The Global South as the Future Impetus of Christian Ecumenism

The retiring head of the WCC reflects on 11 years of experience

The Rev. Kondrad Raiser, head of the World Council of Churches, looked towards the “global South,” as opposed to Europe, as the future domicile of Christianity and ecumenism, during his reflective interview on the past 11 years as president of the world’s largest ecumenical body, Nov. 21.

“If one looks at the situation of Christianity in Europe, it is true that one tends to be pessimistic,” began Raiser. “A new period in the history of Christianity is beginning. I am also convinced that the future lies in the ‘ecumenism of the people,’ as opposed to the ecumenism of the past which was perhaps too focused on church leaders.”

The Rev. Raiser also warned of a breakdown in religious identity that could eventually hamper the growth of the ecumenical movement.

“It is impossible to overlook increasing fears among Roman Catholics, but also among Anglicans and Lutherans, Methodists and Orthodox, linked to the identity or integrity of each tradition,” Raiser said.

“There are trends developing or gaining momentum which see the ecumenical movement as threatening or disturbing.” Growing secularism and relativism were among them, he continued.

On a positive note, Raiser said there were signs of progress in relations between churches, particularly between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches.

The signing of the 1999 Augsburg agreement between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, “was the first time official representatives of the Vatican had agreed to sign a doctrinal agreement with another communion,” he noted.

The “religious renewal in ex-Communist countries” also acts as a beacon of hope, said Raiser. Nonetheless, he added that he was “very skeptical about the ‘reawakening’ of the soul of Orthodoxy.”

According to Raiser, some people in ex-Communist countries positioned church as “an alternative ideology,” a place to find “certainties” they could no longer find elsewhere. “They passed from one system to another,” Raiser said, but their ways of seeing the world, “making a distinction between ‘enemies’ and ‘friends,’ remained the same.”

In 1998, the Russian Orthodox Church threatened to withdraw from the WCC, which helped trigger the creation of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation to deal with Orthodox concerns. The commission, Raiser said, has helped build trust and understanding between the council’s “predominant Protestant tradition” and its Orthodox members.

“For the first time, the Orthodox churches felt they were being listened to and understood a little better,” said Raiser.

Rev. Raiser plans to make his last official trip as the WCC president on Nov. 29 to Dec. 3. Raiser will visit the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate with his wife Dr Elisabeth Raiser, WCC deputy general secretary Mr Georges Lemopoulos and WCC executive secretary Rev. Sabine Udodesku, to partake in the annual celebration on the feast of St. Andrew.

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