VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Elders from Indian tribes along Canada's west coast will light a ceremonial fire early Sunday morning to mark the beginning of the Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches -- one of the largest gatherings of Christian bodies ever held.
The fire, to burn throughout the July 24-Aug. 12 assembly, will also provide light for the candles for other more traditional forms of Christian celebration that will punctuate the debate as the council wrestles with its theme, 'Jesus Christ, the Life of the World.'
While much of the world's attention will be focused on the social and political pronouncements made by the 900 delegates, the real work of the 18-day assembly and its ultimate significance will be less in the statements than in the theological and spiritual message the delegates take back to their 303 member churches.
'Worship is the underlying flow' of the assembly, according to council officials, and there will be three worship services each day, including noon services featuring 'great preachers of the world.'
Equally important, the assembly -- the first in North American since its second meeting, held in Evanston, Ill., in 1954 -- will be a gauge of the degree of unity the world's Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches have achieved since the fifth assembly in Nairobi in 1975.
A year ago in Lima, Peru, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council -- the group responsible for exploring the theological issues that divide the churches -- issued historic consensus statements on baptism, the eucharist (Holy Communion) and ministry.
Although the agreed statements have yet to acted on by the council's member churches, the Lima statement represents a major breakthrough in the churches' quest for unity. And in a quiet way the statements challenge the assumption of critics that the council has forsaken the quest for doctrinal unity in favor of social and political activism.
Vancouver will also be a dramatic demonstration of the changed nature of the world Christian movement since the council's first assembly in Amsterdam in 1948 -- a gathering that was dominated by white males from the churches of Europe and the United States.
While the United States will still have the largest number of delegates -- 129 of the 900 -- the rapid growth and independence of the one-time missionary churches in the Third World has greatly incresed the number of delegates and participants from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Women too are participating in greater numbers, growing from 6 percent at Amsterdam to almost 30 percent for the Vancouver meeting.
That changing constituency, however, has also been the source of some of the criticism leveled against the council that it has forsaken its original purpose of seeking Christian unity while placing too much emphasis on justice issues for minorities and women.
That criticism comes not only from those outside the council, such as the recent attacks by Reader's Digest and CBS' '60 Minutes,' but from some influential segments within the council: the Orthodox and some European Lutherans. One group,the Salvation Army, has withdrawn from the international body because of its perceived involvement in leftwing political activities.
The thorn in the side of the critics is 'liberation theology,' a view that has emerged primarily from Third World churches in Latin America and Africa, filtering its understanding of Christian doctrine through the idea of God's liberating acts for the people of Israel.
This has led churches to talk of God's bias for the poor and the oppressed and in many instances for both :lergy and laity to identify with liberation movements -- sometimes revolutionary -- in a number of Third World countries.
At the same time, the critics charge the World Council has been too often silent on human rights abuses in Communist-dominated countries.
Council supporters counter that the delicate nature of church-state relations in those countries demands a different, more behind-the-scenes approach. And they point to quiet interventions on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church and the World Council's Commission of the Churches on Internation Affairs on behalf of the 'Siberian Seven' - the group of Soviet Pentacostals who lived in the U.S. embassy for five years in an attempt to win the right to emigrate to Israel -- as an example of council's human rights work.
Despite the criticisms, however, there is no indication the council's membership is ready to abandon its concern for peace and justice issues and the Vancouver assembly will have a heavy focus on both.
Even that could cause some internal problems in the council, according to some observers, as Third World delegates consider the nuclear war issue to primarily concern the white Western churches of Europe and North America, taking precedence over the justice issues that dominate Africa and Asia.
As always, words -- written and spoken -- are one of the chief products of such gatherings and Vancouver will be no exception.
The 900 delgates and 1,000 visitors will hear a host of not only Christian leaders but Jews, Moslems, Buddhists and Hindus as well as representatives of Chrisitan groups such as the Roman Catholic Church that do not belong to the council.
Meeting in a host of smaller groups, the delegates will also explore four sub-themes of the assembly's overall theme of 'Jesus Christ -- the Life of the World': 'Life, a Gift of God;' Life Confronting and Overcoming Death;' 'Life in its Fullness;' and 'Life in Unity.'
In addition, eight 'issues' that have been prominent on the council's agenda since the 1975 Nairobi meeting will also receive special emphasis during the assembly: 'witnessing in a divided world'; 'taking steps toward unity'; 'moving toward participation'; 'healing and sharing life in community'; 'confronting threats to peace and survival'; 'struggling for justice and human dignity'; 'learning in community'; and 'communicating with conviction.'
All of these sub-themes and issues are expected to produce reports, resolutions and statements to be acted on in the final days of the meeting.
Woven through the words and committee meetings will be a host of other events such as symbolic actions and public witnesses marking the anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, a film festival, concerts, art exhibitions, as well as 'public forums' that will feature such speakers as Coretta Scott King and Nobel peace prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel.
Price tag for the assembly is approximately $3.5 million.
But as the assembly ends, the controversy settles and the 4,000 delegates disperse to their homes around the globe,the agenda of the World Council of Churches -- still the most representative gathering of Christians in history -- will have created an agenda that will affect the religious life of many of the 370 million people in churches affiliated with the council.