Korean churches emerging in the ecumenical movement

A report from the 2013 World Council of Churches

by Christian T. Collins Winn

In November 2013, I attended the Tenth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea. In keeping with longstanding themes, the gathering was marked by reflections on ecclesiology and mission. This was evident in the responses by member and non-member Churches to the convergence document The Church: Towards a Common Vision (2012), and in the reflections on the 2012 WCC statement Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes (a document marked by dialogue with world Pentecostalism, the Roman Catholic Church, and the World Evangelical Alliance). There was much to consider in regard to the common life of the church in increasingly pluralistic contexts, the latter of which is especially important for Asian Christian communities. There was also some controversy over a speech given by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, of the Moscow Patriarchate. In an address delivered on Friday, November 1, 2013, Hilarion noted that the ecumenical movement faced a serious crisis if it could not forge a common witness around issues like the sanctity of life, and the traditional understanding of marriage: “Are we able to bear this witness if we are so deeply divided in questions of moral teaching, which are as important for salvation as dogma?” The speech drew both praise and protest from the delegates, showing how diverse and divided the world Christian family is in regard to these issues.

One of the more interesting stories was the participation of the Korean churches in the event. It is fair to say that the Assembly marked a kind of “coming out party” for the significance of Korean Christianity for the world Christian movement. Without its hospitality, organizational work, and financial contribution the Assembly would not have taken place. A significant dimension of this engagement, however, has been the inclusion of more conservative Korean Christian churches. No doubt, there were certainly groups who chose not to attend. And there were often a handful of protestors demonstrating outside the Assembly — accusing the WCC of perpetuating a single liberal theology, a claim that cannot be substantiated in light of the documents described above, nor in light of the vigorous debates that occurred over theological and ethical issues in the business plenary sessions where delegates received committee reports, etc. However, these groups must be considered an anomaly even among conservative Korean churches. This is because of the participation of churches like The Yoido Full Gospel Church, with its one million members, and the Myungsung Presbyterian Church, the largest Presbyterian Church in the world. These churches, both their leadership and members, have been very involved in the Assembly and in the politics of the ecumenical movement recently. The senior pastor of Yoido, Pastor Young-hoon Lee, has been intimately involved in the ecumenical movement in South Korea, even serving as the chairman of the National Council of Churches of Korea.

This is a startling change, given the longstanding suspicion towards the ecumenical movement among more conservative Christian groups, including Pentecostals and evangelicals. It should, however, be interpreted as a change as much among Pentecostal and evangelical groups as within the WCC itself. It is to be presumed that most North American evangelicals will simply not know what to think about this, since many of the key institutions of American evangelicalism were originally founded over-against the WCC, including Christianity Today, the NAE, and the WEA. In fact, in preparation for my attending this event, most people had no idea it was even happening (a fact that probably says as much about general antipathy towards the WCC as about widespread lack of knowledge of international affairs among many in the USA). That changes are occurring on both sides should be seen as the proper fruit of ecumenical work, wherein different groups engage one another to find out what they really have in common and what really divides them. The new developments in world Christianity and the ecumenical movement—which are really not all that new anymore—should hopefully spell the end of the tired liberal/conservative binary whose explanatory power was always suspect, because now there are groups engaging one another in new ways and finding that they have more in common than not, but also recognizing that the visible unity they seek still awaits us in the future.

When the Tenth Assembly came to close, participants left energized and recommitted to the ecumenical vision, but they also recognized that the meaning and future of the ecumenical movement as a whole was up for grabs. The sense of crisis was palpable. Shrinking budgets; bureaucratic bloat; disillusionment with the vision of “unity”; divisions over the competing ecumenisms embodied in faith and order and life and work; fear of change; these are the all major challenges to the movement. The title of Michael Kinnamon’s recent book, Can a Renewal Movement be Renewed?, captures this well. Even greater is the fact that the agenda that has driven the WCC for much of its history has often been over-determined by the ecclesial questions of the churches of Europe, when the future of the movement — in terms of both energy and resources — is more likely to come from much younger churches, notably from world Pentecostalism and those shaped by the dynamics of revivalism. This is one reason why the emergence of the Korean churches is so important.

Notwithstanding the challenges that the WCC faces, I continue think that it and similar institutions (i.e., the NCCC, etc.), remain relevant because they foster an encounter that is practically matchless. It is a truism to say that the WCC does not encompass the ecumenical movement. The vigorous bilateral dialogues between churches and the “local ecumenism” that happens every day in places all over the world are certainly evidence that ecumenism as a movement is far from dead. But the WCC, especially in the form of the Assembly, still performs a valuable service. As one who has now participated in two Assembly meetings, as well as serving on the Faith and Order Convening table of the NCCC, I can say that these organizations are genuinely irreplaceable. For the all the frustration or disillusionment that may attend such gatherings, nevertheless, it is hard to deny the singularity of a gathering like the recent Assembly in Busan. At such places, mutually enriching and rewarding encounters between Christians from so many different places and ecclesial communities are made possible. New relationships are formed, new ventures in ministry are inaugurated, and a new synergy for witness to the gospel is fostered. All of this is crystalized in the Assembly’s common worship.

Worship and bible study always form a central aspect of an Assembly experience, and for me, the highlight is the saying of the Lord’s Prayer. Whether the sermon or songs are in German, Korean or Igbo, the Lord’s Prayer is always said by each person in their own language. Praying and hearing the words of the Lord’s Prayer in a myriad of different languages always strikes me as a parabolic foretaste of the kingdom, where “every tribe and language and people” will be gathered in common worship. If it is true that the WCC has outlived its usefulness, let us hope that its witness to the radically diverse Christian family will not be lost as well.

Christian T. Collins Winn is Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Bethel University in St. Paul, and served as Pietisten’s press correspondent at the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea in 2013.

See all articles by Christian T. Collins Winn