Dialogue With Faith and Order Commission

Author: Mons. John A. Radano


Mons. John A. Radano
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

An increasing attention to ecclesiology

The Faith and Order movement, initiated early in the 20th century at the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement, addresses those issues concerning apostolic faith, as well as the structure of the Church over which Christians have been divided for many centuries. When the World Council of Churches was formed in 1948, this particular movement was expressed in theWCC as a Commission on Faith and Order. Today the Commission has 120 members coming mainly from the various Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant WCC member Churches, but also including 12 Catholic theologians appointed by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who take part in this Commission as full voting members. Thus it is the most widely representative official commission of theologians within the ecumenical movement. Its multilateral nature, with its very diverse representation of Christian traditions, illustrates its ecumenical significance.

Its multilateral nature also highlights the challenge of Faith and Order work: namely to foster a multilateral dialogue which reaches across the centuries of Christian division and searches today to seek common perspectives on issues over which Christians are divided, in order to work for their continual reconciliation now and in the future. Among many significant publications of Faith and Order a major achievement was the publication in 1982 of the convergence text Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM). The length of time it took to develop this text, which drew from studies over a period of 55 years, suggests the care that was taken to find convergences on these questions, and also reflects the complexity of the issues involved. BEM made a great impact over the decade of the 1980s, during which close to 200 member Churches of the WCC, as well as the Catholic Church and other Christian communions outside the WCC, officially responded to the text with critical comments of both a positive and negative nature, and it continues today. An evaluation of these responses made by Faith and Order in 1990, to see how this text fostered unity among divided Christians, highlighted the fact that much of what was said in BEM today can be shared by most Christian traditions. But many of the critiques, including that of the Catholic Church, especially on the question of ministry, made clear that to go beyond some of the convergences reported in BEM, and to resolve some of the problematic differences between Christians which need further reflection, it is necessary to give further and deeper attention to ecclesiology.

The Commission on Faith and Order of the WCC in fact has turned its attention to ecclesiology in a significant way over the last several years, and will continue to do so in the years to come. Its current range of studies and activities is diverse and broad. Consultations or smaller working groups planned for the next year concern studies on ecclesiology, worship, ecumenical hermeneutics, ministry and ordination, Apostolic Faith, anthropology. Faith and Order activities will include joint work in October with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity to develop materials for the annual week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a joint meeting with the Conference of European Churches to study Faith and Order Paper 181, The Natureand Purpose of the Church, and a working group on disabilities. But ecclesiology stands as a priority of this work.

While ecclesiology has been on the agenda of Faith and Order from its beginnings, it has emerged as a direct priority especially during the last decade, for a variety of reasons. Two of the more important reasons concern first, as just mentioned, the official responses to BEM, which made clear that attention had to be given to ecclesiology in order that further convergence or consensus could develop on those issues. Second, the developing ecumenical agreement on the goal of the ecumenical movement, which according to the World Council of Churches and the Commission on Faith and Order is visible unity of Christians, itself calls for further reflection on the understanding of the Church.

Concerning the goal of the ecumenical movement, with the help of Faith and Order, three major statements outlining the nature of the unity of the Church that is being sought have been published by WCC general assemblies, at New Delhi (1961), Nairobi (1975) and Canberra (1991). Seen in succession, with additional aspects about unity conveyed at the Uppsala (1968) and Vancouver (1983) assemblies, one can see an evolution in the ecumenical reflection on the unity of the Church, which reflects a growing convergence on aspects of the nature of the Church. To illustrate, with a few sentences from the most recent statement from the Canberra statement (1991): "The unity of the Church to which we are called is a koinonia givenand expressed in the common confession of the apostolic faith; a common sacramental life entered by the one baptism and celebrated together in one eucharistic fellowship; a common life in which members and ministers are mutually recognized and reconciled; and a common mission.... This full communion will be expressed on the local and the universal levels through conciliar forms of life and action" (n. 2.1).

Such ecumenical reflection on the unity of the Church, and the convergences developed in BEM, invites fuller ecumenical study on the nature and purpose of the Church.

The first fruit of this study by Faith and Order is the text, The Nature and Purpose of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement (Faith and Order Paper 181) published in 1998. The main text, as stated in the Introduction, tries to harvest insights discovered in a variety of dialogues. It "represents common perspectives which can be claimedlargely as a result of the work of the bilateral and multilateral discussions of the past fifty years" (n. 5). It also explores those various areas where differences remain, for example, concerning ministry in the Church. Both the common perspectives as well as the differences or disagreements expressed represent significant aspects of the nature of the Church. The length of time taken to arrive at these common perspectives, and acknowledgment of the significant issues still needing resolution, illustrate the fact that the challenging work of theological dialogue needs to be accompanied and supported by a deep, patient and prayerful spirituality which recognizes the reason why this work is being done: namely in response to Jesus' prayer to his Father for the unity of his disciples (cf. Jn 17:21), and encouragesthe continuing commitment to the search for growing consensus on the nature of the Church founded by Christ.

A process is envisioned which is directed toward testing the convergences and the differences cited in Faith and Order Paper 181 toward producing an even better text in the future. The different Christian communities are askedto study this document,. critically. evaluate it and send these, reactions to the Commission. Furthermore, Faith and Order will sponsor in the next several years a series of consultations concerning different aspects of ecclesiology. It is hoped that this continuing theological study will provide insights which can be useful in producing, in several years, an even more mature ecumenical reflection which outlines common perspectives on the Church, as well as differences which may remain.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
21 March 2001, page 10

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