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70TH anniversary of the WCC. Welby: for an ecclesiology “of an open border”, closed frontiers are “a failure”

Ceremony in Geneva marking the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches. It was August 23rd 1948 and this story coincides with the birth and development of the ecumenical movement. Today the WCC counts 349 member Churches belonging to all major Christian traditions, most of which are Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, opened the celebrations

“We are one with differences – rather than we are many seeking what it is to be one.” “Ecclesiology of an open border” is the “ecumenical” challenge that third millennium Churches are called to face. It was outlined by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, who on February 16 opened in Geneva a set of meetings and ceremonies promoted by the World Council of Churches to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Constitution (Amsterdam, August 23, 1948). This anniversary today is an opportunity offered to the entire ecumenical movement to jointly retrace the steps made in the past, take stock of the achievements and extend a glance to the future to identify the ways in which the Churches, together and only together, intend to address a world that “cries for peace and reconciliation.”

“Theological dialogue has borne great fruit”, said Archbishop Welby in the opening remarks of his Lectio at the WCC. During the twentieth century we witnessed major theological and doctrinal rapprochement between the Churches. Almost 25 years have gone by since the then WCC Secretary General spoke of an “ecumenical winter.” But it was a winter – pointed out Archbishop Welby in Geneva – that delivered important fruits: theological agreements that continue marking the pace of the Church’s progress towards unity. This wealth of ecumenical achievements led Cardinal Walter Kasper to write a book titled ‘Harvesting the Fruits’.There may have been an ecumenical winter, but it was a winter in which much fruit was harvested”, said the Anglican Archbishop.

Many, if not all divisions in the Church were over matters of principle: be it doctrine, questions of power and authority, or territorial disputes. In these disputes the barriers come up and the territory is demarcated, they define identities: “you believe this, I believe that; you do this, I do that; you are wrong, I am right”, Welby said. While on the one side “frontiers imply difference”, on the other – the Anglican Archbishop pointed out – “They say to us that on the other side of the frontier is the ‘other’ – the other person, the other culture, the other race, the other nation.” It’s a matter of understanding how the Churches want to live out the “frontier”: as closed spaces or as open borders. Open borders – Welby underlined- allow the other to be part of ourselves. They permit movement and transfer, exhibiting not division but diversity. In their openness, they invite encounter.”

The Archbishop is aware that implementing the practice of “open borders” today is not an easy task. “For five hundred years we have got used to frontiers. They have become part of the landscape. They are normal.” But it is not normal. “It is deceiving” and “a failure.”

Looking ahead, Welby outlined an “ecumenism of action theologically underpinned.” In this respect he recalled the joint Declaration signed with Pope Francis on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the meeting of Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsay. “By action we did not mean that Protestant vice of running around constantly trying to do things” the Archbishop explained. “It means rather an ecumenism which is seen in the visible solidarity of Christians in the cause of mission, of the living out of the Gospel among the poor and the struggling, and evangelism.

The ecumenism of action says that “faced with evil, we come together in love and show that we are one.” As the preacher to the papal household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, said in a sermon for the opening of the General Synod of the Church of England in 2015, in front of the Queen in Westminster Abbey. ““When they kill us they do not ask whether we are Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostal, or Anglican. They ask if we are Christians.”

“The world is crying out in need”, Welby went on. The appeal to all churches made by Pope Francis in the Angelus prayer to come together next February 23rd for a Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace, especially for the people of South Sudan and of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was echoed by Christian Churches. In a letter to WCC member churches, Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General secretary of the WCC, invited to join Pope Francis’s initiative. The first adhesions came from the Anglican Churches in South Sudan. “There is need to pray for South Sudan”, the Anglican bishops wrote in a message, “especially at this time where the leaders of South Sudanese are in Addis Ababa for peace talks. Pray that the Almighty God can turn their hearts from waging war to peace.”

In the first days of his Pontificate Pope Francis called upon the clergy, the shepherds, to live with the “odour of the sheep” to go out beyond the sheepfold (the frontier) and seek those who were left out.  “The task is great”, Archbishop Welby said in his concluding remarks. “But is imperative that the churches work together to seek out the lost wherever they may be.” To find that “the flock is one flock, with one shepherd, the Good Shepherd himself.”

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