Report on the Work of the Faith and Order Commission

Author: Mons. John A. Radano


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

The BEM Report has made a big contribution

Recent Successes, Coming Challenges

The Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches in Geneva has been one of the successful arenas of ecumenical progress. Because its 120 members have included theologians from almost every Christian tradition, including, after 1968, theologians from the Catholic Church, the Commission is the most widely representative international ecumenical theological body in the world. While the full plenary Commission meets only once or twice in the seven year period between General Assemblies of the WCC, its Standing Commission of 30 members has met annually, or at least once within eighteen months in order to oversee the development of Faith and Order studies and other ongoing aspects of its work. The present major study-projects concern Ecclesiology (perhaps the most prominent), anthropology, hermeneutics, Baptism, and one on ethnic identity, national identity and the search for Christian Unity. Some ongoing Faith and Order tasks include, among others, supporting and recording the progress of "united and uniting churches", as well as the collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (since 1966) in the preparation of material for the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which is used in many parts of the world.

BEM: Two Decades of Reception. (1982-2002)

The Commission has produced many important ecumenical documents, the best known of them being perhaps Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM). The product of more than 50 years of Faith and Order study, this convergence text became, after its publication in 1982 , the most widely circulated ecumenical text. Because there were also about 200 official responses to it, mostly by member churches of the WCC, but by others as well, including the Catholic Church, it became an ecumenical reference point used widely for helping separated Christian communions to understand each other better, and even assisting some churches in changing their relationship to one another. One can trace the impact of BEM and its growing reception of the text by churches and ecclesial communities over the twenty year period since its publication, 1982-2002. In fact, the eighth meeting of the Forum for Bilateral Dialogue in May 2001, a forum which meets periodically to assess the progress of dialogues, traced in a concise way some of the impact of BEM and also of other dialogues during those 20 years. Since people are not always aware of the ecumenical progress being made, and indeed, some have questioned whether any significant progress is being made, we mention here, making use of the Forum's report, some ways in which BEM has made a difference.

Saying that the impact of BEM and other dialogue reports "has been dramatic", the Forum report illustrated how this has been the case on three continents. We focus here only on BEM. For Australia, the report cites a collection of dialogue reports (Stages on the Way: Documents from the Bilateral Conversations between Churches in Australia, 1994) which stated that "...the frequent references to BEM in the documents from many of the Australian dialogues is an indication of the extent to which its challenges and implications are being addressed". To mention one, that collection speaks of the Uniting Church—Lutheran Church dialogue's statement on the Eucharist, 1985. "The Uniting Church" it said, "is reclaiming the notion of sacrifice in the way that Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry suggests. Other categories which are of importance are memorial (anamnesis)and invocation of the Spirit".

Several examples from Europe can be mentioned. The Meissen Agreement (1989) between the Church of England and the Evangelical Church of Germany includes ten agreements in faith which refer to BEM. In the Porvoo Common Statement (1996) which brings together the Anglican Churches of Britain and Ireland and Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches into a considerable degree of communion, the agreement on episcopacy in the service of the apostolicity of the Church refers to the ministry section of BEM among other documents. The recent agreement of expanded church fellowship between the Lutheran Church of Norway and the Methodist Church in Norway, called Fellowship of Grace, 1994, as the Forum report notes, was facilitated by the renewal undertaken by Methodists there and elsewhere of their understanding of Baptism along the lines suggested by BEM.

Concerning the USA, to give one example, the "Consultation on Church Union", a movement which started in 1960, of nine mainline American churches, Protestant and Episcopal, will take an important step in 2002 and become "Churches Uniting in Christ", represents an agreement based on BEM, as that document provided the theological basis for the original proposal.

We can add, finally, that within the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II has mentioned BEM on a number of occasions. In "Ut unum sint" for example, the Pope, in a chapter in which he reflects on the results of dialogue, states that "the fundamental role of Baptism in building up the Church has been clearly brought out, thanks to multilateral dialogues", and documents the statement by referring to BEM (n. 42).

Much more evidence showing the impact of BEM could be given, but space does not permit it to be given here. The main lesson is that dialogue, in fact, is very effectivein helping Christians move toward reconciliation.

Challenges to Faith and Order

The Faith and Order Commission will be able to celebrate the impressive results of its work in August 2002, when there willbe a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the first World Conference on Faith and Order in Lausanne, Switzerland, (1927) where the commemoration will be held. At the same time significant challenges may lie ahead. At its recent meeting, January 9-16, 2002, the Faith and Order Standing Commission, while reviewing its various studies and activities,took steps towards preparing for its next Plenary meeting in July-August, 2004, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The StandingCommission began the process of formulating themes and sub-themes for the Plenary, keeping clearly in mind the challenge of the fact that the meeting will be held in an area where the majority of the population are members of other World religions and Christians are a minority. In what way should this reality be reflected in the Plenary meeting.

Perhaps there will be an even greater challenge. This will be the first Plenary to meet under the terms of the new bylaws of Faith and Order established by the WCC with Faith and Order's approval in 1999. In the former bylaws, the whole plenary Commission was charged with initiating the study program of the Commission, laying down general guidelines for it, which the Standing Commission would then formulate and carry through. According to the revised bylaws now in place, it is the smaller Standing Commission which is responsible for initiating, implementing and laying down general guidelines of the programme of Faith and Order in consultation with the Programme Committee of the WCC. The Plenary Commission on the other hand provides a "broader frame of reference for the activities of the Standing Commission", a forum for debate and a source of membership for participation in study groups and consultations. Now that the Plenary no longer seems to have the same responsibility as previously, there is a danger that Faith and Order could lose some of its ecumenical prestige. A major reason for its prominence has been the fact, already stated, that with 120 members it is the most widely representative international theological body in the world. Under the new bylaws, which shift the major responsibilities that the Plenary previously had to the Standing Commission of 30 members, unless the Plenary meeting is designed and implemented properly and unless its broad representative nature is seen as still effectively involved in processes leading to the studies which issue from Faith and Order, there is danger that the subsequent Faith and Order Commission's study documents may not be seen to have the same broad representative backing as before, and its prestige could possibly be diminished. The coming Plenary meeting must therefore be designed and implemented so as to make clear that the study documents published have the same representative backing as those, for example BEM, in the past. In this writer's view, this is an important challenge facing Faith and Order today.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 February 2002, page 10

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069