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GEN 14 Aide memoire World Council of Churches and human sexuality

This paper is a development of a draft prepared by Alan Falconer and Martin Robra to describe the ethos of the Padares at the Eighth General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare (1998). It continues to be the underlying understanding for the deliberative sessions of the WCC Central Committee.

22 February 2005

1. From New Delhi to Canberra

 

It is over forty years ago when, at the request of its member churches, the World Council of Churches (WCC) began to address the issues of human sexuality. The foci and nature of the work done have been influenced by the aspects the churches felt challenged to address at a given time. The survey carried out by Birgitta Larsson best explains how the Council dealt with the issue of human sexuality in the period between the New Delhi Assembly (1961) and the Canberra Assembly (1991). The major findings were published in "A Quest for Clarity" (Birgitta Larsson, The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 50/1, WCC Publications, Geneva. 1998).

 

 

Several Assemblies made reference to new questions facing the church. The New Delhi Assembly, for instance, stated:

 

 

The churches have to discover what positions and actions to take in regard to sex relations before and after marriage; illegitimacy; in some culture polygamy or concubinage as a social system sanctioned by law and customs; in some Western cultures short-term marriages, or liaisons, ease divorce; in all parts of the world mixed marriages (inter-faith, inter-confessional and inter-racial) with the diminishing of caste and class systems and of racial prejudice… All this, and much else, forces the churches to re-examine their teaching, preaching and pastoral care and their witness and service to society.

 

 

The Uppsala Assembly (1968) took the entry point of the debate on "birth control", but continued to state:

 

 

Family patterns change in different social settings, and Christian marriage can find its expression in a variety of ways. We should like materials elaborating the problems of polygamy, marriage and celibacy, birth control, divorce, abortion and also of homosexuality to be made available for responsible study and action.

 

 

Inspired by the reflections on "alternative life-styles" by the ecumenical consultation on Sexism in the 1970s (June 1974, Berlin), the Nairobi Assembly (1975) called for "a theological study of sexuality, taking into account the culture of the member churches":

 

 

Whereas we recognize the urgent need to examine ways in which women and men can grow into partnership of mutual interdependence, it is recommended that the WCC urge the member churches to

 

 

1. Affirm the personhood and mutual interdependence of individuals in families;

 

 

2. Affirm the personhood and worth of people living in different life situations.

 

 

The Christian Church is in a key position to foster and support the partners to marriage in their search for mutuality. The church is in the same unique position in respect to persons living in different life situations (e.g. single people living in isolation, single parents), extended families and persons living in communal patterns. There is evidence that these people are not fully accepted by many societies and are often ignored by the church.

 

 

The assemblies in Vancouver (1983) and Canberra (1991) came up with similar statements, including, however, concerns of biotechnology. Responding to recommendations by the Vancouver Assembly, the Central Committee called for a thorough re-examination of values in sexuality, with special emphasis on how churches develop educational and pastoral care systems in this area and initiated a study on female sexuality. Because of the rich diversity of the findings, a second study was commissioned on Sexuality and Human Relations. The 1989 Moscow Central Committee asked to circulate this study for comment in the regions. The result of this process was the very comprehensive and very carefully edited publication on Living in Covenant with God and One Another: A Guide to the Study of Sexuality and Human Relations (Geneva: WCC, 1990), which still is a very good resource for study encounters and group discussion at different levels.

 

 

Whilst churches expected the WCC to contribute to more clarity and perhaps even a common position, it proved to be difficult for the Council to respond to such requests. The member churches through the WCC were obviously more successful in identifying a range of key-issues that need to be addressed in different contexts and in creating opportunities for careful considerations of the various aspects and perspectives involved.

 

 

Birgitta Larsson's survey suggests that:

 

 

· Very different and changing family patterns and life-styles challenge the churches to address a wider range of issues of human sexuality; frequently noted are issues of pre-marital sex, short term marriages or extra-marital sex, polygamy, marriage and celibacy, homosexuality, etc.;

 

 

· The WCC addressed issues of human sexuality through different studies in response to requests coming from the member churches, which were taken up by the decision making bodies;

 

 

· Studies were successful in so far as they did not pretend to lead to a WCC position taken by the Central Committee, but rather provided information and considerations for careful discussions by the member churches together and in their different cultural contexts.

 

 

The WCC functioned well as a space for facilitating and enabling the dialogue on issues related to human sexuality.

 

 

2. From Canberra to Harare


 

In the period since the Canberra Assembly, the issue of homosexuality progressively took centre stage. Gay and Lesbian Caucus met during the Canberra Assembly and drafted a letter to the new moderator of Central Committee asking that work on sexual orientation be transferred from Family Life Education to Justice Unit. The decisive turning point was, however, the 1994 Central Committee meeting in Johannesburg. The Unit III Committee report was hotly debated in the plenary in response to references to violence against women, particularly lesbians. The announcement of Harare as the venue for the Eighth Assembly prompted a Dutch journalist at a press conference to raise the question about reports of police in Zimbabwe randomly arresting gays in the streets of Harare. As the preparations for the Harare Assembly got underway, the WCC was increasingly confronted with strong reactions from gay groups and gay-friendly churches, condemning the fact that the Zimbabwe government continued to attack homosexuals in the country as severe violations of human rights.

 

 

A first staff workshop, facilitated by former WCC staff member Alan Brash, was organized in July 1995. Alan Brash also produced a statement on the issues at stake that was later published in the Risk Series.

 

 

In December 1996 a meeting bringing together Orthodox and Protestant church leaders and theologians in Antelias spent much time on sexual orientation issue and agreed on the human rights aspects of the issue. This was, however, later challenged by Orthodox as well as by some Protestant voices in the WCC prompting a WCC human rights consultation in 1998 to reject any reference to sexual orientation in a document for Harare. The WCC received on the other hand correspondence from some member churches emphasizing the human rights aspect, particularly the United Church of Christ in USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Netherlands which subsequently withdrew their participation from the Assembly.

 

 

A small consultation in 1997 in Geneva underlined that issues of human sexuality which were already on the agenda of many of the member churches and that the different approaches and positions taken posed serious new challenges to the quest for the visible unity of the church. Contributions to this consultation were published by The Ecumenical Review in 1998. This more constructive ecumenical approach to the issue was strengthened by the idea to prepare for the Harare Assembly Padare sessions on sexual orientation that would allow for mutual encounter and discussion in a safe environment.

 

 

The Padares on sexual orientation were experienced by most of the participants as a helpful contribution by the WCC to create a space for dialogue. This became even more important after the very difficult experience of the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion, which rather deepened the differences and divisions within the Anglican Communion on sexual orientation. As in other churches, the focus on a decision by a decision-making body or an authoritative statement on the issues at stake proved to be rather counterproductive. The approach of creating an enabling ecumenical space for mutual encounter, analysis, and dialogue seem to be more promising.

 

 

Based on the Padare sessions the Programme Guidelines Committee recommended to the assembly a shift of focus from sexual orientation to human sexuality. The Programme Guidelines Committee report emphasized the need for the WCC to address issues of personal and interpersonal ethics, and noted:

 

 

The WCC should offer space and direction for conversation and consultation enabling member churches to discuss these difficult issues - including human sexuality - which cause division within and among its members churches.

 

 

The assembly further urged the WCC "to engage in a study of human sexuality, in all of its diversity, to be made available for member churches."

 

 

3. Post Harare Developments

 

 

Further reflections on the recommendations by the Programme Committee convinced the Council that the process should move beyond stating the issue as merely a difficult one to be avoided because of potential conflict or divisions, to a situation in which spaces are opened up for discussion, debate, analysis and action. It would be apparent that, because of the openness that has developed in some churches, there was less denial of the importance of the issues and their impact on members of the community and churches. There is more clarity on methods of how to talk about human sexuality. Many member churches are involved in discussions of different aspects of human sexuality although it has to be noted that few have yet moved to specific programme or educational work.

 

 

At the Harare Assembly it was clear that the churches did not feel it appropriate to establish a specific programme on human sexuality. The mandate of the Assembly was not to start a programme but to "provide space" through which the member churches are enabled to discuss the difficult issues related to human sexuality. For this reason the General Secretary, with the support of the Officers, decided to approach the issue in the following way.

 

 

A. Reference Group on Human Sexuality

 

The General Secretary invited a number of representatives from member churches to form a WCC Reference Group on Human Sexuality. The terms of reference of the group are:

 

 

· To advise the general secretary on the development and content of the WCC work related to human sexuality, taking into account the link with all other areas of WCC work that have bearing on the implementation of the governing bodies recommendations.

 

 

· To advise and accompany the WCC ‘s Human Sexuality Staff Group (see following section) in carrying out the recommendations of the WCC governing bodies, helping to evaluate its work and offering advice on further development of the work.

 

 

· To ensure the participation of representatives from WCC member churches in their confessional, cultural and religious diversity.

 

 

The group met on several occasions - November 2000, July 2001 and April 2003 in Geneva. The work done includes:

 

 

· Following up on WCC programmatic work linked to the issue of human sexuality

 

 

· Set up a list server (e-mail group) for sharing ideas and information within the Reference and Staff Groups

 

 

· Development of a timeline of work up to the 2006 Ninth Assembly

 

 

· Detailed analysis of the church statements received and preparation of the Bossey Seminar 2001 (see section on Bossey Seminars below) following the WCC General Secretary's invitation to all WCC member churches to submit their official statements on all aspects of human sexuality.

 

 

· Review of a congregational study guide prepared by the Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg, South Africa.

 

 

· Gathering stories from the regions for a Risk Book (March 2005)

 

 

· National seminars to take place (2003-2004) on biblical texts, similar to the third Bossey Seminar, in Asia (Bangalore, India), Lebanon, Fiji, Nairobi, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, and Europe in preparation for the plenary presentation to the WCC CC in 2005. One member of the reference group will organize the meeting and another one from outside the region will participate. Funds will be raised for such participation and organization of the meetings.

 

 

B. Staff group on human sexuality

 

The General Secretary appointed a Human Sexuality Staff Group within WCC. The terms of reference for the group requires that it "develop a process that responds to the mandate from the Assembly (which shall be facilitated) in ways which will enable the member churches to engage in dialogue with one another as well as with congregations."

 

 

Both groups have been engaged in exploring questions of human sexuality so as to offer advice to him on these issues. The staff group has worked on

 

 

· Publishing two articles in the July 2002, Volume 54, Number 3, of The Ecumenical Review:

 

 

- "Reclaiming the Sacredness and the Beauty of the Body: The Sexual Abuse of Women and Children from a church Leader's Perspective" by David Coles

 

 

- "The Body as Hermeneutical Category: Guidelines for a Feminist Hermeneutics of Liberation" by Nancy Cardoso Pereira

 

 

· Compilation of a bibliography on human sexuality issues.

 

 

· Linking the issue of human sexuality to WCC programmatic work (see following section).

 

 

· Review of a study guide on Human Sexuality, prepared by the Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg.

 

 

· Preparation of the Padare on Human Sexuality at the August 2002 Central Committee.

 

 

· Preparing and acting as an advisory body for planning the Bossey Seminars on human sexuality.

 

 

· Facilitated archiving of materials - in Spring 2002 materials and correspondence relating to these issues, especially leading up to the Harare Assembly were properly archived and lodged in the WCC library. This represents nearly nine years of exploring appropriate and effective ways and methods of discussing and addressing the issues involved.

 

 

 

C. The Bossey Seminars

 

By providing a laboratory for testing and further developing the approach chosen by the Programme Guidelines Committee and the Reference Group the three Bossey Seminars became the most comprehensive contribution to the process in the period between the WCC Assemblies in Harare and Porto Alegre. All three seminars were introduced by a meditation on the theme of pilgrimage (see appendix) developed from the guidelines for the Padares at the Harare Assembly. In terms of methodology, the seminars were also facilitated by a professional from outside WCC who tested the consensus of the group all the way through each meeting in order to allow for development to take place. At the beginning all the participants were invited to make a contract of confidentiality, attentiveness to the process and honouring of the others' convictions.

 

 

The first Bossey Seminar (July 2001) invited a broad range of participants from various regions to share the cultural, local and global perspectives on human sexuality. The participants expressed that the best kind of theology emerges from real life experience in relation to sacred traditional theology. The degree to which the individual participants were able to reach openness and vulnerability determined the quality of shared reflection and theologizing. Many participants experienced the pressure of their local culture very strongly. The interaction of culture with practice, faith and scripture was an enduring concern. Human sexuality is simply not just about matters of same-sex sexuality as it has often arisen in ecumenical discussions. Rather human sexuality is very basic to all human beings and affects them often at points of extreme vulnerability.

 

 

Personal stories of pain, guilt, celebration were shared within a confidential sharing space in the seminar where people spoke voluntarily of their lives of engagement with infidelity, failures of sex lives in marriages and relationships, identity questions, and a panoply of other experiences. These experiences could not be categorized along the lines of gender, orientation, and culture. They were rather marked by openness and became encounters with sacred humanness. Traditional sexual ethics are inadequate because a) they themselves are flawed, and b) they are inadequate to deal with the new world that the people of God find themselves in. A new practice and theology of sexuality need to be forged. This theology needs to reclaim the theology of the body and to practise pastoral care and approaches that are more appropriate for the varied human sexual experiences.

 

 

Regional experiences were shared. In Sub-Saharan Africa, massive concern was expressed on patriarchal gender differentiation and human rights violation of women particularly on cultural/ritual control of women's sexualities and violence against women. For many African women, "the marriage certificate is a death certificate." Sexual networking, polygamy, and other sexual practices spread HIV/AIDS like wildfire in the continent. The use of condoms continues as a church issue that is hotly debated. In Asia, colonization brought massive repression of traditional expressions of sacred sexualities. Globalization promotes commodification of the bodies, particularly of women and children and gives rise to issues of injustice. In North America and Western Europe, post-modernity has a huge impact on sexual practices. Debates on homosexuality are dominant in church discussions. There is a deep sense of pain of family rejection. Violence against women, abuse of children and massive divorce rates are still major problems. In all regions, churches are in a position of silence and shame about sexuality and sexuality exclusive to marriage is fundamentally challenged.

 

 

The second Bossey Seminar (April 2002) dealt with the summary and analysis of church statements collated by the international Reference Group. The statements identified the issues and approaches the churches were struggling with. The participants discovered the gaps between church statements and lived realities and that most of the responses are coming from the north. Two inputs on confessional perspectives were given by the Finnish Orthodox Church and the United Methodist Church, USA. While various forms of life in communities were celebrated, the dimensions of challenges in human sexuality varied in different communities - monastic communities, mixed marriages, marriages within the traditional faith communities, and gay and lesbian communities. There were painful moments created by hardening of church positions on human sexuality. Other issues and responses presented during the seminar were HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa and responses of non-governmental organizations and sexual abuse among clergies or church leaders and a church response from Aotearoa-New Zealand.

 

 

The third Bossey Seminar (April 2003) focused on Bible studies. Three approaches were used in the study of the Bible - body of Christ, pilgrimage, and trinity. The study of the Bible and the sharing from confessional perspectives provided a lively entry point in identifying issues on human sexuality that had not been explored in the past. These situations have arisen from the realization that family structures or patterns are changing. There is an increasing number of mother-headed families where the male role has become irrelevant causing fathers to be thrown out of the homes; more people would like to remain single or get married but not raise children. In Africa, because of AIDS, families are beginning to be left to the care of grandmothers and even children as parents die of AIDS. In Europe and North America gay and lesbian communities would like to raise their own children through adoptions or through children they brought from previous relationships, or through in vitro fertilization. Other issues identified were on disabilities and sexuality, polygamy, fidelity, extra marital and pre-marital sex, homosexuality, abortion and contraception. The participants affirmed the sharing of stories and challenged the prescriptive and normative model of engaging in the issues of human sexuality. The participants affirmed an enabling and facilitating approach to theology, ethics, and Bible studies in dealing with the varied dimension of human sexuality. The whole experience affirmed the nature of theology that is provisional, that shows signposts along the life journey, and that is not prescriptive. There is a need to explore eschatological reversal and counter culture as another lens in reading the Bible.

 

 

D. Work on HIV/AIDS

 

Churches engaged early with HIV/AIDS, and many have excellent care, education and counseling programmes. But the challenge to the churches is felt at a deeper level than this. As the pandemic has unfolded, it has exposed fault lines that reach to the heart of the church's theology, ethics, liturgy and practice of ministry. Today, churches are being obliged to acknowledge that they have - however unwittingly - contributed both actively and passively to the spread of the virus. The difficulty in addressing issues of sex and sexuality has often made it painful to engage, in any honest and realistic way, with issues of sex education and HIV prevention. The tendency to exclude others and certain interpretations of the scriptures have all combined to promote the stigmatization, exclusion and suffering of people with HIV or AIDS. This has undermined the effectiveness of care, education and prevention efforts and inflicted additional suffering on those already affected by the HIV. Given the extreme urgency of the situation, and the conviction that the churches do have a distinctive role to play in the response to the epidemic, what is needed is a rethinking of the mission, and the transformation of structures and ways of working.

 

 

The work on curricula for theological education that has begun includes the need for more positive affirmation of the human body and of sexual relationships. HIV/AIDS forces the churches to engage more openly and in a pastoral way with issues of human sexuality.

 

 

E. Violence against women

 

The issue of violence against women has been on the agenda of the WCC for over a decade now. In their analysis of the violence, women today increasingly make a link with issues related to human sexuality and violence. Whenever there is war or conflict, there is reference to the rape and sexual violence against women. What makes it even more difficult to bear is the evidences of sexual violence against women and children even in refugees centres in the hands of humanitarian aid workers. But sexual violence against women is a reality in times of peace too.

 

 

Regrettably, sexual violence takes place even in the so-called safe environment of the church. Recent revelations of sexual abuse by clergy is a closely guarded secret and happens in many churches in all parts of the world. Women in the WCC constituency also point to the violence that lesbian women experience in most societies. All this has made women identify more clearly the link between the violence they experience and their sexuality. WCC is committed to working with women in challenging the churches to speak out more clearly on these issues and to offer solidarity and pastoral support to women who experience violence.

 

 

 

 

F. Other important contributions


 

Links continue to be made between the Reference Group and current WCC programmes through the work of the staff group on

 

 

· theological anthropology

 

 

· ETE (Ecumenical Theological Education) curricula

 

 

· EDAN (Ecumenical Disabilities Advocates Network)

 

 

· Biotechnology

 

 

In the process of this work contacts have been established with church related organizations addressing issues of human sexuality in their own contexts (e.g. European Forum of Lesbian and Gay Christian Groups Assembly in Spring 2003). One way of linking such organizations within and between regions is to facilitate participation of individuals from other contexts. Reports and experiences of the participants at these events will contribute to the data that WCC is collecting and will be shared with the churches and others who express interest.

 

 

The Programme Committee report to the 1999 meeting of the Central Committee stated that, "new attention is needed to the spiritual dimensions of caring for life, particularly as they relate to ethical questions arising from bio-technology, birth control, abortion and human sexuality."

 

 

4. Towards the Ninth Assembly in 2006


 

A. For staff and reference group discussions:

 

 

· The Bible and human sexuality - hermeneutics of the whole approach and how to interpret the Bible on this issue (different interpretations combined with different world views lock us into the debate)

 

 

· Human sexuality in the context of the breakdown of the family. The General Secretary raised this issue with the participants in the last Bossey Seminar and it has been a constant theme in all the seminars; sex education is done in the family in all cultures; how to fill this gap against the breakdown of family grouping is a huge challenge

 

 

· Sexual abuse of children in church; how can the WCC speak out on issues of abuse in the churches; not only in the Roman Catholic church but also in WCC member churches, e.g. Australia, Canada

 

 

· Study Process on HIV/AIDS and Violence Against Women; the Bossey seminars along with correspondence received from different regions, indicate that the violence against women is an issue that must be taken up in the context of HIV/AIDS. In cooperation with the WCC women's programme and different partners in the regions addressing this issue, a study process will be initiated in 2004.

 

 

B. Hearing during CC 2003.

 

 

C. An issue of The Ecumenical Review dedicated to the issue in preparation of the plenary presentation to the CC in 2005.

 

 

D. Risk Book to be published to encourage and facilitate discussion in the churches after the CC 2005 and prior to the General Assembly in 2006.

 

 

E. Central Committee 2005 Hearing Presentation.

 

 

F. Preparation of a report and a proposal for the 2006 WCC Ninth General Assembly to be done within the framework of the Reference Group meeting in 2005.

 

 

The above items will be considered and organized by the Staff Group on human sexuality, in close consultation with the Reference Group.

 

 

The Reference Group hopes that from the work done, the churches will be helped to realize that the issues of human sexuality that members are wrestling with are not only about homosexuality. There are diversities in human sexual experience that should be celebrated and addressed through open spaces for discussion.

 

 

G. Preliminary Conclusions

 

 

 

There have been many contacts and inquiries from member churches and groups in churches asking for more information on human sexuality to enrich their own discussions. Some of these discussions have been provoked, partly through discussions on HIV/AIDS, partly through educational curricula and, not the least, because it is one of the human rights issues currently on the agenda in many communities and churches.

 

 

Three insights seem to be central throughout the journey of the WCC's response to issues of human sexuality:

 

 

· to concentrate on the mainstreaming of positions and the production of authoritative statements is obviously counterproductive and deepens the rifts within and also among churches; there is a need for ecumenical spaces for encounter, analysis, dialogue and education following an enabling and pastoral approach to the issues at stake;

 

 

· to neglect the diversity of contexts and the different issues that are of concern for the churches in different regions is not helpful; the recommendation of the Harare Programme Guidelines Committee to move from sexual orientation to human sexuality in its rich diversity provided useful guidance;

 

 

· the entry point should always be the celebration of the gift of life and human bodies instead of a narrow focus on normative and prescriptive guidelines.

 

 

As a global fellowship of churches the WCC is in a unique situation to engage in dialogue with member churches holding different views and positions on human sexuality. By not being part of the local and national church scene the WCC is privileged to offer a space for fruitful encounter rather than being directly involved by the immediate debates. The churches' response to the request of the WCC General Secretary has made the Council a trusted custodian of the diverse church perspectives on the issue. This challenges WCC to develop the capacity for listening and hearing different church voices telling different but authentic stories and experiences.

 

 

One of the fruits of this capacity to listen and discern is the Council's growing ability to challenge and help the churches to overcome the syndrome of denial - at least as is evidenced by the outcome of the three Bossey seminars that were organized in follow-up to the recommendations by the Programme Guidelines Committee. This would be a huge step forward towards a better understanding and higher level of mutual acceptability.

 

 

WCC also plays an important role of communicating to the wider fellowship what the churches are saying and doing about the issue of human sexuality. This way the Council brings churches into living contacts with each other on this otherwise potentially dividing issue and offers the global ecumenical platform to deal with it responsibly.

 

 

Through the involvement in this issue the WCC is becoming a fellowship of churches in a deeper sense - it is being seen as a brother and sister ("fellow") to those who are otherwise feeling alienated and excluded from their fellowship and ecclesial community.

 

 

Geneva, May 2003

 

 


APPENDIX


 

WHEN CHRISTIANS MEET SIGNPOSTS FOR AN ECUMENICAL PILGRIMAGE


 

"Rise, let us be on our way." (John 14:31)

 

 

People of the Way


 

1. Even before they were named Christians, disciples of Jesus were called "The People of the Way" in the city of Antioch. Following Jesus, "the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6), they were seen to be on a common journey, searching for a way of life that embodied, reflected and glorified the Good News of the Gospel. Christians over the centuries were yearning and struggling for new life in the Spirit. People of the way, pilgrims, sojourners and wayfarers - called to repent and turn around, and guided by the Spirit of truth (John 16:13), their whole life became a journey towards the community of the household and the city of God (Eph 2:19, Rev 21).

 

 

2. On their journey through history, Christians from different nations and cultures learned to live together and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with other people around the globe. But they also fought, oppressed, and killed each other, like any other people interested in their own power and wealth. Too often, mistrust and divisions among Christians marked the way and overshadowed the message of the Gospel. While this is true until today and has to be confessed not just as failure, but as sin, there were also those who gave witness to Christ, who risked and gave their lives so that present and future generations might live and believe in God. Their example inspired the founders of the ecumenical movement to discover again what they held in common, overcome the divisions among them, and work for justice and peace.

 

 

3. Remembering those who ran the race before us and were committed to work for a community of Christians that really is a sign and foretaste of God's dwelling among the people (Rev 21), provides us with a new sense of direction and purpose for the journey. At every ecumenical meeting we are reminded not to forget that the search for visible unity among the churches and a clear and truthful witness of God's compassionate love to all humankind and creation is of the essence of the common pilgrimage of the ecumenical movement.

 

 

At the crossroads and hostels


 

4. Longing for a deeper experience of the presence of God, Christians visited holy places, the tombs of the Martyrs or monasteries and churches of Saints. Remembering the one who is the source of life and the bread broken for the community, some even travelled to Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When pilgrims travelled in foreign lands, they were well aware of the risks of their journey and their own vulnerability. They left behind what they loved and what was dear to them - family, friends, their home, and the support and security of their communities. Relying on hospitality offered to them, they learned to be grateful for any safe space to rest and strength received from each other.

 

 

5. Strangers among other strangers, they learned to respect other people's cultures and customs and thus their own worldview and identity was challenged by the encounter with others. They experienced, like Abraham, that their life depended on the blessing of God in the midst of conflicts, unexpected challenges, and the daily struggle to find something to eat and a shelter for the night. Because of the many temptations pilgrims confronted on their journey, St. Hieronymos as well as St. Gregory of Nyssa emphasized that a pilgrimage was never an end in itself, but a search for renewed relationships, reconciliation and transformation on the way.

 

 

6. At the crossroads and hostels, pilgrims met many different people and sometimes other wayfarers with a common destination. Often, it was welcome, helpful and enriching to travel together and encounter each other. The pilgrimage was a unique opportunity to experience community in faith and life across boundaries and differences. But sometimes, it must have been disturbing and even painful to see who else embarked on the same journey. People whom they would never accept in their community at home might have even shared the room with them as fellow travellers. In situations like that, it was necessary to remember that the purpose of the pilgrimage was a spiritual journey which would change every one of them and their convictions - just as the Apostles had to change their fundamental opinions when the Spirit called the people of the nations into the koinonia of the Early Church (Gal 2:11-14; Acts 10, 11 & 15).

 

 

7. They were baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. Who would dare to be the one to throw the first stone and destroy the peace of the pilgrimage (John 8:1-11)? Who would judge other pilgrims on the basis of who they were or seemed to be? Were not all of them called to the pilgrimage by the one who gave his life to reconcile the world with God (Mt 7: 1- 5)? Trusting the guidance of the Spirit, they could name and confront what separated them. Having deep passion for the faith in Christ, they would challenge each other and not avoid confrontation in order to discern what to do and where to go. But they would never harass, persecute and oppress anyone whom they met on their way.

 

 

Markings and Cairns


 

8. For others following them on their journey, pilgrims left signposts or cairns behind, marking the way. Certain markings also emerged on the ecumenical pilgrimage of churches, ecumenical groups and individual Christians. They experienced on their way that Christian unity is as much a gift as it is a calling. The commitment to dialogue in the search for visible unity responds to the promise that the Spirit will be with the disciples and guide them wherever they go and wherever they are, liberating them from the bondage of sin and binding them together in what belongs to each other.

 

 

9. The study on Ecclesiology and Ethics also mentioned shared ethical convictions in the ecumenical movement: "the reverence for the dignity of all persons as creatures of God, the affirmation of the fundamental equality of women and men, the 'option for the poor', the rejection of racial barriers, a strong 'no' to nuclear armaments, the pursuit of non-violent strategies for conflict resolution, and the imperative for responsible stewardship of the environment - all these are ecumenical achievements, given by God as the churches have worked together on crucial ethical issues facing humanity and creation." (Study on Ecclesiology and Ethics, Costly Commitment, para 16)

 

 

10. But at times pressing personal and social moral issues prompt discord among Christians themselves and even threaten new divisions within and between churches. Addressing this difficult problem, the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC undertook a study on "The Ecumenical Dialogue on Moral Issues. Potential Sources of Common Witness or of Divisions." Based on the experiences of churches in various parts of the world as they deal with their controversial ethical issues, this study itself has become another signpost for the common journey of the Churches towards unity.

 

 

11. The study stated: "Other Christians or other churches holding diverging moral convictions can threaten us. They can question our own moral integrity and the foundations of our religious and ethical beliefs. They can demean the authority, credibility and even integrity of our own church. Whenever an individual or a community selects a moral position or practice to be the litmus test of authentic faith and the sole criterion of the fundamental unity of the church, emotions rise high so that it becomes difficult to hear one another. Christians, while 'speaking the truth in charity' (Eph 4: 15), are called upon, as far as possible, 'to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace' (Eph 4:3) and avoid wounding further that koinonia which already exists, although imperfectly, among Christians.

 

 

12. Therefore, if some ethical issues arouse passionate emotions and create awkward ecumenical relations, the churches, should not shun dialogue, for these moral issues can also become church-reconciling means of common witness. A variety of issues are woven into the moral positions of communities. In a prayerful, non-threatening atmosphere, dialogue can locate more precisely where the agreements, disagreements and contradictions occur. Dialogue can affirm those shared convictions to which the churches should bear common witness to the world at large. Furthermore, the dialogue can discern how ethical beliefs and practices relate to that unity in moral life which is Christ's will" (The Ecumenical Dialogue on Moral Issues, para 3-5).

 

 

13. The biblical vision by itself does not provide Christians or churches with all the clear moral principles and practical norms they need. Nor do the scriptures resolve every ethical case. Narratives join many instructions about proper conduct - general commandments and prohibitions, prophetic exhortations and accusations, counsels of wisdom, legal and ritual prescriptions and so forth. What moral theology names universal moral principles or norms are in the biblical texts mixed with specific but ever valid commandments and particular provisional prescriptions. The Scriptures' use of imagery in provocative, often paradoxical ways makes interpretations of biblical moral teaching difficult. Nevertheless, there is general consensus that by prayerfully studying the Scripture and the developing traditions of biblical interpretation, by reflecting on human experiences and by sharing insights within a community, Christians and churches can reach reasonable judgements and decisions in many cases of ethical conduct (The Ecumenical Dialogue on Moral Issues III para 1).

 

 

14. Different churches, however, use different methods and pathways of reflection and deliberation. Although they share common resources such as scriptures, liturgy and sacramental life, confessions of the apostolic faith, some moral traditions, catechisms, sermons etc., they configure those common resources differently and have developed different mechanisms for decision making and teaching of the church. In some cases, different conclusions are the result which gave and still give rise to tensions and divisions ( e.g. the Christian stance toward war - see Ecumenical Dialogue on Moral Issues III para 5). The closer the churches come together, the more they are confronted with new ecumenical challenges to moral formation and deliberation. The space for dialogue and deliberation that is created in ecumenical meetings and conferences, therefore, is a forum gathering Christians with sometimes divergent and even contradictory opinions and convictions that requires an ethos of humility and respect for the others and their convictions.

 

 

15. Ecumenical Space is the milieu in which, even in a state of division, we bear witness to our common allegiance to Jesus Christ and cooperate to advance the visible unity of the church. In this space we affirm our common Christian identity. For this reason, we have the possibility of a new discourse: we talk to one another in a new way. In turn, we have a greater opportunity to discern together Christ's will for the Church in ways that are not possible in isolation from one another. Space thus understood brings Christians and churches into living encounter with one another (Episkope and Episcopacy and the Quest for Visible Unity p 43).

 

 

16. The statement of the WCC's Seventh Assembly in 1991 at Canberra, "The Unity of the Church: Gift and Calling" described a process of how this space can take shape and grow in:

 

 

· recognizing each other's baptism;

 

 

· moving towards the recognition of the apostolic faith in the life and witness of one another;

 

 

· considering, wherever appropriate, forms of eucharistic hospitality on the basis of convergence in faith in baptism, Eucharist and ministry and acknowledging that some who do not observe these rites share in the spiritual experience of life in Christ;

 

 

· moving towards the recognition of ministries;

 

 

· endeavouring in word and deed to give common witness to the gospel as a whole;

 

 

· recommitting each other to work for justice, peace and the integrity of creation, linking more closely the search for sacramental communion of the church with the struggle for justice and peace;

 

 

· helping parishes and communities express in appropriate ways locally the degree of communion that already exists.

 

 

Signposts for an ecumenical pilgrimage


 

17. Mindful of the Canberra statement and referring to the study on "Ecumenical Dialogue on Moral Issues" and ecumenical discussions on "Episkope and Episcopacy" that took into consideration the longstanding experience with ecumenical dialogues and encounters in ecumenical conferences and previous General Assemblies of the WCC, it is possible to identify a number of very basic guidelines for the common pilgrimage of individual Christians, churches and ecumenical groups. They translate and interpret the commitment to processes of dialogue in the search for Christian unity, and thus to transformation and renewal.

 

 

18. Challenging each other, we should

 

 

· engage each other in frank and serious discussions, including search and discovery, questioning and listening;

 

 

· interrogate each other in mutual respect, so that no individual Christian and no church is required to deny their identity or heritage;

 

 

· understand what others want to be and to do in order to be faithful disciples of Christ, even though those others - as we ourselves - are burdened with weakness and sin;

 

 

· restrain from judgement, thus excluding a purely negative attitude towards one another, but also confront as clear as possible anything that threatens the very basis of faith as in the case of racism and apartheid;

 

 

· continue dialogue, even if disagreements seem incapable of resolution.

 

 

19. Experiencing new opportunities together, we should

 

 

· seek and be open for the reconciliation of memories (the memories of action reaction and separation which make it difficult to hear and accept the other);

 

 

· embrace conversion and renewal;

 

 

· gladly take opportunities for common witness and act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel us to act separately (Lund 1952);

 

 

· be thankful for guidance into the will of the Spirit;

 

 

· expect help to discern what will advance the visible unity of the church.

 

 

20. Accepting obligations of being together, we should

 

 

· have in mind the compatibility of attitude and behaviour within and outside of the space where we meet;

 

 

· avoid actions inconsistent with relationships of fellow pilgrims;

 

 

· be ready to mutually support each other, act with patience and forbearance with one another and accept the need for mutual accountability.

 

 

Nurturing each other on the way


 

21. As a pilgrim people, Christians and churches are sustained by the Gospel in their dwelling in and journeying towards truth. They are committed to a goal that is both beyond their grasp and constantly offered as pure gift. Meeting each other on their way and walking together, they experience the fellowship among them, the koinonia that is real and genuine by the grace of God although overshadowed by tensions in doctrine and practice and not yet fully realised.

 

 

22. Ecumenical meetings and conferences and WCC General Assemblies are opportunities to experience and nurture this fellowship, and to be enriched by the many gifts of the Holy Spirit to individual Christians, churches and the ecumenical family as a whole. Participants in ecumenical events again and again emphasised that praying and worshipping together helped them to recognise that the others, although different, are of the same Spirit. Common worship, common reflection and action, common confession, mission, witness and service has influenced and sometimes changed the lives of many people and churches who did participate in the ecumenical journey.

 

 

This paper is a development of a draft prepared by Alan Falconer and Martin Robra to describe the ethos of the Padares at the Eighth General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare (1998). It continues to be the underlying understanding for the deliberative sessions of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.


 

Alan Falconer

 

November 2000