World Council of Churches

World Council of Churches
   The World Council of Churches is the largest global Protestant ecumenical organization, which began the 21st century with some 340 member churches (denominations) based in 120 nations and representing approximately 400 million church members. While commonly seen as a Protestant fellowship, it is more accurately perceived as a fellowship of Christians who are not part of the Roman Catholic Church, as it included Eastern orthodox churches as an integral part of its fellowship from the outset.
   The Ecumenical movement that produced the World Council began in the 19th century. Protestant leaders from around the world, especially those involved in the global missionary endeavor, were acutely aware of the splintering of the
   Protestant movement into hundreds of denominations, which was an embarrassment in the missionary field. These leaders called for new organized expressions of Christian unity. An initial step was a set of agreements to head off direct competition on the mission field. Early in the 20th century, large international conferences were held around major issues dividing the churches under two broad areas of concern: Faith and ORDER (theological and ecclesiastical issues) and Life and Work (the mission and activity of the church in the world).
   In 1933, American theologian William Adams Brown suggested to William Temple, then the archbishop of York in the Church of England, that a spectrum of international Protestant groups should launch a conversation regarding their possible future together. Temple acted upon the suggestion, and in 1937, he and others proposed the idea of a World Council of Churches. The idea was placed on hold as the world went to war, though World War II became for many an added motivation to form the World Council.
   The initial gathering of the World Council of Churches took place in 1948 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Over the next half century, its membership grew significantly, and its geographical center shifted from Europe and North America to Asia and Africa as the original members granted autonomy to former mission churches around the world.
   The council describes itself as "a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures and therefore seeks to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Its Protestant membership is dominated by churches representative of Reformation and Puritan origins, though it also includes such 20th-century Christian expressions as the African Initiated Churches. Few Holiness or Pentecostal churches have applied for membership, and the more theologically conservative Protestant organizations have rejected the council and formed competing global fellowships, such as the Evangelical World Alliance and the International Council of Christian Churches, which have far smaller memberships.
   From its beginning, Orthodox churches have formed an important segment of the council's membership, though their location in lands under dictatorial atheist regimes occasioned much controversy. Both the council and these churches, especially the Russian orthodox Church, were accused of being instruments of Communist propaganda. Those accusation were largely put aside after the fall of the soviet union and the related Marxist governments in Eastern Europe. in the 1990s, the orthodox churches began to serve another role, as critics of the council's liberal theological and liturgical innovations and its involvement in controversial social issues. in the late 1990s, some of the more conservative orthodox churches resigned from the council in protest.
   The World Council is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and governed ultimately by a General Assembly It develops program through four internal administrative groupings: (1) Issues and Themes, (2) Relationships, (3) Communication, and (4) Finance, Services, and Administration. Above all, the council promotes dialogue among its member churches, between member churches and the Roman Catholic Church, and between its members and the world's other major religions. It extends this endeavor through a set of affiliated regional, national, and local councils. It has also built important alliances with the global Protestant family communions such as the WoRLD Methodist Council, the Anglican Communion, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and the Lutheran World Federation.
   The World Council's relationship to the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) has evolved significantly. A major breakthrough in amity occurred as a result of the Second Vatican Council. The council built close working relationships with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the primary Vatican II structure to conduct ecumenical dialogue. A WCC/RCC joint working group now meets annually, and the WCC
   Faith and Order Commission has invited Roman Catholics to join as full voting members.
   Further reading:
   ■ Michael Kinnamon and Brian Cope, eds., The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1997)
   ■ Nicholas Lossky et al., eds., Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva/Grand Rapids, Mich.: WCC Publications/William B. Eerd-mans, 1991)
   ■ Conrad Raiser, To Be the Church: Challenges and Hopes for a New Millennium (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1997)
   ■ Ans J. van der Bent, ed., Handbook of Member Churches: World Council of Churches (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982)
   ■ Yearbook (Geneva: World Council of Churches, issued annually).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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