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Uppsala Assembly

1968. Fourth assembly of the World Council of Churches.* Meeting 4-19 July in the Swedish university town, it had as its theme “Behold! I make all things new” and has been described as “the most document-laden Christian gathering in the last nine hundred years.” The major issues were the gap between rich and poor nations, and the need to “humanize” the world. Elected as WCC presidents at the assembly were Hans Lilje, Ernest Payne, D.T. Niles, Alphaeus Hamilton Zulu, John Coventry Smith, and Patriarch German. The central committee chose as its chairman the Indian layman M.M. Thomas. Because of involvement in secular, economic, and social issues, the assembly contributed little that was fresh theologically. Of the 704 delegates, 3 per cent were from developing countries, 75 per cent ordained, and there were 15 Roman Catholic observers with nearly 200 other Roman Catholics present.

The main work proceeded in six study sections which met to discuss and amend 2,500-word drafts:

(1) “The Holy Spirit and the Catholicity of the Church.” This revealed differences between the Protestant view of the Church as invisible and catholic, and the “Catholic” view of it as an unbroken, visible eucharistic unity; and emphasized the impossibility of intercommunion. It defined unity in terms of mankind and not of the church. Continuity comes in the future as well as the past, thus tradition relates to renewal. Catholicity is “the quality by which the church expresses the fulness, the integrity and the totality of life in Christ”-in economic, social, and political matters.

(2) “Renewal in Mission.” This section found great controversy between evangelicals who viewed conversion and evangelism in terms of the individual, and those who saw conversion in terms of this world's societal structures and values; between those concerned with preaching and those concerned with dialogue. The report defined mission as “to serve suffering humanity and to aid the developing nations,” to make “the world's agenda the church's business.” Modern missions are not only in traditional areas, but in urban centers and among revolutionary movements where “Christian presence and witness are required.” But there was no concern showed for man's spiritual hunger comparable to that expressed for physical hunger (pointed out one evangelical delegate). More delegates applied to join this section than any other.

(3) “World Economic and Social Development.” Youth participants pressured this group to be more revolutionary. The group stressed the need for Christians to be more politically effective. It opposed the status quo, isolationism, violence in revolution, yet held that violent changes are “morally ambiguous.” It was concerned to end discrimination, to cope with unemployment and underemployment, and with the questions posed by population growth and food shortages.

(4) “Toward Justice and Peace in International Affairs.” In a time of political turmoil, “human rights cannot be safeguarded in a world of glaring inequalities and social conflicts.” The discussion criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam, inviting the comment by George McGovern, “no nation comes to this Assembly with clean hands.” Christian peace is built on love of enemies, and reconciliation is based on the reconciling work of God in Christ; so Christians need to identify with the poor and oppressed in their struggle for justice. Opposition to war, particularly nuclear war and weapons control, desire to protect human rights, including support for the United Nations and protection of minority rights, and support for all efforts toward world peace including support for selective conscientious objection to war were stressed in the report.

(5) “Worship.” A wide divergence of liturgical views were represented, with some finding joy in the old forms, as the Orthodox. Many Western churches wanted contemporary worship forms, evidenced in performance at the assembly of Sven Erik Back's “Mass of the Departure,” Bo Nilsson's “Mass for Christian Unity,” Sven Erik Johanson's “Cross in the Space Age,” and Olov Hartman's “On That Day.” The group opposed indiscriminate administration of baptism as a social custom and stressed the need for baptism to take place in the presence of the community. Desire was expressed for the Eucharist to be celebrated weekly, in new styles. “The eucharist shows the essential meaning of Christian worship, for the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, shed for the remission of sins, is a communion meal in which Christians share in his life.”

(6) “Toward New Styles of Living.” This section, which had the highest proportion of women, laymen, and youth participants, defined “Styles” as the outward manifestations of inward convictions. The section disputed contextual ethics and moral principles, attempting to distinguish the ethics of the Gospel from cultural mores; but its members were unable to resolve the problem. They described a world divided along three lines-color, wealth, and knowledge-which bred specific problems: birth control, changes in traditional family patterns, chastity, and antinomian contextualism. They suggested that a Christian style of living is characterized by concern for suffering of other people, struggle for social justice, and rules open to the Spirit.

Roman Catholics cooperated in many areas. Nine Roman Catholic theologians were added to the Faith and Order Commission, and Jesuit Father Robert Tucci gave an assembly address stressing that Roman Catholic membership in the World Council of Churches may soon come. A joint working group was established by the assembly to work out principles of cooperation. The Orthodox Churches remained the largest confessional group, with 140 delegates. The assembly established a new secretariat on racial equality and admitted four new denominations.

See N. Goodall (ed.), The Uppsala Report 1968 (1968); and E.C. Blake in A History of the Ecumenical Movement, II, 1948-1968 (ed. H. Fey, 1970), pp. 411-445.