World Council of Churches Begin Meeting

Porto Alegre, Brazil - Leaders and envoys from across Christianity opened their most ambitious gathering in nearly a decade Tuesday with a host of troubles on their agenda -- from the faith's many internal rifts to easing discord with Islam, even as it deepens over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The World Council of Churches meeting -- its biggest since 1998 -- will seek to clarify new priorities for a membership that covers more than 500 million followers: mainline Protestant denominations, Anglicans and Orthodox churches. The Roman Catholic Church, which counts more than 1 billion faithful, is not a full WCC member, although it cooperates closely in many areas.

The Christian congregations fully outside the WCC fold are likely to be a recurring theme during the 10-day assembly of more than 4,000 clerics, scholars and religious activists.

The stunning growth of Pentecostal and other evangelical-style churches has left many WCC members struggling with shrinking congregations and declining influence in some regions -- particularly in Africa, Latin America and increasingly China. At the same time, the mainstream denominations are watching church attendance fall steadily in Europe and elsewhere.

The WCC's general secretary, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, plans to appeal for more outreach toward Pentecostals, evangelicals and related movements, which some experts believe may account for more than a third of the world's nearly 2.2 billion Christians by 2025. Kobia also is expected to call on important Pentecostal pastors to end their suspicion of the Switzerland-based WCC, which is often seen as a threat to their church's ability to expand and raise money.

"Christianity is undergoing radical changes," said one of the policy documents for the conference. "While Christianity appears to be on the decline in some parts of the world, it has become a dynamic force to others."

Meanwhile, Kobia and others are trying to hold together one of centerpieces of the WCC: the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church in the United States. Conservative factions have threatened to formally break ties to protest liberal trends, including the ordination of homosexual priests and toleration of same-sex blessing ceremonies.

The Anglican crisis escalated sharply in 2003 following the election of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. A growing number of churches in the West have split from their dioceses to join traditionalist blocs often led by African and South American bishops, who have threatened to break away from the global communion unless the liberals are marginalized.

Conflicts over blessings for same-sex partnerships also threaten the unity of the Lutheran church, and the issue is set for debate by other Protestant denominations. A document prepared for the conference said it was no longer possible to avoid once "taboo" debates over sexuality.

"Churches and Christians are divided and keep diving over such issues," it said.

Relations with Islam also has become a focus for the WCC's nearly 350 member churches. Islamic delegates are expected at the conference to help look for new points of contact between the faiths.

But the conference agenda acknowledges that today's global climate is a religious tinderbox. It notes that the Western values that have shaped Christianity "can lead to confrontation and conflict" with others -- a warning that has taken on worldwide proportions with the violent fallout from the caricatures of Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper.

"What does it mean to be in dialogue when the communities concerned are in conflict?" the WCC document asks the delegates.