia, and Ecumenical Formation. Visit its website for more.



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