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Nature and mission of the church: the "BEM" of the 21st century?

31 July 2004

This document "will become a major ecumenical instrument for the fulfillment of Jesus' prayer" for the unity of Christian believers, stated Metropolitan Dr Gennadios of Sassima from the Ecumenical Patriarchate today, as he introduced the study "The nature and mission of the church" to the World Council of Churches (WCC) plenary commission on Faith and Order.

Addressing the 28 July to 6 August, 2004 plenary commission meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Gennadios recognized the difficulties of the present ecumenical scene: "The Christian world is still in 'schism' (…) unity of faith has fallen apart (…) unity of love has cooled (…) The body of Christ has been utterly disrupted," he said, adding: "Only the hope of unity has not been fully lost."

Gennadios, who is one of the vice-moderators of the Faith and Order commission, explained that the purpose of this study process is to promote mutual understanding and convergences regarding the purpose and mission of the church, and "to reconcile the hostilities and divisions of the past".

"It is our hope and we are optimistic that by God's grace we will continue together, and this ecclesiology project will become a major ecumenical instrument" for the fulfillment of Jesus' prayer for the unity of Christians, he concluded.

Speaking after Gennadios, Bishop John Hind, from the Church of England, highlighted that the document bears the hope of becoming - "ultimately, and however long it takes" - a "convergence text on the church analogous to the (…) text on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" (BEM).

One of the biggest successes of the Faith and Order commission was the approval in 1982 in Lima, Peru, of a fundamental convergence text on "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry," known as BEM, which dealt with three of the main doctrinal church-dividing issues. The document is now in its 37th edition in English with some 500,000 copies in circulation in over 35 languages worldwide.

In his turn, Rev. Dr Peter Lodberg from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark emphasized that "the next important step is to take ownership in the churches of the ecclesiological agenda," at both the "church leadership and congregations at the local parish levels."

In the following plenary discussion, Bishop Dr Hilarion of Vienna and Austria from the Russian Orthodox Church emphasized the importance of recognizing that the churches are profoundly divided.

"Statements contained in the document, such as the statement that there is 'communion real but not fully realized' tend to overlook the fact that there is no real communion but Eucharistic communion, which we do not have, and therefore we should not deny that and pretend that we have achieved what we have not." He exhorted the commission "to take more seriously the tragedy of the division among Christians".

The study being "still in draft form and in a 'penultimate' stage," according to Gennadios, it has not yet been released to the public. A possible publication of the text after it has been further revised is envisaged for the next WCC assembly in February 2006, although the commission will take up the study again afterwards.