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Talbert has key role in selecting future WCC leadership

Dec. 9, 1998 Contact: Tim Tanton((615)742-5470(Nashville, Tenn. {723}

By Tim Tanton*

HARARE, Zimbabwe (UMNS) - United Methodist Bishop Melvin G. Talbert understands better than anyone the difficulty of balancing the competing interests that are a natural part of a World Council of Churches assembly.

As moderator of the WCC's Nominations Committee, Talbert must make sure the slate of officers for the organization's new Central Committee has the proper balance of women, youth and Orthodox members, and of lay and ordained people. The 150-member Central Committee gives direction to the WCC during the seven- year periods between each assembly.

More than 4,500 people are attending the WCC's Eighth Assembly, Dec. 3-14, at the University of Zimbabwe. The Geneva-based council is an ecumenical organization of 339 churches. The Roman Catholic Church, though not a member, works closely with the group on some issues and has representatives at the assembly.

Talbert and the Nominations Committee have been putting in long hours toward producing a slate of officers that the assembly can approve for the new Central Committee. It hasn't been easy work. The committee initially planned to present the slate to the assembly for approval Dec. 8, but after working late the night before, it became apparent that the percentage of female nominees was too low. Instead of increasing the percentage of women on the Central Committee, the slate would have decreased it.

"For me, that was just unacceptable," Talbert said.

The WCC's goal for the Central Committee is 50 percent women, 25 percent youth and 25 percent Orthodox.

The discussion within the assembly about increasing the influence of the Orthodox churches also has affected the Nominations Committee. The Orthodox churches, unlike any of the other members of the WCC, are given a certain number of slots and are allowed to name who they want. The other member churches must have their nominees approved by the nominations committee.

"It has compounded the problem because they are not cooperative in bringing their share of the goal," Talbert said of the Orthodox. "They bring a few youth, they bring a few women.

"For us to reach (the goal of ) 50 percent women, that means that other regions of the church have to go far beyond what's expected of them, and that's the pain we feel," he said.

The major regions of the church also had not met the goal for inclusion of women, he noted. The North American representatives are committed to meeting it, he said.

The United Methodist Church, a major contributor to the WCC, has four seats on the Central Committee. At one time, Talbert recalled, the church had seven. The Evangelical Church of Germany has the largest number now, with five.

The dialogue on the committee is "not contentious," the bishop said. "It is an honest struggle on the part of this committee to try to work this out. I'm feeling good about the process."

The slate will be presented to the assembly in the Dec. 10 evening session.

Moderating the Nominations Committee is only one of many ecumenical roles that Talbert has filled in and out of the WCC. His work with the council began at the Vancouver, Canada, assembly in 1983, which he attended as an accredited visitor.

"I was really turned on and inspired by the WCC," he said. The dynamic worship and the people from different churches working together impressed him.

"It's a wonderful arena to get to know people and experience the diversity of the religious world," he said.

Later, he was elected secretary of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, a post that included serving as ecumenical officer for the denomination.

He was a delegate to the WCC's 1991 meeting in Canberra, Australia. He was named to the Central Committee, and then assigned to the executive and finance committees.

When he looks back, he sees a lot of ecumenical milestones.

"Some major breakthroughs have happened in this seven-year period," he said.

The WCC was an advocate for doing away with apartheid in South Africa, and the organization was banned from the country. The ban was lifted in the early 1990s, shortly before the death of apartheid.

"I was part of the delegation that made the historic first visit to Capetown, South Africa, meeting with the South African Council of Churches," Talbert said. That was followed by a 1994 meeting of the Central Committee in Johannesburg.

Talbert also was involved in the WCC's project to send emissaries from around the world to monitor violence in South Africa during the transition from apartheid. The presence of the outsiders lowered the violence there, the bishop said.

His eyes were opened, he said, when the WCC was invited to visit the United States to have hearings with the National Council of Churches on human rights violations.

"I was part of that, and that was not an easy task," Talbert said. "Americans do not believe human rights violations are going on in America."

Participating in the West Coast hearing, Talbert heard testimony about violations suffered by indigenous people and others.

As a member of the finance committee, he was involved in helping the WCC reach financial equilibrium, and it is now living within its means, he said. That was achieved by cutting staff and some programs, and putting controls on spending.

"When we came into this seven-year period, we were in serious difficulty, financially," Talbert said. The organization had seen a steady decline in income.

"Some have called it a financial crisis, and to some degree it is a financial crisis," he said. However, the WCC still had income of $52 million, and Talbert asked how the organization could use that money "and make a valiant witness" with it.

"While I would like to see us continue to grow financially, I would like to celebrate the fact that we still have at our disposal $50 million," he said.

While Talbert provided strong leadership on the finance committee, he also advocated programmatic directions for the WCC.

He supported the Common Understanding and Vision (CUV) process, which has provided churches with the opportunity to "get a fresh start" and reflect on their role in the WCC, whether they really want to be there and what it means for their ministry. The WCC participants spent considerable time on Dec. 6 discussing the CUV

"I think it has provided the vision for the direction in which we're going now." It is focusing the assembly on what Talbert believes is the primary mission: "to work toward being one in Christ."

That is a "painful" task that involves examining deep issues, he said. "What does it mean to be together from a theological perspective?"

The pain he feels comes from the fact that some groups feel they have to use the threat of leaving the WCC to get what they want. "That does not help me," he said. "We are not here by force, but by choice."

His commitment, he said, is different: "I'm here to stay. If you think I'm going to leave, you've got another think coming."

During this active period with the WCC, Talbert served a term as president of the National Council of Churches, continued for a while as ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Church, and has led the denomination's San Francisco Area. A good staff and cabinet, along with planning his schedule well in advance, have helped him balance his many roles.

As part of an effort to ease tension between United Methodists and the Russian Orthodox Church, Talbert led the first delegation of United Methodists to meet with His Holiness Alexei II, the Russian Orthodox patriarch.

He also has led several NCC delegations, including one to the White House in 1995 to present President Clinton with a resolution on the budget crisis. The following year, a delegation that he led to North Korea became one of the first ecumenical groups to report that the country was facing famine.

His term as immediate past president of the NCC will end next November, and he will retire 10 months later at the age of 66.

"I'm looking forward to the future, and what I will do after I retire, I really don't know," he said.

However, his commitment to ecumenism will not go away, he said.

"I think it's at the heart of what it means to be the church," he said. "We cannot be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ and only work out of the context of one denomination."

Wherever he goes, he said, he will link up with colleagues in faith and keep working to be an influence for peace and justice in the world.

"I'm just going to be open to the guidance of the Spirit."


*Tanton is news editor for United Methodist News Service.

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