World Communion of Reformed Churches

By Iain McLarty, former NYA Moderator and a Church of Scotland Delegate to the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) Uniting General Council (UGC) in 2010

It’s almost exactly a year since I was in Grand Rapids in the USA, taking part in a conference in which reformed Christians from around the world gathered together for a conference which would see two ecumenical organisations, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) become one. If that sounds a bit dull then when you realise that the new body represents over 80 million Reformed Christians around the world then the gathering takes on a bit more significance! It seems like almost no time since we were there and despite not having seen most of the people I met there since many of them are still on my mind and I consider relationships formed there to have been incredibly important. I thought it would be good to share some thoughts which I put together earlier in the year about how young people were involved in the conference.

Children holding up WCRC logo

Children holding up WCRC logo

As well as having Youth Delegates to the General Council there was also the Reformed Youth Forum (RYF) held for three days beforehand. I’m going to base my discussion on the message from the Reformed Youth Forum, a statement which was put together from the young people there based on our time together. This is in five parts: an introduction followed by sections entitled “Who we are”, “Our challenges”, “Our offering”, and “Our calling”. As well as telling you a bit about what we did in Grand Rapids, I would also like to use this message to dig a little deeper into some of the themes which came out of our discussions and can help our understanding of young people in the church and the ecumenical movement today and so I have highlighted some phrases in there which I feel are particularly important. Here’s a video made by Jessie, one of the American delegates. It will give you a chance to see some of the amazing breadth of people who were there and hear them read the message.

The Reformed Youth Forum met June 14-17, 2010 at Grand Rapids Michigan bringing together youth aged 18-30 from member churches of WARC and REC. We met under the theme “Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace” (Eph 4:3). We represent the diverse communities of Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Europe, North and South America. We are grateful to God and to our churches for the opportunities to worship, to learn and to mutually share our experiences and stories. We are inspired to each live the message of Ephesians.

The Reformed Youth Forum met before the main WCRC Council and shared it’s theme, “Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace”. The delegates to the Youth Forum were a mixture of Youth Delegates and stewards to the General Council along with some extra delegates from North America and the Caribbean. It proved to be an important space for networking and allowing young people who would go on to attend the General Council a chance to form a support group outside their own church delegation. This proved invaluable over the two weeks that we were there and I found it a huge contrast to other conferences where I didn’t meet the other young people as a group until the last couple of days.

Another important element was the “mutual sharing of experiences and stories”. The Youth Forum had been planned in such a way that most of the sessions were planned by delegates as we went along, including worship and discussions. This really gave us a feeling of community and of ownership of the Forum, allowing us to feel that we were sharing equally in the experience of contributing and learning. It also led to some beautiful moments such as a morning worship where people were asked to read the set bible passage in their own language and we heard almost twenty different people speak out of less than forty participants. For me that was one of the points in my life where the universal message of the Christian faith has felt real.

Reformed Youth Forum delates in national dress

Who we are
We live in an age of globalisation with friends and family across many borders. We therefore see and understand the world differently from previous generations. We are often perceived as immature and lacking experience, but we share a mutual understanding that our youth have gifts, abilities, spiritual maturity and experience that we share with the whole body of Christ. We share mutual values of openness and respect. We are eager to explore the meaning of our Reformed tradition today beyond denominations and with other faiths. We are keen to change ourselves and our world for the better. We share a history with those before us of working for equality in the midst of strife. So we recognise that division and disrespect are not options for our vision of the world today and for the future. We are shaped by our history but we are not bound by it.

I think that one of the reasons it was important for young people to meet as a group from across the world was because of the way in which modern communications have made globalisation an intrinsic part of our lives. And for our generation this doesn’t mean just knowing about other cultures or that you can find parts of Western culture across the globe, but that all cultures are valued equally. Because of this there are different challenges today. There is often despair that young people are not as proactive in asserting their ideas as they used to be, whether that is through political protest or through evangelism. There is no doubt that part of this is due to the rise of individualism over community which has also been fundamental to the decline in importance of the church in Western communities. However, inextricably linked to this is also the impact of globalisation, where young people are less sure about their place in the world and the difference they can make in it because the world they are in contact with has become much larger and more diverse. I think that this is why in this message from the Youth Forum and in similar statements from bodies such as the Church of Scotland’s Youth Assembly, you find that the language of understanding, respect and equality is seen as more important than making statements about particular issues.

It’s also interesting to consider what it means to people today to be part of the Reformed tradition. When we were talking about the Uniting General Council one of the youth delegates commented on her surprise at how little this was discussed. It’s maybe the case for every generation but I know very few people my age who are bound by their denominational background when choosing a church to attend and this blurring of denominational differences will surely have big implications for ecumenism in the future.

Communion at the Uniting General Council

Our challenges
We recognise the challenge to justice in our world including: poverty, HIV- AIDS, poor access to health care, harsh economic realities, are challenges that affect us without regard to age. The social realities of our world have created a spiritual crisis that causes many youth to lose hope, and avoid our relationship with God and with each other. We recognise the challenge to unity created by the political and economic structures that continue to keep us from full communion by excluding persons from our fellowship because of travel restrictions, visa complications and economic deprivation. We recognise the challenges to peace in an age of religious prejudice where fear reigns instead of compassion and dialogue. We accept the challenge to create an inclusive World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) not bound by divisions of age, denomination, gender, the diversity of languages or labels by which we may define ourselves. We are willing to take our place as whole mature people in Christ in the WCRC to live our calling in this family of faith.

In both the Youth Forum and in the General Council we had a chance to break down into regional groups and talk about issues specific to our own areas, as despite our increasingly global understanding of the world, there are still very different challenges in different regions. In the European discussions we focused on issues such as interfaith relations and migration. However, the most important issue for young people was the idea of there being a spiritual crisis in the Western world, where faith seems to have become irrelevant for many people who have at the same time lost hope and struggle with issues such as identity and community.

When considering interfaith and migration it was great to be able to talk with people from countries such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, which have all had far more political discussion about these issues. Tied in with the issue of migration is also the idea that political and economic structures keep us from full communion with other Christians round the world. There are a number of ways in which this is true but the most obvious one in Grand Rapids was the visa restrictions which denied almost a tenth of the delegates the chance to attend this conference despite assurances from the government that all delegates would be granted visas. This was the subject of a lot of discussion at the Uniting General Council but it is worth noting that almost half of those denied visas were young people and this meant that there were very few people from Africa and Asia at the Youth Forum.

While all these challenges can seem too large for churches to deal with, the strength of a body became apparent to me when I learnt about the role of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in challenging the South African churches on apartheid. One of the South African youth delegates summed up the importance of the WCRC to her by saying “It’s wonderful for us to know there is a place where different views and voices are expressed that’s there to help us stay on track and remain focused. In our context, we’re always aware of not going back to thinking in a vacuum.” (Annette, South Africa)

Uniting General Council Youth Delegates

Our offering
We offer our whole selves, our passion, our enthusiasm, our desire to know God and to know each other as we share this journey of faith. We offer fresh new ways of understanding church and the world which both recognise the past and embrace the future, while working for progress in the present. We offer our willingness to honour our differences without deliberately magnifying our divisions; this is the living reality of what our parents and ancestors struggled, and continue to pray for. We are grateful for new ways of communication, and technology that allows us to cross boundaries and borders and to find new ways to live out communion and justice in our own places.

One of the challenges for the church is how it can embrace new forms of communication such as social media and use these in a positive way. It’s very easy for us to say that they undermine the values of community and personal interaction which are fundamental to Christianity but the same thing was said about radio and television when they first appeared and no-one now questions the value of Choral Evensong or Songs of Praise. One of the interesting people I met at the General Council was an American minister who has a thriving church in San Francisco which attracts a lot of people in their twenties and thirties. He knows his congregation personally and meets them for coffee but also spends a lot of his time communicating by email, facebook, twitter and blogs. When he then became Moderator of the PC(USA) he energised this same generation to become involved in the national church. Of course we have to be careful about how we use new technology but if we are then it could really help us connect with a generation who often find the church out of touch with their way of life.

Another phrase which I’ve highlighted here is “honour our differences without deliberately magnifying our divisions” and I think this is particularly pertinent to this coming together of different Reformed bodies. During the Youth Forum we had the chance to ask the General Secretaries of WARC and REC some questions and one of the questions was why Reformed Churches should be able to join successfully given their history of division while traditions such as the Catholic and Anglican churches which have traditionally been more united are currently facing splits over various issues. The answer given was that the Reformed churches have learned to live with our differences and are now coming together in spite of them. For me that is one of the most important things about this new body and I hope that this philosophy can continue.

Singing and dancing during worship at the Reformed Youth Forum

Our calling
We share a vision to live out the inclusivity we experience in the Reformed Youth Forum at home in our local communities. We share a vision for communities that are transformed by our faith, hope and love. We share a vision for an inclusive WCRC family whose worship, fellowship and actions are based on just relationships rather than strengthening institutions. We ask the Uniting General Council to remember this vision as it creates WCRC to develop and maintain structures of governance that are based on relationships rather than hierarchy or rank. We recognise that our vision is not impossible if we know prayer that is action. We commit our gifts to WCRC and the whole body of Christ as we speak the truth in love for the peace our world. (Eph 4:11-16)

One of the things which has frustrated me in conferences I’ve attended during the last year is where groups have a chance to speak and use that opportunity to complain about not being listened to. This was apparent with delegates from the global South at Edinburgh 2010, the Women’s Pre-Council Meeting in Grand Rapids and has often been the case with young people at the Youth Assembly. Of course the reason for this is that these are groups which historically haven’t had a voice and this has most often been apparent through their lack of representation at conferences and committees. However, while the young people in Grand Rapids recognised this as an issue we were determined that these problems arose from the emphasis that is often placed on institutions rather than relationships, and that we should be seeking to change how people thought about the systems of governance rather than fighting for a more prominent place within it. I believe our conclusions were justified when we saw an entire session in the General Council effectively hijacked by a debate about quotas for women on the Executive Committee and as delegates to future General Councils.

The last point I would like to highlight from the message is “our vision is not impossible”. When I gave the Youth Assembly report at the General Assembly in May 2010 I focused on the hope that young people in the church have despite the doom and gloom that about the future of the church that often seems to dominate church meetings these days. I think that this same view was apparent here where all of the young people at the Youth Forum and the General Council felt that the experience gave us new ideas and new energy. It’s not often you get to be part of a gathering where you really feel the support of the church around the whole world but this was one such occasion and with that comes renewed belief in what we can achieve if we act together.

Some of the young people helping as stewards watching the World Cup

Views from young people on RYF/UGC

I’ve already quoted a few of the youth delegates but I thought I could bring in just a few more voices so you can get a few more ideas of what young people thought about these events as I found these quite insightful.

“I think the perspective the WCRC brings is very important, one that resonates with even non church people. I’ve had lots of great feedback from people when I tell them about the WCRC. In my experience there are lots of people under 30 who have no idea that churches can care about justice and are intrigued when you tell them about it. Part of the challenge is making this fact known.” (Allan, Canada)

“I think that the two councils joining provided a good example of two things: (1) Christian unity – there are some very different theological and human rights viewpoints in the WCRC but they are committed to working together for God. (2) Stewardship of the church – sometimes for the greater good we have to give up a little bit of our own independence. This is hard for individual congregations to accept (and I understand why) but sometimes what is lost can be outweighed by what is gained.” (Chelsea, USA)

“In terms of the youth it was absolutely great to be part of the RYF and to talk about youth’s contribution to the WCRC. What is really a pity is that we are only youth for a few years. This means that every time we have to find new young people who want to be involved in ecumenical relations and to educate them like they did with us which is hard work. I think an important question is how we can involve young people continuously? Also how can those who took part in the RYF inspire young people in their churches, the next generation?” (Verena, Germany)

Personally I found both the Youth Forum and the General Council to be very important experiences in terms of my understanding of the global church. However, this was undoubtedly more due to the relationships which were formed than the formal proceedings. It has also added to my belief that young people have an important role in the church and particularly in ecumenical dialogue. I hope that experiences like mine can play an important part in stimulating discussion and action in the whole church rather than it just being about experiences for individuals, important as that also is.

Photos courtesy of Erick Coll and youth delegates


~ by iainmclarty on June 23, 2011.

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