Note: Rev. Dr. Robert Welsh, president of the Council on Christian Unity, provided the following as a guest contributor to Sharon’s Blog. You can read more about the Council on Christian Unity on their web site at www.disciples.org/ccu.
* * *
One of the first experiences I had after arriving in Busan, South Korea for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches was to be invited to attend a “traditional Korean meal” hosted by the PROK (Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea). It was amazing event! By the end of the meal there had been over hundred small dishes placed before us – involving several “courses” from the appetizer to the dessert. One would simply pick and choose what to take from the different bowls; it was all delicious in the blending of spices and sauces and textures. Indeed, for me, this meal became a symbol of the Busan Assembly in being invited to attend “An Ecumenical Feast.”
The experience was so rich – bringing together some 4,500 persons representing over 350 churches from all regions and the whole range of the major families in the church throughout the world: Reformed, Orthodox, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal. And the program was so full – with a diversity of opportunities to experience and encounter the global church though praying together and small group Bible study; through major presentations on the Assembly theme (“God of life, lead us to justice and peace”); and, through ecumenical conversations, workshops, and exhibits. And there were also business sessions that not only dealt with the usual “business” of such gatherings in electing the leadership for the coming years and adopting program guidelines for the future, but also in approving several major documents on themes related to the ecumenical movement (unity, mission, and just peace) and ten “statements” addressing specific public issues ranging from peace and reunification of the Korean Pennsula, to an affirmation of the presence and witness of Christians in the Middle East, to “minutes” on climate change, indigenous peoples, and the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
How does one report on such an event – such an “ecumenical feast” – that brought together both the amazing beauty and the difficult challenges of the global Christian community?
In this report I will be offering brief reflections (samplings) from the Busan Assembly. [For the full texts of the addresses, reports, statements and resources, go to http://wcc2013.info/en/resources/documents.]
Prayer marked the beginning and end of each day. Gathering in a large “worship hall,” these times of prayer provided the opportunity to be united in faith and to share liturgical and confessional gifts. In one of the daily morning services, we were called to prayer by the sounding of traditional drums of Korea as we were invited “to listen to the heartbeat of the people; listen to the heartbeat of the earth.” Prayer grounded each day in the themes of “life, justice and peace.”
Bible Study in “home groups” that brought together 20 or so persons from a diversity of confessional backgrounds and different nations focused on moments in biblical history where life was threatened, yet justice and peace prevailed. Many participants in the Assembly found Bible study to be the most significant element of the whole event as they were able in small groups both to share stories of their own faith and also to learn how other Christians read the same texts in very different ways and with different understandings that reflected their own culture and life-situation.
Greetings were offered by major leaders in the global church (including a greeting from Pope Francis, the World Evangelical Alliance, and the Pentecostal World Fellowship); from other religions; and, from the United Nations and the government of South Korea. In his greeting to the Assembly, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, named that “when we look to God, our eyes go out to God’s people and to God’s world.” And in a greeting that brought sustained applause from the Assembly participants (something that did not happen often in Busan), Rabbi David Sandmel from International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations stated, “Today, in many parts of the worlds, Jews and Christians now live in harmony. While we disagree about whether the Messiah is to come or come again, we are, in the felicitous phrase of the Christian theologian Clark Williamson, ‘partners in waiting.’ Until that day, we can and must work together to alleviate suffering, promote justice and repair our world for the reign of God.”
Theme Plenaries offered major presentations on the issues that stand at the heart of the ecumenical movement today – unity, mission, justice and peace – not as separate agendas or competing programs, but as interwoven threads of God’s calling to all churches and all peoples to pursue a pilgrimage of life, justice and peace-making not only for the healing of the divisions within the church, but for the healing of the world’s brokenness.
During the opening plenary devoted to the overall theme of the Assembly, Bishop Duleep de Chickera of the Anglican Church of Sri Lanka, delivered what I found to be the most significant and challenging address of the whole Assembly when he spoke about the “Character of Christian Community,” declaring, “The harsh realities of our world and our communion in the God of Life urge us to endorse our Assembly theme as a timely prophetic petition… Today’s enemy is unimaginably sophisticated… Market forces and military forces are kindred spirits. The catch words are security and development; but only for those with deadly armaments and questionable wealth.” (http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/assembly/2013-busan/plenary-presentations/god-of-life-lead-us-to-justice-and-peace)
Assembly Message: The Message adopted by the Busan Assembly issued an invitation to all churches and all Christians to join “the pilgrimage to justice and peace” as the focus for the ecumenical journey in the coming years. Echoing the words of the first WCC Assembly in Amsterdam that declared, “We intend to stay together,” this Assembly affirmed that “We intend to move together,” concluding with these words: “May the churches be communities of healing and compassion, and may we seed the Good News so that justice will grow and God’s deep peace rest on the world.” (http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/assembly/2013-busan/adopted-documents-statements/message-of-the-wcc-10th-assembly)
A Celebration of the Lord’s Supper: A personal highlight for me as a Disciples of Christ came during a mid-day service on the stage of the “worship hall” in the convention center where leadership of the Disciples and Reformed world communions hosted a celebration of the Lord’s Supper for all Assembly attendees – something that is not (yet) possible for the WCC Assembly as a whole. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the US and Canada, delivered the sermon, and Setri Nyomi, General Secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, presided at the Table.
In my “Call to Worship” during that celebration, I shared, “This is not a celebration of the Lord’s Supper for the Disciples and Reformed. This is a celebration of the one church gathered around Christ and responding to his gift of oneness and unity for all.” Sharon Watkins in her homily echoed that affirmation as she noted that “Here at this place we are so aware of the dance of ecumenical life. We are here celebrating the unity that we already have in Jesus Christ. And yet, there is a reality of the broken body. Some eat, others don’t – whether it is this Table, or at other tables out there… We experience the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’: the unity already given by God in Jesus Christ, and the ‘not yet’ of lived, visible oneness within the church.”
Concluding observation: A comment by David Thompson, a member of the United Reformed Church in the UK and the representative of the Disciples Ecumenical Consultative Council (DECC) to the 10th Assembly, captured what I believe is a central learning from Busan: “The Assembly is finally about people, not the program.” The “feast” is finally not about the food — but about the people, and the fellowship, and their recognition of the One who invited them to the banquet and who sustains them in their journey. And what a rich, diverse, and committed people of God who had gathered in Busan to join the pilgrimage to God’s justice and God’s peace to a broken and divided world!
December 1, 2013