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LWF General Secretary: Working toward a Strong Communion Involves Taking Risks

Assembly Asked to Consider Proposal for Discussion on Name Change

WINNIPEG, Canada, 22 July 2003The strength and unity of member churches of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) lies in their ability to enhance common efforts and mutual accountability toward deepening the experience of communion without undermining each other’s autonomy. But this sharing in each other’s joys and sufferings in very concrete ways "also means taking risks," LWF General Secretary, Rev. Dr Ishmael Noko told participants in the organization’s Tenth Assembly that began in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, July 21.

His report to the Assembly highlighted significant steps taken by the LWF and its member churches since the 1997 Ninth Assembly and the challenges posed by ongoing and emerging global concerns.

"We were mindful of the fact that the world is a wounded world," Noko said of the decision two years ago to have "For the Healing of the World," as the Assembly theme. Global developments and their implications since then, including the 11 September 2001 terrorism attack on the United States, the Iraq war, as well as new and re-awakening civil conflicts in many parts of the world only confirm the significance and timeliness of the theme, Noko said. He urged the Assembly participants to bear in mind that the international environment in which the LWF churches live and witness has been fundamentally re-shaped by such events.

Since the 1997 Ninth Assembly, the churches have witnessed a further intensification of the process of globalization and its positive and negative impact, Noko noted. On the one hand, its unifying trends including new mechanisms for globalized justice such as the International Criminal Court and increasing prominence in international affairs are cause for hope. On the other, the increasing inequality of wealth and well-being visible in the tragic conditions of the poor, accentuate marginalization among the world’s populations.

"An estimated 80 percent of people in the world have never heard a dial tone, let alone sent an e-mail or surfed the Web. [Around] 2.8 billion people, close to half the population of the planet and almost all of them in developing countries, live on less than two dollars a day," Noko noted. He continued: "The devastation resulting from poverty is much more than the absence of material goods." It also inflicts "spiritual wounds that undermine one’s self-esteem, self-worth and confidence." It attacks the God-given dignity and equal value of every human being, and "therefore undermines any notion of community and communion," he told the Assembly participants.

Churches must respond to the call for the healing the world’s wounds "because they must bear the marks of Christ’s healing sacrifice." Life in communion, he noted, is not based on a partial commitment of Christ, but on the total "emptying of himself for our sake."

Other highlights of the General Secretary Noko’s Report to the Tenth Assembly included the role of the LWF in mission and diaconia, working to realize the vision of an inclusive communion of women and men, and approaching complex social and ethical issues including the question of homosexuality. It also focused on the episcopal ministry in the church, engagement in global and regional aspects of inter-faith relations, indigenous issues, conditions of work in the churches and the issue of HIV/AIDS.

Noko noted the importance of the altar and pulpit fellowship shared by the LWF member churches, without which the organization could be like a civil agency and not a communion of churches. The LWF’s administrative structures such as the Assembly, Council, National Committees and Secretariat although important, are not in themselves "communion." These setups are an integral part of the communion’s life, enabling it to function properly and meaningfully as an international body and a spiritual fellowship," he emphasized.

"Communion is communication," the general secretary noted. He reported that the Secretariat is seeking to respond to the current challenges in this area by engaging member churches and partner organizations more actively in the development of communication strategies. The LWF news service, Lutheran World Information serves to maintain a broad coverage of developments related to the life of the Lutheran churches globally. The Ecumenical News International, in which the LWF is a partner, provides media around the world with important news related to the activities of churches and church-related organizations.

The general secretary noted that since the inception of the LWF in 1947, its member churches have prayed for a fellowship that is inclusive of all Lutherans in the world, yet over three million Lutherans remain outside the LWF fellowship. He conveyed his gratitude for the collaboration in diaconal activities between the LWF and its member churches and the Lutheran communities outside the LWF, but underlined that the yearning for a fully inclusive Lutheran communion remains unfulfilled.

The lack of a united Lutheran witness undermines the integrity of a common mission and reduces the vitality of ecumenical engagement, Noko said. "Should not the common affirmation of the Lutheran confessional writings be sufficient for church fellowship among the Lutheran churches? What are the real reasons that keep Lutherans apart?" he asked the Assembly participants who include delegates from the LWF member churches worldwide.

He informed the Assembly about the process of consultation between representatives of the International Lutheran Council (ILC) and the LWF, noting that common ground as well as differences are being identified in the area of theology especially confessional and ecumenical issues. He hoped that the conversations with the ILC - representing most of the Lutherans still outside the LWF fellowship - would enhance coordination, communication and theological discussion.

Noko also made reference to the LWF’s commitment to ecumenism globally and described the ecumenical movement as a "deeply significant healing process in the present time." The October 1999 signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification could not have been achieved without the instrumentality of the LWF, he said. The vast majority of all bilateral communion agreements that have been established around the world involve Lutheran churches, Noko said. But he pointed out that new efforts must be made to ensure that these processes can take place among churches in the developing countries.

The general secretary mentioned the ongoing international dialogue commissions with the Orthodox churches and Roman Catholic Church. Conversations between the LWF and the Seventh-day Adventists have been carried out and the report and recommendations from this process are being studied by the member churches. Also, two international working groups, with the Anglican Communion and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, have both submitted their reports. The LWF Council has received these reports, and upon its request they have been sent to the member churches for study and response.

He spoke also of the increasing ecumenical importance of the collaboration between the Christian world communions (CWCs) such as the LWF, and the World Council of Churches (WCC). A resolution of the 1998 WCC Eighth Assembly in Harare, calling for closer cooperation between the council and CWCs has been followed up both by the LWF Council and WCC Central Committee. The WCC provides a unique framework for the deliberation of fundamental ecumenical issues, Noko said, and urged the LWF and its member churches to play an active and supportive part in the current discussions on the nature and purpose of the WCC. He expressed the need to explore further how the WCC and LWF could build on their existing cooperation, for example through their jointly-founded emergency agency, Action by Churches Together (ACT) International.

The self-understanding of the organization’s name has been discussed in previous governing bodies of the LWF, including at the 1997 Ninth Assembly. In his report today, the general secretary asked the Assembly to consider initiating a discussion process on changing the organization’s current name to "The Lutheran World Federation – A Communion of Churches," keeping the present acronym "LWF." The suggestion was endorsed by the Council at its September 2002 meeting.

In requesting the LWF’s highest decision-making body to consider formalizing such a discussion, Noko explained that the issue of an alternative name was based on the shared opinion that the "federal concept no longer expresses adequately the ecclesial nature of the fellowship that exists between the member churches." He confirmed that the name being proposed would be consistent with the existing constitutional description of the Federation.

The Tenth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is taking place 21-31 July 2003 in Winnipeg, Canada, under the theme "For the Healing of the World." It is being hosted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

There are around 820 men, women and youth participants in the Tenth Assembly including 380 delegates from the 133 churches with full membership and three associate members. The Assembly is the highest decision-making body of the LWF, and meets normally every six years. Between Assemblies, the LWF is governed by its Council that meets annually, and by its Executive Committee.

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