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World church leader warns against new divisions

The new moderator of the World Council of Churches has warned that Christianity faces new divisions because of doctrinal and ethical differences, and he has urged a recommitment to the goal of full and visible unity among the churches.

"Burning and divisive issues, both doctrinal and ethical, run to some considerable extent internally through many of our churches, resulting in inner tensions, if not in new divisions," said the Rev. Walter Altmann in his first report on 30 August to the WCC’s main governing body called the central committee.

"In addition, these tensions run through the ecumenical movement and the WCC," noted Altmann, a Brazilian Lutheran theologian elected in February to head the central committee of the church grouping that brings together more than 340 churches, mostly Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member but cooperates with the WCC in various programmes.

Altmann’s comments follow controversy within the worldwide Anglican Communion about the election of a US bishop who lives in a same-sex relationship and tensions between some WCC members about ethical issues including homosexuality and the ordination of women.

He told journalists he hoped the WCC’s new consensus decision-making procedures would allow an open and respectful dialogue about divisive issues. "No question should be taboo," said Altmann.

In his report, the moderator pointed out that 2010 would mark the 100th anniversary of the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, generally reckoned to mark the beginning of the 20th century search for church unity, and which led to the founding of the WCC in 1948.

"There is no need to recall the many positive achievements in all these areas over the course of these hundred years," Altmann noted. But, he added, "Cynics could well claim that the so- called ‘century of the Church’ or the ‘century of ecumenism’, as many have named the 20th century, has failed."

He noted it was not yet possible for all churches to share in celebrating the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, which commemorates Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before he was put to death.

"We envisage full communion, and it is painful that we have not been able to advance more discernibly towards sharing at the Lord’s Table," said Altmann, a former president of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI). "Ecumenical dialogue and cooperation is not a strategic wrestling with possibilities that we may freely accept or reject."

In his speech on the opening day of the 30 August- 6 September meeting, Altmann said that protagonists in many of the controversies looked to the Bible to support their positions.

"Divergent interpretations of Scripture and of ways to interpret Scripture are at the root of many of our tensions and divisions, if not of most of them," Altmann stated. "We are surrounded by the constant temptation of religious fragmentation on one side, and religious fundamentalism on the other side."

He asked, "Are we ready to resist any temptation to reject one another as ‘unfaithful to scripture’ but, on the contrary, to persevere in trustful dialogue?"

(c) Ecumenical News International