GENEVA — German theologian Konrad Raiser, newly elected to head the World Council of Churches, says he hopes the global organization can improve its ties with evangelical groups as well as Roman Catholics.
Raiser, a Lutheran, says mainline Protestant churches of the West that formed the WCC more than 40 years ago are "faced with severe challenges," such as a loss of membership and doubts about their role in society.
He says the WCC, which has had to cut its budget because of declines in contributions, faces the same problems, but he expects the churches and the council to recover and "become a focus of inspiration again."
"The World Council can radiate only as much confidence as the member churches together can muster," Raiser said during a news conference.
He was chosen general secretary-elect in late August by denominational representatives from around the world. The council includes 320 denominations, totaling more than 400 million members.
The Harvard-educated Raiser, 54, answered questions with equal ease in English, German and French. He has been on the theology faculty of Germany's Bochum University for nine years.
Part of the council's problems have stemmed from its political stands, giving millions of dollars to armed liberation movements since the 1970s while being silent about restrictions on churches in the former Soviet bloc.
Raiser said he wants to continue the Program to Combat Racism, which has supported southern African liberation movements. He also said Christians have to battle against racism in Germany and other developed countries.
More recently the council has been criticized for being silent about Serb-perpetrated atrocities in former Yugoslavia because the Serbian Orthodox Church is a WCC member. Serbs are fighting non-member Catholic Croats and Muslims.
But Raiser said it is difficult to know who is at fault in the Yugoslav fighting and that the conflict doesn't call for a public stand by the council but solidarity with the people involved.
He assumes his new post in January on the retirement of the Rev. Emilio Castro, a Uruguayan Methodist who has led the WCC since 1985.
Raiser said he doesn't expect to make any announcements of change until next year.
"I have not that high an estimation of the office and the responsibilities of the general secretary," Raiser said. "Whatever change will come about will come about as a result of common action and not so much as a consequence of my volition."
He said he expects the problems of the WCC and its members will lead to change.
"I am not afraid of that change," Raiser said. "I am not afraid of the controversies that it will give rise to among us. All I hope for is that we face these controversies openly among one another and not put each other into boxes."
The WCC, with headquarters in Geneva, is the main international organization for Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and national Catholic churches.
While it has ties with the Roman Catholic Church and conservative evangelical groups in some of its operational agencies, Roman Catholicism and many conservative evangelical bodies are not full members.
But Raiser said that the council has been making progress and that some of the newer members include Pentecostal churches and indigenous African churches.
The council "has for many decades tried to take seriously that the worldwide Christian church and the ecumenical movement certainly is wider than what at present is embraced in the institutional framework of the World Council of Churches," he said.