WCC Faith & Order: a more audible call to visible unity

( [email protected] ) Jul 15, 2003 11:50 PM EDT

The World Council of Churches' Commission on Faith and Order is preparing itself "to make its call to visible unity more audible to the churches". This is the commitment of the commission as expressed by its moderator, Rev. Prof. David K. Yemba, in his opening address to the meeting of the Faith and Order Standing Commission, held in Strasbourg, France, 3-10 July, 2003.

Speaking to about 30 theologians of different church traditions from all over the world who constitute the Standing Commission, Yemba, a Methodist minister from the Democratic Republic of Congo and dean of the Theological Faculty of the Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, stated that "this will be one of our main challenges" in the near future, and specially at the next Faith and Order Plenary Commission meeting.

The Standing Commission confirmed that the Plenary meeting will take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from July 28 to August 6, 2004. The Plenary Commission "is expected to play its new role [according to the decision taken by WCC Central Committee in August 1999] as a forum for theological debate", Yemba underlined.

In contrast to many past occasions, this time the meeting will have a general theme: "Receive one another, as Christ has received you, for the glory of God" (Romans 15:7). "The theme opens perspectives on reception, hospitality, spirituality, recognition and reconciliation", Yemba said. "But above all it constitutes a call to live in communion [...] beyond the boundaries within the household of God", he added.

The appropriateness of the selected theme for the work of the Faith and Order commission was also highlighted by its director, Rev. Dr Alan Falconer. In his report to the Standing Commission meeting he stated that each of the studies the commission carries out "is directed to helping the churches call each other to move beyond themselves by embracing and including the other in a fellowship of hospitality".

In its meeting, the Standing Commission examined and discussed all of the current studies and gave directions for further work to bring them to maturity. The studies are diverse and numerous, however, some can be highlighted.

One, for instance, is the work on ecclesiology, that is to say, the understanding of what it means to be church. Faith and Order continues its work on this issue by developing a text called "The Nature and the Purpose of the Church". Seen as "a stage on the way to a common statement", the draft, issued in 1998, was submitted to churches, theological commissions and council of churches for their reactions.

While efforts are being made to address confessional and regional imbalances by getting responses from different parts of the world and from Orthodox churches, the responses already received are being incorporated in the redrafting of the text. At the same time, several consultations have helped to clarify specific themes. Reports and papers from two of them - "Authority and Authoritative Teaching" and "Does the Church have a sacramental nature?" - are due to be published later this year.

The work on baptism follows a similar track. Comments on a draft text from churches, commissions and scholars continue to be received, and discussions on it held with theologians and liturgists. While plans are underway for further development of the text, the key issue discussed here is what would be the meaning of "mutual recognition" and how this could be implemented more fully in local contexts around the world.

A collection of baptismal services - with explanatory articles - from different Christian traditions is being prepared. Once available to the churches, it will contribute to an ecumenical understanding and reflection on baptism, with the goals of promoting its mutual recognition and clarifying reasons for non-recognition.

A theological reflection on peace is also underway. In this context, and related to the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence, a workshop gathered recently biblical scholars and theologians from Africa. Their experiential reflections on the meaning of healing and reconciliation from specific contexts of violence will soon be published. This process of reflection is also linked to a study process on Ethical identity, national identity and the search for unity.

"All these studies aim to examine, in different ways, the function of religion in society, its influence on the search for the unity of the Church and its role in the renewal of human community", Yemba stated in his report. (A detailed overview of all these initiatives can be seen at: http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/faith/goal-e.html)

The Standing Committee meeting also paid attention to other work that the Faith and Order commission is undertaking in preparation for the ninth WCC Assembly to be held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, from 14-23 February 2006. The commission has been entrusted by the WCC Central Committee with the development of two statements - one of them on the Church, the other on religious plurality.

The first one is expected to be a succinct statement, able "to be an answer to the higher expectation of churches in these times of conflicts and despair", in Yemba's words. In the tradition of WCC assembly statements on unity and the churches, it would focus on the Church - local and universal, one and diverse.

A drafting group will meet for the first time next March. It is anticipated the group would include not only members of the Faith and Order commission, but also representatives from the Steering Committee of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC and from the Joint Working Group between WCC and the Roman Catholic Church.

The statement on religious plurality will be also the result of a collaborative effort. In this case representatives of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism and the WCC programme of Inter-Religious Relations and Dialogue will join with Faith and Order. The purpose of this process will be to answer the question of how far WCC member churches can go beyond - if at all - the position on the relation between dialogue and mission established at conferences and consultations held at the beginning of the nineties.

During the meeting of the Faith and Order officers that followed the Standing Commission meeting, discussions were started on when would be an appropriate time for the next World Conference on Faith and Order. The last one took place in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in 1993, and the period between world conferences has traditionally been a decade or a decade and a half. There is an agreement among the officers that the decision about the next one will be entrusted to the next Standing Commission when it meets after the ninth WCC Assembly.

Meeting last week in the city of Martin Bucer who offered hospitality to John Calvin, the members of the Standing Commission were welcomed by the president of the Church of the Augsburg Confession of Alsace and Lorraine, Marc Lienhard, and enjoyed the hospitality of the Institute for Ecumenical Research of Strasbourg and the St-Thomas Cultural Centre.