The first in a series of blogs where Georgina Copty, a representative of the Church of Ireland on the Irish Council of Churches, shares about her experience at the World Council of Churches earlier this year.
I had the privilege of representing the Irish Council of Churches at the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) which took place in Karlsruhe, Germany from August 31 to September 8.
The Assembly is the highest governing body of WCC and only meets every 8 years. It is the only time all member churches meet in fellowship and is the most diverse Christian gathering of its size in the world. This year, 4000 participants from around the world attended, displaying their commitment to unity and common witness. Over the next 3 months, I will share with you some of the highlights of my experience there.
The structure of the Assembly is very formal for the most part. Much of the business of the Assembly is discussed and debated in large plenaries. However, there are more intimate gatherings such as Home Groups and Ecumenical Conversations where the finer details are discussed in smaller groups. The days are jam packed and intense but there is a vibrancy that is tangible and uplifting.
One of the most enriching experiences of the WCC 11th Assembly for me personally, was the weekend excursion to the Black Forest. The local communities of the villages of Gutach and Hausach opened their hearts and their homes to strangers. There, we truly lived and breathed ecumenism as 19 delegates from around the world, with various Christian traditions, were embraced by our German hosts. We were encouraged to share openly and intimately about our struggles and experiences of self–imposed barriers to reaching out to fellow Christians of other denominations.
“Living in a Northern Ireland context where divisions are still so tangible, it was truly encouraging to see how divisions can be embraced and celebrated.”
The weekend commenced with a tour of the Black Forest Open–Air Museum. The Museum boasted several buildings and gardens displaying how traditional Christian farming communities lived in the region in the 15th and 16th centuries. The tour was conducted by our hosts Ministers Hans–Michael Uhl and Herbert Kumpf who discussed how Christianity has changed throughout the ages. They gave a fascinating insight on how the Christian faith permeated every aspect of life. Attending church was considered a refuge from the daily grind, and the visible display of Christian symbols and statues outside of homes, provided both a warding off of evil spirits as well as a sign of wealth and stature.
That night in the village of Gutach, many members of the local community joined us for an evening of open and honest dialogue about ecumenism. Gutach with just over 2000 inhabitants had long established sectarian divisions. The Protestant and Catholic neighbours lived side by side for decades but never ventured into each other’s churches. Yet in an unprecedent move, ministers from both sides reached out to each other and finally bridged the divide. Now ecumenical services take place monthly in Gutach and neighbouring Hausach and community as a whole can finally worship together. Our hosts were so keen to hear about our own ecumenical experiences and challenges. The honesty everyone displayed was truly moving. Living in a Northern Ireland context where divisions are still so tangible, it was truly encouraging to see how divisions can be embraced and celebrated.
The village of Gutach
On Sunday morning, the communities of both villages joined us as we celebrated an ecumenical service in the local Catholic Church. The service was jointly conducted by a Protestant minister and Catholic priest and some of the WCC delegates were invited to share a special Bible verse dear to their hearts. The atmosphere was warm and uplifting. Christianity in its full beauty was being demonstrated and celebrated.
After treating us to a delicious lunch at a traditional restaurant, our hosts and many of the local villagers accompanied us to the railway station. Saying goodbye felt as if we were leaving our family. Over the two days in the Black Forest, we built relationships that I am confident will inspire us for the rest of our lives. As the train headed back to Karlsruhe where the work of WCC was due to recommence, I had a feeling of peace in my heart. I had been uplifted and transformed by the encounters I had and I was eager to share that joy.
Girl in traditional dress of particular region in Black Forest with Black Forest gateaux