A tram ride with the head of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, lunch with a Bishop from South India, afternoon conversations with two indigenous leaders from New Zealand and Panama and a glass of wine with your new Greek Orthodox friend in the evening. Where could such a thing occur in the divided and polarised world that seems on the verge of a new crisis every other day? At the 11th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Karlsruhe Germany, for a start.
During the 9 days, I witnessed a unique and joyous gathering of Christians from every corner of the globe coming together in a spirit of unity and reconciliation. Some have cynically called WCC gatherings mostly political but I was struck by a meeting rooted in worship, prayer, bible study and mutual respect. The worship was joyful with songs from Jamaica to South Africa, Japan to Sweden. Sermons were preached in Arabic, and the Gospels read in French and Mandarin.
There was of course work to do wrestling with the most pressing concerns of the church across the globe. In plenaries each morning we heard from indigenous leaders living at the sharp end of the climate emergency quite how much this affected them. We listened to Orthodox believers from Egypt, Syria and beyond as to how sanctions and persecution were impacting their communities.
I was struck by the many cries from youth participants at the assembly to be taken more seriously by both their member churches and the WCC at large. The ecumenical movement has no viable future if we are not listening to and engaging youth people from across our confessions who often find it easier to transcend denominational barriers than older generations.
Throughout the Assembly thousands took part in ecumenical conversations which were set up to help shape the work of the WCC commissions in the next seven years and before there is another general assembly in 2029. I was honoured to take part in four days of conversations around the theme Mission Reimagined: Transforming Disciples, Challenging Empire. Together we authored a document that will shape the work of WCC in the years ahead.
One of my reflections from this gathering is that we must remember that whatever our local church setting looks like we are connected through the love of Christ to billions of other Christians across the world. We can rejoice that the church is alive, vibrant and learning to work together more readily. Some have felt that the ecumenical movement is lacklustre but I was encouraged by the real honesty of our CTE President, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the penultimate morning who said, “after nine-and-a-half years in this role I feel a deep sense of failure and shame on my efforts in the ecumenical area and before you, I want to commit myself now and with you, I pray and hope to seek afresh the future unity to which we are all called.”
In light of those words may we all, regardless of our denomination, race, gender or status in life work together towards that same unity.
Rev Dr Ben Aldous represented Churches Together in England at the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Karlsruhe, Germany.