RELIGION

The politics of Protestantism

Malcolm Gray August 22 1983
RELIGION

The politics of Protestantism

Malcolm Gray August 22 1983

The politics of Protestantism

RELIGION

Malcolm Gray

The Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches of the world were unable to reach agreement on theological issues during their 18-day assembly, which ended in Vancouver last week. But they did achieve a remarkable unity on one of the most pressing social and political issues of modern time—the production and deployment of nuclear weapons. The Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches declared: “We believe that Christians should give witness to their unwillingness to participate in any conflict involving weapons of mass destruction of indiscriminate effect.” In that, the WCC staked out the strongest antinuclear position ever taken by such a major Christian organization. Almost without dissent, the 930 representatives of roughly 440 million Christians worldwide urged their member churches to consider helping antinuclear protesters who engage in civil disobedience. Declaring the use of nuclear weapons to be “a crime against humanity,” they supported a freeze on weapons development and testing, opposed the scheduled deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe and called for major reductions in Soviet intermediaterange missiles.

In all, the disarmament proposals constituted possibly the most significant political message ever issued by the 35-yearold WCC, and it signalled the 300 member churches’ intention to become more deeply

involved in the debate over the use of nuclear weapons. But on other secular issues, the tension of international political differences clearly hampered the WCC from taking a strong position. Although council delegates harshly condemned U.S. policies in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, they watered down a call for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan after two Russian Orthodox bishops protested vigorously.

Orthodox delegates, representing roughly a quarter of the council’s membership, were in fact at the centre of many of the controversies that surfaced during the assembly. Most significant was the continuing opposition of Eastern European churches to the ordination of women priests, a position shared by the Roman Catholic Church, which sent observers to the assembly. The polarization over that issue led WCC General Secretary Philip Potter to resort to a military metaphor while wondering if Christians would ever achieve the long-cherished dream of unity. “We used to hurl missiles at each other,” said the Caribbean theologian. “Now we have drawn closer again and we are at the point of close combat with each other in the best sense. We know each other, we know what the issues are, and now comes the problem and the difficulty—what do we do next?” One Roman Catholic observer, Rev. Thomas Stransky from Oak Ridge, N.J., was even more blunt. “We have decided not to spend any more energy on trying to get union now,” he said.

But even with the ecumenical movement practically stalled, the WCC’s involvement in more worldly affairs—such as supplying aid to Third World guerrilla movements—guarantees that it will continue to arouse controversy. WCC colleagues warmly welcomed black Bishop Desmond Tutu, moderator of the South African Council of Churches, when he finally arrived after receiving last-minute permission from the Pretoria government to attend the assembly. Tutu was in time to hear the council condemn apartheid and vow to continue helping insurgents.

Still, the WCC was less at ease criticizing Communist repression in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. Potter admitted that to do so would cause problems for Christians worshipping under Communist rule. But that argument was seen by fundamentalist Christians such as Ulster Protestant leader Ian Paisley and South Carolina evangelist Bob Jones as an ecclesiastical double standard. They were not alone. A rally they addressed, condemning the WCC’s financing of liberation movements, attracted 700 people.

With the council’s renewed commitment to action, criticism of the paths chosen by such a loose federation of Christians is certain to continue—from both inside and outside the organization. Said Potter, in a closing pronouncement that promised more controversy to come: “If there is one thing the World Council of Churches will never do, it is to try and dodge issues.”