The World Evangelical Alliance appears ready to join the World Council of Churches and the Vatican in supporting a code of conduct to guide activities seeking converts to Christianity.
The Rev. Geoff Tunnicliffe, WEA general secretary, "gave his full approval" to the organization's involvement in the process so far sponsored by the WCC and the Vatican, said the Rev. Thomas Schirrmacher, head of the WEA's International Institute for Religious Freedom. The WEA is an association of organizations and churches with a membership of some 420 million Christians worldwide.
Schirrmacher was one of the speakers at an August 8-12 consultation in Toulouse, France, where some 30 Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Pentecostal and Evangelical theologians and church leaders from Europe, Asia, Africa and the United States, gathered to outline the content of the code of conduct, which is expected to be finalized by 2010.
In opening the consultation, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toulouse, Mgr. Robert Le Gall, a Benedictine monk experienced in interreligious dialogue, said he envisioned the code of conduct as a tool to ensure the "mutual respect of those who are engaged in a religion" while at the same time preserving the "right to spread and explain one's faith."
For the Rev. Tony Richie of the Church of God, a U.S.-based Pentecostal denomination, the code of conduct is not about "whether" Christians evangelize, but "how" they do it. He advocated a "dialogical evangelism," ecumenically oriented and marked by an ethical approach.
The general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia and co-moderator of the WCC's Faith and Order Commission, the Rev. Hermen Shastri, proposed that the fundamental ethos of the code of conduct be an attitude of respect for the right of the faithful of any religion to their beliefs.
"Religious preachers need to be told that no religion has a monopoly on the truth, that there are many ways to find salvation," Shastri said.
According to WEA executive council member John Langlois, the code of conduct should express "repentance for past wrongdoings so as to make clear that the superiority mentality in regard to other religions has been overcome."
Among the issues identified by the participants as elements upon which the code of conduct should be based are: common understandings of conversion, witness, mission and evangelism, and concern for human dignity; a distinction between aggressive proselytizing and evangelism; the balance between the mandate to evangelize and the right to choose one's religion.
"Although these are very preliminary findings, the fact that representatives from all these walks of Christian life have been able to meet and discuss such a complex issue, starting to build a consensus, is in itself a success," said the Rev. Hans Ucko, WCC's program executive for interreligious dialogue and cooperation.
The complexity of the issue was highlighted at the consultation by contributions reflecting very diverse experiences in different contexts: from living as a Christian minority in India, to preaching the gospel to Turks in Germany, to having to turn down people asking for baptism in Zanzibar; from being a Lutheran missionary to Muslim Nigeria, to being an Anglican priest in a British city where Hindus have bought and worship in a former Christian church, or to being a US Pentecostal struggling with the fact that Pentecostals "are indeed ecumenical but just don't know it."
The code of conduct should on the one hand establish what all the partners agree needs to be banned when it comes to Christian mission, a daunting task given the many different contexts involved. On the other hand, it should hopefully provide guidelines as to how to deal with complicated issues, like interreligious marriages.
Its promoters expect the code of conduct to fulfill several goals: be an advocacy tool in discussions with governments considering anti-conversion laws, to help to advance the cause of religious freedom, address other religions' concerns about Christian proselytism and inspire them to consider their own codes of conduct, and also help to ease intra-Christian tensions.
None of the partners involved intend - nor have the means - to impose the code of conduct on their constituencies, but they all trust that it will be able to "impact hearts and minds" and allow for "moral and peer pressure."
The next step in this study project jointly undertaken by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the WCC's program on inter-religious dialogue will be a meeting in 2008 in which the code of conduct will be drafted, building upon the findings of the Toulouse consultation. Launched in May 2006 in Lariano/Velletri, near Rome, the project bears the name: "An interreligious reflection on conversion: From controversy to a shared code of conduct."