Preparations for the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches have been underway for years, but as the Feb. 7 through 20 gathering approaches it becomes more and more apparent that a focal point of the assembly is likely to be an issue that was not part of the expected agenda: war in the Persian Gulf.

For leaders of the assembly, to be held in Canberra, Australia, the crisis in the gulf is not only an issue of war and peace, but it also poses a practical question of how to prevent the assembly from disintigrating into a single-issue convocation.

The assembly is convened only once every seven or eight years, and, as in the past, the agenda for 1991 is packed with numerous complex and important issues, such as the responsibility of churches in caring for the environment, the effect of foreign debt on Third World nations, the role of women in the churches, hunger, homelessness and racism.

The World Council, based in Geneva, is an organization identified primarily with the more liberal Christian bodies around the world, with increasingly strong representation from churches in Third World countries. In recent years, the council has been harshly criticized by the Christian right for its alleged neglect of evangelization and emphasis on social action -- particularly its support of liberation movements such as the African National Congress in South Africa.

For the first time a World Council assembly has worded its theme ("Come, Holy Spirit -- Renew the Whole Creation") in the form of a prayer, or petition. It also is the first time the theme has focused on the third person of the Trinity.

For World Council General Secretary Emilio Castro, the choice of theme underscores a belief that churches are facing a new millennium in a world so complex that Christians are called to fall to their knees.

By fashioning the theme in the form of a prayer to the Holy Spirit, the assembly could have special appeal to two groups that historically have been at the periphery of council life: the Orthodox churches, with their highly liturgical orientation, and charismatics, who emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit.

Castro raised concerns about the effect of the gulf crisis on the assembly in a Jan. 23 statement issued to explain the council's decision to go forward with the assembly despite the war.

Castro, a Methodist clergyman from Uruguay, said, "While the gulf crisis will occupy a central place in the concerns of the assembly and in the prayer life of the same, it is necessary to hold the assembly in order to address other pressing issues, some of them of a local nature and others with tremendous potential for becoming world conflicts."

Castro also noted that steps were underway "to provide a space within the assembly to take account of this particular crisis and to join hands in our common witness."

Like many other Christian leaders, Castro has taken a strong stand against U.S. policies in the gulf, issuing a statement Jan. 17 that deplored "the U.S. government's decision to initiate hostilities" and called for an immediate cease-fire.

According to Castro, one national delegation asked that the assembly be postponed as an "act of solidarity with the suffering people in the region." But he said a decision to proceed was reached, after consultations with Middle East church leaders, as a way of reinforcing the "peace testimony" of the churches and of articulating "the Christian solidarity with the people of the Middle East."

The assembly is the supreme legislative body of the World Council, and during their two weeks in Canberra assembly delegates are to choose council presidents and set program guidelines for the coming years and issue statements on matters of concern to the church and world.

About 3,500 people are expected to attend the assembly, approximately 950 of whom are voting delegates of the World Council's 311 member churches. About half the official delegates are expected to be lay persons, and about 40 percent are expected to be women.

World Council member churches come from the Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox traditions, but representatives from non-member churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, will attend.

After several decades of absence, Christians from China and North Korea will attend the assembly. The Chinese delegation is to be led by Bishop K.H. Ting, president of the China Christian Council.

In addition to the main daily morning worship services, there will be two other services every day: midday prayers with a homily and intercessions, and evening worship services.