The ins and outs

The ins and outs of how business is processed at this WCC Assembly bothers me. Inscrutable, sometimes inaccessible to the ordinary participant, often incoherent in both meanings of lacking coherence and lacking in communication.

I woke up this morning realizing I have to write about this aspect of the assembly in order to be truthful, but I also don’t want to be unfair. I’m a first-timer at WCC Assemblies and fortunately met up with a seasoned Quaker colleague over breakfast. She helped me put things in perspective having years of ecumenical experience and having been to previous assemblies

From her point of view, things are going far better here at Busan than they have in the past!

“Inscrutable” has been an epithet used against Asia by westerners who, not understanding the cultural differences, find themselves unable to interpret this part of the world. I remembered this history to the word as I pondered what my Quaker colleague had said.

Perhaps I have to take a step back and reconsider my first responses to how this Assembly works.

For example, holding elections in closed session without allowing observers or media in the room seems undemocratic to me.

But it may allow for a level of candor between delegates that is impossible when they are under scrutiny. I hope it allows the WCC to more effectively work at the needed balance of Christian traditions, gender, age, areas of the world, ethnicities, and points of view that is desired in the leadership of the organization.

In another example, there are a few committees appointed in advance of the assembly that seem to exert most of the power in the decision making process. There a number of committees meeting during the assembly, each of which has a separate area of work. This is where documents are vetted and revised, suggestions from the delegate body are received or rejected, with little chance for further amendment or revision once a document comes to the delegate body for decision. The two with the most power are the Public Issues Committee which controls what issues end up addressed in the assembly’s statements, and the Program Guidelines Committee whose job is to set the agenda for future program work of the WCC staff.

But the committee process allows for a lively give and take, albeit with much of it still done behind closed doors. Any delegate can give suggestions in writing to the committees, and churches can create coalitions to support each other’s suggestions and points of view. The committees are large groups of people, with 40-plus people in the Public Issues Committee. The chair of that committee acknowledge to the delegate body their own frustration in having so many issues put before them (they received 22 suggestions for public issues statements) and being forced to choose between them because only so much can be done with the time and resources available.

Another example is the way consensus decision making works here. Perhaps because of the size of the hall, perhaps because of the lighting, moderators–there are separate moderators for each item of business–are not seeing or acknowledging how often delegates raise cards to signal disagreement.

But maybe, as I heard some peace church people say the other day, this is just part of the way the ecumenical animal grows and matures together. Different parts of the body of Christ move at different speeds, and some parts will always be ahead of other parts. Some parts of the body will always have to wait for other parts to catch up.

The point where I still have concerns is the way documents, and sometimes key sections of documents, appear and disappear without explanation. It’s all part of the process, but what is that process, how does it work, and who is making the decisions?

For example, the message from the peace convocation held in Jamaica, which was touted as the culmination of the whole Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV), is playing no role in this assembly. Instead, an entirely new just peace document appeared on the agenda, apparently pulled together only in the last couple of months.

Another example: a wonderfully egalitarian process in the ecumenical conversation group I sat in on, on the topic of “human security,” culminated in a really good one-page summary of the concerns and affirmations voiced by the group. It was put up on a large screen during the last of the group’s four daily meetings and every person present had a chance to suggest changes and revisions that were accepted by the facilitator.

But when I looked eagerly for that summary in yesterday’s handout of outcomes of the ecumenical conversations, portions of the “human security” summary had disappeared. Points that might be considered more controversial or more difficult to deal with ecumenically were no longer there.

What does this say about the ecumenical movement? My Quaker colleague asserts that we are moving in the right direction. What is inscrutable now will become inextricably woven together.

I have to say, amen. But add my own prayer: God, make this body into your Kingdom reality–sooner rather than later!

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