The World Council of Churches (WCC) represents 332 Orthodox, Anglican and
other Protestant denominations, with a total membership of about 400 million Christians.
There are serious internal tensions within the group. Christian Orthodox churches are
distressed at some of the increasingly liberal positions of the WCC. Chief among these are
the eligibility of women for ordination, acceptance of gays and lesbians for ordination,
and acceptance of committed homosexual relationships as equivalent to heterosexual.
They hold an assembly every 7 years, with delegates from all over the world.
In 1998-DEC-3, the Council opened its 8th assembly at the University of Zimbabwe campus in
Harare, Zimbabwe. The homosexual issue is certain to cause great tension at the assembly,
even though it does not officially appear on the agenda. The In Zimbabwe, homosexual
activity can result in a 10 year prison term. Its president, Robert Mugabe, has criticized
any discussion of homosexuality at the meeting. He is a conservative Christian, and said
that gays and lesbians are lower than jungle animals. He has commented: "Will not
God punish us for such practices?" Many Christians in Zimbabwe pressured the
government to cancel the WCC meeting entirely.
Marion Best, is a former moderator of the United Church, and is currently on the WCC
executive committee. "With the strain growing with the WCC between Western
Protestants and the Orthodox churches, as well as between Western church leaders and
African and Asian denominations, Best believes the future of the WCC will be determined in
Sexual Orientation Workshops:
The United Church of Christ in the US and the United Church of Canada
will lead two workshops: one will deal with homosexuality and human rights; the other will
discuss how to educate church members about sexual orientation. The Congregationalist
Church of South Africa and the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa
will be participating in the workshops. Another 10 out of the more than 500 workshops,
will touch on the issue of homosexuality in some way.
Eastern Orthodox Opposition:
Some Eastern Orthodox churches have downgraded their involvement with the 1998 assembly.
Many of the Greek and Russian Orthodox delegates elected to not attend the opening worship
service, presumably as a sign of protest. Some attended but did not take a leadership
role. Two churches have quit the WCC entirely in recent years.
Istanbul's Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is considered the most senior individual in
Eastern Orthodoxy. He issued a letter on 1998-DEC-4, saying that the Council "took
a critical turn'' following the 7th assembly in 1991. He said that member churches
adopted "a series of liberal theological and moral positions." The
positions that he referred to, appear to be the nature of homosexuality, the religious
roles of women, and the position of Christianity with respect to all of the religions of
Rev. Konrad Raiser, the WCC's chief executive officer has recommended that the council
abandon its tradition of deciding matters by majority vote and make decisions by
consensus. Currently, the Eastern Orthodox churches are in a minority position. Decisions
by consensus would effectively give them veto power.
Gay group banned: Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, (GALZ) is a Zimbabwe homosexual support group with
about 300 mostly black members. They applied for permission to participate in the
Padare (meeting place). The Padare was a "forum of 555 events which were held
during the assembly." 4 Permission was denied. Dr
Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the WCC explained that GALZ had not obtained an
endorsement of a local church. Since all the local churches in Zimbabwe are profoundly
homophobic, this requirement was impossible to meet. Although not able to participate as
an independent agency, GALZ was present under the sponsorship of a local human rights
organization. Keith Goddard, program manager of GALZ commented that Zimbabwe is "one
of the most vocally homophobic countries in the world. Our president [Robert Mugabe] is
world famous for his [verbal] gay-bashing...Where is the church - it is supposed to
support the marginalized?...We have made every effort to put our case to the churches [in
Zimbabwe], but we have been steadfastly refused. The [local] churches support the
stereotypes that we are child molesters and criminals...We are bitterly disappointed by
the reaction of the WCC."
On 1998-DEC-10, Dr Raiser said during a press interview that the WCC had applied "certain
pressure" on local churches to initiate discussion on the homosexual issue. He
explained that "the great majority of [local] church leaders refused to discuss
it. They are not yet ready to take up this challenge." The WCC did not press the
matter, fearing a backlash against gays and lesbians. He noted that "We are
leaving Harare but the [local] churches and homosexual groups will stay."
The WCC assembly issued a statement on DEC-10 to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dr. Raiser had wanted the
statement to mention sexual minorities, but the Orthodox churches had refused.
Although the original plan was to confine any mention of homosexuality to a small number
of workshops, some references to sexual orientation was referred to at the main meeting.
Wanda Deifelt, a Lutheran representative from Brazil, stated that all people "reflect
the divine image independent of class, race, caste, gender, age or sexual preference.''
This was the first mention of the homosexual issue at the 1998 meeting.3
A women's festival was held prior to the assembly. They have sent a message to the
meeting which refers positively to "human sexuality in all its diversity."
Douglas Todd, "Churches Pledge to Make Gays an Issue at World Council Assembly,"
Religion News Service, 1998-NOV-12.
CWNews.com, "World Council of Churches Opens Meeting Amid Controversy,"
Richard Ostling, "World Council of Churches Argues," Associated
Edmund Doogue, "Gay Groups Call for Churches to Put Pressure on 'Homophobic'
Zimbabwe," PCUSA news, 1998-DEC-16.
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