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In the jungle of ecclesiology, how do we avoid the tigers?

06 August 2004

By Mark Woods (*)

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There are over three hundred and forty members of the World Council of Churches. But what do they think that a church is, and how does each church relate to other churches? The study of these issues is called "ecclesiology", and it's a central issue on the Faith and Order agenda as well as a concern of the WCC.

Rev. Binsar Nainggolan, a pastor in the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant Church and a native of Sumatra, has a particular take on ecclesiology.

"When I was first ordained 23 years ago, I served as pastor in a parish which was located in the Sumatran jungle," he said. "I had ten congregations which were hours apart from each other. I had to walk through the jungle all the way, and sometimes when I made that journey, I would see one of our Sumatran tigers.

"For me, part of ecclesiology is about avoiding the tigers on the journey between churches."

Who – or what – are these tigers? Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate answers without hesitation.

"Ourselves," he says. "In the sense that these divisions are made by human beings. We have to avoid the tigers by listening to one another."

It's an enterprise to which he's personally committed, and in which the Orthodox Church, like many others, is deeply involved.

At the 26 July – 6 August WCC Faith and Order meeting in Kuala Lumpur, one of the papers considered by delegates was "The Nature and Mission of the Church." It's a detailed and scholarly attempt at identifying common ground in different traditions' understandings of what the church is and what its purpose is in the world.

According to the paper, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is called into being by the Father and centred and grounded in the word. As the communion of the faithful, the church is the creature of the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, the church is made up of fallible human beings, and in spite of its essential oneness, there are divisions, partly because of human sinfulness and partly because of genuine differences of opinion. Communion, it says, is real but not fully realised. In different churches, there are different understandings of issues like baptism, eucharist, ministry, and authority, to name but a few.

So is it possible to find a way through the jungles of history and theology – avoiding the tigers – to a point where visible unity is restored?

The right starting-point?

According to Professor Dr Anne Marie Reijnen of the United Protestant Church in Belgium, we have to accept that there's a biblical presupposition in favour of unity.

In a paper introducing the theme, she reflected on Paul's call to Roman Christians to welcome one another (Romans 15:7) and said: "No rift could be greater within the church than the one between Jews and pagans." It took more effort for Jews and gentiles to live in harmony together than it does for modern-day Christians from different traditions, and if Paul calls them to unity, he does the same for Christians today.

And in fact, unity does happen. "Christians have built and will build improbable communities, against the grain of natural affinities, instinctive loyalties and common-sense compacts," she said. And when they do so, they're anticipating the great banquet of the kingdom of heaven.

This idea of community, the forging of personal loyalties and deep relationships, was taken up by another participant, Professor Valburga Schmiedt Streck, a Brazilian Lutheran. Drawing on her experience of people in Brazilian favelas, she said: "It is not reason but rather emotion that nourishes and consoles them and enables them to dream of better things to come."

This kind of approach, she said later, allows us to think about ecumenical issues – including ecclesiology – in different and potentially more productive ways, which she characterised as Latin American rather than European. Relationships play a part – it isn't just a question of the sterile exchange of ideas. "It's a different ethic with a different logic," she says. "European logic cuts out the other person."

But is it possible to shortcut the process of dialogue on the basis of Paul's appeal that Christians should receive one another? Yes, according to Professor Kyung Sook Lee of the Methodist Church in Korea.

"In an Asian context, which is a multi-religious context, our main concern is to survive and live with people of other religions," she says.

"A lot of this discussion is about history, but it's not Asian history. I want to have a simple and clear definition about the church's nature and mission. Our real concern as Asians is to live with the people of God, and with other religious people. The work is needed, but this is too complicated and theoretical."

An Orthodox perspective

But other participants take a very different line. For another participant, Dr Paul Meyendorff of the Orthodox Church in America, to speak of accepting one another without qualification on the basis of one text is a step too far. For there to be genuine unity, there has to be both agreement about the fundamentals of doctrine and a sharing of the life of faith. And while for many Christians, their own tradition is a branch or component of the wider, universal church, for others – including the Orthodox – their own church is actually identified with the universal church.

And for Orthodox Christians, shared creeds aren't enough. "It's not enough to affirm credal truth," he says. "You have to be part of a living body."

For Meyendorff, the challenge for Orthodox Christians is to define the status of other churches, outside the Orthodox Church – a challenge which he says has not yet been successfully met.

"Most Orthodox would affirm that there is only one church, and identify themselves with that one church. My understanding is that to the extent that other Christians share in the truth of the gospel and the life of the Spirit, they are Orthodox. We have to think of concentric circles, intersecting circles."

But he believes that some churches make it very difficult for Orthodox Christians. While relations with Roman Catholics, for instance, are better, that doesn't hold true for some Protestants.

"There are some traditions, such as the Pentecostal, with which we Orthodox share more than we would with liberal Protestant churches, which have an extremely individualistic approach to faith. We would never enter into communion with a church which officially accepted abortion, for instance."

Nevertheless, he says, there are "degrees of communion", and Orthodox Christians won't give up on the struggle to reach church unity. "There is an eschatological dimension. It's quite likely that that will not happen until the end of time. But if we don't try, we won't have fulfilled the mission God has given us."

A Roman Catholic perspective

For Roman Catholics, too, there are serious issues at stake. Rev. Professor William Henn teaches at the Collegio St Lorenzo in Rome.

"The big difficulty is the relation between unity and diversity," he says. "For instance, ethnicity and culture in general bring out local difficulties of language and sensibility. How do we embrace the good things without tearing the church apart?

"The difficulty comes when there's contradiction on something essential."

There are issues, then, which won't go away, no matter how great the goodwill is between participants in a meeting like Faith and Order. One of them is the primacy of the pope, which, he says, is essential. "The basic Catholic view – and we feel that this distinguishes us from other churches – is that Christ wills a ministry of universal leadership."

But he's happier arguing the case than simply drawing a line in the sand. And the Bible itself, he continues, distinguishes between what's vital to faith and what isn't. "The heart of the ecumenical issue is the attempt to distinguish between what's necessary and what's unnecessary."

And what about the whole question of ecclesiology? Does he understand those who feel that, in their context, it isn't a key issue in ecumenism?

"There's no question that some issues are of more importance than the structure of the church," he says. "Existentially, a follower of Christ has to live Jesus' teaching about the kingdom, about good news for the poor and release to the captives. In the older churches, it can be very important to work together to address issues of suffering. I'd also say that if we can do that, it will make us love each other more, and that work in itself will make us address issues that keep us apart."

But in the end, he believes, the theological work has to be done. "For example: if two different communions come to the eucharist, and one believes that Christ is present in a real way, and that Christ is a priest in the middle of his community, and the other partner does not think that – to celebrate the eucharist together with such differences is to think that faith about the eucharist is not that important."

An Anglican perspective

One communion which has been successful in holding diverse views together is the Anglican, which contains those who would think of themselves as standing in both Catholic and Reformed traditions. And it has done so, says Bishop John Hind, on the basis not of a detailed and prescriptive statement of doctrine, but through its history, formularies and pattern of worship. "Our doctrinal tradition is contained in our liturgy," he says.

And the Anglican communion, he points out, is not structurally united. It's made up of autonomous provinces, and there's no central authority to appeal to in case of serious disagreement. Until fairly recently, this way of constituting the global communion has not been seriously called into question. The issues of women priests and same-sex relationships have strained relations between – and within – provinces almost to breaking-point.

For Hind, this is an indication that new ways of relating have to be found. "I think that provincial autonomy doesn't work," he says. "We've been strong on the autonomy of the local church, but weak on the mutual accountability which stops that becoming independence."

For Anglicans, a way forward may be found through the Lambeth Commission, set up by the archbishop of Canterbury, which is studying this very question. But what about how churches relate across denominational boundaries? Because visible unity, he believes, is a necessity for the whole church.

"Jesus prayed that the church would be one so that the world might believe. We can dress up denominational differences, but the world is not impressed when Christians are not united."

There are, he argues, a number of models of visible unity, each of which has its strengths. But in terms of our present experience, he says: "I look to where we can be enriched as we grow together. For instance, there's the Lutheran emphasis on the continuity of apostolic doctrine. From Rome, you have the security and confidence offered by the papacy. The Orthodox have a deep rootedness in the faith of the undivided church and a clear sense of this unity being expressed in and seen most clearly in the eucharist."

Hope for the future?

For Metropolitan Gennadios, the best hope for ecumenism in general, and convergence on the issue of ecclesiology in particular, lies in encounters between people. He said: "The best dialogue is in the daily experience of want and poverty. There we forget our church differences.

"For me," he continued, "one principle of dialogue is how to know each other better. Dialogue goes slowly, but it brings results when we know the other better. If we know each other, and become friends and brothers, we gain a great deal. We still have different understandings. We need to re-appropriate, redefine our common roots."

And is he hopeful for the future? In spite of setbacks along the way, he's still an idealist. "I must be an optimist – I have hope and vision."

The tigers may, as he says, be ourselves – but in the meeting of minds and spirits at gatherings such as Faith and Order, some of them prove to be much less threatening than we fear.

Mark Woods is news editor of The Baptist Times and an ordained Baptist minister from the UK.


Papers on the way

"The Nature and Mission of the Church" paper is a revision of another Faith and Order paper, "The Nature and Purpose of the Church", and was begun in 1999. It takes account of responses to the original paper, and is intended to be a "convergence text" on the church, expressing the substantial areas of agreement between different traditions while also highlighting issues which are still unresolved. The text is not yet finalised, but it is intended that a final version will be presented at the WCC assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2006.


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Kuala Lumpur features: Although written according to the usual journalistic standards of accuracy and balance, since this article is intended for the general public it should not be read as a formal academic or theological text, nor should it be considered an official statement of the Faith and Order commission.

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