Central Committee appreciates text on ecclesiology

WCC member churches seek agreement on understanding of ‘the church’

September 6, 2012

KOLYMPARI, Greece

“Faith and Order has a long and significant history in the life of the ecumenical movement. Its two convergence texts, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry and now The Church: Towards a Common Vision, provide our member churches with the necessary theological tools towards the full communion of our common fellowship,” said Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima. Metropolitan Gennadios, representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, serves as vice-moderator of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee.

The Faith and Order convergence text on The Church: Towards a Common Vision, was presented at a public hearing of the WCC Central Committee on Aug. 29. The WCC Central Committee is currently meeting at the Orthodox Academy of Crete here.

In her introduction to the text, the Rev. Sarah Lancaster from United Methodist Church in the United States, explained why a study on ecclesiology ― the theological understanding of the “the church” ― is important for Christian unity and for the WCC as a fellowship of churches.

Together with the Rev. Viorel Ionita from the Romanian Orthodox Church, Lancaster co-moderates the working group of the WCC Commission on Faith and Order that produced the new document The Church.

Lancaster made an analogy to the word “football” which in her American context refers to something other than the sport of “football” in other countries.

“When different rules, goals and even different footballs are used, it becomes impossible to play together. Likewise, if the churches understand the word ‘church’ in comparably different ways, the journey towards the unity of the church becomes just as impossible, and confuses the understanding of what it means to be a fellowship of churches. Accordingly, ecclesiology is a critical ecumenical question,” said Lancaster.

Her co-moderator, Ionita, outlined the long history of the Faith and Order Commission’s reflection of the churches from the 1920s, but in a more focused way since the late 1980s when the responses of the churches to the 1982 text Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry identified divergent understandings of “the church.”

Over a twenty-year period of ecumenical study of ecclesiology, the commission produced two preliminary texts; The Nature and Purpose of the Church (1998) and The Nature and Mission of the Church (2005), which were sent to the churches for study and comment.

Based on responses of the churches, councils of churches, church missionary organizations, Christian educational institutions, inter-Orthodox responses and findings of the various bilateral dialogues, the Faith and Order Commission produced a final text.

The commission was able to reach unanimous agreement on this text in Penang, Malaysia in June of this year. The commission identified The Church as a convergence text that was to be sent to the Central Committee to be received and commended to the fellowship of churches for study. A formal response process for The Church is being planned by Faith and Order.

The members of the Central Committee expressed appreciation for the document, and by consensus articulated an initial reception of the document. Ionita stated: “I am very excited about this text. Its reception by the churches formally begins at this hearing at the Central Committee of the WCC.”

The degree to which the churches are able to identify their own agreement with the The Church expresses how far Christian communities have come in finding a common understanding of the church.

Dean Anders Gadegaard from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark said, “The document is clear proof that within the fellowship of the churches the process of mutual recognition of each other as true expressions of the one church continues. We have a long way to go, but The Church: Towards a Common Vision is a promising step.”

Magali Nascimento Cunha of the Methodist Church in Brazil said that the new text describes “the church as a community of men and women, children and teenagers who gather in the name of Jesus to celebrate their faith and to support each other.”

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