1998 NCC News Archives

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Letter to WCC's 8th Assembly Addresses Priorities, Divisive Issues of Human Sexuality

HARARE, Zimbabwe, Nov. 30 - Even as a four-day festival here marked the end of the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women 1988-98, delegates reached consensus on a forward-looking challenge that builds on the Decade’s four major themes: economic justice, women’s participation in the church, racism and violence against women.

The 1,200 delegates from around the world, including 125 from the United States, spoke clearly: We are celebrating the end of the Decade but we can’t accept being dismissed.

Participants in the Nov. 27-30 Decade Festival, held on the campus of Harare’s Belvedere Technical Teachers’ Training College, celebrated the Decade program’s broad reach into grassroots church communities, increased participation of women in church leadership and a heightened awareness in both church and society of women's strengths and struggles.

"The Decade opened things up for women around the world," said Karen Hessel, Director of the Justice for Women Program in the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., New York City. Reports from 75 "Living Letters" team visits to 330 churches, 68 national councils and some 650 women’s groups during the course of the Decade revealed that "much education and advocacy happened," she said.

Nevertheless, Festival participants acknowledged that many churches ignored or resisted the program, a framework within which churches could look at their structures, teachings and practices with a commitment to the full participation of women.

As the Decade ends, "women have expressed a real anxiety that the churches will heave a sigh of relief that the women have stopped talking," commented Dr. Aruna Gnanadason, Program Executive, WCC Women's Program, Geneva, Switzerland, addressing the "Decade Festival: Visions Beyond 1998."

"In many places, there has been a reduction in funding and staff for work supporting women," she said. "The challenge is to ensure that the solidarity we seek is sustained. It is important that we ask the churches to recommit themselves to the issues the Decade has raised."

"We now have to emphasize that issues such as the economic exclusion of millions of women and the demands that somehow women have to keep themselves and their families alive; violence against women that tears the fabric of our families, our societies and even our churches, or racism and xenophobia that keeps even us as women divided, are in fact ecclesiological challenges. What we need to emphasize here is that these are all concerns that threaten the unity of the churches - the very being of the church," Dr. Gnanadason said.

The delegates - mostly women but including a few men - pressed for a clear framework for follow up, with a "checkpoint" in four to five years. The Ecumenical Decade will be the theme of one of three main plenaries during the WCC's Eighth Assembly, meeting Dec. 3-14 at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, and the challenge adopted during the Decade Festival will be put to the leaders of the 330-plus WCC member churches there.

"I believe the document provides a strong stimulus for action, thoughtful theology and a bold middle ground where we don’t agree," commented Dr. Kathleen Hurty of New York City, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who heads Church Women United. "Let’s commit ourselves as this part of the church to work toward accountability on the significant principles."


Festival participants’ challenge, framed as a letter to the WCC Assembly, implores the world’s churches to declare that violence against women is a sin, urges them to commit resources to "restore (women) to their rightful place in God's household," and urges them to work to end economic injustice and racism. "The world is not yet a safe space for us," said Thoko Mphumlwana of South Africa, among presiders.

The tightly packed document - six pages, single spaced in its English version - presses more than a dozen specific initiatives. Particularly strong wording demands the elimination of all violence in various forms, giving pointed attention to violence in the church as "a heresy, an offense against God, humanity and the earth."

The Decade Festival on its second day had held what is believed to have been a global "first" - a special hearing, incorporated into a liturgy, on the issue of violence against women in the church. During an emotion-filled morning, church women from five nations offered harrowing personal testimonies of violence and abuse. The statements included stories of rape, domestic beatings, sexual trafficking, abusive employment practices and exclusion by church institutions.

But the hearing also featured four positive testimonials on efforts to confront the issue, and four statements of commitment to continue working on the problem. "My first commitment is to not cover up the sickness of our church," said the Rev. Dr. Konrad Raiser, WCC General Secretary. "We must share these stories and continue to break the silence of violence against women."

The Festival challenge letter responded with a series of demands, including the exposing of all sexual abuse, especially by those in positions of church leadership; the creation of

restorative justice processes where both the victims of violence and the perpetrators can experience, in the light of truth telling, the power of effective repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation; the critical examination of all use of Bible and theology that seek to sanction the spirit and presence of violence, and the denouncement of all initiatives of war.


One paragraph in the six-page document was a test of how to reach consensus when delegates are polarized on a key point of content. Getting careful attention was a paragraph reflecting the difficulty on discussions around human sexuality, a subject also expected to simmer at the WCC Assembly.

While the document put before the delegates at no time included the words "homosexual," "gay" or "lesbian," these clearly were at issue, as debate centered on wording about "human sexuality in all of its diversity." One delegate, from Africa, asked that the phrase "in all of its diversity" be struck, another, from the Netherlands, spoke up for its inclusion.

An Orthodox woman asked that the document say, "For some men and women in our midst, addressing this issue is not legitimate." She explained, "Our church has taken a very serious stance on the topic and we aren’t in a position to change it here." A delegate from the Netherlands, identifying herself as a lesbian, said, "My church has been discussing sexuality for 20 years and I can be open about my sexuality in my church."

At the Festival, most discussions around homosexuality took place informally around tables or in Issue Huts scattered across the college’s lawn, and in meetings arranged during the breaks and not on the formal agenda. (At one point Dr. Gnanadason offered lesbian participants a personal apology, in particular for not including attention in the hearing to violence against gays and lesbians.)

Regular "Listeners Reports" reflected some of that conversation back to the plenaries, revealing a range of strong feelings, from "It's probably our only chance to discuss these issues" to "There shouldn’t have been any space given. Some of us weren’t prepared to discuss this. We weren’t mandated by our churches to talk about it."

A member of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) spoke during debate on the document, saying, "I haven’t been in church for 10 years. I have been discriminated since people found out I was lesbian. I am also created in the image of God."

The Rev. Bertice Wood, a United Church of Christ pastor from Cleveland, Ohio, serving as moderator for the debate on the letter, said, "People are here from churches that have different stands on this issue. The test for us now is can we find a way to incorporate the diversity of perspectives transparently in the document?"

This was in keeping with her original mandate to the delegates to aim for a document that "reflects the Festival and the spirit that is here. Don’t ask, ‘Is this how I would have written it?’ but rather ‘Have I and others been heard?’"

The drafting committee came back from a tea break with wording that was accepted by the delegates by consensus. In its final form, the paragraph simply acknowledged the differences around issues of human sexuality. It read:

"We recognize that there are a number of ethical and theological issues such as abortion, divorce, human sexuality in all of its diversity, that have implications for participation, and are difficult to address in the church community. During the decade we acknowledge that human sexuality in all of its diversity has emerged with particular significance. We condemn the violence perpetrated due to differences on this matter. We wrestled with this issue aware of the anguish we all endure because of the potential to create further divisions. We acknowledge that there is divided opinion as women and men on this particular issue. In fact, for some women and men in our midst, the issue has no legitimacy. We seek the wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we may continue the conversation in order that justice may prevail."


The Decade Festival was far from dominated by issues of human sexuality. Rather, the interrelatedness of a wide range of issues was stressed.

This was illustrated during debate on the challenge letter, during which delegates asked strengthening of language on racism, environmental justice, war and the arms trade, and attention to fundamental needs such as those for literacy, clean water, sewage systems, vocational training for income generating, and health care.

These and other amendments grew out of the specific contexts of delegates: concern about the particular impact of religious fundamentalism and discriminatory law on women, the need to recognize indigenous women’s identity and culture, the evil of sex tourism.

During the Festival, participants also joined in worship and Bible study, heard from young women and from African women, celebrated Africa’s strengths and explored its problems, and encountered each other and a wide spectrum of concerns in the Issues Huts, where they also shared information and resources on racism, ecology, theology, peace, uprooted women, violence against women, health, the global economy and other issues.

The Rev. Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro, preaching at the Festival's opening worship, challenged participants to "engage in actions that move us from solidarity to accountability" and to learn from Africans "a spirituality of not giving up," of facing poverty, disease and disaster with "living hope." Africa "knows death, but we are not a dying continent. We refuse to give up on God, ourselves or the church. We celebrate jubilee every day."

"Sometimes during this Decade the church didn't stand in solidarity with us," she said. "But this Decade has made us stronger and gave us courage. We are stronger together."


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