World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Costly Obedience

This text is the fruit of the joint study programme on Ecclesiology and Ethics conducted by Faith and Order and the WCC's Justice, Peace and Creation team. The results of meetings in Rønde, Denmark; Jerusalem, Israel; and Johannesburg, South Africa, they explore how the churches are called to be a community of ethical reflection - and engagement - in today's world.

01 January 1997

Introduction

1. We come now to the final phase of our study of ecclesiology and ethics. We have explored the common ground and needed relationships between the historic ecumenical projects representing these two areas of interest. The tasks of Faith and Order and Life and Work now continue in the work of Units I and III of the World Council of Churches, which have together sponsored this inquiry.

2. At Rønde, Denmark, in 1993, we explored the relationships between koinonia on the one hand, and justice, peace and the integrity of creation on the other. We challenged the persistent division between the search for visible unity and pursuit of the church's call to prophetic witness and service. We asserted that the ecumenical movement "suffers damage" so long as it is unable to bring these discussions and processes into fruitful interaction. We spoke of the church as intrinsically a "moral community", saying that the church not only has an ethic but is an ethical reality in itself. We argued that ways forward from these insights seemed "both possible and promising."

3. At Tantur, Israel, in 1994, we surveyed continuing efforts to promote such relationships. We looked at memory and hope as foundations for the Christian life, explored the relation of movements and action groups to the structures of the church, considered the interactions of eucharist, covenant and ethical engagement, and took up the ecumenical dimension of moral witness. This time we avoided the term "moral community" and argued instead that in the church as koinonia a constant process of moral formation takes place. We looked for new terminology and found it in the biblical image of oikos, the house or household of life, bringing together the ecological, economic and ecumenical dimensions of our lives. We said, "In the church's own struggles for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation, the esse of the church is at stake."

4. Now, in a meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, 19-23 June 1996, we have further pursued the theme of moral formation, asking what it might mean to speak of the church as a global communion of moral witnessing. The obedience to which we are called is often costly. It may require the churches to position themselves in relation to the issues of particular times and places in ways which call for courage, perseverance and sacrifice. Such faithfulness may, as it has for some of our own contemporaries, come to the point of martyrdom. In memory the church celebrates its martyrs of both the distant and the recent past. In hope it looks for the fulfillment of the reign of God for which they stood. The great "cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12:1-2), by which we are "surrounded" and whose obedience to God we are called to remember, summons us to a koinonia more profound than any that we have yet been able to achieve.

5. To Johannesburg we brought our diverse theological backgrounds and tendencies. But we were also influenced by having met at this particular place and time and by our shared experience of worship, study, debate and fruitful encounter with local church members and leaders. We were moved to have the opportunity of visiting South Africa in the time of its transition to democracy. We were warmed by the reception we received and impressed by the persons who turned out to greet us. We were saddened to learn of the growing unemployment and violence that have already overtaken this beloved country. We sensed that a political miracle now needs to be followed by an economic miracle. The latter will be more difficult to achieve.

6. We are struck by the perilous, yet hopeful, character of the human situation in which we live. It is easier to say that our moment in history is "post"-something--post-modern, post-apartheid, perhaps post-liberal--than to say what it is. We are rapidly becoming a global community, yet a community constituted by dehumanizing economic and political relationships. We live with violence perpetrated both in the name of justice and in the name of resistance to justice's demands.

7. The planetary scale of our human struggle presents challenges beyond any the churches have faced before.1 Moral issues, formerly seen as having to do mainly with personal conduct within stable orders of value, have now become radicalized. They now have to do with the life, or the death, of human beings and of the created order in which we live. Before we can even speak of a 21st century "global civilization", life together on this planet will need shared visions and institutional expressions for which we have few really relevant precedents. As Christians we speak of an oikoumene, or inclusive horizon of human belonging, offered by God in Jesus Christ to the human race. Following the scriptures, we call this a "household of life", a "heavenly city" where justice, peace and care for creation's integrity prevail. But what may it mean to live lives in the here and now which manifest the first fruits of these gifts and act in anticipation of their fulfillment?

8. Christian faith, today as in the past, risks being captured for ethnic and nationalistic purposes. It risks being called on to help protect the privileges and ways of life of dominant classes. Our brief sojourn in South Africa has suggested to us that the former apartheid regime's theologically constructed defence of racial separation could become an unacknowledged precedent for violence by the rich nations of the northern hemisphere, facing as they do immigration pressures and economic demands from the south and the continuing threat of counter-violence from multitudes of the still-wretched of the earth.

9. If the church is to fulfill its calling to be a sign of God's reign in such a situation, it is imperative that it begin to understand itself as an ecumenical moral community. Hence the importance of the theme of moral formation. The church needs to ask how--with all its theological, liturgical and sacramental resources--it can be a community of relevant moral witness for such a world.

10. Our study of these issues is arranged in four parts: (1) an inquiry into the meaning of moral formation in church and world; (2) a reflection on the churches' moral failure in face of nationalistic, ethnic and economic violence together with a discussion of Christian moral testimony in the victory over apartheid; (3) an exploration of moral formation's grounding in the liturgy of the eucharist and in the implications of baptism; and (4) a discussion of the idea of an ecumenical moral communion and the possible role, in realizing that communion, of the community called the World Council of Churches.


I. The meaning of moral formation in church and world


A. Moral formation and "ethics"

11. The decision to connect ecclesiology with ethics by way of a study of moral formation has raised questions of terminology that need initial clarification. In many languages (and many ecumenical documents including this one) the words for "morality" and "ethics" are close synonyms. Certainly the choice of the word "ethics" in the original plan for this study was not meant to close off the attention we have now given to "moral formation". Still, there is an important distinction to be made. "Morality" refers to patterns of actual conduct, while "ethics" refers to systematic, often academic, reflection on that conduct. "Moral reflection" or "moral reasoning" can then refer to the thoughtful formulation of rules of conduct in the context of given traditions of life or spheres of communal experience. "Ethics", on the other hand, is a field of study which seeks conceptual models for reasoning about the perennial moral questions of human existence, as well as dilemmas emerging in our century for the first time.

12. Many scholars in the field of "ethics" now search--independently of particular religious or ethnic traditions--for principles which can help us deal with the hard questions that arise for human beings as such, whatever their communal loyalties or backgrounds. This is a necessary enterprise for human well-being. Most of us live in situations where a plurality of religious and other life-traditions makes it morally (as well as politically) impossible to build public policy on the moral reasoning offered by any one of them, or even on a supposed "overlapping consensus" representing many of them. Yet urgent issues arise which need for practical purposes to be resolved. The typical work of a hospital "ethics committee" is a case in point: e. g. Shall life support for this patient be terminated or not? Shall this patient receive a heart transplant ahead of that one? Ethicists deal with such questions by seeking to establish principles for "post-conventional", and therefore potentially universal, forms of moral discourse. Such secular styles of ethical reasoning tend to relegate religious traditions as such to the private sphere. Safely insulated from the public world, these traditions can then be recognized as useful in forming people who will turn out to be good citizens. But traditional understandings of life are not, or at least not explicitly, considered appropriate points of reference for settling questions which these citizens will face in the public realm.

13. It is important for the Christian thinkers to be in touch with this contemporary search for a consistent "post-conventional" ethic. Significant issues of human well-being are at stake. Indeed some "Christian ethicists" today work mainly in this frame of reference, understanding it as a Christian duty to participate fully in humanity's search for the meaning of goodness, or principles for living together in peace on this planet with respect for the dignity of all persons. Yet it is clear that this quest for some sort of universal secular moral discourse - despite agreement on many practical matters such as the defence of human rights - has thus far failed to find common philosophical ground. Indeed, many of the questers have now largely abandoned the attempt to find foundations, in the sense of reality-grounded first principles, for moral argument. Increasingly it becomes clear, even to some practitioners of the genre, that many putatively "post-conventional" moral arguments are not tradition-independent at all. Rather, they covertly interpret values embedded in the cultures to which the thinkers in question belong. Even for ethicists who proclaim their allegiance to a purely secular rationality it seems that "moral formation" of one sort or another plays an indispensable story-telling, symbol-making and motivating role.

14. It is the more ironic, then, that increasing numbers of secular thinkers are heard to complain that "Christian ethicists" who concern themselves with public issues have little to add to what one hears from the general run of thinkers indebted to the long tradition of liberal thought in Western modernity. Some secular ethicists are now saying they long to hear a distinctive note, something fundamentally different, something that could make a difference, from Christian colleagues. We need both to participate with others in the effort to articulate the public good and to find ways of speaking and acting publicly out of the riches of a distinctively Christian moral formation.

15. Formation within a particular faith community can generate indispensable resources for interaction with the world: it can help the faithful discover certain more generalizable ideas and foundational principles of moral life. The different Christian traditions have conceived the link between specific moral formation and generalizable ethical principles in different ways. These go back to different understandings of the church, and indeed to different ways of relating ecclesiology to christology. Where the church is understood as a new divine-human reality, as in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the bridge from formation to ethical issues is possible only by way of a sacramental understanding of the world. The Reformation's grounding of the church in the faith-creating word maintains the "infinite qualitative distinction" between God and human beings and hence also between God's justice and human justice. It is sceptical of attempts to base ethical reasoning in ecclesiology. The link can more easily be made on the basis of the ecclesiology of discipleship found in "free church" thinking, where ethical decisions are seen as having directly to do with building God's kingdom 2. In each of these cases our task may be interpreted from the standpoint of Christian faith as the articulation of an interdependence graciously given with human life. We live in a constant struggle to show that the generative story of faith is at home with varying secular enterprises for giving meaning to the human condition.

16. Attention to Christian moral formation is thus important not merely for clarifying our minds about what we are doing in the world as persons of faith. It is also important for Christian participation in the wider dialogue of humanity. We must ask how a distinctively Christian moral formation--with its grounding in the family, in catechesis and in sacramental liturgy--can relate to today's dialogue designed to clarify and help reach out towards the good for the whole human community.

B. The meaning of "moral formation"

17. What is meant by "formation?" Moral formation is a nurturing process in which a certain sense of identity, a certain recognition of community, and a certain pattern of motivation, evolve. Such formation can be the gradual work of culture and upbringing, or it may be self-conscious and intentional. Any community of which we are members "forms" us in the sense of orienting us to the world in a certain way, encouraging certain kinds of behaviour and discouraging others. A focus on formation points us towards emphasis on actual communities with their cultures: towards what anthropologists call the complex "thickness" of lives actually lived.3

18. The "formation" discussion inevitably turns sooner or later to the subject of "spirituality". It does so because this term no longer refers only, as it once did, to specific meditations and practices explicitly focussed on the self's relation to God, most often lived out by members of orders and a few other very special people. With modernity's characteristic "affirmation of everyday life",4 "spirituality" has also come to mean the depth dimension of daily existence cultivated by both meditative and moral practices. The meditative and the moral, indeed, cannot be separated. They are part of one whole cloth. Spirituality can now mean the whole shape, the shared fabric, of our lives in God.

19. There are many specific traditions of Christian spirituality, each with its characteristic practices and exercises, each with its characteristic understandings of the link to moral life. And Christian spirituality is not the only kind. There are spiritualities related to the great world religions, spiritualities representing indigenous religious communities, and spiritualities promoted by individual teachers who operate, as it were, at large. Christian spiritual-moral formation in today's world needs not only to draw upon the riches of the great traditions of Christian faith but also to meet, understand, grasp its differences from, and perhaps learn from, spiritual traditions outside of Christianity.

C. Moral formation in the church

20. Moral-spiritual formation in the church is of a distinctive kind. Effectively or not, with better or worse outcomes, Christian congregations engender certain ways of seeing life just by being the kinds of communities they are. Indeed it is evident that ecclesiastical polities play out in certain forms of life, certain ways of living, which shape the way church members comport themselves in the world. There is no way of talking about "Christian ethics" without asking how the congregation functions in moral formation. We are asking about the actual thinking that goes on in these worshipping communities and about their capacity to shape peoples' patterns of action. We are "formed" in specific ways in the community of faith, by its liturgy, its teaching the texture of its common life.

21. Moral formation in the church seeks to generate communities in touch with the world and all its problems yet shaped in a daily telling and retelling of the Christian story. Such formation makes generation after generation of disciples. Discipleship finds resources in many complexly interacting elements of churchly life: the education of lay persons, the preparation of pastors, moral discourse in family and congregation, the experience of seeking to serve the wider community. Liturgical formation, in the Lord's supper and in our common baptism, is fundamental to all other kinds of formation and is therefore developed in more detail later in this paper.

22. Such shaping and nurturing go on whether we focus our attention on formation as such or not. The ways the church is ordered, its internal habits, its interactions with the society around it, all have moral consequences. In this formational sense, then, no one can deny that ecclesiology and ethics go together. To be in the Christian community is to be shaped in a certain way of life.

23. Yet there are certain cautionary observations to be made. It will not do to be unduly romantic on this subject. In the first place, for most of us, to speak of "formation" in the congregation is more challenge than accomplishment. We are not doing it very well. Most Christian congregations today, especially in the West, are in fact not very effective communities of moral nurture. Under the fragmenting pressures of modern life, we are not transmitting tradition from one generation to the next. We are suffering a grievous loss of biblical literacy. The present generation may be far less "formed" by the churches in scripture and apostolic tradition than at any time in the recent past.

24. Secondly, by taking seriously the duty of pastors and congregations to bring people to serious moral awareness, we are tying ourselves to whatever proves to be possible in this regard. Attention to formation within communions and congregations sometimes reveals just those regions of entrenched habit which are most resistant to fresh theological or moral thinking. Is it possible to base a socially engaged Christian ethic, say in opposition to apartheid or in favour of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation, upon the formation that most congregations in our time are likely to receive? In the present state of the church in many places is not what we do "malformation", or simply "non-formation", rather than genuine training in the faith?

25. And finally, an emphasis on moral formation is likely to disclose potentially church-dividing differences among the communions, as well as divisive tensions within particular churches, that have not previously surfaced in ecumenical discussion.5 On the one hand, to the extent that these disagreements underlie more public ecclesiological differences, the study of formation may illumine the ecumenical enterprise. But, on the other hand, we may discover that these entrenched, often unspoken, assumptions pose more severe challenges to the unity of the church than familiar kinds of ecclesiological or confessional diversity. We are still ill-prepared, with our present methods of ecumenical discourse, to deal with such issues.

D. Moral formation in and by the world

26. Whether or not the congregation succeeds in creating a significant moral culture for its members, a more general kind of formation is at work in our lives all the time. The world forms us through the shaping influence of its principalities and powers. The growing and ramifying global economic nexus colonizes our human life-worlds, reducing human thought to cost-benefit calculations, further impoverishing the poor and the poor in spirit, spreading the virus of consumerism across the earth.

27. Much of the literature of congregational life sounds as if the congregation were a total cultural environment, as if it were possible to take up the world's story entirely into the Christian story or, alternatively, to exclude worldly concerns as totally as possible. But totally monocultural communities scarcely exist in the contemporary world. Most of us exist in a multiplicity of cultural environments, and engage in several different occupational and familial practices, each with its own symbolism, logic, customs and the like. Pluralism enters our personhood. We are literally multiple selves, formed in different, and perhaps divergent, ways by our lives in the church, in our families, in our secular occupations, and perhaps in political, recreational or other activities as well. Each of these spheres of life is a distinct culture in its own right. The relation of the community called church to all of these other cultural situations varies from place to place, but the problem is unavoidable. "Ecclesiology" as this term has customarily been understood includes only part of the setting for faithful life.

28. To recover anything like the "forming" role the church once had would have to mean restoration of the sorts of one-possibility religious communities that existed in pre-modern times. That is not likely to happen short of some disaster wiping out the structures of the modern world. What people need and want is guidance in living their daily lives, exposed as they are to the corrosive pressures of state and market, to the beguilements of many alternative life-styles. We need to find a way to integrate personal moral issues with questions of social ethics and the public weal.

29. We have not made clear at the level of congregational life what a moral strategy for life in the household of God would look like. Many persons of faith simply do not recognize the sort of moral engagement we have in mind as a vocation for themselves. Conversely, many of the most effective Christians in the world's struggles have difficulty relating their moral and political convictions to the faith they are being taught in church. In ecumenical organizations, our preoccupation with global strategies and large ideas may well divert us from the "parish pump" responsibility of making sense of all this for the average Christian on the ground.

E. Churchly and worldly formations in interaction

30. The powers of worldly formation often impinge upon the church before the church has much chance to impinge upon them. This happens not least through knowledge of morally significant events in the public world, including the religious and cultural symbols connected with them, transmitted through the media. The church's relation to such public information can be positive, especially when pastors are well-informed and alert to make appropriate connections. We said at Tantur, indeed, that the world has at times taught us how to be the church. We may learn from movements in the world what it is that the Christian tradition truly stands for. Some of our most significant acts of witness have "been drawn out by moral struggles in society in which the church has had to learn at least as much as it has taught. In this way the efforts of moral formation in society have carried their own ecclesial significance...." And, further, "there is something crucial here: moral struggle, discernment and formation are not simply to be ‘annexed' to our understandings and ways of being church and used to draw out the genuine treasures of our traditions. They also challenge those deeply and teach us to learn from the world (which is, after all, God's) how better to recognize and ‘be' church as a faithful way of life."6

31. There are, of course, consequences of this sort of learning. Societies, nominally "Christian" and otherwise, have indeed sometimes enacted what the churches--beforehand, at the time, or later--saw to be part of the genius of their own message. The outlawing of slavery and child labor, or the establishment of universal public education, are examples. But the secular success of church-instigated or church-backed policies has often set social processes in motion which in time leave the churches marginalized. Schools, hospitals, human rights laws and the like have often gained independent momentum on their own and have abandoned their original ecclesial and moral roots.

32. Finding themselves shunted aside by such secularizing processes, churches have sought other ways to remain socially involved. Sometimes they have begun to reflect in their own lives the institutionally secularized forms of their original theological insights. They have relearned their own messages from the world: but in thinned-out and distorted forms. Victims of their own success, they have become captives to current cultural interpretations of faith rather than places of genuine contemporary formation in the faith. They have taken over distorted ways of "reading" reality, and then, as a second step, tried to elaborate such distortions theologically. The result is not formation in the faith but "malformation". In a generation or less the distinctive outlines of the faith have begun to disappear.7

33. This is especially true in situations, such as North America, where a vaguely christianized "civil religion", as well as vaguely christianized forms of popular religion, are transmitted and in a certain way authenticated in peoples' minds by the media. Media presentations of Christian faith indeed may be virtually "irreformable" in that protests and corrections are of no avail against deeply ingrained images and assumptions. Films and "soap" operas - now also distributed across the globe - are often more powerful sources of information, and misinformation, about the faith than our own educational efforts among the people of God.

34. Here, as in so many other cases, ecumenical ties are all-important for maintaining identity in the faith. Our awareness of the challenge we face in forming congregations faithfully inevitably leads us towards a deeper understanding of what ecumenism can mean in action. We need the kind of formation which will help local communities to remain ecumenically aware under the pressure of events which contain both threat and promise. We need to learn from success, and also from failure. Can a distinctive, shared ecumenical formation come to exist under specific local circumstances? Can it come to exist globally?

35. The church bears moral witness simply by being what it is in its human environment. By being what it is, it bears witness to some message. It may stand for justice, peace and the care of our planet, or it may stand for something else. We need to make this inevitable moral witnessing self-conscious, and bring it under the control of the story of faith. We need, in short, to make our formational activity an intentional mutual upbuilding, an oikodomé, of the household of God.


II. Formation and malformation in our encounters with the public world


36. The church does not practise formation in abstraction from its history. The experiences congregations encounter in trying to find their way are themselves formational. The memory of past experience, including the experience of moral failure in the face of challenges such as those of nationalism, ethnicity, racism and violence, needs to be taken into our consciousness. The power of the community of faith to bear moral witness in society rests not only on its inner life but also on the outward roles it has played, and may in the future be challenged to play. A church not positioned where the gospel demands it to be amid social forces and events will mal-form its members, rendering them insensitive to the demands of their faith. Churches need ecumenical relationships, with the global accumulation of experience those relationships make available, in order to find an adequate perspective.

37. These thoughts need concrete illustration. We need to observe some respects in which the churches have failed to locate themselves rightly in relation to historic issues, and some instances in which the churches have, by the grace of God, better fulfilled their callings. We draw the examples given in the next few paragraphs both from recent European history and from the recent history of South Africa.

A. Malformation: moral failure in the face of ethnic violence and warfare between nation-states

38. There has been a recurring failure on the part of the Christian church to prevent the outbreak of violence and war between ethnic groups and nations which have a Christian heritage. This does not gainsay some measure of success, but examples to the contrary prove the more general rule. The most obvious is undoubtedly the saga of war between "Christian nations" in Europe, where churches have not only failed to prevent war but have provided its legitimation. This was true in our century in both world wars and, more recently, in the former Yugoslavia. Similar instances can be pointed to in other parts of the world, often connected with European colonialism, as, for example, in the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902). The tragedy is that the causes of such violence are seldom dealt with, and so the past, instead of being transformed, returns with vengeance to haunt the present and threaten the future.

39. Prior to the outbreak of the second world war, perceptive European ecumenical leaders, notably at the second world conference on Life and Work at Oxford (1937), warned their churches and governments that nationalism was threatening to engulf the European continent in another conflagration. The deep-seated national hatreds and social contradictions in European society which had led to war in 1914 had not been resolved or healed at Versailles. Rather, they had intensified, leading to the rise of Nazism and fascism and rapid rearmament throughout Europe. Churches were urged to act in a timely manner and together within their particular nations to prevent another war. Their pleas proved futile. This raises serious questions about the extent to which the churches shape the morality of their constituencies and, in turn, exert an influence on their nations, especially those which claim to be Christian.

40. Despite the prophetic voices of some Christian leaders, churches often seem powerless or unwilling to counter those forces within their countries which lead to ethnic violence and war. This points to a long-term failure to shape and form their constituency in ways consonant with the gospel of Jesus Christ, especially when this conflicts with national or ethnic self-interest. Churches often do not recognize, or else they abnegate, responsibility for moral formation, except at the level of personal ethics. Instead of being agents of just social transformation, churches too often uncritically conform to unjust social and economic patterns within their cultural and national contexts. The result is moral malformation of the membership of the churches, which inevitably has a similar influence on the wider society. This was notably the case in South Africa where British colonialism and Afrikaner nationalism aligned with racism and settler self-interest so penetrated the life of the churches that the majority of white Christians came to accept apartheid as right and divinely ordained.

41. Of particular concern is an inability on the part of the churches to learn from the history of such moral failure and, concomitantly, an inability to seek ways in which this can be overcome in the present. There seems to be a lack of will to remember, take responsibility for, and deal with the past in ways which will lead to national and international healing. As a result, the demonic forces which are periodically unleashed are seldom countered in time if at all, even once there is a subsidence of the violence or the achievement of some kind of peace. Under such circumstances the peace achieved is uneasy, and there is always an awareness that war, like a medieval plague, will recur in the future given the right catalyst. The bitter cycle of violence which threatened to destroy apartheid South Africa in a racial war prior to 1994 is sufficient testimony to the danger of trying to achieve reconciliation without seeking to address the moral issues at stake.

42. There are many forces currently operative around the world which carry the seeds of violence, just as there are many contexts in the world today which are virtually in a perpetual state of violent conflict between ethnic communities and nations, often with religious support. The nature and extent of these forces have frequently been identified in ecumenical documents to which the churches have often paid no more than formal acknowledgment. These forces, or demons, need to be recognized now and named by the churches within their local contexts. They urgently need to be countered through a commitment to the values of the reign of God. Certainly, the churches in South Africa have begun to recognize their moral failures in the past, and how long it took before they discerned the sin of apartheid and confessed that its theological legitimation was a heresy.

B. Formation toward truth and reconciliation: the anti-apartheid struggle and its aftermath

43. Although the racial captivity of the churches in apartheid South Africa is a potent reminder of moral malformation, it is equally so that the role of the church in the struggle against apartheid, and now in the struggle to establish a just democratic society, provides an example of how moral formation within the life of the churches can take place and contribute to the ending of ethnic violence and the enabling of social transformation. Without romanticizing the church struggle against apartheid (there were, after all, many Christians and some churches which supported apartheid, and many others who remained silent when they should have spoken and acted), and recognizing the role that the international ecumenical community played in the process, it is clear that the churches and ecumenical agencies played a significant role in the ending of apartheid and the creation of a new South Africa. In hindsight it is possible to discern the extent to which the church struggle, and its attendant suffering for the cause of truth, contributed to the moral and ecumenical formation of many people with regard to the issues of justice and peace. The churches are now faced with the enormous task of helping to create a moral culture which will enable South Africa to overcome the legacy of apartheid fully, and provide the basis for a society of lasting peace. With deliberate intention, through their community and liturgical life (including preaching, teaching and praxis), the churches have to deal with the past and seek to equip people to act and behave in public life as disciples of Jesus Christ.

44. We would like to highlight here the importance of the present Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in the social transformation of South Africa, the significant role of the churches and other faith communities in its operation, and the extent to which the work of the commission may be regarded already as an instrument in the healing of the nation and the moral formation of its citizens. We cannot elaborate here on the work of the commission. What is of paramount importance for our purposes is to recognize that its major thrust is to deal with past ethnic and racial violence and conflict in South Africa so that reconciliation and healing may become a reality. Of course, it is recognized that the commission might not achieve all the goals which have been set for it, and there is no way in which guarantees can be built into any situation to ensure that the seeds of violence sown in the past will not take fresh root and spawn yet another outbreak of conflict.

45. The commission was established by the government at the beginning of 1996 (thus within eighteen months of its election to power) and has been given only two and a half years to complete its task. This sense of urgency, as well as commitment, is indicative of the will to deal with the past with deliberate speed. Moments of grace have to be grasped when they are offered. The longer dealing with the past takes, the fewer become the options for overcoming its conflictual legacies, and shaping a more just and peaceful future.

46. Although the commission has been established and funded by the state, it is free to act on its own without any interference from the state or political parties and organizations. Furthermore, it has been given substantial resources with which to accomplish its task. Of note is the fact that the seventeen commissioners, appointed after a long process of hearings, are representative of the broad political spectrum in South Africa, and that many of them are religious leaders, including the chairperson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Moreover, it is already evident that the commission is committed to dealing with past human-rights violations irrespective of party or person, an essential step in establishing its integrity and credibility.

47. At the heart of the Commission's work is the enabling of victims of gross human-rights violations during the past three decades to tell their stories and, in doing so, to discover resources which may enable them to forgive their oppressors. The telling of the stories is, in itself, therapeutic and morally formative and empowering, but it is also backed up by a programme of reparation where this is appropriate and possible. Also central to the work of the commission is the hearing of confessions of guilt on the part of perpetrators of crimes, and the granting of amnesty where this is within the mandate of the commission. In many respects, the hearings have a "liturgical" character in which the whole nation is intimately involved, and its future moral character is being formed. Day by day at the hearings, as well as on television and radio, memories of the past are being relived and healed through confession, forgiveness, and a commitment to restitution. The ritual experience is always painful and often shocking, but it is also full of grace, justice and hope. Some opponents of the commission argued that its work would open up past wounds and put at risk the process of national reconciliation. But the opposite is becoming apparent. The commission is providing a central focus for the liturgy of healing and the reconstruction of moral order.

48. After centuries of oppression and subjugation, of racial division and conflict, it is vital, then, that a new nation is built in which the past is transcended and moral values re-established. But that task will take time and much effort both now and well into the future. Various churches as well as the South African Council of Churches and other Christian agencies, as well as other religious faith communities, have acknowledged that they have a responsibility to assist in ensuring that the work of the commission achieves its goals. They have also recognized that they have an ongoing responsibility, even after the work of the commission has ended, to help the nation deal with its past, and to help in the building of a moral community of citizens. This is essential in the long term simply because the deep causes of past violence, not least those of racism and economic self-interest, cannot be resolved in the short term, and new factors inevitably arise in the course of history which can so easily undermine reconciliation.

49. Furthermore, the ecumenical church in South Africa is becoming aware of the danger that lurks in the new emerging national consciousness unless it is, in fact, informed by a critical national conscience. However important a sense of nationhood is for the building of the new South Africa, the churches recognize that they dare not become trapped in the new South African nationalism if they are to fulfill their pastoral and prophetic role within society. They are aware that they dare not forget the many lessons learned in the struggle against apartheid, or deny the ecumenical and moral purpose which was then generated in standing for truth, in keeping alive the hope of victory over evil and the establishment of a just society. Without the memory of the past struggle for justice, and the expectation of an even more just society, moral formation will lose its direction and motivation in the quest for reconciliation and peace.

50. The emphasis in these examples on recent events in South Africa of course reflects the setting of our meeting. But that does not detract from their ecumenical importance. On the contrary, the particularity of this material adds to its ecumenical impact. As we will see, the oikoumene is best understood not by trying to reach some generalized global vision but by fostering a worldwide communion of particular, local embodiments of acted-out, shared, obedience to the gospel. South Africa has given us hope that such faithfulness can take on meaningful, specific, local forms and lead to results that enrich human life. Yet we know that not every situation will give us such clear lessons or such encouragement. In each situation we need to find our own way, yet always in relationships of ecumenical support and accountability.


III. Eucharist and baptism as contexts of formation


51. From whence comes the power to sustain the sort of moral witness required of Christians during the South African struggle against apartheid, and now in the process of nation-building? From whence comes the strength to stand against injustice and violence in any situation of local or global conflict?

A. Moral formation in the context of the eucharistic liturgy

52. The heart of Christian moral formation lies in worship, through which the story of salvation is re-enacted in the modes of prayer, proclamation and sacrament. Worship together involves certain focal actions intrinsic to the shared life of faith, actions which centre, sustain and order that way of life. Ritual actions show the way. They are "rites which embody what is right". They are "the connective tissue in a shared way of life, the whole of which morally educates and forms". Many Christian traditions refer to the prayerful, biblically informed, and ritually cogent enactment of the story of God's way with the human race as "liturgy" or leitourgia. This Greek word itself originally had a moral sense. It meant the public charge to perform a particular public service, or diakonia. The connection is still present in the Christian understanding of liturgy.8

53. Liturgy, in turn, is the churchly continuation and fulfillment of the original formative process we call discipleship. On the road to Emmaus the bewildered disciples of Jesus encounter him, not knowing at first that he is the risen Lord. They hear the gospel story once again as Jesus interprets to them "in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). This is the very story in which they themselves have been participating as disciples, already eating and drinking with Jesus and those among whom Jesus had ministered. Finally they recognize him, as he becomes known to them "in the breaking of the bread". In eucharistic worship, the experienced story of discipleship is taken up into the very life of the Trinity.

54. The liturgy looks back to the transfiguration which already anticipates the fulfillment of God's reign, and forward to the messianic banquet yet to come. It combines in its structure the combination of memory and hope which we have seen to be needed in actual situations of reconciliation. It ties memory and hope specifically to our participation in the story of Jesus. It effects a transfiguration of our lives. It enacts the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church, the human world, and all creation, now understood as participating in the historic economy of the trinitarian life. It invites human beings to participate with Jesus Christ, who has already carried our humanity into the Godhead, in the divine dance. This participation gives us new eyes to see the world and new energy to bear witness in it. Liturgy is thus not something added to moral and political endeavour but its nourishing ground.

55. The "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" study made this moral dimension of the eucharist fully explicit. "It is a representative act of thanksgiving and offering on behalf of the whole world." It is "a constant challenge in the search for appropriate relationships in social, economic, and political life (Matt. 5:23f.; 1 Cor. 10:16f.; 1 Cor. 11:20-22; Gal. 3:28)." Futhermore, "All kinds of injustice, racism, separation and lack of freedom are radically challenged when we share the body and blood of Christ." And, "As participants in the eucharist... we prove inconsistent if we are not actively participating in [the] ongoing restoration of the world's situation and of the human condition.... [W]e are placed under continual judgment by the persistence of unjust relationships of all kinds in our society, the manifold divisions on behalf of human pride, material interest and power politics, and, above all, the obstinacy of unjustifiable confessional oppositions within the body of Christ."9

56. Indeed liturgy, understood in this broad moral as well as devotional sense, is the principal dialogic encounter where God and human beings meet: where the ecclesial body is knit together as a single cloth of narrative, teaching, repentance and forgiveness, confession and proclamation, prophecy and doxology. This cloth is woven on the extensive frame of an eschatological vision. Clearly, the character of the church as moral community is grounded in liturgy, but does not exhaust the liturgy's whole meaning. It is indispensable to locate moral formation here at the heart of the church's expression of its intrinsic nature, yet not to suppose that morality expresses the whole of that nature.

57. Yet it is important to see that liturgy, if not properly understood and acted out, can mal-form the church as readily as it can form it in faith. Liturgy and worship may well perpetuate or legitimate unjust arrangements both within and outside ecclesial boundaries. Serious attention must be given to the broader social context in which liturgy functions and to which the church belongs. Devotion to the liturgy has sometimes lent itself to an irresponsible ghetto mentality, has countenanced unjust social arrangements, or legitimated ethnic-religious violence. We have watched certain churches, liberated from the constraints of totalitarian regimes, enthusiastically embrace movements of recrudescent nationalism. Worship has sometimes been a rehearsal ground for violent expressions of nationalism against ethnic and religious minorities.

58. Thus it is for Christian moral awareness sometimes to purify the liturgy. But it is for liturgy in turn to give back to moral formation that eschatological fullness which only eucharistic worship can actualize. Several New Testament passages (e. g. Matt. 6:11-12; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Rev. 21) point to the heart of the matter. Perhaps most pertinent is Romans 12:1-2. Paul makes it clear that "a renewal of your minds" must happen so that Christian moral life is possible, so that we "might discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect". In this passage true worship (ten logiken latreian) is the pouring out of ourselves in service to others.

59. Liturgical worship keeps alive the capacity of Christ's story to break open and extend the possible ways of living as a Christian community. By connecting the fundamental Christian story with the very presence of the mystery it re-enacts, the liturgy has potential for overcoming the church's malformation and for transfiguring its view of the world and capacity for action in the world. Because this transformation is incarnational, not merely narrational, the world must deal not just with our stories but with our bodies. Repositioned in the world, we "read" the world differently, and therefore act there in new ways. We reinterpret and rearticulate symbols which function powerfully in relation to patterns of belonging and power.

60. It is important to see that this presentation of the relation between worship and witness in terms of "liturgy" has parallels in other Christian traditions, other Christian vocabularies. Our different traditions of eucharistic worship go together with characteristic forms of church-world interaction: ways of understanding Christian formation in the midst of the formative powers of the world. To be genuine manifestations of the church of Jesus Christ, these traditions need to participate in the ecumenical whole. Our forms of worship, however diverse they may appear, have much in common. In their essential forms, our liturgies tell the same story. Yet we need full appreciation of the particularities of diverse Christian traditions as coherent fields of devotion, discourse and action.

61. By asking churches to articulate their own particular ways of acting out the story of Jesus in the world, we invite them further into the ecumenical dialogue. Mutual enrichment, as well as mutual critique and correction, can occur when distinct traditions encounter one another. Soon we realize that single Christian traditions cannot exist in isolation. Traditions of formation inevitably overlap. All traditions of life grow and change. The possibility exists, as we have seen, that a given tradition of Christian formation becomes deformed or mal-formed by having internalized, given theological sanction to, and even worshipped local principalities and powers. Here ecumenical relationships can help churches recover the moral marks of apostolicity and catholicity they have lost.

B. Baptism as the sign of membership in one morally witnessing people of God

62. Nowhere is the ecumenical reality more evident than in the fact of our common baptism. In baptism we either enter upon or celebrate the same basic formation--in Jesus Christ's life, death and resurrection--despite differing eucharistic and theological expressions of it. The process of Christian initiation, whatever the order and timing of its constituent events (baptism, catechesis or instruction, personal confession of faith, confirmation), is our entry into membership in the body of Christ, and therefore into a transformative moral process. It is a crucifying of the "old Adam", by which the power of sin is broken. It is the sacrament of nurture of the life of faith in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It is the inauguration of "growth into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). It is "transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit into his likeness" (2 Cor. 3:18). It is liberation into a new humanity. It is a sign and seal of our common discipleship.

63. Moreover, in the act of baptism there are clear formational responsibilities indicated for the entire community of faith. Parents promise to bring up their child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The whole congregation pledges itself to provide an exemplary environment of witness and service. Within, and beyond, the community of faith those baptized are led into a life of moral witnessing. As the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry document says, they are "pardoned, cleansed and sanctified by Christ, and are given as part of their baptismal experience a new ethical orientation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit".10 And, further, "... baptism, as a baptism into Christ's death, has ethical implications which not only call for personal sanctification, but also motivate Christians to strive for the realization of the will of God in all realms of life" (Rom. 6:9ff.; Gal. 3:27-28; 1 Pet. 2:21-4:6).11

64. Baptism is a local event with ecumenical implications. It is at once the rite of entry into membership in the local congregation and into membership in the universal church. We have come to the point of very widespread acceptance of one another's baptisms. Does this not also imply a sense of common sharing in the formation which baptism implies? The theme of moral formation, so intimately tied to participation in the liturgy of the eucharist, is through our common baptism shown to be an ecumenically shared reality. Although there are many readings and interpretations of, a multiplicity of perspectives upon, Christ's presence in history, our common acceptance of baptism shows us that the task of formation in Jesus Christ is inherently one, a task shared by the entire church. The discipleship into which we are initiated at baptism transcends denominational and confessional boundaries. We thereby enter into union with Christ, with each other, and with the church of every time and place.

65. How, in the midst of our divisions over ministry and the Lord's supper, can this baptismal-moral unity find a more visible form than it has yet achieved? We are not yet able to give it the visible form it inherently demands: unity in eucharistic worship. But may not the one baptism even now find visibility in the catholicity of a community of moral nurture and witnessing: an ecumenical community of costly discipleship? Baptism has to do with the lived reality of the new life in Christ, a community in which the gifts of faith, hope and love are received and practised. Therefore unity in baptism can have a visible moral form, even if it does not yet have a visible ecclesiastical form.

66. Furthermore, does not the mutual recognition of baptism imply a mutual recognition of members? And if so, does that not imply some mutual sharing of and responsibility for the formation of the people of God? In the formation of our own members are we not responsible for guiding them towards ways that recognize their responsibility for moral solidarity with Christians of other congregations, confessions and communions? Does not our common responsibility for baptismal formation point towards a responsibility for building up the people of God in every place? In view of our common recognition of the one baptism, the accompanying formation should include instruction in what this larger, "catholic" formation means. It should make our members aware that the formation they receive leads to a common responsibility, across all lines of ecclesiastical or ethnic difference, for being a people in the world that can make a difference. Baptism is the difference which makes a difference.

67. Ironically, the churches even now have not been able to find any significantly visible expression of this oneness among baptized, and therefore formed-in-Christ people. Yet to the extent that our formative efforts succeed, the resulting community of moral witness is an ecumenical reality needing nurture, concretion and recognition. A moral community of the baptized, struggling with issues of justice in the life of world, could, for now, be the most visible and tangible lived expression of the unity that is given us in Jesus Christ.


IV. Toward communion in moral witnessing


A. Transcending old vocabularies

68. We have been engaged in a study process which seeks to appropriate the achievement of two great ecumenical enterprises, yet also to break free of the dichotomy of consciousness and effort these streams have represented. This task needs deep understanding and appreciation of what Faith and Order and Life and Work have stood for over the years, and a desire that these enterprises should go forward in a shared perspective that sees their visions as richly inter-related 12. Such a goal cannot be reached by simply pasting together in the same paragraphs sentences in each of these two institutional languages, seeking to say the same thing first in one vocabulary and then in the other. The point is to break away from the artificial division of perspective two distinctive vocabularies have represented. This calls for a vision, with language to go with it, that substantially recasts the two perspectives into one.

69. The time is right for such an attempt, not least because the WCC itself is about to undergo significant change. That change will not simply be a matter of bureaucratic reorganization (although there will be some of that) but hopefully the enactment of a vision representing a decisive forward step in the history of the ecumenical movement.

70. We must never make the mistake of confusing what an ecumenical enterprise stands for - its fundamental vision - with the particular institutional form and vocabulary used. No vision can work its power in the world, of course, without some vocabulary and institutional form. But given vocabularies always reflect specific institutional histories. They tie the "native speakers" of the enterprise to those histories. They carry codes which insiders recognize. The point is not to forget where we have been and how we got there but to find a new vocabulary which can take these visions up into a new synthesis: a vocabulary not burdened by the past yet capable of conveying the best of the past into a new era.

71. In the nature of the case, the new vocabulary we are seeking will not spring full-blown from any study report, least of all this one. It will be the product of shared ecumenical experience. If we learn to live together in a morally engaged worshipping community, we will eventually find the words to talk about it. Our reflections on the church as intrinsically a community of moral formation and world-engagement are intended as a move in that direction.

B. A freedom to seek new patterns

72. Under what conditions are we seeking this new understanding? In some situations the church is still captive to long-standing cultural expectations which restrain fresh thinking and innovation. But increasingly, these cultural expectations are disappearing as secularized societies cease to have much notion of, or indeed to care much about, what the church may claim to be its role in the world. In some places there have never been any such expectations. More and more young people grow up without religious education. For them there is a tabula rasa so far as religious institutions are concerned. The upshot is that we are freer than we have been in centuries to be the church we believe God wants us to be, but the task of making that happen in post-traditional, secularized societies is likely to be monumental.

73. In some situations the pressure of circumstances gives the church few options. Overthrowing injustice or oppression, or sheer survival, may be the unavoidable agenda. But more often, and especially in the West, there are too many signposts, too many competing visions. It is hard for Western Christians to see their way, not because the territory is trackless but because there are too many possibilities, too many ways of seeing the world, which they are invited to consider as if they were spiritual consumers. The watchword is "choice", as if choice were the same thing as freedom.

74. Many in the West share the conviction that in this vertigo of possibilities the church has largely lost its way. Certainly many current ecclesial forms of life and thought fail to work very well. Some are manifestly dysfunctional. Yet there are signs of the future in our present patterns of practice, if only we can identify them for what they are. Can we break away from formulas of the past which prevent us from seeing the opportunities we have in this generation? One way to do so is to see that living the Christian story and bearing moral witness to it in the world are inextricably inter-related. Eucharistic worship, rightly understood, renders ecclesial and moral reality one.

C. Ecclesio-moral formation as the clue

75. We have sought the clue to what we must do now in the notion of formation in the faith, which today means a discipleship worked out in a formation simultaneously liturgical and moral. We have seen what this means, both in terms of thought and in a concrete instance. It does not mean capture of the Christian message by any ideology: radical, liberal, conservative or otherwise. We need to find our way again not through choosing an attractive political vehicle but through recovery of the very substance of the faith as confessed and lived. This means, above all, a return to the sources, a deep revisiting and renewal of our connection to the story of salvation through its repetition in worship, where the enacted narrative manifests its transcendent dimension of mystery and becomes more than just another beguiling story.

76. Such formation compels us to a bodily form of witness, a moral positioning, an engagement intrinsic to the persons we have become in the community of faith. It likewise shapes the community of faith itself to take an intrinsically moral role in relation to events around it. All this is one reality, one process, one journey, one experience. Not first this and then that, but this single, integral, way of life, seeing, hearing, thinking, doing. Not first a theological moment and then a practical moment but one stream of life shaped by the baptismal call to discipleship and eucharistic memory and thanksgiving which open us to participation in the historical movement of the Trinity through the power of the Holy Spirit.

D. A focus on the immediate and the local

77. Of necessity, the life of faith understood this way focusses on the immediate necessities of our local situation, whatever that may be. Larger visions of history, even when they purport to translate biblical eschatology, may actually blind us to the needs of our neighbours next door, the concerns of our particular communities. At the very least, our reading of the signs of the times needs first to open our eyes to immediate opportunities for moral witness which can be grasped even when we cannot see very far or explore the larger ramifications of our actions. There are moments when the right action is apparent, when it is faithless not to act even though we know we cannot see all the consequences. Not all moral challenges involve risky "boundary situations". Too much reflection on general principles may even be a way of avoiding what we know full well is our immediate calling. Much of the time it is reasonably clear what we should do. We are to "do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly" with our God (Micah 6:8).

78. In many such cases our actions are the result of formation which simply makes the move intuitive. We think in terms of values built into the sort of community we are. People so formed are not greatly helped by chains of abstract ethical reasoning. They confront challenges in terms of communal relationships, customs, kinship patterns, deep-seated convictions about what is fitting. They do their practical reasoning in terms analogous to the shapes of life lived in conversation with the scriptures and shaped by participation in the liturgy. Such formation gives us the preparation, the conditioning, the equipment, and the companionship to face the unknowable future which confronts us every day. In such circumstances, not to move to the side of a neighbour in need, across the street or across the world, would be a betrayal of the integrity intrinsic to our identity.

79. Yet not all moral challenges are so unambiguous as these. Acting out of a scripturally and liturgically formed integrity may not solve all moral dilemmas, or be without objective risk. There can be no guarantee that in the larger scheme of things we will turn out to be "right". Vaclav Havel makes a distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism is the mere expectation of success. Hope, on the other hand, does not mean we believe things will necessarily turn out the way we expect, or turn out well for ourselves in particular. Hope says there is ultimate meaning in faithful action however immediately ensuing events turn out. Indeed we see through a glass darkly. Many of the issues we face, as the Rønde meeting saw, involve life-issues of the most fundamental sort: issues of human life, issues of justice, issues of survival. It is legitimate to stand back and reflect on these things. When we do that our moral formation provides narrative, liturgical and conceptual materials for reflection. And we need also to be well informed about the situations we face and the thought of secular observers concerning them.

80. It is important to remember that thinking in terms of formation means that when we act it is the church acting in us, and therefore we have responsibility to act as witnesses in and for our community of faith. This means in the first instance that we act if possible with the support, the pastoral care of our own worshipping congregation. But further it means that we act in the context of the whole ecumenical church, in ways that are in touch with the experiences of others who have passed this way before.

81. In certain circumstances the action which appears to act out the integrity of our formed identity is one which takes us, and our congregation, into a critical solidarity with some other movement in which we discern the Spirit at work, or the reign of God anticipated. Of course, it can be dangerous to think that we can objectively identify the Spirit's presence. But the criterion of the Spirit of Jesus Christ is that it proclaims that Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4:1-4), and that means in accord with the story of the incarnation in which we have been formed.

82. One of the indications of the Spirit's working, as the Rønde consultation saw, can be the discovery of an intense koinonia in solidarity with others over issues of human importance. There is an enormous attraction in finding in the company of others more of that sense of koinonia of which our Christian formation has given us a taste. We want more, and sometimes find it in relationships beyond the visible church. But this is surely a principle to be applied cautiously. What we think is koinonia may be no more than a very human sense of companionship in facing danger and seeking adventure. Yet if the church is intrinsically a moral community acting in the power of the Holy Spirit, then it follows that living out its witness where the Spirit is also at work should extend the sense of koinonia that is intrinsic to the eucharistic community as such. We wrestled at Rønde 13 and Tantur 14 with this question of koinonia outside the community of faith. We still need more clarity than we have.

E. Reconstructing the oikoumene

83. Focussed as we are on many specific moral engagements, how do we recover a sense of the oikoumene? The description just given of moral struggle in each place sounds as if the local is all, and that the diversity of particular situations makes it impossible to generalize: as if no concepts of broad application can possibly grasp the many forms of "thick" particularity that mark the way traditioned, formed people exercise their moral integrity in each particular case. Does this localism mean that no general guidance can be given about what to look for? Is there no constant pattern in the way liturgically formed Christians should behave?

84. Not, it seems, in terms of moral propositions purporting to be universal in themselves. Rather, what we do is share the experience of the larger church, whose "locality" is the oikoumene, the inhabited earth. This is why the life of the ecclesia as moral community requires an ecumenical dimension. Every local moral challenge has a global dimension. Every global issue has a local application. The complexity of such relationships is well set out in the Rønde document.15

85. But how are we adequately to articulate such things, and particularly such notions as the "global" or "universal", today? We face post-modernism's penchant for the deconstruction of all large systems of thought as well as the power structures legitimated by them. On the one hand, such deconstruction very properly attacks the pride of certain great syntheses of the Western academic world: syntheses that assume, for example, that objectivizing human sciences are forms of discourse superior to the "subjugated languages" of the poor and dispossessed. But on the other hand, such attitudes can be seen as demolishing, or at least undermining, the very notion of an ecumenical vision as itself a kind of global synthesis. Just at the moment we are trying to give ecumenism a new comprehensive meaning which might clarify the calling of the World Council of Churches, we find ourselves living in an age whose thinkers seek to dismantle all such large ideas. Our emphasis on formation, with its preferential option for the immediate and the local, seems in tune with the prevailing philosophical temper. But the very word oikoumene seems to violate this post-modern preference for particularity, evoking as it does the notion of the unity of the human race in the household of God. Can we still convincingly speak "ecumenical" language?

1. Resonance and recognition

86. We can in fact still recognize what certain words mean across great gulfs of cultural difference. The defence of "human rights" in many different contexts and cultures is an example. But, unless filled out in the "thickness" of specific local application, all such general ideas as justice, peace, the integrity of creation and democracy are likely to remain abstract, no matter how compelling their sound. And, such is the fragmentation of contemporary cultural existence that some of these words are beginning to lose the broadly applicable meanings we thought they had. Is this happening also to the notion of oikoumene?

87. One approach to answering this question could lie in recognizing the role of purportedly universal ideas or concepts as instruments of (often Western-based) power structures and turning instead to more inclusive and organic ways of thinking: ways capable of hearing and interpreting humanity's "subjugated languages." Such is the intent of what we now have to say about resonance and recognition.

88. The key insight is that the Holy Spirit generates a kind of energy-field characterized by the recognizable "resonance" of Christ's presence in the world. The identifiable presence of this resonance connects the many biblical and post-biblical forms of witness to Jesus Christ. God's incarnate presence in history indeed can be seen reflected in the ensemble of the many perspectives in which the spiritual, moral resonance implicit in Christ's life has been, and continues to be, known and appropriated by those who follow him. Each context of discipleship shapes us in a certain perspective on the world and thereby generates a community having a certain recognizable character. The Holy Spirit instigates an energy-field of resonance among these perspectives.16

89. Thus the notion of oikoumene is not to be understood as a globalizing, even imperial, concept appropriated from the ancient world as an instrument of subjugation by powerful churches of the West. It is rather to be seen as a conscious mutual recognition of the resonating patterns and configurations of activity that follow from the Spirit's working. Before there can be an articulable oikoumene there is the resonance in which diverse local communities of faith recognize and share the forming, energizing power of the Holy Spirit.

90. By choosing resonance and recognition as our metaphors we are able to turn to a biblical formula found in the Johannine literature. What goes on when we recognize the real presence of Jesus Christ in the form of a community? Is it like recognizing a familiar face? Like recognizing the pattern in a fabric? Perhaps the sense of "voice" suggests the kind of resonance we need. The sheep know the shepherd's voice (John 10:3; cf. Rev. 3:20). Voice includes the notions of timbre, tone, pattern, texture, characteristic turns of speech: the very factors that enable personal recognition. The voice of the shepherd is heard by the disciples and lived out in a personal communion with him. This communion is taken up into liturgy, where the rhythm of discipleship is included in the rhythms of the divine dance. Discipleship means hearing, being drawn, being formed, by the voice: not just its sound but also its content, the authentic note of a way of speaking by which we are shaped, attesting to an identifiable way of being in the world, yet a way of being having many different forms. It is this voice-pattern recognition that is celebrated, acted, co-risked.

91. The focus of ecumenical recognition is that the other community has an acted commitment analogous to one's own, and one's own commitment is analogous to the other. The analogy exists because of a shared recognition-pattern of moral practice in the Spirit. People formed by the liturgical, that is worshipping, enactment of the story such that life in the world con-forms with that formation are able to recognize that others are doing the same: recognize that others "have the same spirit". Spirit is always something that realizes itself in concrete form, concrete life. We know it by how it looks and how it sounds. Such recognition is something holistic, never merely doctrinal or jurisdictional but also including both doctrinal and jurisdictional elements. It is recognition of the lived reality: a sense of moral communion. This is what oikoumene means.

2. Markings

92. Only when there is this resonance in the Spirit and the recognition in it of the voice of the shepherd do we have grounds for confidence that the words and symbols we use have sufficiently similar meanings that we are able to understand other communities of Christian faith, and that they are able to understand us, so that we can share liturgy and ultimately theological language with them. We are not talking about concepts thought to maintain constant meanings across all cultures. It may be that the only "universal" concepts are those maintained by the world's principalities and powers. We are speaking instead of words and other indicators embedded in, and deriving their meaning from, a formation in holy things lived out in moral witness. The terms "signs" or "symbols" come to mind. But these words have meanings in other contexts which could lead to misunderstandings here. Let us simply call our indicators of shareable sense in the midst of ecumenical formation "signposts" or "markings".

93. Certain signposts emerge in the process of living out identifying factors of moral formation. We may think of these as pointers that say someone has been this way before: what the Scots call "cairns" on the hillside. Someone has been here, and has called the goal of a process of costly and risky involvement on behalf of neighbours "justice". This contextual naming gives "justice" a thick network of meanings that cannot be conveyed until someone walks this way again. Or some community has called a painfully worked-out and costly concord among combattants "peace". Again, "peace" thereby takes on an experienced meaning for those who were part of this history. Terms like "justice" and "peace" function in the ecumenical movement to help persons with analogous experiences find one another, and thus support, enable, encourage, and empower one another.17

94. The traditional "marks" of the church, grounded as they are in credal, liturgical and moral substance, function in exactly this way: as pointers which create a certain presumption that we, and all others who claim them, are grounded in the same resonating and recognizable community-forming work of the Holy Spirit. Our problem sometimes is that the articulable signs have taken over as substitutes for the lived realities to which they refer. Yet often we have little to go on but outward signs, expressed as they are in jurisdictional, confessional or doctrinal agreement, or in willingness to participate in conciliar relationships. Today we need to share more deeply the liturgical and moral substance to which the traditional marks and our practical interpretations of them refer. We have seen that one basis for such sharing lies in the reality of our common baptism. What may it take for our existing baptismal-moral sharing to become communion?

3. Communion

95. To be in communion means to be in a network of relationships such that the Spirit's resonance is shared and recognizable messages are given and received. Communion means a recognition that we are living the same stories in forms, both liturgical and moral, which manifest the mystery, the transcending ground, of what is historically manifest. That is why the story needs to be embodied not just in the telling but in liturgy. Liturgy lived out morally makes us participants in the Christian story in such a way that we are drawn into God's real presence. In liturgy we participate in making present the reality of God in Jesus Christ through the full trinitarian economy in history. This plays out in justice-seeking, peace-making, caring for our planet. Such acting-out generates the concrete reality of faith's active presence in the world.

96. To be in communion is precisely to be willing to share the liturgy in both its senses: as worship and as work. Communion is a readiness to celebrate the same liturgy, with the same moral implications, together, as we recognize one another in each place through resonance, recognition, and the presumption created by common markings. The ecumenical reality behind the institutional forms we give it is a network of mutual recognition of the pattern, or theme, or voice, of Jesus Christ among communities liturgically formed in him. It is concrete commitment to living out the story which recognizes other, analogous, concrete commitments to living it out. Outside this network of mutual recognition, no particular local expression of church can be authentic. It is of the essence of the church universal to exist in this web of relationships, in which the local is all important but the ecumenical nexus of recognition is equally indispensable.

97. The communion we have with one another today is "real but imperfect".18 The terms we commonly use to describe or test our communion are themselves imperfectly or incompletely understood. In fact they need to point to the fullness of ecclesio-moral reality we find in one another as we discern in one another signs of hearing the shepherd's voice. But as commonly interpreted, our theological language does not yet catch the moral fullness, the plenitude of witnessing presence in history, which completeness of communion requires. It is important not to drain the fullness from our language by defining our terms purely conceptually, juridically or ecclesiastically, and not also morally. Nor must we let some particular structural aspect of the church's life be considered the sole fulfillment of what this language means. All language related to communion points to the life, obedience, and liturgical-moral integrity of the community of faith in such a way that its world-relationships, solidarities and ways of being prophetic are part of that wholeness.

F. The World Council of Churches as marker and space-maker for an Ecumenical moral communion

98. How do we make room on earth for this oikoumene of mutually recognized resonance among our ways of concrete moral-ecclesial being-in-the-world? The moral communion we have been talking about has as yet no obvious seat in space. No ecclesiastical jurisdiction exists as a place where the universal church in this moral sense comes to expression. All existing jurisdictions are partial both in what they include and in the depth of moral being they signify.

99. But some form of visible expression is needed if we are to nurture towards fulfillment the "real but imperfect" moral communion that already exists among Christian communities of faith. Some community which marks its possibility, which makes articulated space for its appearing in fullness, is needed. The World Council of Churches may well come closer than any other entity to being that mark and offering that space. It is not the moral communion of which we have spoken, but it is a community of churches praying to receive the spiritual gifts which such communion in moral witnessing will require.

1. Rethinking the Nature of the Council

100. Current discussion of the nature of the Council runs between seeing it as a purely programmatic instrument of the churches (thereby denying it ecclesial status) and seeing it as the reality of churches-in-relation (thus suggesting that it has an as yet undefined ecclesial character). But may not the choice between these alternatives be confusing and in the end false? Programmatic initiatives can interpret and express the ecclesio-moral realities of WCC member churches. And churches-in-relation may fail to realize the ecclesial intentionality inherent in their relationship. Can we move beyond the perennial dichotomy between the ecclesial and the programmatic, especially in the moral realm?

101. Perhaps we can in principle. It is not our task to become directly involved in the Council's current "common vision and understanding process". But it would be disingenuous to deny that our work is relevant to that effort. If we have anything to say on this subject we want to stay at the level of vision. Consequences for budget, structure and staffing are not our business. That said, we have some broad suggestions to make concerning the perspective in which all these matters might be considered.

102. The WCC needs to mark, maintain, indeed be a space where the ecclesio-moral communion of which we have been speaking can come to expression, where language is constantly sought to express the reality more fully, where common actions are conceived which embody the needed moral witness, and where an ecumenical formation takes place which gives growing density, increasing fullness, to it.

2. Moral communion and sacramental communion

103. But here a question arises which needs careful treatment. We have consistently connected moral formation in this report with the sacraments of baptism and eucharist. That, indeed, is our basis for calling the goal of this enterprise a moral communion. But many of our churches, despite cordial relationships, are not yet in sacramental communion with one another. Can there then be such a thing as an "ecclesio-moral" communion which avoids, or transcends, our dividedness in the sacramental origins of moral formation? Do such deep divisions not call in question, at least for now, the very idea of a universal moral communion as much as they do the idea of a universal sacramental communion? Do we not have to wait for moral communion until our divisions at the level of ministry and sacraments have been overcome? And if at the sacramental level no moral communion is as yet possible it makes no sense to suggest that the WCC should, as a present programmatic initiative, "mark" or offer "space" for such a thing, much less claim some sort of sacramental moral character itself.

104. Our responses to questions like these will depend on our ecclesiological commitments. For some there is no doubt a deep dilemma. The more closely we tie moral formation to the sacraments the less easy it becomes to argue that something called "moral communion" can unite us while sacramental communion among us is not yet attained. Yet it is also possible to argue that the notion of moral communion, despite its connection with the sacraments, need not stand or fall with the degree of our unity in the eucharist. There is enough moral substance lodged in the reality of our common baptism to justify some sort of ecumenical space-making right now for that shared spiritual gift. And if this is so it follows that the World Council of Churches should help make actively visible this given, already existing, baptismal-moral communion among its member churches.

105. It can also be argued that moral communion is distinguishable from eucharistic communion in another important way. Moral communion has a worldly telos: it can only be fulfilled in some form of public witness which requires us to be in touch with broad human questions belonging to the realm of "ethics". Such questions today, as we have seen, are both radical in their import and global in their character. There is a commonality in the human questions that can only be addressed through an equally common Christian witness. Only an organization like the World Council of Churches can help its member bodies discern and act out the comprehensive human implications of their particular sacramental-moral-formational processes. The effort to do this can itself generate a koinonia of thoughtful, daring, costly witnessing. A kind of communion can come into being through this grace-enabled work itself.

106. There is a difference between seeing the Council as a eucharistic community in its own right, which few want to do, and seeing it as a place for this koinonia-generating response to the grace we have already received in baptism: this effort to think through what our different morally formative communions can mean to the world. And if, in fact, the member churches of the Council can be brought to make such a commitment, the Council's very existence then "marks" or locates the reality of a growing moral communion: working out in concrete terms the meaning of mutual resonance in the Spirit marked by discipleship to Jesus Christ.

107. Some will wish to say even more. Some theologians will argue that an organization making space for such a communion in moral formation for worldly ethical engagement cannot stand entirely outside the reality it enables to exist. For those who take this view it follows that the Council participates somehow in the communion it helps to foster. The Council becomes an instance of that communion in a peculiarly comprehensive and communicative mode. It is a mark of the ecumenical community it gathers, and therefore in some sense is of the church, even if not churchly in the fullest sense.

3. Koinonia in the struggle for common witness: ecumenical affirmations

108. It is not possible to decide this last question in these pages, and for our purposes it is not necessary.19 What is clear is that the question of the status of the Council as marker of a growing moral communion has a practical side. Can we do what needs to be done? The whole matter of communion in moral witness is moot if we cannot find enough agreement about the content of that witness to make the question relevant. Here a deeply ecclesiological question becomes in one respect a programmatic question as well. What happens when we try to give our hope for moral communion a moral substance? What can be learned from the history of attempts to do so? We will learn most for our purposes by looking briefly at the history of the "ten affirmations" produced by the 1990 Seoul conference and now carried over as a point of entry in the "Theology of Life" project.

109. The Seoul conference was intended by its organizers to help build a stronger conciliar fellowship in the ecumenical community around shared moral principles. Indeed, for some, the intention was to give such principles status as marks of the mutual commitment implied in WCC membership. The meeting was presented at the outset with an analytical document dealing with the challenges facing the people of our planet: a document thought by many to propose overly ambitious global reality-definitions couched in Western academic language too abstract to make contact with local experience in all its variety and profusion. The conference instead produced a set of affirmations reflecting the contextual and ecumenical experience of the people present. Yet even this effort did not wholly succeed. In the aftermath a feeling arose that the "ten affirmations", grounded in actual experience as they were, still could not be given clear (i.e. unequivocal) meanings across a variety of contexts: that in different cultural and confessional situations their implications could not be foreseen.

110. One of the reasons for this reluctance to take affirmations home from ecumenical meetings is that, once we do, every proposition, even every preposition, connects or disconnects with local issues, both churchly and secular, and therefore with the power interests tied up in those issues. However subtle our reports from the ecumenical front, the defence back home of affirmations grandly adopted at world conferences can make us seem to be taking sides on matters never envisioned when the affirmations were drafted, battling on one side or the other of dominant local dichotomies, opting for this or that alternative with all its ecclesiastical or worldly political consequences. This may well be the last thing we want to do and in fact may distort the intention of the original affirmations. Here may be a hazard impossible to avoid completely. It may be part of the cost of obedient witnessing. But the experience needs to be understood. It is an aspect of the koinonia-generating struggle which the search for moral communion can involve.

111. Do lists of moral affirmations still have a positive role to play? At their best, they have a sort of heuristic power. They help us find the shared concreteness of our actual moral commitments in facing the most characteristic problems of our time. Lists of principles can help us discover the essence of the moral commitment that is present among serious formational communities at any given moment. They can help instigate the forming of more such communities and help deepen the communion among them. They can be carefully designed to resource local readings of what they mean. Skillfully interpreted by leadership, such affirmations can help churches at a distance from serious moral encounters concretize their solidarity with fellow Christians around specific acts of witness, for example the German womens' boycott of South African products during the period of apartheid.

112. But experience in this area has taught us to proceed with caution. Any such list of moral generalizations or affirmations must be guarded against being merely a list, merely a talisman to be repeated by those who pride themselves on being alert to the world's ills and possibilities. Furthermore, moral catechisms can get out of date even faster than theological ones. There is always the danger of over-generalizing certain historical moments and analytical paradigms. This has happened, for example, in the widespread use made of the experience of the German Confessing Church and the Barmen Declaration. The differences between one situation and another may be overlooked. Indeed historical paradigms, as well as moral principles, can be used covertly to defend and protect certain power centres or programmatic interests in the church rather than to illumine our moral paths. Even to make normative the transition to democracy in South Africa could be dangerous if used as a paradigm where it does not fit.

113. Finally, the impulse to issue lists of moral principles designed to address the signs of the times raises a question about our implied eschatology. What, over all, do we think is happening in the world? Where, if anywhere, are there signs that the reign of God has come nearer? Do we find such signs in the seeming extension of human rights, or in the apparent advance of democracy, or in successes claimed by peacemakers, or in the dire warnings of environmentalists? Indeed, it is not easy to discern, from this ambiguous moment in history, whether the household of life is anywhere taking form, or the holy city of God described in Revelation 21 is in any way drawing nearer. Yet these images of the household and the city can stand as eschatological metaphors or regulative ideas to guide us as we try to find our way.

114. The "ten affirmations" live up to their affirmative name. They are profoundly hopeful because they presuppose that by God's grace something can be done about the state of creation and of the human condition. They are valuable indications of the content that ought to be found in a moral communion of ethical engagement with the world. But, above all, they themselves help create the kind of space needed for an effort to think out and live out what such a communion could require, an effort koinonia-generating in its own right. As entry points for the wide range of local case studies in the "Theology of Life" programme, they "serve as a preliminary definition of the framework and space in which people can build up confidence and trust".20 If "space" has any meaning in this argument it is a territory in which we trust one another and have confidence that by God's grace something will come of our efforts. In this powerful sense, the "ten affirmations" and other affirmations like them help create moral space for the "mutual upbuilding" or oikodomé towards a common witness that now becomes a primary calling for the Christian churches of the world 21.

4. The community of oikodomé: a communicative "third force" in the world

115. The World Council of Churches, if possible in concert with other ecumenical bodies, should continue to promote the mutual upbuilding of such a visible moral communion, towards a vision of the church as moral "household of life". For this purpose we need an enhanced communications system among churches, congregations, and persons committed to this vision. We are challenged by the world economic system's ability to send and receive virtually instantaneous messages concerning financial transactions across the globe. We face the obsolete yet still powerful system of nation states. A nexus of another kind needs to have its place in the world. A network of moral communication among the churches could begin to function as a kind of "third force" to counter the hegemony of purely economic and political energies. The initiative to create such a "third force" could include critical, provisional, alliances with others who seek compatible goals. The emergence of the very idea of such a liturgically formed ecclesio-moral community could give the ecumenical movement a new energy and substance.

116. At stake here is not merely the future of a particular ecumenical organization. At stake is the future of the church itself. For the vision we have sketched to have substance and staying power we need to give urgent attention to the renewal in our churches of the work of moral formation in obedient discipleship and of the kinds of costly ethical witnessing in the world that depend upon it. Such renewal needs to be sought in every congregation, in every confessional family or communion, in every place, in every morally perplexing situation across this deeply threatened but beloved planet, our home and the home of all the living things we know.


List of Participants


Anna Marie Aagaard, Denmark (Co-moderator)
Duncan Forrester, Scotland (Co-moderator)
John de Gruchy, South Africa
Mongezi Guma, South Africa
Vigen Guroian, USA
William Henn, OFM, Rome
Margaret Jenkins, CSB, Australia
Margot Kässmann, Germany
Frans Noko Kekane, South Africa
Lewis Mudge, USA
Elizabeth Tapia, Philippines

WCC Staff

Thomas F. Best, executive secretary, Faith and Order
Alan Falconer, director, Faith and Order
Martin Robra, executive secretary, Economy, Ecology and Sustainable Society
Marise Pegat-Toquet, administrative assistant, Economy, Ecology and Sustainable Society

 

Notes

1. See Bert Hoedemaker, "Introductory Reflections on JPIC and Koinonia," and Lukas Vischer, "Koinonia in a Time of Threats to Life," in Costly Unity, Thomas F. Best and Wesley Granberg-Michalson, eds., Geneva, WCC, 1993, pp. 1ff. and 70ff. See also Konrad Raiser, "Ecumenical Discussion of Ethics and Ecclesiology", The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 48, No. 1, January 1996, pp. 3ff.


2. This analysis is adapted from Konrad Raiser, op. cit., p. 7.


3. The term "thickness," popularized by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, is now widely used by human scientists to mean the full and multi-layered complexity of cultures. It admirably links up with the concept of "formation." We are "formed" in rich and enveloping environments, not merely by the "thin" concepts scholars derive from those environments.


4. See, for example, Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1989, pp. 211ff.


5. The question of the moral attitude the church should take toward homosexuality--especially where ordination is concerned--has already been divisive. The action of Orthodox leadership in suspending their churches' membership in the American National Council of the Churches of Christ a few years ago over the issue of the Council's entertaining (the matter never reached the point of accepting) a membership application from the Council of Metropolitan Community Churches shows how quickly a moral question can take on ecclesiological significance.


6. Minutes of the Faith and Order Standing Commission, Aleppo, Syria, 5-12 January 1995, Faith and Order Paper No. 170, Faith and Order Commission, 1995, pp. 97-98. The corresponding paragraphs in the Costly Commitment report are 72 and 73.


7. Thus many American congregations seem today to suppose that a message of personal freedom and self-development lived out in an individualistic consumerist culture is a tolerable translation of the gospel. This assemption is, in fact, a form of captivity. It limits, if it does not negate, the potential witness of a Christian moral formation.


8. This material is adapted in part from Larry Rasmussen, "Moral Community and Moral Formation," in Costly Commitment, Thomas F. Best and Martin Robra, eds., Geneva, 1995, p. 56.


9. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper No. 111, Geneva, WCC, 1982, "Eucharist," para. 20, p. 14.


10. Ibid., "Baptism," para. 4, p. 2.


11. Ibid., para. 10, p. 4.


12. It is not to be overlooked that both Faith and Order and Life and Work have consciously sought to overcome this dichotomy in a variety of theological formulas: the church as sign, sacrament and instrument, intercontextual method, the church as mystery and prophetic sign, the notion of the status confessionis, and so forth. See, for example, Thomas F. Best, "From Seoul to Santiago: The Unity of the Church and JPIC," in Between the Flood and the Rainbow, comp. D. Preman Niles, Geneva, WCC Publications, 1992, pp. 128ff., Peter Lodberg, "The History of Ecumenical Work on Ecclesiology and Ethics," in Costly Commitment, op. cit., pp. 1ff.


13. See "Costly Unity", op. cit., paras. 42-46.


14. See "Costly Commitment", op. cit., section III, paras. 35-42.


15. See "Costly Unity", paras. 35-37, esp. the following from para. 36: "The ?local' means different things in different circumstances. It may mean a neighbourhood, or a nation, or a region of the world. And sometimes an issue may be global in its importance, yet not susceptible of any single explanation or formula so varied are its ramifications in different places. Sometimes a global issue is such that it comes to expression most clearly in some particular locality, whose Christian people then have special responsibility for defining its significance for the rest of the oikoumene. Sometimes an essentially local issue can only be clearly seen when its global aspects are grasped."


16. These ideas are adapted in part from the thought of Michael Welker, whose name surfaced several times in discussion. See his article "The Holy Spirit", translated by John Hoffmeyer, Theology Today, 46, April 1969, pp. 4-20. Welker writes that the Spirit "restores solidarity, loyalty, and capacity for common action among the people." Likewise it generates a realm of "poly-concreteness" in which there can be a "multifaceted, reciprocally strengthened and strengthening process of cooperation..." We find this an excellent desciption of relationships within the oikoumene.


17. Terms such as "justice" and "peace" of course also have rich contexts of meaning in secular moral and political philosophy, as well as in the common parlance of journalists, politicians and diplomats. While it is indispensable, as we have said, for Christians to be in touch with these secular worlds, there is danger that their terminology represents a covert hegemony of Western thought-categories in one way or another related to Western political and economic interests. The idea of deriving the meanings of "justice" and "peace," (and of course the "integrity of creation" as well) from an ecumenical sharing of contextual moral engagements is intended to help us escape the hegemony of interests disguised as moral principles.


18. These oft-spoken words echo inexactly the language of Unitatis Redintegratio, the "Decree on Ecumenism" of Vatican II: "For [those] who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are brought into a certain, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church." See Walter M. Abbott, S.J., Documents of Vatican II, New York, Guild Press, 1966, p. 345.


19. Deep and divisive ecclesiological issues are involved, and behind them lie philosophical questions concerning the relationship of act and being. It could turn out that such questions are not resolvable in the terms in which they are currently posed, and that only in sharing a new moral life and language, responding to the working of the Holy Spirit in our time, can we move beyond our current impasse.


20. Martin Robra, "Theology of Life: Justice, Peace, Creation," The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 48, No. 1, January 1996, p. 35.


21. See, on the image of oikodom? or "mutual upbuilding," the treatment by Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz in God's Spirit: Transforming a World in Crisis, New York, Continuum, and Geneva, WCC, 1995, pp. 108ff.