Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

A Quest for Clarity: The World Council of Churches and Human Sexuality

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

A Quest for Clarity: The World Council of Churches and Human Sexuality

Article excerpt

How has the World Council of Churches as a fellowship of churches dealt with issues related to human sexuality?

Exploring this question by analyzing documents, recommendations and decisions by its governing bodies -- assemblies and central committees -- shows that the Council has made very few official statements in this field. However, there have been repeated requests, coming from member churches, central committee meetings and various advisory groups, for studies in this area -- a quest for clarity. Some, though not all, of these studies were carried out by various WCC departments and through various methods, including conferences and consultations, questionnaires and case studies. The published results of these initiatives invariably underscore that they are by no means to be considered an official statement or an official "WCC stance".

As this article will show, the work undertaken in the context of the WCC on sexual ethics in general and in particular on family planning, family life education and the relations of women and men has not been negligible. The initiatives taken have made their impact on discussions at assemblies and at central committee meetings. In what follows I shall use the WCC's assemblies during the 30 years from New Delhi (1961) to Canberra (1991) as milestones for organizing a summary of the extant WCC material on the broad issue of human sexuality.

New Delhi

The questions facing the church in the diverse and contradictory situations

are in essence remarkably similar around the world. The churches have to

discover what positions and action to take in regard to: sex relations before

and after marriage; illegitimacy; in some cultures polygamy or concubinage

as a social system sanctioned by law and custom: in some Western cultures

short-term marriages, or liaisons, easy divorce: in all parts of the world

mixed marriages (inter-faith, inter-confessional and inter-racial) with the

diminishing of caste and class systems and of racial prejudice... The

pressing problems raised by the population explosion bring yet other entirely

new factors into family life. All this, and

much else, forces the churches to re-examine their teaching, preaching and

pastoral care and their witness and service to society.(1)

Behind this statement by the WCC's third assembly in New Delhi in 1961 lay many requests coming to the WCC for help in clarifying contemporary problems in the general area of human sexuality by means of an authoritative declaration. While acknowledging these requests, the assembly refrained from making a generalized statement, arguing that contemporary Christian ethical teaching in these areas needs to be drawn from the interaction between individual local situations, which differ widely in their cultural and religious settings, and the biblical and theological tradition. No WCC statement could be relevant unless matched by studies carried out in each area by the churches of that area.

This same dilemma would be stated over and over again by the succeeding Assemblies and during the periods between assemblies: the need for authoritative Statements and the difficulty in making any such statement for the whole Council.

In addition to biblical and theological studies, there was constant need to restate in the light of Christian experience the principles underlying the practice of monogamy, chastity and marital fidelity and the central place given to self-discipline in all Christian traditions. These elements in the Christian ethic needed to receive a positive emphasis as the means of receiving God's gifts of joy and fulfilment.

The integration of the International Missionary Council into the WCC at the New Delhi assembly extended the mandate of the WCC's Department on the Co-operation of Men and Women in Church and Society, as indicated by the addition of the word "Family" to its title. …

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