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A handbook of councils and churches profiles of ecumenical relationships

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Part II


Regional and National Councils and Conferences of Churches

In English, the word “council” has two distinct meanings. The first application of the term, sometimes used in the phrase the ‘councils of the undivided church,’ refers to the seven ecumenical councils stretching from Nicea I (325) and Con­stantinople I (381) to Constantinople III (680-81) and Nicea II (787). These coun­cils have a privileged place in Christian tradition because the leaders of the “oik­oumene” (the inhabited world of the Roman-Byzantine empire) established some basic matters of Christian faith and church order that previously had been threat­ening the stability of the church. The second use of the word “council”, as defined by the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (WCC Publications, Geneva, 2002), “is a voluntary association of churches within a defined geographic area which, without compromising the distinctive identity and authority of its members, enables their sharing in common reflection and action on matters of Christian unity, faith and ethics, and in programmes of common Christian witness and ser­vice…”

In other languages, one term (concile, Konzil, concilium) often is used for the ecumenical “councils” of the ancient church, the governing bodies of some con­temporary churches, and the form of full, visible Christian unity envisioned as the goal of the ecumenical movement. Another word (conseil, Rat, consilium) is used when referring to voluntary associations of churches committed to healing their divisions for the sake of the world. These voluntary associations are the subject of this chapter.

Nature and Purpose of Councils and Conferences of Churches

Councils of churches are enormously diverse in size, purpose and membership, depending on context, history and self-understanding, and yet all are participants in the one ecumenical movement. Some are partnerships of churches. Others include, either as members or associate members, religious agencies such as Bible societies, YMCAs and YWCAs, and associations of seminaries. Some are funded primarily by the member bodies themselves; others are dependent on aid from outside sources, which may affect their programmatic foci.

Some councils were formed early in the twentieth century, and remain pan-Protestant in membership. In a number of countries they are called “federation” rather than council. Others were formed (or re-formed) in the middle of the twen­tieth century after Vatican II, when the Roman Catholic Church officially entered the ecumenical movement. The members of these councils may include Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. In a few cases, two national bodies co­exist in one country, one mainly or entirely Protestant, the other with Roman Catholic, and sometimes also Orthodox and/or Evangelical/Pentecostal member­ship. There are also situations where a so-called “free church” grouping exists along with a national council.

In at least one region, the primary focus of ecumenical ministry was shifted from the national to the local. Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) is a reconfiguration of the former British Council of Churches, developed as the Roman Catholic Church became a member. The purpose of CTBI was consistent with a conciliar vision – working together when possible, and striving towards greater visible unity among churches in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England. The vision of where this purpose would be most fully lived out, however, shifted to communities, towns and regions, which were encouraged to form local “churches together in…” The phrase “churches together” has been picked up in other places – notably the United States – but does not necessarily conform to the CTBI model in practice. Instead, Christian Churches Together in the USA envi­sions “growing closer together” through dialogue among five Christian “families” of churches – Evangelical/Pentecostal, Historic Protestant, Orthodox, Racial/ Ethnic and Roman Catholic. In yet another situation, the members of the Cana­dian Council of Churches re-envisioned their purpose as a “Forum where every-one’s voice matters and all voices are equal.” Their emphasis is on inclusivity, dia­logue and process, as well as common witness when possible. Only actions receiving “100 percent consensus are recognized as representing the common Christianity we hold and as the voice of the Canadian Council of Churches”.

Many national councils find themselves struggling with issues that, not sur­prisingly, are reflected in their members – seeking to reclaim their purpose, to involve new generations of ecumenical leaders, or to obtain adequate funding to meet their shared goals. The understanding of the nature and purpose of councils of churches continues to evolve as the churches experience and reflect on their life together in various contexts, but in all cases they are of the churches, and this is a key to their identity.

In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the World Council of Churches, a policy statement entitled Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches was adopted by the WCC Central Committee (Septem­ber 1997) and “commended to member churches and ecumenical partners for study and action.”The text continues to provide a good summary of the evolving understanding of councils, and is a useful touchstone when considering these issues. The text refers to the WCC Constitution (Art. 3,1) which says the churches are “on the way to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fel­lowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, [seeking] to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe.” (p. 13)

Despite their diverse origins and make-up, national councils of churches are composed primarily or exclusively of churches within the geographic region they encompass. They are, of necessity, representational bodies. Member churches des­ignate official representatives who (at least ideally) serve both as liaisons from their own church to gatherings of the churches together through the council, and who communicate concerns of the council to the church they represent. Some­times these representatives are religious leaders; sometimes they are ecumenical officers; sometimes they are officially designated clergy and laity. In recent years, some councils of churches, with the encouragement of their members, have been more intentional in including persons who previously had been excluded from decision-making processes – for example, women, minority communities (how­ever defined in a particular context), people with disabilities, and youth.

When church representatives come together at a meeting of the council of churches, although the churches retain their distinct and autonomous identities, their decisions and actions in many ways reflect the self-understandings of the members about what it means to be the church – and thus, the church together. Their gatherings will tend to include one or more of the following: shared Bible study, prayer, and worship; dialogue about issues the churches hold in common, and about matters of disagreement; initiatives that encourage ecumenical educa­tion and formation; common witness to the good news of the gospel, and under­standings about ways to be evangelical without proselytizing; social service for the common good; prophetic witness about social concerns when the churches are in agreement; and relationships with people of other faiths.

The churches do these things together through the council in faithfulness to the prayer of Jesus “that they may all be one”, (John 17:20) and in keeping with the reconciling impulses of the gospel. They typically have an agreed basis of mem­bership (sometimes Christological; sometimes Trinitarian), and some statement of understanding about the commitments of membership that churches make to each other through their participation in the life of the council. As the churches have “lived together” in ecumenical relationship, they have acted on their com­mitments to Christian unity in a variety of ways: maintaining relationships through dialogue in the midst of tensions among churches or in society; working together in response to human needs; challenging each other to reconcile memo­ries of past wrongs; offering common witness in the face of daunting political challenges; and praying for each other, and praying together.

Regional Conferences and Councils

At the time of the foundation of the World Council of Churches in 1948 there were no regional ecumenical organizations yet. The first to come into being was the East Asia Christian Conference, in 1957. It was followed in 1959 by the Con­ference of European Churches (CEC). At the early stage of this new development in the ecumenical movement, the leadership of the WCC voiced some concern that it would lead to fragmentation and weakening of the oneness of the movement. However, the creation of regionalized ecumenical instruments reflected the felt need of the churches for a place where they could deal with the specific issues of their region, and make their voice heard at the regional level. Regional ecumeni­cal organizations also provide a context for the churches to express and celebrate their common regional identity, culturally, historically and politically.

In 1963, the African churches founded the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), and in 1966 the churches in the Pacific established the Pacific Confer­ence of Churches (PCC). The Caribbean Conference of Churches (CCC) was formed in 1973. That same year the East Asia Christian Conference became the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA). In 1974, the churches of the Middle East brought into being the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). And in 1982 the churches in Latin America created CLAI, the Latin American Council of Churches. The only region where there is no such body is North America.

Although the regional ecumenical organizations (REOs as they are being called) share a common identity and constitute a distinctive group within the one ecumenical movement, they differ in approach, priorities, working style, and structure, according to the particularities of each region. The different designa­tions of “conference” and “council” also reflect nuances in their self-understand-ing. In two of them, the Christian Conference of Asia and the Pacific Conference of Churches, national councils of churches are full members along with the churches. The Caribbean Conference of Churches has a category of associate membership for national councils of churches; the All Africa Conference of Churches, the Conference of European Churches and the Latin American Coun­cil of Churches have a similar associate status for councils and other organiza­tions. The Middle East Council of Churches is shaped according to the specific model of “families of churches”.

In three of the regional bodies the Catholic Church is a full member: in the Caribbean Conference of Churches as founding member, in the Pacific Conference of Churches since 1976 and 1991, and in the Middle East Council of Churches since 1990. The Christian Conference of Asia works closely with the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, with which it has formed an Asian Ecumenical Committee. Similarly, the Conference of European Churches and the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences cooperate in various programmes and have jointly organized European Ecumenical Assemblies. The Latin American Coun­cil of Churches is in dialogue with the Latin American Episcopal Conference.

In the early 1980s, the regional ecumenical organizations began to develop inter-regional cooperation. The general secretaries of the organizations started meeting regularly, to share information and discuss common concerns. The World Council of Churches joined this process. In 1992, the REOs and the WCC formu­lated and agreed on a set of “guiding principles for relationships and cooperation”. Since then, an “REOs and WCC General Secretaries Group” meets annually. It should be underlined that the regional ecumenical organizations are entirely autonomous bodies, which in no way depend structurally or otherwise on the WCC. The WCC has formally acknowledged the REOs in its Rules as “essential partners in the ecumenical enterprise”. This partnership is reflected in the inten­sive programme cooperation between WCC teams and REOs, in a variety of ways, according to the nature of the programmes and the regional priorities.

National Councils and Conferences

In 1910, at the time of the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference, there were only two national Christian councils. One of the objectives of the International Missionary Council (IMC), which was formed after the Edinburgh conference, was to encourage missionary societies to set up national conferences or councils for the coordination of their work. By 1948, thirty councils were members of the IMC. When the IMC merged with the WCC in 1961, these councils became affil­iated with the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. This relationship still exists. Thirty national councils of churches (or national Christian councils) were affiliated with CWME in 2005.

The process by which missionary conferences developed into Christian coun­cils, and then, even if not always in name, into national councils of churches (NCCs), was already advanced by 1948. In the following years it was carried fur­ther. Asian and African Christian leaders began to think that it was inappropri­ate for missionary agencies to have membership in a national Christian council. While their financial contributions were useful, and even necessary, their mem­bership both obscured the nature of the councils and diminished their effective­ness in their relationships with communities and national governments. The National Council of Churches in India is a typical example. The Missionary Coun­cil was formed in 1912; then the National Christian Council of India, Burma and Ceylon in 1921; then the National Christian Council of India and Pakistan in 1947. According to its revised constitution of 1956 “only organized church bodies are entitled to direct representation in the Council”. Missions which were still not integrated in a church in India could become associate members. Thereafter, the Christian councils have tended to become councils of churches. In 1979 the National Christian Council of India changed its name to the National Council of Churches in India, reflecting the change in understanding of membership as church-based.

The Second WCC Assembly at Evanston (1954) made provision for a more formal relationship of national councils of churches/Christian councils with the WCC, by creating a category of “associate councils”. The difference between “associate councils” and “affiliated councils” is that associate councils are for­mally related to the WCC as a whole. They are represented by advisers at WCC central committee meetings and by delegated representatives at assemblies. In 2005, the number of associate councils was 64.

Affiliated councils are legally members of the Conference on World Mission and Evangelism and support the work of the WCC Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. Some of these councils do not wish to become directly associated with the WCC because of objections in some of their member churches. In order to provide a framework for cooperation with these and other councils, a third cat­egory of relationship has been established, called “councils in working relation­ship with the WCC”.

In the late 1960s, the WCC made specific efforts to encourage and facilitate the creation of national councils of churches/Christian councils in countries where they did not yet exist. In 1971 it convened the first international conference of national councils, to discuss their nature and purpose, their role in the ecumeni­cal movement, and cooperation and relationships between the WCC and national councils. A second international consultation was held in 1986, this time jointly organized by the WCC, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) of the Catholic Church, and a working group set up by the councils. In 1993 the third international consultation took place in Hong Kong, organized by the NCCs themselves, with the participation of the WCC and the PCPCU. Two more consultations have been held, in 1997 and 2002, in conjunction with meet­ings of the WCC central committee. These have been limited to associate councils, mainly for financial reasons. A small liaison group composed of general secre­taries of NCCs in various continents relates to the WCC on matters of overall rela­tionships and consultation. Programme cooperation between the NCCs and the WCC takes places in many ways. Very often the national council of churches/Christian council is the primary ecumenical partner of the WCC in a particular country.

National councils of churches exist in all the regions except the Middle East. There is a consensus among the churches in the Middle East that the purpose of Christian witness and unity in the region is best served at the regional level, through the Middle East Council of Churches.

Roman Catholic participation in NCCs and REOs

Roman Catholic participation in national councils of churches and regional ecumenical organizations has grown steadily since the Second Vatican Council. As of this writing, the Roman Catholic Church is a member of 72 1 of the 122 national councils of churches/Christian councils surveyed in this book, and of three of the seven regional ecumenical organizations (Caribbean Conference; Pacific Conference; and Middle East Council). Ecumenical Collaboration at the Regional, National, and Local Levels was the first post-Vatican II text developed by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) which laid out

Full member of 65, observer/associate member of 7. Of these, 34 are associate councils with the WCC.

principles on which Catholic participation in councils of churches is based. A later text, The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (DAP), issued by the PCPCU in 1975, calls councils of churches an “important instrument” in the ecumenical quest and welcomes participation, while placing primary authority for deciding whether to join a council with local bishops through their synods of episcopal conferences. It lists a variety of issues that might be considered when evaluating the possibility of membership, such as the system of representation, voting rights, decision-making processes, manner of making public statements, and the degree of authority attributed to common statements. (DAP, 169) A 1995 document on The Ecumenical Dimension in the Formation of those Engaged in Pastoral Work (PCPCU) recommends that ecumenical formation, especially of seminarians, include information about councils of churches.

In anticipation of the 9th assembly of the World Council of Churches, the Joint Working Group, responsible for facilitating relationships between the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church, issued a text on Roman Catholic participation in national and regional councils of churches entitled Inspired by the Same Vision. That text includes a detailed development of the history of Roman Catholic par­ticipation in national councils of churches and regional ecumenical organizations.

Orthodox participation in NCCs and REOs

In countries with a majority Orthodox church, as yet there are no national councils of churches (with the exception of Romania). In many other places, how­ever, the Orthodox churches are members of the NCC, e.g. in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and to a lesser extent in the Caribbean and Latin America. Ortho­dox churches are also fully involved in the REOs, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, and in Africa and Asia.

Evangelical and Pentecostal participation in NCCs and REOs

A relatively new phenomenon, which so far has not been the subject of ade­quate reflection, is the increasing presence of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in national and regional ecumenical bodies. In this regard, the Salvation Army has traditionally had a bridge function. In 2005, national territories or com­mands of the Salvation Army were full members of 52 national councils, and observer/associate member in three more. In the majority of these countries they are also part of the national evangelical alliance or fellowship. The Salvation Army is also represented in most of the REOs, through some of its national terri­tories in the regions concerned. In 2005, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was present as a full member in five national councils, and as an observer/associate in another four.

The listing of NCC constituencies in this book reveals that 50 national coun­cils, i.e. 40 percent of the total, have Pentecostal participation through the pres­ence among their members of one or several Pentecostal churches. In 40 councils, Pentecostal churches are full members, in 10 they are observer/associate mem­bers. In a few regions, some Pentecostal/Charismatic churches have also joined the regional ecumenical body, e.g. in the Caribbean and Europe, and – more sig­nificantly – in Latin America. Several African Instituted churches are members of the AACC.




The All Africa Conference of Churches is a fellowship of churches and insti­tutions working together in their common witness to the gospel by:

  • • Mobilizing to live faithfully the message of God’s love

  • • Nurturing a common understanding of the faith

  • • Interpreting and responding to challenges to human dignity

  • • Acting prophetically in word, life, and services for healing

The decision to create a regional organization was taken at a widely representa­tive meeting at Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1958. The work of the Provisional and Con­tinuation Committees appointed following the Ibadan Conference led to the birth of the AACC at its first assembly on 20 April, 1963, in Kampala, Uganda. The theme of the Kampala assembly was Freedom and Unity in Christ. The delegates addressed the colonial situation in the spirit of nationalism that permeated the political scene of the continent at the time. The message of Kampala to the churches in Africa asked a vital question that needs to be asked again today: “Why, in Cape Town, in Dakar, in Douala and Nairobi, on the plains and by the rivers of this land, must we continue in those divisions, which crucify the Lord until he returns?” The delegates identified themselves with the aspirations of the peoples of the continent towards development of dignity and a mature personal­ity in Christ and exhorted the churches “to participate wholeheartedly in the building of the African nation”. The AACC has accompanied the churches in their engagement in the decolonization and nation-building processes. It played a sig­nificant role in the dismantling of apartheid in Southern Africa. The journey towards unity and freedom initiated at Kampala has continued through seven other assemblies with different themes:

Abidjan (Ivory Coast) 1969 Working with Christ in Africa Today Lusaka (Zambia) 1974 Living No Longer for Ourselves but for Christ Nairobi (Kenya) 1981 Following in the Light of Jesus Christ Lomé (Togo) 1987 You shall be my Witnesses Harare (Zimbabwe) 1992 Abundant Life in Jesus Christ Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) 1997 Troubled but not Destroyed Yaoundé (Cameroon) 2003 Come Let Us Rebuild

These themes manifest the effective prophetic witness of the church in Africa as the people of the continent struggle with the issues that confront them in their daily lives. The theme of the eighth assembly, Come Let us Rebuild, was a call to the churches to continue where they left off at Kampala. The impulse for the theme is the Nehemiah motif of rebuilding Jerusalem devastated by the Babylon­ian exile. Like Jerusalem of the time, the continent of Africa has gone through dev­astation of many sorts. The euphoria that characterized the period of indepen­dence has been lost and the continent has experienced conflicts and wars, resulting from disappointingly bad governance, corruption, global economic injus­tice, etc. Increased poverty has characterized the independent nations and has been further compounded with the emergence of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that continues to devastate the populations. The eighth assembly in Yaoundé re-issued the call of Kampala “to participate wholeheartedly in the building of the African nation”.

The AACC continues to stand with the churches in addressing relevant issues that confront the continent, and to provide a platform of collective voices and col­lective action. Its foundational programmes are theology, mission and evangelism, ecumenical growth and interfaith relations. Core issues on its agenda include social and economic justice (overcoming poverty), health and wholeness (HIV/AIDS) and international relations (governance, ethics and morality). Its vision is “Called to work together for Life, Justice, Truth and Peace”. The AACC has 133 member churches and 32 associate councils of churches in 39 countries, representing 120 million Christians in Africa. It is engaged in a thorough process of reconfiguring ecumenical relationships and cooperation in the continent, by integrating the churches, national councils, sub-regional fellowships and the con­tinental body itself into a coherent network. The head office of the AACC is in Nairobi, Kenya; there is a regional office in Lomé, Togo.


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