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Text and context

More study sought on WCC’s ‘The Nature and Mission of the Church’

October 15, 2009

KOLYMPARI, Crete, Greece

Editor’s note: The Rev. Aimee Moiso, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) delegate to the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Plenary Commission, is writing a blog on the Oct. 7-13 event. — Jerry L. Van Marter

Recommendations to extend and expand a consultation process on “The Nature and Mission of the Church” emerged from 12 small groups reviewing the text of that title on the final day of the Oct. 7-13 meeting of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Plenary Commission at the Orthodox Academy of Crete here.

The groups’ proposals will be forwarded to the smaller Faith and Order Standing Commission and to officials of the WCC, which the Plenary Commission serves as an advisory body.

The Nature and Mission of the Church,” a 40-page book, was issued in December 2005 and commended to Christian churches by the WCC’s Ninth Assembly at Porto Alegre, Brazil in February 2006. Churches, church-related institutions and interested individuals were requested to submit responses to the text by January 2010.

The document attempts to achieve ecumenical agreement on world Christianity’s understanding of “ecclesiology” — the doctrine of the church, its nature and mission — and to identify those church-related matters that continue to divide Christians.

As of late September 2009 nearly fifty responses had been received by Faith and Order, but only eighteen of them were official communications from churches.

In addition to the written responses, participants in the plenary considered a series of presentations on the text and on the commission meeting’s theme: “Called to Be the One Church.” Presenters came from a wide range of geographical regions and traditions of Christianity, and a recurring criticism in their analysis of the text was a failure to take fully into consideration the broad diversity of the world’s churches and their differing contexts.

In one of the speeches, Metropolitan Geevarghese Mar Coorilos of India, a bishop of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, expressed gratitude for the Faith and Order text’s “philosophical imagination,” typical of “classical models of dialogue.”

He suggested that this western, academic approach to ecclesiology now “needs to be complemented with sociological and poetic imaginations where the text (the Word) takes on flesh and enters the realm of the pain and pathos that the poor and their earth endure.” Using as an example the full involvement of members of the disadvantaged Dalit caste in the life of the Indian church, he called for “a dialogue from below” to complement traditional encounters “at esoteric and intellectual levels.”

He characterized this more contextual form of dialogue as “a process of challenging religious traditions, including one’s own, on questions of injustice.”

The Faith and Order participants had been divided into twelve groups for the purpose of general discussion. Oral reports from these groups echoed the concern that the voices of Christians living in the global South, and women everywhere, be more clearly articulated and heard as Faith and Order’s reflection on ecclesiology continues.

There was concern that the process focus less on the church’s essence and more on its role in addressing the world’s needs.

William Henn of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, a group reporter, warned that the church needs to balance context and continuity, showing an appreciation both for daily reality and for the history of the people of God.

Group reporters indicated disappointment at the low rate of response to “The Nature and Mission of the Church.” The 18 churches officially replying to the text so far are roughly equal to five percent of the 349 members in the WCC, and two responding church bodies are non-members.

One group argued that “it is more important to engage the churches than to revise the text at this point,” although others made suggestions for rendering the document shorter and more user-friendly.

Most of the 12 groups recommended that a study guide be prepared, renewed invitations to join the project be sent to churches and the deadline for responses be extended by a period of six months or more.

Peter Donald of the Church of Scotland cautioned that “ecumenical patience is needed. Perhaps there will not be an early conclusion to this process.”

Katharine Doob Sakenfeld of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) indicated that a text revised on the basis of responses may not be possible in time for the next WCC assembly in 2013.

Myriam Wijlens, a Roman Catholic from Germany, depicted “The Nature and Mission of the Church” as a work in progress, “an ‘in via’ document that captures a certain stage of this process.” It is, she said, “good enough for the time being” but will be improved as it is studied more widely and revised on the basis of comments from those who study it.

The Rev. Theodore Gill is senior editor of WCC Publications in Geneva and a minister member of  the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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