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The Meaning of Membership

The WCC Executive Committee agreed in February 1995 that the process of study and consultation on the "common understanding and vision of the World Council of Churches" should aim at preparing a document for the Eighth Assembly, on the occasion of the WCC's 50th anniversary, which might serve as an "ecumenical charter" for the 21st century. In September 1995, the Central Committee approved a procedure for preparing such a text. An initial draft came from a consultation in December 1995 which brought together some 35 persons from all regions and church traditions. This was shared with a variety of groups and individuals, then revised in June 1996 and sent to the Central Committee for discussion in September 1996.

20 September 1996

received by the WCC Central Committee (1996)


Scripture very clearly affirms the oneness of Christ's Church (John 17, Eph. 4). Such an affirmation requires that the various churches should not remain in isolation but should seek to be in relationship with one another. The Rules of the WCC speak of the "essential interdependence of the churches" (Rule I.3.c). For the future of the ecumenical movement it has become imperative to spell out what the significance is of the multiple relationships that bind the churches together within the ecumenical movement in general, and within the WCC in particular.

This paper reflects the meaning of WCC membership as it is presently understood. Its substance will be incorporated in the Common Understanding and Vision process which may eventually lead to a more adequate expression of the same.

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.

1. The WCC is a fellowship of churches of differing traditions and confessions (cf.the Basis). To accept the Basis is not only to confess the central elements of Christian faith as expressed in it; it is to do so together with other churches and thereby to affirm that this common confession constitutes the members into a fellowship which seeks to live towards the koinonia to which Christians are called, remembering the metaphor of the human body used by St. Paul (I Cor. 12). As a global body, the nature of the community is one that transcends the barriers of nations, cultures and regions. The global dimension of the WCC is at once a treasure and a challenge. At a time when many local communities experience the need to affirm their particularities it is necessary for the churches to appropriate anew for themselves the fundamental dimension of their identity as members belonging to one global fellowship.

2. The WCC embraces a wide representation of different Christian traditions. It is at present the most adequate and "privileged" instrument to manifest and safeguard the wholeness of the ecumenical movement. Because of this the quality of the fellowship embodied by the WCC is of supreme importance.

3. The fellowship of the WCC seeks to be an inclusive community. It affirms the dignity and equality of all God's people, without respect for gender, age, race, social status or any other criteria dividing the human community. Each church is called to live this out in its own social context, as well as in relationship with other churches.

4. To belong to the WCC means sharing with other churches a common ecumenical vision and putting it into practice within the life and witness of each church, in the first place within its own local situation. The ecumenical vision that holds the fellowship together is based on that unity in Christ that is both gift and promise. It is expressed in the commitment by the members to "call each other to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship" It is a dynamic vision that is constantly being reshaped as the churches grow together towards the fullness that is in Christ. This requires the readiness to be renewed by the action of the Spirit in encounter with other member churches which do not observe the eucharistic rite. Through such renewal the churches are enabled to implement this common vision in their local context.

5. To join the fellowship of the WCC means striving to give tangible, though incomplete, expression to the universality and catholicity of the church. Member churches experience the discovery of this common identity as a gain. There is however no requirement for any church to give up its own identity but rather to share it with others and thereby to promote renewal and enrichment of all.

6. To be a member means entering the wider ecumenical reality of a fellowship in which the churches grow together and seek that deeper quality of fellowship which enables them to work together in common witness.

7. To be a member means, in the power of the Spirit, nurturing the ability of churches from differing backgrounds and traditions to pray, live, act and grow together in community, at times through struggle and conflict. It implies the willingness and capacity to deal with disagreement through theological discussion, prayer and dialogue. The reality of cultural, social and religious plurality which characterize the world today calls the churches to live out and celebrate their oneness whilst recognizing the rich diversity of thought and practice.

8. To be a member means that within the fellowship there must be found a place for churches to help one another to be faithful to the gospel, and to question one another if any member is perceived to move away from the fundamentals of the faith or obedience to the gospel. Whilst member churches hold one another to be accountable to the gospel, the integrity of the fellowship is preserved through the exercise of responsibility for one another in the spirit of common faithfulness to the gospel, rather than by judgment and exclusion.

9. To be a member means participating in ministries that extend beyond the boundaries and possibilities of any single church. The fellowship enables the churches to speak and act on issues on which their individual voice and action would be not possible or less effective. Through the WCC, local churches can speak and act globally. Membership implies the readiness of the churches to link their specific local contexts with the global reality and allow that global reality to impact on their local situations.

10. To be a member means to be part of a fellowship that has a voice of its own. Through its governing bodies, the WCC may speak on behalf of the churches when requested to do so; it may speak to the churches calling them to action, prayer and reflection. The WCC has the freedom to go where not all the member churches may be able to go. The churches are also free not to identify themselves with the voice of the WCC. Yet they should give serious consideration to what the Council says or does on behalf of the fellowship as a whole.

11. To be a member means that the church commits itself to seek to implement the agreements reached through the joint theological study and reflection of the total fellowship, within its own life and witness.

12. To be a member of the WCC means to participate in a fellowship of sharing and solidarity. The churches are called to support one another in their needs and struggles, and to celebrate together their joys and hopes. Sharing is expressed in spiritual support and informed intercession for each other and financial assistance. It is a mutual process in which each church is acknowledged as both being able to give, and being in need to receive. Within the fellowship it is the gifts God has entrusted to the churches that count (I Cor. 12), not poverty and wealth or weakness and strength measured in material terms and numbers.

13. To be a member means understanding the mission of the church as a joint responsibility shared with others. The churches are called to accept the discipline of common witness. This implies that they do not engage in missionary or evangelistic activities in isolation from each other, much less in competition or proselytism of other Christian believers, especially in situations where they work within the same territorial boundaries.

14. To be a member means to enter into a fellowship which seeks to be a fellowship of worship and prayer with the other member churches. In this, the limitations imposed by specific traditions are fully respected, while concrete opportunities for shared worship and prayer are nurtured.

15. Each member church is expected to take a full part in the life and work of the Council and its programmes. This means ensuring that

  1. they pray for the Council and for one another within the fellowship;
  2. they are represented at assemblies;
  3. they make an annual equitable membership contribution to the funds of the Council;
  4. they commit themselves to share the concerns of the Council with their local congregations;
  5. they take such other opportunities as shall from time to time be found appropriate to work within the fellowship of the Council.