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Speech at St Andrews, Presbyterian Church, Toronto

In a series of visits to the Toronto offices of WCC member churches in Canada, and in a lecture and panel discussion on the evening of Wednesday 14 March, the WCC general secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, explored contemporary hopes and challenges in the pursuit of Christian unity.

14 March 2012

The Unity we Seek: Exploring Hopes and Challenges for Ecumenism Today

10 Theses to the Present Reflection on the Unity of the Church

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

A.    The Image: The Circle of Unity

"Unity" belongs to the concepts that should be constantly discussed. Life is changing, also the life of the churches and their life together. So are their understanding of unity, their challenges to unity and their contributions to it.

Images can stimulate our reflections, without saying everything or being exclusive, they can nurture our imagination and our ability to be creative. Images from nature can give us a sense of reality, and a deeper sense of how we are a part of a living reality. I have been reflecting on an image, actually a photo, that give me some new insights, deepening my reflections on this topic that I have been discussing and striving for during the last 20 years of study and work. The photo is of some lichen, growing in a circle, across the deep crevice in the rock on which they grow.  It seems to be challenged by the split in the rock, but nevertheless grows across it.  This striking image has encouraged me to look at unity as something of a double reality. It is growing life, yet still making a structure. It belongs to the essential nature of this lichen to grow in circles, to become part of a unity. I am told by my dear colleague from Tanzania that the same is true for banana trees, they also grow like families in circles. The photo taken just outside our small summer house at the coast of Norway last summer, is from a bare rock next to the sea on a small island, out in the big sea that unites Norway with the continent of Europe and further more with the whole globe. I wonder what images in Canadian nature might inspire you to these kinds of reflections.

Thus, I believe that «Unity» is a concept that requires complementary perspectives. I have brought my reflections together in 10 pairs of perspectives, describing unity, to offer you here for your consideration today.

1.     Unity as Gift and Calling

Christian unity is an intrinsic dimension of God's grace to us. It belongs to our faith, as we also confess it together in the Creeds of the Early Church. To belong to Christ means to belong to the Body of Christ, the Church. When we are granted from God our creator and life-giver a relationship to Christ through our baptism, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we are also given a connection to all others who are in the same relationship. If we do not have this as a starting point for our reflections on unity, we will get lost in our discussions. Unity in the Body of Christ is not something we are making, it is given to each one of us. We are called to be what we are in the mysterious fellowship in Christ, members of the same body, branches on the same tree, living stones in the same building.

At the same time, being given a gift makes as stewards of the gift. Unity is something that we have received and yet something always to be fulfilled, as grace, as the other values of the Kingdom of God, like Justice, Peace, Joy in the Holy Spirit, as life itself. Therefore, the calling to unity is not something we can remember or ignore, have on our agenda or not. It is there, as a dimension of being given the gift of new life in Christ. We cannot receive Christ without being included in Christ's love, in the fellowship of the triune God, through Christ's prayer.

The most important words are often the smallest words: "As" is one of them. This word brings the living analogy in relationships into our reflection of unity, the «as» is the powerful connection. "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17:21-23)

The WCC's Canberra Assembly 1991 made a strong statement about unity as "Gift and Calling," defining the WCC as a fellowship of churches where this gift is shared and the calling constantly being given to us. The unity can be defined in different expressions of life, the full visible unity in a shared Eucharist and mutual recognition of one another, the sharing of the service to and the witness in the world. Always calling us to show and share the unity given to us in Christ. Because we need it, because the world needs it. Every day. Every year. Every generation.

2.     Unity as Being and Doing

I am puzzled by the fact the word "unity" does not appear in the prayer of Christ, and not often, in fact, in the New Testament scriptures. Still it is there, all over, almost in every chapter, as gift and calling. But we should remind ourselves that Christ prays that we should "be one". To be one is something that expresses life. Unity can be a definition, a structure, an objective. To "be one" has many other dimensions, as life has many dimensions according to who we are, where and when we are. There are strong contributions from several churches in the ecumenical fellowship, not at least from the Orthodox churches, who have helped us to see that being is the really first question: being in the life given to us, as in the prayer of Christ "may they also be in us" (John 17:21). This "being" is a reality before we have started our activities. Being one is a status that should and could be a platform for our relationships "“ before we have done anything to manifest our good intentions in our many actions.

However, doing what unity requires is a fulfilment of what we are and what we are called to be. «The world is too strong for a divided church», were the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu when the struggle against apartheid was at the most intense. What you do shows whether you live alone, or in need of others. The expression that "doctrine divides, service unites" could be a way to criticise the lacking outcomes of theological discussions and work in the ecumenical movement. It could also be interpreted positively, as a confirmation of the enormous potential of common service, common actions, and common initiatives; as we get our focus away from ourselves, our internal differences, and to the needs of the created world in which God has placed us.

What first comes to my mind when discussing Christian unity in Canada, is all the signs I know of how the Canadian churches have involved themselves in common actions to serve those in need in other parts of the world. And the hardworking, committed Canadian workers of unity I know of have been focussing on the work to be done. Some of them are here tonight.

3.     Unity as Life and Structure

In the discussions on the unity of the church, we quite often can find expressions of how life and structure are in contradiction. We hear about experiences of unity, of a life together, possible without structures, even in spite of or in contradiction to structures. We were recently visited in Geneva by the brothers of the Taize community in France, a truly extraordinary community that welcomes thousands of young people to visit each year to deepen their faith by common prayer and fellowship. They are very clear that their understanding of unity is grounded in prayer, and that they do not seek to be an institution or worldwide movement.

But we hear, too, how some question a personalized, even emotional, understanding of unity that does not have an effect on or a clear structured form of church fellowship. These also are caricatures - on each side - in discussions about church unity.

The image I showed to you of the circle of lichen is a sign of how life and structure can belong together. Life always will be given in a form, in a structure, and sometimes we can be surprised by the structure of life.

Your dear Canada is a country that has developed through many tensions and challenges, through the fact that so many different people from different countries, cultures, continents have come together to live in this huge country, the home of First Nations peoples. The mosaic of Canada is also reflected in the churches and in the fellowship of churches here. The ethnic, cultural, and confessional diversity is a real mosaic brought together during the last centuries. More than in many other countries, multiculturalism and multi-religious dimensions are a reality - and a challenge - you can perceive every day.  This is a gift and definitely a calling. It is a matter of being what you are and still act as one nation, one country, one entity. Your unity must become a matter of how life can find its forms when you are brought together, have to live together, and organise the future together. The unity is an expression of life requiring a structure of life. A national state with several provinces should be one fellowship with one legislation caring for the rights of individuals, groups and peoples, and for the whole fellowship.

4.     Unity as Means and an End

Unity in the church is not merely a mean, a tool, to achieve something else. We are not brought «into order» just as any other cadre to serve a purpose of efficiency or hierarchical authority. Unity is not even properly described as a mean to make our mission and Christian witness more effective, even if that is easily brought out of the famous text in John 17.

The unity we seek is something that shall serve more than its own purpose; it is not an end in itself. It is an objective for our efforts, it is a goal set in front of us, a goal that we cannot declared as «achieved» once for all. Mission will never be completed, in this sense. We are called to overcome division, antagonism, conflict, distance and enmity. We are called to overcome partisan attitudes, discrimination, hatred, violence; anything that breaks unity or make unity impossible

However, unity is required to bring confidence, to bring integrity and reliability in our witness to Christ. Jesus Christ is not somebody each one of us can construct, Christ is what we can only properly confess together. Thus, unity is a condition, and in that sense a way to become the communion the Church is meant to be.

On the other hand, we cannot be satisfied or relaxed if we only can achieve an expression of unity. Unity might be an ambiguity, even as an obstacle, if it is used as an argument to block proper changes.

5.     Unity as Justice and Peace

The WCC has chosen a theme for the 10th Assembly: "God of Life, Lead us to Justice and Peace." The discussion was serious, long and not so easy before the decision was made. Some would like to add "Unity" somehow in the theme. One of your representatives, argued that unity could at least not be added before "justice and peace," as unity requires justice and peace. I think this is an important and strong observation, also from the context of Canada.

Lack of justice in a fellowship, and maybe particularly in the church, is undermining the life together in peace that must qualify any expression of unity. Unfortunately, but still as a reality, injustice has happened and happens also inside the church as structure and as fellowship. Injustice for individuals and for groups occurred; I speak for example of indigenous peoples, who suffered terrible indignity particularly through the residential schools experience. This cannot be ignored, and I understand that important work is done to make the history known and the reality to be addressed in the  Truth and Reconciliation Commission. No idea or experience of unity in the church has integrity if justice not been properly observed or established. Sometimes justice can only be achieved if there is a proper critical, or prophetic voice, expressing the need for change to bring injustice to an end.

Any prophetic voice must, however, be serving a wider goal than protest and change, there must be a vision of unity in peace that is carrying the witness for justice. Peace is the goal of any work for justice, a peace that is life-giving, life-nurturing, bringing the elements of life together for the purpose of life together. Peace is something we understand better when we do not have it. The unity of the church needs the strong and rich concept of peace, shalom, saalam. The unity of the church requires efforts to overcome enmity, antagonism, condemnations, and conflict. But again, we do not need harmony that covers up the realities, only when the peace is a just peace it can serves the real unity we seek.

Let me reflect more on these dimensions of unity from the perspective of consensus.

6.     Unity as Consensus and Diversity

The ecumenical dialogue over the last 50 years, and more, has lead to many new insights of how a consensus is possible. We can begin by understanding that there is an underlying basis of fellowship that exists under the different disagreements on some issues; by this I mean diversity or disagreements with which we can live and still claim that there is sufficient consensus for real communion, for unity given in the body of Christ, in the Church. Nowhere and at no time there will be an absence of difference or no dividing potential in the Church. Rather to the contrary, we know that diversity is God-given, and we know that we are different individuals and groups of people in the church. We also know that we are all under the law of sin and never perfect. There is in the name of the given grace of God always an opportunity for reconciliation, there is always a sense of aiming at a reconciled diversity. Practically, this may include agreements between churches to renounce former disputes and condemnations of each other's doctrine; it may include covenants between churches to strengthen their relations, or even enter into full communion.  One very groundbreaking document in this regard is the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine on Justification", a product of the longstanding international Lutheran/Catholic dialogue, leading to real, new statements about the understanding of the doctrinal disputes and condemnation from the time of Reformation and Counter-reformation.

A tremendously moving experience occurred in 2010 in Stuttgart, Germany, as the delegates to the Lutheran World Federation Assembly got on their knees and asked forgiveness from their Mennonite brothers and sisters for centuries of brutal persecution.  I have also celebrated eucharist here in a joint Lutheran/Anglican worship service, making visible how the mutual recognition of one another based on serious theological work can lead to a new dimension of life together, a depth in the ecumenical relations to inspire and enrich also other relations. For this and other such actions we give thanks to God and enjoy that the bridges are opened or the tunnels drilled, ready to be used for communication and sharing of life.

However, even as a reconciled diversity, we are called to work for more consensus, to not stagnate, to develop a proper and solid confirmation of sharing the same faith. The consensus can and should be a manifestation of how we share the same gifts of belonging to the One Christ. The consensus should also strengthen the churches' ability to give a strong common contribution to the fulfilment of the Lord's prayer: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". This is particularly important when we are in situations that requires one voice, one common action, or even what  could be called a common confession. There is special urgency for the sake of justice and peace for the most vulnerable and hurt by injustice.  For the sake of life, there is not a reason to relax in a reconciled diversity.  Somebody "“ we should even say: nature itself - needs from us as churches a common approach, a common protest. The quest for the enriching and blessed diversity requires that we are also based on some kind of consensus. Again, we are forced to ask whether we are seeking a consensus for the sake of our own institution, for our tradition, for our own group "“ or if we are seeking a consensus that is giving space for the other, for the wholeness of God's church and God's creation.

The ecumenical movement by overcoming traditional denominationalism, as we see it happen here in Canada, is giving a strong and sustainable witness against any partisan understanding of God. God cannot only be for me, for us, for our group who came here. If we are believing and praising God, it is the God who is the creator of all. I think there is a time to work on what is the Christian contribution to the inter-faith dialogue, based on the ecumenical learning over many years. It is not a general relativism or sense of "everything goes", but the Christian faith in the triune God compels us to believe that God is not partisan and faith in God should not be used for those kind of purposes.

I think we have to go back to basics again, as we do in the first paragraph of the constitution of the WCC: "The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit." We do believe there is a given common basis in the faith in the personal, triune God; in the Father and Creator from whom all things flow; in Jesus Christ, the incarnated and everlasting expression of God's love to humankind; in the Spirit that brings us into the communion with God and one another, always blowing life into our lives and our fellowship.

7.     Unity as Local Experience and Global Inspiration

In 1961 the WCC held its assembly in New Dehli, India. At that extraordinary meeting, a new way of speaking about unity was proposed. Please allow me to quote from the statement: "We believe that the unity which is both God's will and his gift to his Church is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people."

This expression of unity came at a time of great expansion and change for the WCC, including the membership of many more Orthodox Churches and institutional consolidation.  The unity cannot be manifested only as an  international organization, in an office in Geneva. The unity we seek must be something that has a meaning and a proven reality in the local context of the church. I think most ecumenists have realized that this might be the toughest part of the ecumenical endeavours. It might be easier for some to find unity in an international meeting than for those who are living in the same village or having the Sunday services in church buildings in the same street.

I believe, though, that exactly the international ecumenical movement is given as special gift to the churches to widen the horizon, to be able to look at ourselves from outside, to see other proportions and dimensions, also to be able to look at the neighbour with other eyes.  My own church, the Church of Norway has greatly benefited from participation in international ecumenical bodies, to learn that Christian worship can be more than we had before, to learn that women and men can both serve in the ordained ministry of the church, to learn that the proper response call to mission is more than sending missionaries from Norway, but also how the churches in other countries, with other confessions, even in other parts of the world can help the church in Norway to be church.  I have been very  interested to hear these days how Canadians have been encouraged to think differently about your churches, your ministry and mission from your encounters with the global Christian family. You need the global and ecumenical fellowship also for your own churches, not only as arena to support others (which you do and which I hope that you continue to do).

8.     Unity as Programme and Relation

The experience from the WCC is that unity must be something that some are particularly responsible for in terms of reflection and definition. The WCC is particularly well placed and equipped to lead the reflected and widely oriented work on unity for the Christian churches, a unity that shall serve the whole of humanity and the whole of creation. The unity of the Church is an expression of the life we have been given in God.  Thus, unity is also something that everybody is responsible for in terms of implementation and practice. Not all programs can discuss models of unity, but all should participate in this work by building relationships that are fostering unity. No program of the WCC should be conducted as merely an initiative in Geneva; they should all be planned and pursued through relations with member churches and other ecumenical partners, in order to build unity in prayer, actions, understanding and vision.

The WCC is not just an ecumenical organization among others, which has as well a program for Church unity; it is first and foremost a fellowship of churches.  In other words, you are the World Council of Churches.  The work that you do as churches in Canada is a contribution to the whole oikoumene. And everything we do as a WCC we should do to build bridges, to strengthen them, and not to forget: to use the bridges we have, to make the fullness and the quality of relations grow. The unity we seek is not only an expression on paper, it must be a lived reality in all aspects of church life, witness and service.

9.     Unity as Obligation and Attitude

If we can agree that unity is a never ending and never completed calling,  like the call to justice, peace and care for Gods's creation, we find that  the call to unity belongs to the moral discourse. This has been discussed in the WCC in different ways; e.g. in a study about what is the moral dimension of being church together. As you can imagine, this dimension of the reflections on unity can be rather challenging, and well worthy many lectures in itself. For example: Do we have to agree on moral issues to have unity in the church? This is a rather complicated question, what we clearly see e.g. in reflections and discussions about issues related to human sexuality. Some would even say that such questions are bringing new challenges to Church unity which we did not have before. Other would say that the tendency to make the church a moral community, or even a "moral police", is exactly what the church is not meant to be.

Unity is a call, and therefore, an obligation. However, we can not just accept to be subsumed under a unity in which we don't want to be or agree. And we cannot ask others to submit to a unity we somehow might demand.

Without going far into these questions, let me just offer one thought for reflection: The church is a fellowship compared to the life of a family. You do not choose your parents, or your brothers and sisters. You do choose your partner for life. There is an element of choice in the fellowship of the church, but there is also a dimension beyond that. Still we are belonging together, somehow. In an open and well functioning relationship we are together, as ourselves, different, but still in unity. This requires that we are honest, accountable to one another sharing our thoughts, our intentions, our visions, To be a fellowship of qualified relations, we need to have an attitude of serving the fellowship by being what we are. However, this attitude of being accountable, must include an openness to take the account of the other seriously, to listen and to be willing to identify what is our common standard and common value.

This includes also the attitude of being open and critical, to one self and to the other. Unity requires an attitude of mutual accountability, an attitude that needs to be developed and exercised by being together, living together, relating to one another. As we do in a family, in different ways, being far or near, always with an attitude of knowing and showing that we are belonging together.

10. Unity as Hope and Challenge

The unity we seek and which the world needs is something that must be manifested in actions and structures, in fulfilling duties and being open to one another. The unity we seek, should be both a hope and a challenge.

Leading our attention back to the image with which I started, the image from nature, the lichen growing in a circle, we see that unity is possible. We can have hope, even if there are obstacles and challenges that seem to be irremovable or insurmountable.

Unity, understood as growing together, gives us hope for a life together, a life in solidarity, a life where we can be included and strengthened, becoming able to be more than we can be alone. Moreover, growing together can be a way to manage common challenges and even threats. I think we know that the churches in this part of the world are facing dramatic challenges in terms of diminishing membership and resources. In other parts of the world, churches are challenged by their surroundings, uncertainty about issues of justice and peace that affects them as churches. In a conversation with church leaders from Iraq very recently this became very clear. There is a need for Christian solidarity in so many ways. There is a need for a deeper understanding of what it means to grow together, and what it means to belong together, to give one another hope.

However, growing together is also a way to discover the challenges of our differences in a new way, we cannot run away from one another.

The unity of the Church is always marked by the cross. Because we carry the cross of Christ together, the reminder of the fight against injustice, the sign of God's forgiveness of all our sins and shortcomings, we know that what unites us is also what gives us hope. Today, tomorrow, forever.

May God bless the unity of the churches of Canada, may God bless Canada through the renewed unity among the churches here, serving the life of all in this big, diversified, and still quite open country. May the circles of unity and solidarity be open and blessing for all who grow into them.


Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
WCC general secretary