The Language Policy of the World Council of Churches

By Donch, Rosemarie | The Ecumenical Review, October 2008 | Go to article overview

The Language Policy of the World Council of Churches


Donch, Rosemarie, The Ecumenical Review


Multilingual in design

The year 2008 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the World Council of Churches. Back in 1948, at the Council's first assembly in Amsterdam, interpretation was already provided into and out of three languages--English, French and German--a choice which reflected the realities of the ecumenical movement at that time. These languages had earlier been chosen for the World Conference on Life and Work in Stockholm in 1925 and had proved useful at other major church conferences over the years.

The Amsterdam assembly incorporated this language policy into the Constitution and Rules of the WCC and Article XII, para. 13 of the Rules of Debate states: "The three official languages are English, French and German. A speech made in any one of these languages shall, if desired, be translated or summarised into the other two. It shall be the duty of the Secretary to make arrangements for such translation. A member may speak in a language other than English, French or German on condition that he arrange for the translation of his speech into one of the three official languages." (1)

The choice of these three languages corresponded to the profile of the WCC member churches as it then was and assisted communication among them more than any other combination of languages could have done. At this stage, the translation and interpretation services required to implement this policy were organized largely on an ad hoc basis. Then, in the early 1960s, a small, full-time language service was set up to provide these services. Additional translators and interpreters were co-opted for meetings, as they still are today.

The awareness that the language policy had to be fairly flexible and adaptable is reflected in the rule that another language could be used provided the speaker arranged for it to be interpreted into one of the official languages. For many years the only member to make use of this possibility was the Russian Orthodox Church, which joined the WCC in 1961. It was not until the middle of the 1970s that the work of the Language Policy Task Force and its recommendations brought greater openness on the language front.

The official three-language policy was generally applied for conferences and the related documents, but was far less consistently followed in the council's communications and publications policy, not least for financial reasons.

Over the years, there were repeated attempts to broaden the range of languages offered in WCC communications. At the central committee meeting in 1957, for instance, one of the then WCC presidents, who came from Argentina, urged that Spanish should become an ecumenical language and that more publications should be planned in the main languages of Latin America. (2) But it was to be a long time before his suggestion was taken up.

Monolingual in fact

From very early on, despite the official three-language policy, the growing predominance of English became more and more apparent. Forty years ago the assembly in Uppsala (1968) was already sounding a warning about a deficit of communication and calling on the WCC "to overcome the gross imbalance of material in English over the other official languages of the Council". (3)

Uppsala had instigated a process to restructure the council's programme work and the structures committee charged with this restructuring presented its report at the meeting of the central committee in Addis Ababa in 1971. (4) This report stated that the scope and diversity of the council's work and membership called for more effective communication and that the working relations and exchange of information between the WCC and its member churches needed to be improved and strengthened. One of its suggestions was to combine the Office of Education and the Department of Communication--of which the Language Service was part--in the unit on "Education and Communication". …

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