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 WCC Decade Overcoming Violence


Report to the Religious Society of Friends on the Scottish Churches’ Fact-finding Visit to the World Council of Churches, Geneva, November 2002 - Decade for Overcoming Violence


Alastair McIntosh



Between 20th and 24th November 2002 I was asked to be the Scottish Friends’ representative for Britain Yearly Meeting and General Meeting for Scotland on a delegation from Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS) to the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva.


I had been given to understand that this was to do with the WCC’s “Decade for Overcoming Violence” – a programme that I had already been involved with in 2001 when asked to present a paper on peace theology at the “historic peace churches” consultation with the WCC in Bienenberg Seminary near Base. (The papers from this are now published as Seeking Cultures of Peace.  My own contribution, Peace in the Tiger's Mouth, can be downloaded as a PDF here.)


However, as I gathered at Edinburgh Airport with representatives from the Church of Scotland, Scottish Episcopal Church, United Free Church and ACTS committees, it soon became clear that this was something much broader. It was actually a fact-finding mission looking at the range of work being conducted by the WCC and particularly by the Faith and Order team.


Discussion over the next few days focussed mainly on the question of church unity. As I struggled at times to stay alert, I initially wondered if I’d come on the wrong tour! This is an issue that is not, for the most part, foremost amongst Quakerly concerns. Unity for us is of the Spirit rather than institutional.


Amongst the other churches, there seem to be broadly two approaches to unity. The institutional way wants all Christian churches to have compatible forms of government and a common credal basis. The organic way, on the other hand, understands unity, in the Quaker sense, as being much more of the Spirit. To me, as a manifestly organic Friend, it was difficult to understand the heat generated by the institutional camp although their concerns, I was told, are the WCC’s main raison d’etre.


“Why does it matter so much?” I asked one executive.


“Because,” he said, pointing to a Roman Catholic colleague, and incredulous at the evident naivety of my question, “I cannot take holy communion in his church!”


I have to say, though, that the members of other denominations in our delegation were extremely tolerant of my questionings. Not only that, but they were generous – ACTS and the Church of Scotland picking up a number of the meal and taxi tabs that should, by rights, have fallen on the smaller denominations. You had the feeling of the Church of Scotland, as the “national church”, bending over backwards to ensure that it used its position to empower lesser voices. Kevin Franz of ACTS and Sheilagh Kesting of the Church of Scotland (who did much of the organisation) were wonderful in this respect, and it was a great personal pleasure to discover that Sheilagh and I had once attended the same Church of Scotland and school (the Nicolson Institute) when growing up on the Isle of Lewis in the 1960’s.


As Quakers, of course, our main quibble with our Presbyterian friends would be that they’re not Presbyterian enough! They talk about the “priesthood of all believers”, whereas we refuse to let the question of ordination get in the way of making that a reality. That said, we ought not forget, especially in Scotland where the Calvinist or “Reformed” tradition is so important, the extent to which Geneva’s John Calvin struggled for things we’d now take for granted. I think particularly of the “Seedbed of Democracy” passage in IV:XX:8 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which says, in a spirit that was revolutionary and thus reformatory in its time:


Men’s fault or failing causes it to be safer and more bearable for a number to exercise government, so that they may help one another, teach and admonish one another; and if one asserts himself unfairly, there may be a number of censors and masters to restrain his wilfulness.


It was intriguing to hear our guide’s explanation of how the Huguenot and other Protestant refugees had brought their skills to establish Switzerland’s clock-making industry and, more to the point in this age of globalisation, the banking industry, which was boosted by Calvin’s “accommodation” of usury (because, he said, the Jews were doing it anyway, so it was better that Christians traded money amongst themselves but with limitations on the rate of interest that could be charged). And it was disturbing to enter the Cathedral where reformers had chiselled the gaunt stonework free of the richly coloured art that had decorated it in pre-Reformation times. Equally perplexing was the Calvin museum, where the Reformers’ quasi-beatification in iconic portraits was punctuated with the display of a grail-like goblet out of which, it was said, Calvin had once drunk! Outside stood a larger-than-life statue of the man himself and other Reformers, including the bloody Cromwell, surrounded by copious bottles and cans from a down-and-outs’ party the previous night. It felt ironic to witness a contrast so reminiscent of the nether regions of the Scottish psyche – heavy religion toggled with heavy drink.


“Alas poor Calvin,” I found myself thinking, mindful of the ease with which this man can be both applauded and deplored: “Give us the vision to understand through your eyes your world”.


During the four-day stay in Geneva we met with desk officers concerned with Orthodox and RC ecumenical relations, healing and reconciliation, ethics, interfaith and environment, as well as core staff in Faith and Order including its Director, the Rev Alan Falconer of Scotland (C of S), who has co-edited a excellent book on the Northern Ireland and similar conflicts called Reconciling Memories (Columba Press, 1998). This speaks of the need to recover and honour memory in situations of conflict, yet to reconcile it with other groups’ differing memories – for example, he speaks of how in Northern Ireland, “… the churches seemed to be unable to break through the captivity of the memories of the different traditions, despite the fact that ‘to remember’ in the Bible is to participate in a liberating event.” Alan Falconer seemed typical of many of the officers we met there – versed deeply in a theology that engaged in very practical ways in a tough world. It makes me think of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s remark in his amazing book about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, No Future Without Forgiveness (Rider, 1999) where he says, “As I grow older I am pleasantly surprised at how relevant theology has become, as I see it, to the whole of life.”


I do not intend giving accounts of all the meetings we had at the WCC, many of which concerned ecumenical debates that would not be central to Friends’ concerns. However, it was Alan Falconer’s Faith and Order section that is responsible for the Decade for Overcoming Violence, and I will conclude by summarising an interview with the Programme Executive, Deenabandhu Manchala, as it will be of particular interest to Friends.


This is offered in note form. I think it’s interesting to observe how the central theme, which is about the nature of power, originates deeply from Calvinist insights but speaks to both the Church and the world in ways that extend far beyond Reformed traditions.



The WCC Decade for Overcoming Violence – Meeting with Deenabandhu Manchala


The Decade for Overcoming Violence that commenced in 2000. The theological study process linked to it has 5 pillars:


  1. Repentance for complicity and apathy.

  2. Affirming human dignity, human rights and integrity of creation.

  3. Mutuality and interdependence.

  4. Interrogating and redefining power.

  5. The logic (Christology) of peace as distinct from that of violence.


Early this year (2002), staff were told to put most activity on hold because of budgetary cuts in the WCC. They are only are now resuming operations, having been brought under Alan Falconer’s Faith and Order division. They are mindful of their smallness in relation to the vast subject matter of their concern, and are anxious to network to leverage influence.


During 2003 they are to work on “power” as a constellating theme, and during 2004 it will be “mutuality and interdependence”. They’ll be addressing notions of power within the church and theology – the relation between church and state, the glorification of power, and compromises with it. They’ll be looking at how the abuse and misuse of power within the Church leads to violence within it and, more broadly, at the combination of hegemonic power – political, imperial, military, economic – that have combined together to defend themselves and are trying to tell us violence is necessary for peace. Globalisation is accelerating this process. It will lead to more intense forms of violence. How do and should churches respond to such exercise of power?


What sort of resources do we have within our traditions for the responsible use of power, so that it becomes a shared resource rather than a monopoly? We are not saying “no” to power, but how do we take the fascination out of it that makes everybody violent and aggressive? How do we make it a useful instrument in the affirmation of life?


Much of the WCC's discussion on violence and peace so far have been guided by the methodological orientations of western academic theological discourse. These, to a large extent, remained inconclusive and abstract. Now within the context of the Decade for Overcoming Violence, these discussions will attempt to inspire theological reflections on peace “from below” in situations of violence with the hope that these will lead the churches towards purposeful action.


Now the WCC wants to involve contextual theologians, or theologians and activists from conflict and violent situations. It’s not so interested in the large international consultations, but wants to initiate study at the level of congregations and churches. It wants to work towards producing a manual that can be shared with churches and congregations like the little pamphlet one that is already in existence. The approach is one of conscientisation with respect to violence – seeking to stimulate discussion rather than produce top down materials. There’s a very interactive website on the WCC website about this, and they want to use that as a place to share theological reflections. They’ve also identified a number of institutions in different parts of the world and are asking them to study one of the generative themes, taking their own case and experience as the starting point. The production of liturgies, hymns and bible studies is being seen as crucial because of the way these can influence the attitudes of the churches towards violence and peace more than is possible with theological treatises.


Lastly, there’s the whole question of spirituality. Everybody is finding that this to be the need that we most need to talk about, and across different denominations – the need to promote a spirituality of social resistance and solidarity.


The Decade for Overcoming Violence has generated much interest, but because of heavy funding cutbacks the WCC can’t cope with it all. There are only 3 people working directly on the programme and very little money. These are Laura Short and Hansuli Gerber who work full time on Decade for Overcoming Violence co-ordination, Salpy who works on impunity and disarmament issues, and Deenabandhu Manchala who works on reconciliation and theological study process.


[Nb. I told Deenabandhu that we now have considerable theological resources within Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology (www.che.ac.uk ) which is Open University accredited, and that we might be particularly interested in working with their programme in relation to our Masters-level modules in both Nonviolence (in association with the Quaker-funded Scottish Centre for Nonviolence in Dunblane) and Spiritual Activism (www.AlastairMcIntosh.com/spiritualactivism ).]




1 March 2003


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