July 2020: Volunteers from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, USA, prepare to help patients at a drive-thru testing site for COVID-19 at St. Luke Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Nashville. Teams from the United Methodist-related school offered testing at area churches on Saturdays.

July 2020: Volunteers from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, USA, prepare to help patients at a drive-thru testing site for COVID-19 at St. Luke Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Nashville. Teams from the United Methodist-related school offered testing at area churches on Saturdays.


On 7 April, World Health Day, WHO will celebrate its 76th anniversary—and for 50 of those years, WHO has worked closely with the WCC.  

"Our shared work in the areas of public health, promoting health, keeping the world safe, and serving the vulnerable so that more people benefit from universal health coverage, has led to many achievements as well as the discovery of more challenges ahead,” said WCC general secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay. 

Specific issues of collaboration have included primary healthcare, promotion of breastfeeding, access to essential drugs, addressing HIV, and addressing pandemics and outbreaks such as EBOLA and COVID-19. 

The WCC is planning an online conference in June to celebrate the relationship, and to explore how the contributions of faith communities can be further strengthened, particularly through the new WCC Commission of the Churches on Health and Healing.

rich history

The WCC created the Christian Medical Commission in 1968 to help member churches encourage church-related health programmes to develop ecumenical cooperation.

In its early years, the Christian Medical Commission emphasized the promotion of primary health care as a means of redressing the imbalance between sophisticated and expensive institutional medical care for a few—and hardly any for the rest.

The relationship between the WCC and WHO officially began when the newly formed WCC Christian Medical Commission held two conferences to examine the role of the church in providing healthcare through medical missions. 

What followed was a theologically informed shift from hospital-based tertiary care in cities, many in post-colonial settings, to primary care delivery in rural as well as urban communities. A close relationship between the leaders of the Christian Medical Commission and the WHO facilitated a parallel and equally radical shift in the WHOs strategy, from a vertical or top-down focus on single diseases to the 1978 Declaration of Alma Ata, which focused on primary care. Both the WHO and the Christian Medical Mission saw primary care as a more just and egalitarian way to distribute resources and bring health to all.

At that time, primary health care was considered a radical approach to health services. The Christian Medical Commission, working through WCC member churches, greatly enhanced the case for primary health care within WHO and its subsequent support by nongovernmental organizations concerned with community health.

Key in the history of the WCC and WHO collaboration was the Alma Ata Declaration, which stated: Governments have a responsibility for the health of their people which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”

The declaration was adopted at the International Conference on Primary Health Care, Almaty, Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, in what was then the Soviet Union.

The declaration’s specific inclusion of human rights and concern for equity and community participation dovetailed with the work the WCC was doing globally. 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, addressing the WCC central committee meeting on June 2018.


HIV response 

Another strongly collaborative area is the response to HIV and AIDS, which the ecumenical movement has highlighted since the 1980s. In June 1986, a WCC study group recommended three main areas where the churches could respond: pastoral care, social ministry, and education focused on prevention. Educational material was produced that aimed to equipping health workers, pastors, and teachers to assist communities in facing the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Further efforts have focused on theological and ethical reflection on aspects of the churchs responsibility in responding adequately to the crisis.

In 1994, the WCC study on AIDS was commissioned by the central committee and in 1996 the statement The Impact of HIV/AIDS and the Churches’ Response” was adopted. 

An important example of WCC’s response in a holistic way has been the development of the concept of ‘ Health Promoting Churches’ and development to material to asst churches and congregations to become agents of healing and transformation on the communities. 

WHO Faith Network

Currently, the WCC is a member of the WHO Faith Network, which was formalized in early 2022 with over 50 partners representing a diversity of faiths, including service providers, faith leaders, faith-based organizations, and academic institutions.

The network was convened with the goals of increasing access to accurate and relevant information and building a community of collaborative sharing on topics related to health emergency preparedness and response, and the intersection between faith and public health.

And the partnership between faith-based groups and WHO keeps evolving.

WHO member states are currently negotiating a Pandemic Accord ahead of the World Health Assembly in May. Input into the accord is examining the critical roles played by faith partners during the COVID-19 pandemic, including inpatient care, community education, and engagement to prevent transmission and build confidence in vaccines and advocacy, as well as calling for equity in access to vaccines and other essential health services. Faith organizations, including members of the WHO Faith Network, have developed and released statements related to such an accord. 

“The WCCs commitment to health and wellbeing remains strong, and we look forward to another 50 years of collaborating with the World Health Organization,” concluded Pillay. 

As World Health Day approaches, WCC invites global prayer (WCC news release, 4 April 2024)

World Council of Churches Publications Related to Health 2019 - 2024

Contact magazine - a resource of the WCC being published by key partners from different regions of the world

World Council of Churches Christian Medical Commission - Guide to the microfilm collection