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Observations on the World Communion of Reformed Churches

By December 1, 2010 No Comments

It was my great privilege to attend the Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this past June. I was able to attend only the first half, and I was not a delegate, just an accredited “observer” for the Reformed Church in America (RCA). But, while the full news and reports of the Uniting General Council are available from many sources, it seems fitting that I as an observer make a few observations.

A “World” Communion

As an observer I did not have the right of the floor during the plenary sessions, so I sat up in the bleachers, the better to observe. But I could fully participate in workshops and committees and I could hobnob and network and everything else. That included, most delightfully, watching the World Cup matches in the lobby during (and often a bit after) coffee breaks. More than once delegates in support of opposing sides were standing together and cheering and groaning in concert. Fortunately, the Council took place during the opening rounds, so delegations could retain some hope for their sides.

It was a large assembly and it met for over a week. There are 952 names on the master participants list, though no more than half were delegates, and not all the delegates were there the whole time. It was truly global with delegates from the designated regions of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, North America, and the Pacific. The joy of attending such an assembly is getting to meet and share with Christian leaders from around the world. Unfortunately, seventy-three participants were absent because the U.S. government had denied them visas, and this caused some anger.

It was called the “Uniting” General Council because it marked the merger of two ecumenical bodies, the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). The REC had been smaller, more conservative, and more Calvinist, while the WARC was bigger, older, and generally more liberal, including in its membership several “united” churches that do not consider themselves any more Calvinist then, say, Wesleyan. A few churches had belonged to both bodies.

The merger of these two bodies into a single “World Communion” was the main work of the council and soaked up most of its energy. Previous general councils of WARC, for example, were distinguished by controversial debate over major issues, such as at Ottawa, with apartheid, and at Accra, with global justice in the economy and ecology. There were doubtless many small controversies during the meetings in Grand Rapids, but there was nothing so momentous as the merger itself. And that, by design, was as upbeat as possible.

Institutions develop their own internal cultures. I have had some experience with the late WARC, but not with the REC. My first observation is that the culture of WARC was dominant, and that the merger risks the larger simply absorbing the smaller. Many delegates spoke and acted as if the council was yet one more WARC assembly, instead of the first occurrence of something new. With the staff of WARC staying on for a while as the staff of the WCRC, the new leadership is going to have to work hard fully to include the former REC member churches.

I don’t know about the REC, but previous general councils of WARC have typically had a theme related to the assembly’s locale. At Accra in 2004, the delegates toured the slavers’ fort and dungeon on Goeree Island and attended to the evils of slavery, racism, and the forced exodus of African people. The thematic issue chosen for Grand Rapids was the displacement of the aboriginal Native Americans and the need for some truth and reconciliation. I confess that I was skeptical of this. I have lived in Grand Rapids and I considered the racial division of the city to be the real local evil, and I expected the Native American thing to be, well, cheesy. Cheesy it was not. The Native American welcome, devotions, and activities in the plenary sessions were real and significant and moving. The Native leaders and speakers were genuine and generous. Some of us learned a lot and, to our shame, had a lot to learn. One chief (a Native-American-church pastor) spontaneously gave his precious heirloom Peace Medal to the co-moderators, and this was a high point. We didn’t reconcile with the Native Americans. They reconciled us.

Difficult Business

The business agenda began with REC and WARC delegates meeting separately to approve the merger. The first full plenary marked the consummation of the WCRC. And then they got right to work on finalizing their bylaws and rules of order, and that proved more difficult than expected, especially since the council had not yet congealed as a group. There were a host of amendments from the floor, which generated some frustration, as the delegations had been asked months ago to review the draft rules and send in their comments ahead of time to allow a committee to deal with them. Well, right, but the delegates had not traveled to Grand Rapids to be silent.

One of the points debated was the male-female quotas for delegations in order to make for a gender-balanced assembly. This must have really challenged the former REC churches, many of which are new to ordaining women and some of which still do not. Some Indian delegates spoke passionately about gender justice, and some African delegates spoke just as passionately about an impossible burden being placed on churches that have not yet developed women in leadership. Various quota formulas were proposed from the floor, with different quotas for small delegations and large ones, and with all member churches required to send women delegates. There were complaints and admonitions about the whole process, and despite the stated plan of the leadership to decide as much as possible by consensus, a winning formula was approved by a straight majority vote, and the minority must have felt defeated.

Another recurring debate in the early sessions was over nominations for the executive committee. An ecumenical body like the WCRC meets in general council only every seven years, so the executive committee is designed to be powerful and its makeup is critical. The WCRC has little money, so it was decided to economize by making the executive committee relatively small. The complicating factor is that the membership of the committee has to balance off a number of quotas: region, gender, expertise, age, and clergy or lay. This requires the nominating committee to juggle the variables and find nominees who can fit several quotas at a time. Some young ecumenist should design a computer program for this.

The designated regions met separately during the evenings and developed lists of names to submit to the nominating committee. The committee used these, as well as names from other sources, to develop draft slates to present back to the plenary, in stages, before the final decision. The process generated some energy in plenary, when delegates complained that their submissions were replaced in the draft slates with names their regions had not submitted. The moderators had to defend the process without reference to actual names, and the difficulty of managing all these quotas into a smallish committee was apparent.

I had to leave before the final slate was voted on, but one name stood out from the start–Rev. Dr. Jerry Pillay was elected the first moderator of the new body. This is great. I had gotten to know him in South Africa. He is the General Secretary of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa. He is both personable and powerful; he is forceful and a gentleman, and he listens as well as he speaks. Another name of interest to readers is the Christian Reformed Church’s Peter Borgdorff, who will be on the executive committee ex officio as the outgoing moderator of the REC, as will Clifton Kirkpatrick from WARC. Borgdorff, more than anyone, carried the REC into the merger and distinguished himself during the council. As the executive committee will set the course for the new body, the membership and leadership of the committee was probably the most critical decision of the plenary during the whole council.

The Accra Confession

Another major piece of business was the Accra Confession: “Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and the Earth.” A processus confessionis was begun at WARC’s general council of 1997 in Debrecen, and resulted in the controversial Accra Confession of 2004. The Accra Confession, in the view of many, is a flawed document, and in form and content it doesn’t rise to confessional status like Belhar. Yet there is no getting around the issues it raises, and we may not allow its flaws to excuse us from the serious self-examination it calls for. The problems with the Accra Confession have led to much good further work and clarification, especially by a “covenanting for justice” dialogue of some churches in Germany (the global north) with some churches in Southern Africa (the global south). This group has most helpfully clarified Accra’s tough talk of “empire.” and their work is now available in publication. There was also a Global Consultation on the Accra Confession in September of 2009, in Johannesburg, South Africa, which I attended on behalf of the RCA. Out of this consultation, I and some others have recommended that the RCA and CRC commit to our own “covenanting for justice” dialogue with some Western Hemisphere churches from the global south.

My participation at Johannesburg is the reason I was an observer at the General Council, and why I was assigned to the General Council’s committee on Accra (though there were many other committees and a host of workshops that interested me, from worship to theology to inter-faith dialogue). Our committee was huge: sixty people or so. We eventually divided into table groups, and I was a pinchhit table leader. My table included Taiwanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Indonesians. Our tables were charged to come up with a variety of responses to Accra, such as actions and outcomes or further work on its content and theology. Our responses were recorded and two delegates were appointed to consolidate them into a report to the plenary. I had to leave before the report was made, so I look forward to reading the minutes of when they come out.

One of the table groups reported that a key outcome was that the main concern of the WCRC in general should be “social justice.” The reporter was from a church that had belonged to WARC. This worries me. It suggests to me that this WARC delegate was not talking to REC delegates. It also worries me because I suspect the view that the main concern of the WCRC should be “social justice” is more widely held. Here is my second observation: this is going to be a problem for the WCRC. I hope the executive committee can direct a more holistic kind of ecumenism for the WCRC. (Would there was a Hungarian on the committee.)

I don’t mean to be flippant, but “social justice” is the main concern of civil government, not the church. This is an example of the politicization of Christian witness on both left and right which James Davison Hunter analyzes in his new book, To Change The World (Oxford, 2010). It is certainly true that on such issues the church is responsible to be prophetic in speech and active in demonstrating a just and wholesome life in real and even institutional ways, but to consider this the main concern of a church body is to miss the main concern of a church body. Unfortunately, this is not rare among the churches of the WCRC, the most Protestant and secularized of the world ecumenical groups, and with the weakest common ecclesiology.

I want to be clear that I think it’s right for the WCRC to be focused on the Accra issues (while the Anglican Communion is preoccupied with the sexuality of its bishops). I believe that justice in the economy and the earth is the great issue of our time, and critical to the church’s credibility. But it seems to me that the Reformed tradition can do better than “social justice”–to the actual benefit of social justice. It seems to me that the main concern of the WCRC is the Lordship of Jesus Christ, or in classic terms, the Sovereignty of God, or in gospel terms, the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God. As the Belhar says, “Jesus is Lord,” and this makes all the difference for justice in the world and in the human race. Making some version of the Kingdom of God the main concern of the WCRC will also provide a place for such other concerns as worship, doctrine, ecumenical dialogue, and inter-faith dialogue. Otherwise, the WCRC will have no right to consider itself a “communion” instead of just a big religious NGO.

A World “Communion”

In his opening address, co-moderator Clifton Kirkpatrick addressed the decision to style the newly merged body a “communion,” rather than “council” or “alliance.” It happens that the word “communion” is in vogue ecumenically. It is used by the Anglican Communion in the hierarchical sense that its bishops are in communion with each other. Of course, the churches of our tradition will have Holy Communion with just about anybody. Yet there is good reason for the Reformed to use the word if we take it from the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints.” To do justice to this title will require the WCRC to evolve a new way of life which will not be to everyone’s liking.

Will Holy Communion be the chief sign of relationships within the new organization? Will its communion be centered on communion with the Holy Trinity? Might this not make the organization both more humble and more powerful? Will it not require the regular preparation for communion by the confession of sins–the churches’ own sins–and can the WCRC learn the miraculous power of the confession of sins? How much of this organization’s “action” will be prayer? Will it share in the internal communion of the Holy Trinity, that is, in love?

You don’t hear much talk of “love” as a strategy, outcome, or action step in ecumenical or denominational circles. And yet love is the prime directive of the Bible, the summary of the Torah, the command of our Lord, and the best practice of the Apostle Paul. We acknowledge this for individuals–I wonder why not more so for church bodies. I have come to believe that the chief task of a classis is to love its pastors and congregations, and the chief task of a synod is to love its classes. And I don’t mean easy love, but prophetic and accountable love–yet still love. If the WCRC is going to be a communion, that is, a creedal “communion of saints,” then it’s going to have learn the realistic and even institutional ways and works of love. Why shouldn’t the main task of the WCRC be that its member churches love each other? Even the Koran says that God has made us with our differences in order that we might find each other.

Maybe it was my concurrent reading of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love that I kept thinking about this during the various meetings, especially during the plenary sessions. I refer back to the debate on the gender quotas for delegates. It felt to me like the various quota formulas were trying to force a kind of legalistic righteousness, lacking the working principle of love. Very Calvinist and Puritan. Progressives show these Reformed tendencies no less than conservatives.

Love would suggest a different approach. Why not state, as a constitutional principle, that the WCRC is committed to the fully equal representation and involvement of women, requiring all member churches to subscribe to this, and then trust the various delegations to rise to this? There is nothing so loving and respectful of a member church as to trust it to select its own delegation. Doesn’t “communion” mean to trust each other to do our best in our own circumstances? If a member church consistently refuses to do this, then admonish it. But love requires that we work by faith and hope–faith in each other and hope for our common progress in obedience and sanctification.

What I observed in the opening sessions on the rules of order is something we often see in church bodies–the attempt to enforce righteousness through rules, the desire to legislate obedience. An important Reformed principle is at stake. The “rules of order” in our assemblies are only for that: good order, and not more–not obedience or righteousness, whether progressive or conservative. I repeat: Reformed church rules are for order, not righteousness. Using rules to enforce a collective progressive state of gender balance (or of anything else) can be a misuse of them, especially against the deep principle of churches freely choosing their delegates. The wonderful moral drive of the Reformed tradition easily and frequently devolves into legalism, both on the right and on the left. It seems to me that in a Reformed ecumenical body, the rules should be relatively minimal in order to allow the delegates, precisely in their engagement, to witness to each other. The WCRC, with its huge bandwidth of theological diversity, is going to get bogged down in many ways if it doesn’t learn love as a positive ecumenical working principle.

That is not to say there is not inevitably going to be politics within the WCRC. It’s a human institution, with internal networks and patterns of power and decision-making, so there will be politics. I can imagine Jerry Pillay, among others, keeping this to a decent minimum. I don’t think the likelihood of politics, or any other of the observations I have mentioned, detract from the value and importance of the WCRC. There has to be a regular responsible forum for churches to meet each other in all the ways we need to meet each other. If we really do believe in “the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,” then the WCRC deser ves our best participation and support and the practice of our love for all the saints.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of the “Old First” Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn, New York, and a former moderator of the RCA’s Commission on Christian Unity.
Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is the pastor emeritus of the “Old First'' Reformed Dutch Church of Brooklyn NY. He and Melody have retired to New Paltz NY, where he does pulpit supply, some teaching, childcare of grandchildren, and feeding birds.