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Dialogue gives taste of WCC Assembly

Sensitivity to symbolism, innuendos, people and new approaches have refreshed and deepened Marion Best’s faith as she worked with the World Council of Churches from 1991 to 2006.

M Best Omega Bula

Marion Best and Omega Bula at 9th Assembly

Marion will provide an opportunity for those who attend The Fig Tree’s 2006 Faith in Action Dialogue at Whitworth College in Spokane to experience a taste of the power of worship, decisions, dialogue and perspectives from the WCC’s ongoing work and its 2006 assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

At 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 10, she will share elements of the recent assembly’s worship, music, symbolism, encounters, discussions and decisions in the Seeley G. Mudd Chapel at Whitworth College, 300 W. Hawthorne.

In a workshop from 9 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Nov. 11, in room 206 of Dixon Hall at Whitworth, she will engage participants in small groups to experience dialogue as they take turns being storytellers and listeners.

Marion’s inter-religious family life, local ecumenical church involvement and leadership in the national United Church of Canada led to her representing her denomination at the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) 1991 assembly in Canberra, Australia.  There she was elected to its Central Committee and Executive Committee.


Marion Best moderates session with General Secretary Samuel Kobia and moderator Aram I

The WCC’s eighth assembly in 1998 at Harare re-elected her to the Central Committee and elected her as one of two vice moderators—one of the WCC’s four officers along with the general secretary and moderator.

They met every three months from 1998 to 2006.  Officers met twice a year at the Ecumenical Center in Geneva in addition to the meetings held in conjunction with the 25-member Executive Committee every six months.  The Central Committee meets every 12 to 18 months between assemblies.

“The general secretary looks to the officers for guidance between sessions,” she said.


Expression of concensus

In that role, Marion was part of the WCC’s journey with the Orthodox churches, several of which were on the verge of leaving the WCC in 1998.  A special commission with 30 Orthodox and 30 Protestants and Anglicans worked through a number of issues as they met over a three-year period.  The Central Committee accepted their recommendations, resulting in changes at the Porto Alegre assembly.

“That journey was illuminating for me,” Marion said, noting that it resulted in a change from voting to consensus decision-making, use of the term “common prayer” rather than “worship”—which for Orthodox includes Eucharist—and a revision in the membership process.


Worship procession

“In the ‘common prayer’ at the assembly, what we did was no different from what we had previously called worship, but the change in terms showed respect for the Orthodox, because we do not yet celebrate Eucharist together,” she said.

“It took a long time and much listening to understand why these issues were important,” she said. 

In the WCC setting, Marion learned to hear how differences matter to people. 


Many cultural expressions

A concern she has heard from people of the Southern Hemisphere is a desire for the WCC to move away from the European paper-driven sessions with long speeches.

“People in the South are interested in relationships, telling stories and doing Bible studies together,” she noted.  “They are less interested in dealing with documents.”

As a tangible way to begin to express the shift, the WCC began using round tables for the Central Committee and assembly dialogue sessions to encourage conversation.  Marion said that seating people in rows tends to limit conversation and “the sense that we were sitting with people from the whole world.”


Cross with assembly symbol

“It made a difference,” she observed.  “The tone changed.”

The WCC was a pioneer in inter-religious dialogue in the 1960s, and recently has put even greater emphasis on that.

Awareness of issues for indigenous people, stirred at assemblies in 1983 at Vancouver and in 1991 at Canberra, brought action.

Marion likes the approach of the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV), serving as facilitator and communicator, encouraging people to “do their own thing where they are and letting the WCC know about it to share with others.”

“Initiatives come from people’s contexts, based on decade’s goals,” she said.  “DOV explores how to bring peace in our communities, churches and families, too.

“My involvement gave me a chance to stand back from my own church to listen to where others are coming from.  I have grown in understanding how life experiences impact faith.”


Symbol of bread

She is sensitive to the role of different theologies and terminologies in people’s faith lives.

For example, even within the United Church of Canada she knows there is a range of comfort from those who find it meaningful to refer to God as “father/mother” and those who would refer to God only as Father, as in the triune understanding of God as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Through Bible studies in the context of the WCC, she learned to see scripture through the eyes, life situations and contexts of others to know how the same verses can mean something quite different for different people.


Symbol of water theme

In addition, she has valued the use of silence, symbols and music from different cultures.

She was particularly moved by the symbol of a large empty chalice placed on the altar and covered with a cloth at the last assembly.

“It spoke to me of waiting to be filled,” Marion said, “for the day we can share the Eucharist together.”

“It’s so moving to hear 4,000 people saying the Lord’s Prayer together in their languages.  It conveys a sense that we are one despite whatever disagreements we may have,” she said.

For information, call 535-1813.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © November 2006