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Re-configuration of the Ecumenical Movement

Background Document on Re-configuration of the Ecumenical Movement presented at the WCC central Committee, 2003

02 September 2003

World Council of Churches
Geneva, Switzerland
26 August - 2 September 2003

Background Document on Re-configuration of the Ecumenical Movement

The Discussion So Far

1. The relevance and the need of a reflection on the configuration of the ecumenical movement are implied in the policy statement on "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches". Three aspects of the CUV in particular point in this direction:

  • The emphasis on the fellowship of churches and the distinction between belonging and participation on the one hand, and membership and representation on the other hand.
  • The concept of a polycentric ecumenical movement in which the WCC is by definition no longer the centre but a privileged instrument which has the role to foster the coherence of the movement.
  • The conviction that the fellowship is not complete as long as the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches are not part of it.

2. Already in the mid-90s a discussion began to develop with the Regional Ecumenical Organizations, in the REOs-WCC General Secretaries Group. In 1997 the WCC representatives in this group presented a paper referring to the need of a new configuration of the ecumenical movement in its global and regional expressions. One fundamental consideration was that with diminishing resources the WCC and the REOs would soon no longer be able to sustain separate, autonomous organizations which had basically the same purposes and functions. But the discussion was not only finance-driven. There was also a conceptual proposition that the WCC and the REOs should move beyond consultation, coordination and cooperation to explore ways of joint priority setting and decision making. Questions of linking governing bodies, a common ecumenical agenda and the integration of global and regional structures were raised. A comprehensive document on WCC – REOs Relationships was presented to Policy Reference Committee I at the Harare Assembly which approved recommendations aiming at the continuation of these efforts.

While the discussions did not yet result in a coherent proposal some small steps were taken: formation of "Liaison Groups" with two REOs (CEC and CCA), a meeting of the African members of the Central Committee with the General Committee of the AACC, etc.

Some comments made in the 1997 discussion are worth noting here. It was said that a re-configuration of the WCC and the REOs should bring "a new and integrated form of managing the ecumenical movement". It should not reflect a "centre- periphery" or "regions-to-Geneva" model and neither a "regions-to-regions" structure without a clear global dimension.1

3. At the Harare Assembly, representatives of Christian World Communions made a recommendation "to facilitate and strengthen the relationships between the WCC and CWCs as called for in the CUV document". This led to the formation of a WCC/LWF/WARC staff group which explored three areas with a potential of going beyond existing relationships: joint or coordinated assemblies, membership, and planned programme cooperation. The WARC General Council had already proposed joint assemblies with the WCC and LWF in 1997. The staff group went as far as it could but was unable to formulate innovative proposals.

Some small steps were taken with regard to the coordination of assemblies, e.g. mutual representation on the assembly planning committees of the three bodies (WCC, LWF and WARC).

One of the complicating factors in the discussions with the CWCs is their diversity. Some have a membership which overlaps up to 70 or 80% with the WCC (e.g. the Anglican Communion, LWF, WARC) others have a constituency which is little or not at all represented in the WCC (e.g. the Mennonites, the Reformed Ecumenical Council, the Seventh-Day Adventists). In between these are bodies like the World Methodist Council and the Baptist World Alliance. The CWCs also differ in terms of their purposes and functions. For the discussion on re-configuration it might be more effective to focus on the group of CWCs which are closest to the WCC. However, such a differentiation could have negative implications for the group as a whole. The leadership of the Conference of CWC General Secretaries has asked to meet with the General Secretary of the WCC at their preparatory meeting on May 19.

4. The discussion with the Specialized Ministries (the "Agencies") has developed over the past couple of years in the context of the WCC Round table. Earlier stages were the formation of ACT, and more particularly the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA). The Specialized Ministries are an ecumenical partner group which has no formal status with the WCC (whereas the REOs, CWCs, NCCs and International Ecumenical Organizations are recognized in the Rules). Their relationship with the Council is very specific because of their role as funding partners. They have constituted their own body, the Heads of Agencies Network (HOAN) in which the WCC is represented by invitation.

Whether by design or not, the process with the Specialized Ministries has led to their de facto recognition as an ecumenical partner group. Their mandates and policies are not all the same, and there is a significant difference within the group between autonomous agencies such as Christian Aid, ICCO etc. and boards which are part of the structure of a member church, e.g. the United Church of Canada Division of World Outreach, EKD – Bread for the World etc.

Because of their role as funding partners there is a wish on the side of the Specialized Ministries to be associated with the governing and decision making structures of the WCC. Some of them tend to see the discussion on re-configuration as a possible solution to this question.

5. Mention should be made of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC. It has been primarily a forum for dealing with issues internal to the fellowship of WCC. It has also been the place for an exhaustive reflection on several models of radical restructuring of the Council (e.g. the proposal by H.E. Metropolitan Kirill) and a study on membership which has resulted, among other things, in the proposal of a new category of churches in association with the WCC.

6. Parallel to the above-mentioned discussions, but clearly related, is the process of the proposal of a Global Christian Forum.2 The "Forum Proposal" is a direct result of the CUV. It seeks to respond to point 1.3 of this summary: the widening of the fellowship towards Evangelical, Pentecostal and Independent constituencies while including also the Roman Catholic Church and the churches and organizations which have traditionally been part of the ecumenical movement. It is understood as a process of gathering representatives from all the main Christian traditions around the table, widening the circle especially to those who until now have not been in conversation with one another. The process aims at an event at which hopefully the leaders and decision-makers will come together. Mission and unity are the two foci of the dialogue which is evolving. There is no intention to set up new structures.

Three consultations have taken place so far: at Bossey in 1998, and at Fuller Seminary (Pasadena, USA) in 2000 and 2002. The third one was by far the most representative. A Continuation Committee was formed at the first consultation and has since been expanded to represent also Evangelicals and Pentecostals. It has taken full responsibility for the process and has designed a three-year plan of global consultations with regional emphasis covering all the regions and leading up to a global event.

Within the Forum context the issue of re-configuring the ecumenical movement has not yet been on the agenda. However it is implied in what the Forum proposal is all about and it will be appropriate to invite the Continuation Committee to join the discussion. In terms of partner groups, the international ecumenical and para-church organizations participate in the Forum and many of the CWCs were officially represented at the last consultation. On the other hand, the group of REO General Secretaries has indicated that it sees the Forum primarily as a process of churches, in which the REOs do not need to be represented as such.

7. Section III of the report of the General Secretary to the Central Committee focused on the need for a reflection and discussion on the re-configuration of the ecumenical movement which would take into account all its various aspects. While discussions may be going on in the different ‘bilateral’ settings (such as mentioned under points 2, 3 and 4 of this summary), the proposal of the General Secretary implies a multilateral process for which a space needs to be created and which provides a place for convergence of the hitherto separate discussions.

The Central Committee agreed with the proposal and recommended that a report be prepared for the Ninth Assembly in 2006. A timeline leading to the Assembly has emerged.

8. A meeting in Geneva in December 2002 of the REOs, the Specialized Ministries and the WCC offered a first multilateral setting after the 2002 Central Committee for discussing the re-configuration.3 The General Secretary presented a summary of section III of his report to the Central Committee. The issue of re-configuration became the frame within which this meeting addressed the questions on its agenda, e.g. clarification of the respective roles of the REOs, the Agencies and the WCC, the relation between the local and the global, the strengthening of local communities (churches) as a common task, the need for a process of continued dialogue, the sustainability and support of REOs.

The meeting brought to light a general consensus that it was necessary and timely to re-think the overall configuration of the ecumenical movement. It was felt that unless a new "architecture" emerged it would be difficult to find satisfactory solutions to the specific problems affecting the cooperation between REOs and Specialized Ministries. It was the first time that the REOs and the Specialized Ministries came together around the table as partner groups, rather than in ‘bilateral’ settings between one REO and its cooperating funding partners. The participants experienced that the multilateral setting provided a different and better frame for discussions on relationships and cooperation.

In this respect, and with reference also to point 2 of this paper, it should be underlined that in recent years several REOs have demonstrated a remarkable capacity of renewal in situations of adverse trends such as diminishing resources, declining viability, perceived loss of relevance etc, often with the active support of the WCC. Examples are CLAI which conducted a process on viability, AACC which has done a critical review, the Caribbean Conference of Churches which is beginning to re-affirm itself.

9. The next step in the process has been the WCC Round Table in April 2003. The General Secretary was asked to take the discussion one step further by suggesting what a re-configured ecumenical movement could look like. He addressed and developed a number of basic issues (membership, governance, multi-lateralism, inter-linking levels of conciliar ecumenism, reclaiming historical strengths, the inter-action between institution and movement) and proposed a model of four intersecting circles representing conciliar ecumenism (the fellowship of churches at different levels) at the centre and unity, mission and justice/service as three ‘petals’ grafted at that centre.

The participants at the Round Table asked that a meeting on the re-configuration of the ecumenical movement be convened in the second half of 2003.

10. During the Staff Executive Group retreat on 2-3 May and the ensuing Week of Meetings the team coordinators and the whole staff engaged in discussions on the re-configuration. This helped to open the reflection at staff level and brought some very interesting new insights. Contributions by staff members from various teams showed that the changes which are affecting the ecumenical movement and its institutions are a mirror reflection of processes at the international political level, the United Nations and its agencies, the NGO world etc. The question was also raised whether the reflection on the future should be primarily structure-oriented or focussing on the agenda of the ecumenical movement.

A first and rough timeline of a reflection process was presented, taking the Ninth Assembly as an end station and some events already scheduled in 2003 as building blocks: the preparatory meeting of the CWCs on May 19, the REOs-WCC General Secretaries Group on September 17-18 followed by the REOs-Specialized Ministries follow-up on September 19-20, the Forum Continuation Committee on October 18-20, the CWC Conference of Secretaries on October 21-24 and the proposed meeting on the re-configuration in November.

A second, more elaborate version of this timeline was drafted, spanning the three-year period until the Assembly and suggesting successive stages of a memorandum for discussion (November 2003), a draft proposal (November 2004) and presentation of an agreed-upon proposal at the time of the Assembly. This revealed the danger of locking the discussion up in an institutional process of conflicting interests in which each partner group would defend its own views and seek to maximize its own stake in the end result. It also highlighted the need for a concrete project or proposal to be submitted for discussion, rather than an open-ended process of reflection.

1. It is important to note that these reflections were essentially focussing on a re-configuration of the WCC and the REOs. They did not take into account the broader picture of other ecumenical partner groups.
2. At the third consultation, in June 2002, preference was given to this name rather than the original "Forum of Christian Churches and Ecumenical Organizations".
3. This meeting was scheduled well before the General Secretary’s report to the Central Committee.
4. See the paper "Reflections on re-configuring the ecumenical movement" by Konrad Raiser, March 2003.