A Revival from Below?
On August 24, Konrad Raiser (pronounced "Riser") became the first Lutheran and German to be elected General-Secretary of the World Council of Churches. He replaces the Methodist Emilio Castro of Uruguay, who will be retiring at the end of this year.
Raiser is arriving at a crucial time: Conservative evangelicals such as the German journalist Wolfgang Polzer claim the WCC "has never been in such a serious crises as now." Funding has decreased; the Vatican and conservative evangelical groups are as distant as ever from the WCC.
The lanky German theologian intends to address this crisis through "a revival from below." Rejecting the concept of a state church, he has called the national folk church (Volkskirche) "the most cumbersome form of church imaginable, an over-organized,
over-institutionalized and over-professionalized entity." He emphasizes the need to decentralize churches and reduce hierarchical power.
Raiser is weary of inter-confessional dialogue and believes that ecumenism can no longer be fostered by theological experts "from above." Church hierarchies feel called to "preserve their possessions." Yet true ecumenism, he maintains, runs counter to the drive for a church to "guarantee the preservation of its possessions". He therefore proposes that one ponder the option of "ecumenical anarchy". Young people, especially in America, are already living in a "post-denominational era."
The new General-Secretary is planning for new, unconventional sources of funding 'from below': "I'm thinking of voluntary donations from individual groups, which would supplement our past sources of income." In recent years, 40% of the WCC's budget has been covered by the Protestant churches of Germany.
Besides "renewing the necessary tension between the grass roots and the church hierarchy," the theology professor intends to place new emphasis on WCC programs for social and political change. Both of these goals could increase strain between the WCC's 320 member churches. The Orthodox churches largely pursue the opposite objectives: On German television immediately after Raiser's election, a Russian Orthodox leader was shown appealing for the retention of traditional teaching and leadership.
German journalist Annette Birschel notes: "Because Raiser desires a revival from below, the Orthodox and other conservatives, who are pushing for the authority of church hierarchies, view him with mistrust."
Confessional Lutherans are also slow to embrace Raiser. The Lutheran World Federation's General-Secretary, Gunnar Stalsett, was noticeably missing from a party given in Raiser's honor after the election. Gisela von Heusinger of the LWF's news service concedes that his absence "is regarded as a statement of protest." She adds that an official word of congratulation is not to be expected from the LWF.
Though a skilled diplomat, Raiser has been known to vocally support minority positions. At the WCC assembly in Canberra, Australia last year, Raiser had raised temperatures by proposing that a statement condemning the Gulf War also denounce "all theological and moral justification for war and military violence". He has since then clarified his position by describing himself as a "political pacifist", not an absolute one. He is now proposing the creation of an international police force to enforce peace in regions such as Yugoslavia. Birschel concludes: "In contrast to his predecessor, who was more concerned about harmonious relationships, Raiser will not be afraid to share an open word."
Yet, despite the broad desire for renewal, Raiser appears best equipped to guarantee continuity. Peter Beyerhaus, a conservative German theologian from Tübingen, recognizes no change within the WCC: "The new General-Secretary remains within the theological and political tradition of his predecessors."
As with the past two General-Secretaries, Raiser's strongest support stems from developing countries and liberal West European church circles. He is deeply committed to the WCC's long-term programs, including the controversial Program to Combat Racism. As Vice General-Secretary from 1973 to 1983, he was then-General-Secretary Philip Potter's primary assistant.
He cares deeply about North-South issues and is wedded, even in biological terms, to the proposed “Council for Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of the Environment”. The son of a prominent Lutheran professor of law, Raiser is the son-in-law of the Council's founder, Karl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. His wife, Elisabeth, is therefore the niece of Germany's president, Richard von Weizsäcker.
Dr. Bill Yoder
Berlin, August 29, 1992
Written for “The Lutheran” in Chicago, 690 words
Note from December 2020: Konrad Raiser (born 1938) resides in Berlin with his wife, Elisabeth. He was the WCC’s General-Secretary from 1992 to 2003. A predecessor,
the Caribbean Methodist Philip Potter, lived from 1921 to 2015. His immediate predecessor, Emilio Castro, a Methodist from Uruguay, lived from 1927 to 2013. Raiser’s successor as
General-Secretary was Samuel Kobia (born 1947), a Methodist from Kenya. Kobia served until 2009. Now retired, the Norwegian Gunnar Stalsett (born 1935) resides in Oslo. Both of the male Weizsäckers mentioned are now
Since 1972, all WCC General-Secretaries have been Methodist or Lutheran. None has ever come from Eastern Europe or Asia.