Not just tourists: the World Council of Churches and hopes for a more global YDS
From November 1-7, Dean Greg Sterling and other YDS representatives traveled to South Korea to visit alumni in Seoul and participate in the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan. Notes from the Quad spoke with Dean Sterling who reported on the Assembly, the state of global Christianity, and what it all means for YDS.
YDS alumni from around the world gathered at a reception during the World Council of Churches Assembly in Busan, Republic of Korea.
Notes from the Quad: What is the World Council of Churches
Dean Sterling: The World Council of Churches (WCC) is a body of 345 churches—plus a good number of people who aren’t official members—who are committed to working towards Christian unity. It began in 1948 after the Second World War in an effort to bring unity to Christianity. When it first began, people really believed that it would be possible to unite all Christian bodies; it’s proven far more difficult than people once envisioned, but anyone who goes to the assembly that occurs once every seven years will be powerfully impressed by the global nature of Christianity.
As the Dean of YDS, why did you want to attend?
Because we are an ecumenical school, I think it’s important that we be present at the most important ecumenical meeting of Christians in the world. YDS helped support Roger J. Squire Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling Mary Moschella and Derrick Dailey ’14 M.A.R., who were participating in the conference, and John Lindner, who worked for the WCC in an earlier stage of his career, also traveled with me. YDS also has more than fifty Korean alums and we were excited for an opportunity to meet some of them.
What were some of the most meaningful parts of the trip for you?
One was we went to the de-militarized zone between South Korea and North Korea. I was not aware of the strong desire on the part of the South Koreans to reunite with the north; they have a keen sense that they are a divided country. And even though at the present it’s not politically likely and economically it couldn’t happen overnight, there’s a strong desire to reunite the two halves of Korea.
A second thing that really impressed me was the way that Koreans structured their churches—they have huge churches! On Saturday night when I was there, I went to an event with 800 of the WCC delegates at a church with a membership of 120,000. There’s one church in South Korea with, I’m told, a membership of 800,000. When we think about “megachurches” in the U.S., Korea really redefines that.
What did you learn about global Christianity?
Diversity in Christianity exists on a scale you don’t recognize when you think of diversity within the U.S. As much as we in the U.S. have a heterogeneous population with people from different parts of the world, the WCC was very heterogeneous in ethnic identity, in languages, in cultures—it’s refreshing. One of the things you notice are the people from Eastern churches who have different types of apparel than you would expect from a Western church; the headgear can be quite different!
In the last hundred years, Christianity has made a significant shift from the global north to the global south—and you can see that at the WCC. You realize that Christianity doesn’t look and feel the same way that it does here in the US.
What was the worship like?
I enjoyed the worship—it was quite simple for the most part. There were prayers, readings, and songs. They had a chorus that would help us practice the songs a little bit. We did sing and pray in different languages; sometimes we would sing—somewhat like we do in Marquand—you sing one verse in English and one verse in another language. The worship book was printed in English, French, Spanish, German, and Korean.
How might YDS better engage the global community?
Given the explosion of Christianity in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, we need to make serious efforts to build solid connections with those parts of the world. We need to increase the representation of those people here on this campus and secondly we also have to find ways for our students to experience Christianity in other contexts.
For example, we routinely receive students from Hong Kong or Singapore, but not many of our students are interested in going there. I’m interested in giving people short term experiences in which they’re not just tourists, but they actually are engaged in some kind of community where they begin to understand what the community is actually like and how Christianity functions in that context.
What was your reaction to the large number of conservative protestors who stood outside the WCC?
This is where historical-critical scholarship actually has a very direct benefit: when you read the New Testament you come to realize that it’s not uniform—Christianity wasn’t singular even in the New Testament; it was pluriform in the first century. There has to be some allowance for the diversity and the pluriformity of Christianity in the twenty-first century. One of the things that has to be learned is it is possible to hold your own convictions and not compromise them, and also give them space. If we can’t learn that lesson in the long run, we will hurt not just Christianity, but humanity.
What role did YDS alumni play in the Assembly?
At this year’s assembly, Chang Sang ’70 M.Div. was elected to represent Asian Christianity as one of the eight presidents of the WCC. That was a real honor to be able to congratulate her and celebrate her.
We also had a reception for YDS alums and we had Sharon Watkins ’84 M.Div., the current head of the Disciples of Christ; Geoffrey Black ’72 M.A.R., the current head of United Church of Christ; Clifton Kirkpatrick ’68 B.D., the former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and former Stated Secretary of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); Setri Nyomi ’81 S.T.M., General Secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and Silishebo Silishebo ’94 S.T.M., General Secretary of the United Church of Zambia—all YDS alumni!
Angelique Walker-Smith ’83 M.Div. did a television cast covering the assembly each day; she’s very talented. She also moderated a plenary session one day. We have some very important alumni who have places of influence in Christianity!
Were there any funny moments on this trip?
When we arrived at the large church on Saturday evening, the church hosted a dinner for all 800 people. It was an enormous banquet, including lobster. I was introduced to the senior pastor of this 120,000 member church and I couldn’t resist telling him that this was the only time in my life that I had ever—or ever expected—to have lobster at a church dinner.
How would you sum up the WCC in one sentence?
It’s the global character of Christianity; the commitment from such different groups to affirm one Lord.