ROME — When Pope Francis arrives in Geneva on Thursday to mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the World Council of Churches (WCC), he will be following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, who also visited WCC headquarters to deliver a papal stamp of approval to one of the most significant ecumenical efforts in Christian history.
In the United States, despite decades of membership in the WCC, many mainline Protestants are unaware of their denomination’s affiliation with it. For that reason, when Francis lands in Switzerland later this week, some of his biggest cheerleaders will be American Christian leaders hoping that his presence will shine a new spotlight on the ongoing role the WCC has to play both at home and on the world stage.
According to Rebecca Todd Peters, a professor of Religious Studies at Elon University in North Carolina, over the past 50 years, there’s been a decline in the average knowledge that most Protestant churchgoers have in awareness of the work of the WCC.
“50 years ago — even 30 years ago — there were much closer ties between denominations and the work of the Council,” Todd Peters told Crux. “More pastors and more churches and people, in general, knew what the World Council was and what it was doing.”
For Todd Peters, however, that shift is the result of a decline in their overall influence from a time when prominent congregations such as the United Methodist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian churches served as critical forces for social change and were pillars of both the American and global landscapes.
“As denominations and their membership dwindled, more of their attention has been focused elsewhere,” she said.
“I don’t think that’s about relevance because the work they’re doing is as important,” she quickly added, noting that in the 28 years she’s been involved in the WCC — most recently as a representative of the Presbyterian Church USA to the Council’s Faith and Order Commission — the work remains all the more essential, especially in an effort to be in solidarity with Christian churches in the developing world.
“What I have been saying to my denomination and in other circles in which I’m in conversation with … has been to help church leaders think about and remember the importance that the WCC is playing globally, particularly in third world countries and the global South, because those churches and denominations are often struggling and the support and the work of the Council and its connections is extraordinarily important for the support and development of the churches in those countries,” Todd Peters told Crux.
In thinking about challenges in which she believes the world of the WCC has been critical, she points to issues related to poverty and racism as front-burner issues.
Those same issues were also identified by Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, president of the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Christian Unity and Inter-religious Concerns, who spoke with Crux from Geneva where she has already arrived for events related to Francis’s upcoming meeting.
In addition to the benefit of providing links to countries around the globe, Swenson said that the WCC has also helped churches in the United States and Canada collaborate more effectively together — and has been of significant influence in “the unfinished work related to America’s original sin of racism.”
“One of the most dramatic pieces that we’re experiencing now has been their partnership with us as the churches in the U.S. are in an effort to help end racism.”
“They got this started for us,” she added, noting that WCC representatives from around the globe traveled to Charleston, South Carolina to stand together after a white supremacist gunman killed 9 African Americans in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in hopes of starting a race riot.
She also told Crux that WCC representatives have been critical in aiding Christians in North Korea — and in reminding Christians outside of the country not to forget their presence.
For Swenson, she’s “happy to be a part of living fellowship,” of the WCC and believes that the visit of Francis is a signal of “profound leadership.”
“He has touched the hearts of people around the world,” said Swenson, “and all of us claim him as a pope. We all have a sense of love for him and the way in which he’s modeled the life of St Francis.”
In her leadership post in both the United Methodist Church and the WCC, Swenson has been involved in two past papal encounters, when Pope John Paul II visited Denver, Colorado for World Youth Day in 1993 and a delegation to visit Pope Benedict XVI, where she recalls giving him a Methodist book outlining three Christian principles of “do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.”
In thinking about Francis’s upcoming visit, she said she’s been thinking a lot about that book she gave Benedict and how much she believes Francis would resonate with those same principles.
She also believes that in his visit Francis will issue a plea for unity and lived fellowship together, but with the message to Christians that “we’re not there yet.”
For Todd Peters, Francis’s time at the WCC will serve as a reminder of the number of issues Christians have in common, despite having different structures of leadership.
“These questions of what it means to be the people of God and what it means to worship together and to stay together, in the midst of disagreement, is something the church has always struggled with and something we’re struggling with today,” she told Crux.
“The structures shape how you navigate differences,” she added.
Yet for Francis, institutional structures are a secondary matter for the task of unity. He believes in leading first with relationships and then working through the logistics of structural division.
As Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told Crux, “I think what Francis does is focus on the content of the Gospel rather than on the structure of the religious community.”
“Francis is saying ‘isn’t it the voice of the Gospel that unites us? Isn’t is the challenges of the Gospel that we all share?’” said Wuerl.
“Obviously, he recognizes the institutional need, but he looks at it not as corporate bodies sitting down to work out doctrinal issues, but as eager disciples coming together to address ‘how do we do this together?’”
Crux’s Christopher White will be traveling on the papal plane with Pope Francis on Thursday. Follow him on Twitter @CWWhite212 for continued updates and stay tuned at CruxNow.com