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The Nature and Purpose of the Church

Response of the member churches to The Nature and Purpose of the Church (Faith and Order Paper No. 181)

02 September 2002

World Council of Churches
Geneva, Switzerland
26 August - 3 September 2002

Responses to The Nature and Purpose of the Church (Faith and Order Paper No. 181)

By 1 June 2002, twenty-one responses had been received from churches. In most cases these had been drafted by the appropriate Commission for Theology, or for Ecumenical Relations. Six of these responses emanated from churches of the Reformed tradition (viz. Church of Scotland, Greek Evangelical Church (GEC), Presbyterian Church in Canada, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), United Reformed Church (URC)). One Methodist response (Methodist Church in Great Britain), two Lutheran responses (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Finland (ELCF), Church of Norway), and one Anglican response (Church of England (CoE)) have been received. Responses have also come from the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain, the Friends General Conference Christian and Interfaith Committee and Ecumenical Task Group, and from the Salvation Army. Two Roman Catholic responses have been received (from the Archdiocese of Toronto, and a group of theologians brought together by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), though not speaking on behalf of the Pontifical Council).

In addition to the responses from churches, seven responses have come from councils of churches (Conference of European Churches (CEC) “Churches in Dialogue ” Commission meeting with Plenary Commission members of Faith and Order; Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) Commission on Mission; Churches Together in England (CTE), the National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA), the Council of Churches in the Netherlands, the Christian Council of Norway and the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Councils of Churches). We have also received responses, which resulted from discussion in Theological Seminaries (viz. Lexington, Matanzas, Tübingen), and from meetings of Pastors (American Baptist Churches (ABC), and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria) and from an ecumenical group in Italy (groupe œcuménique de Milan), and from an Orthodox Women’s Consultation on “Being Church”, held in Geneva.

We also received some responses from individuals, including one from Dr Eugene Fisher, Director for Christian-Jewish Relations of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Of the total number of responses received eight have come from the United Kingdom, seven from the USA, two from Canada, Germany, Norway and one each from Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Greece, Finland, Italy, Netherlands and Cuba.

While the responses received thus far are substantial responses to the text, there is a very significant imbalance both confessionally and geographically. While it is known that a number of responses have still to be received, these will not redress the above imbalance. To meet this situation, therefore, a conference organised by the Malaysia Council of Churches (in July 2002) will seek to provide some Asian perspectives on the text, Seminars in Greece and the USA (November 2002 and Spring 2003) will lead to significant Orthodox perspectives while it is hoped that an African consultation (organised with the African Conference of Catholic Bishops) will offer perspectives from that context. The International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) will also submit a response.

Questions of Methodology
A first and very tentative reading of the responses seems to point to an affirmation of the methodology adopted though one response raises important questions to the enterprise (Massachusetts). While there are suggestions for the re-ordering of chapters, the setting out - in BEM style - of a convergence text and the identification in boxes of diversity and differences seems to have been found helpful. Though some responses (e.g. Netherlands Council of Churches) urge that the boxes be used not simply to state differences, but to propose ways by which some progress might be made to resolve the tensions.

However a number of comments raise some issues of methodology.

1. The “language” used in the text is identified as problematic in the response of the United Reformed Church (which calls for more evidence of “lived experience”); the responses of the National Council of Churches in Australia, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (which notes that the document needs to take contextuality seriously) and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, the American Baptist Church responses, Bavarian pastors.

Greater clarity is also sought re terms, e.g. Word (Norwegian Council of Churches).

2. In a number of responses, the issue of the contextuality of the Church has been emphasised, and one (Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand) suggests that the document begin with the Churches human community. A point also emphasised by the Netherlands Council of Churches, who suggest that the human reality of the Church needs to be evident early in the document.

3. Four responses question the manner in which the Bible has been used in “The Nature and Purpose of the Church”. The two Roman Catholic responses ask for more widespread citation of the Scripture passages implied in the text, while the Church of Scotland questions how far contemporary biblical scholarship has influenced the mode of interpreting the biblical texts. Both the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto and the United Reformed Church indicate the wish that in the re-drafting process we take seriously #6 footnote and #13. The United Reformed Church reminds us of the Faith and Order work undertaken in the 1950s on Images of the Church. The PCPCU (Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) and Italian responses raise the question of citing more passages from the Bible, the Fathers and the tradition of the Church in the first millennium.

4. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto recommends that the boxes should be used also to indicate where there are points of disagreement, where progress has been made on the issues in bilateral and multilateral dialogues, while the Presbyterian Church USA suggests that further differentiation needs to be made where in the boxes diversity is church-dividing and where it is a matter of legitimate diversity.
5. While the PCPCU responses notes that Faith and Order Paper No. 181 harvests the work of bilateral and multilateral discussions, it feels that much more could be gleaned from these texts in any revision.

6. A number of responses indicate further themes which need to be examined, e.g. Churches Together in England emphasis interfaith dialogue and the activity of God in the world.

In responding to “The Nature and Purpose of the Church”, the respondents on the whole follow the pattern of the document itself and comment sequentially on the paragraphs. From the responses, received thus far, there is an affirmation of the BEM type approach of the document, and in general the shape of the document overall seems acceptable. There are substantive suggestions concerning the ordering of some chapters and the position of certain paragraphs, but it appears that we would not be incorrect to continue without basic framework, making such adjustments to the ordering of materials as are discerned to be appropriate, e.g. koinonia to chapter I (PCPCU, Church of England). Attention needs to be given to the way in which Scripture is interpreted and cited, and we need to explore how far it is possible to enliven the text linguistically, contextually and conceptually. A number of responses point to the need for less triumphalistic language and raises questions to the number of “s” statements. This is not only a linguistic or stylistic issue, but is also an ecclesiological question and is perhaps best addressed within each section (e.g. responses of Evangelical Lutheran Church in Finland, Church of Scotland).

While work needs to be undertaken on every section of the report, a number of issues have been raised which need substantial attention. In many instances, re-drafting suggestions have been made. However, the substantive areas for further work include:

1. Scripture in the Document
a. Development of “en Christo” needed (Presbyterian Church Aotearoa New Zealand)
b. Images of the Church - suggestion that these have been reduced to static images - notes a dissolving of richly biblical material into abstract ideas (PCUSA).
c. Authority of Scripture (PCUSA)
d. Use of Scripture (URC)
e. Tradition and Scripture (ABC)
f. Needs to consider more the Jewishness of the Church’s origin and heritage (ABC) and the problematic development of the People of God image in a supercessionist direction (Fisher)
g. Images of the Church - use more of Minear (ABC) and situate images especially Body of Christ (Church of Norway)
h. The suggestion that more of the Faith and Order study “A Treasure in Earthen Vessels” be incorporated in the text.

2. Koinonia
a. How does koinonia as a gift of God, reflection of the Trinity relate to koinonia as expression of the Church, which in its visible life can clearly be broken? (Church of Scotland)
b. Evangelical Church in Finland finds the balance between koinonia and the failures of living it are in good balance.
c. Koinonia needs to be related more to the sinful nature of the Church (Methodist Church in Great Britain).
d. Needs more emphasis on the economic Trinity (Methodist Church in Great Britain) and on relation of the Spirit to Christ (Friends Dialogue Committee and Ecumenical Task Group).
e. Central meaning needs to be unpacked and the sort of relationship spelt out (Presbyterian Church in New Zealand) (and earlier in the document - Presbyterian Church in New Zealand, cf. PCPCU)
f. Need to develop this more in context of “en Christ” (Presbyterian Church in New Zealand).
g. Further development re Communion, real but …; community and diversity; communion of local churches (e.g. Church of Norway) and on community - plurality (Norwegian Council of Churches) and on diversity re Chapter 3 (Massachusetts Council of Churches).
h. Koinonia and history (Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto)
i. Extensive discussion and questions (Lexington)
j. Link images of Church to koinonia (meta-image) (CoE), though question as to whether this is a productive term (Massachusetts Council of Churches)
k. Substantive comments and suggestions (PCPCU)
l. Explore and clarify nature of unity (e.g. Massachusetts Council of Churches)

3. Nature of the Church
a. How does the Church come to be?
b. What room is left for action of God outside the Church?
c. The “is - not yet” of the Church needs to be emphasised, the eschatological framework (Fisher), as does semper reformanda, Verbum Dei, the Church in via (Church of Scotland)
d. Church in via needs to be more prominent.
e. Church as "apostolic" (Norwegian Council of Churches)

4. Creatura Verbi
a. Does this relate to Christ, Scripture or ? - need to clarify. (ELCF)
b. While statements in first section can be defended, they are not at first sight the main or central way that a theology of the Church should be developed (Presbyterian Church in New Zealand)
c. ABC - problems in understanding this term.

5. Church in History
a. Comments by Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto (redrafting suggestions)
b. PCUSA (not only members)
c. 7 churches in Revelation could be cited (Lexington)
d. Systemic sin (ABC) - in a number of responses (Religious Society of Friends)
e. Note also the positive contributions of the Churches in history (e.g. humanists, hospitals, literacy, etc.) (PCPCU)

6. Church as Sacrament
a. Reflections by Church of Norway

7. Ministry
a. Too much emphasis on the “primacy” of ordained ministry and insufficient acknowledgment of theological principle of ministry of whole people of God (Church of Scotland, Methodist Church in Great Britain) - and in commentary on section (Church of Scotland, Presbyterian Church in Canada, Presbyterian Church in New Zealand, URC, Religious Society of Friends)
b. Extensive comments offered (ELCF)
c. Question of ministry as of esse or bene esse of the Church (Presbyterian Church of New Zealand)
d. Unfortunate that episcopacy is introduced in the opening pages of the text (PCUSA)
e. Further questions (PCUSA)
f. Suggestions (Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto)
g. Questions (URC)
h. Issue of Ecumenical Bishop in Wales (CTE)
i. Role of minister (Lexington)
j. Continuity in episcopacy (ABC)
k. Ordained ministry (NCCA)
l. Variety of issues (Milan)
m. Women and Ministry

8. Action of God outside the Church
a. What room is left for this? (Church of Scotland)
b. Suggestion that lay taking Natural Law more seriously, this might be more profitably addressed (ELCF).
c. Importance of linking to other faiths (Methodist Church in Great Britain)
d. God raises up people - outside, beyond the Church (CTBI-CCM)
e. Relation to people of other faiths (CTE)
f. Interfaith dialogue and koinonia (Lexington, Netherlands Council of Churches)

9. Church and State
a. The relation of Christ to culture, and of Church and State needs to be addressed so that churches can work freely and inclusively (GEC, URC, CTE, ABC)

10. Service in the World
a. Suggestion that Natural Law be treated as fundamental (ELCF)
b. Warning against Natural Law because it is appealed to in support of totalitarianism, homosexuality, etc. (GEC)
c. More development (Methodist Church in Great Britain)
d. More linking - theological substructure re eucharist-ethics (Presbyterian Church of Canada)
e. More emphasis on mission (ABC, CoE, PCPCU, Netherlands Council of Churches: include also in title)
f. Inculturation (CoE)
Connection between chapters 4 & 5 needs to be strengthened (Netherlands Council of Churches)

11. New Areas
a. Church and Kingdom
i. ABC
ii. Religious Society of Friends
b. Churches - a worshipping community (CoE)
c. Issue of power and authority (CoE)
d. Invisible Church (Religious Society of Friends)
e. Legitimate Diversity
in a number of submissions (CEC)
f. What do we mean as Churches by term "Truth" (Norwegian Council of Churches)
g. Liturgy and worship (Church of Norway)

12. Discipline - Authority
a. Expectation of personal growth and exercise of discipline among church members (Methodist Church in Great Britain)
b. Authority of Scripture and confessions of faith (PCUSA)

The Netherlands Council of Churches recommends that the document begin with a treatment/statement on the spirituality of ecumenism (motivation and strength to persevere towards unity)

While those themes do not exhaust the topics to be treated, and give little hint as to the extent of the concern, e.g. re ministry, they identify (i) primary areas of concern, (ii) some new issues which have not been the subject of consideration to date (e.g. church and state).

As we move towards revision, we should take into account that some of the issues have been or will be the subject of discrete consultations (e.g. Ecclesiology and Mission, Authority and Authoritative Teaching). However, the responses have helped to set our agenda. Finally, all the responses - be they from churches, councils of churches, theological institutes - have welcomed Faith and Order Paper No. 181 and have been pleased to be invited to take part in its development.

Alan D. Falconer
Commission on Faith and Order
(FO/2001:16 2nd Rev. June 2002)