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Message from the 7th International Consultation of United and Uniting Churches, Driebergen, The Netherlands, 2002

This text is the report from the most recent international consultation of united and uniting churches. Focusing on issues of unity, mission and identity, this text brings the unique perspective and experience of these churches into dialogue with the wider ecumenical movement.

19 September 2002

Driebergen, The Netherlands, 11-19 September 2002

"With a Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power" (1 Cor. 2:4):
The Life and Mission of the United and Uniting Churches

Message from the Consultation

I. United and Uniting Churches: Context and Challenge

Greetings to you in the name of Jesus Christ from sisters and brothers at the Seventh International Consultation of United and Uniting Churches!

Our gathering, which was held at Driebergen in the Netherlands, took place at a moment of considerable promise and peril. The consultation began on September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the devastating attacks in the United States of America, and a week after the close of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa. Part way through our meeting, peace talks aimed at ending nineteen years of civil war in Sri Lanka got underway in Thailand.

These events reminded us, first, of the astonishing interdependence of the oikoumene (the whole inhabited earth). Steps toward peace in south Asia give encouragement to similar efforts in Northern Ireland or the Congo. Conversely, threats of war from the US undercut Muslim-Christian relations in the Philippines and raise the price of oil in Southern Africa; economic decisions made in Frankfort or New York may well widen the gap between rich and poor and contribute to poverty in Lusaka or Chennai; ecological destruction and the spread of AIDS anywhere threaten the future of people everywhere.

Christians who identify themselves with God's work of unity, we recognised, should be particularly sensitive to forces of division and reconciliation in the world and particularly aware of the even-more-intense interdependence of the body of Christ. Beyond that, our shared identity as united and uniting churches means that we have a special claim on one another. If the United Church of Zambia struggles with the burden of foreign debt and the AIDS pandemic, then their struggle must impact the mission agenda of the United Church of Christ in the United States. If the Evangelical Church of the Union in Germany wrestles with discrimination against foreign workers, their wrestling must figure prominently in the prayer life of the Church of South India. If poverty is a pressing issue for the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, then it must be so as well for the United Church of Christ in Japan. In a religiously pluralistic world, the witness of the Church of Bangladesh in the midst of Muslim neighbours should be instructive for the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren.

The historical context of the consultation reminded us, secondly, of how urgent it is that we witness to the reconciling love of God made known in Christ. In the face of such apparent fragmentation, the church must witness - by what it does and what it is - to the wholeness of God. In a time when talk of war is so pervasive, the church must witness to the peace of God. At a moment when the powers of the world seem to lack the capacity for self-criticism, even our willingness to confess our brokenness is a witness to the sovereignty of God. Unity is not simply a distant ideal or a pious hope; it is a divine gift that can be lived out, however partially, here and now.

Our prayer at the consultation was that our churches, timid and fractured as they often are, would be empowered by the Spirit, and thereby witness to God's power that tears down walls of hostility and brings together those who once were enemies. The meeting's theme "With a demonstration of the
Spirit and of power", from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, kept this prayer before us throughout our days together.

II. The Unity and Diversity of United and Uniting Churches

There is much to celebrate since the Sixth Consultation of United and Uniting Churches in 1995, including the formation of the racially mixed Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa (1999); the commitment to create the Communion of Churches in India, signifying an even closer bond of shared confession, witness and service among the Church of North India, the Church of South India, and the Mar Thoma Church (1999); the union of the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom and the Congregational Union of Scotland (2000); and the inauguration of a substantive covenant among nine US denominations, known as Churches Uniting in Christ (2002). A full report on these and other church union developments can be found in the latest Survey of Church Union Negotiations (Ecumenical Review, July 2002).

These churches, like others at the consultation, share a self-understanding shaped by an act of union or covenant; but, beyond that, they manifest extraordinary diversity. Some trace their history to the union of Reformed and Lutheran churches in 19th century Germany; some are unions of Free and Reformed churches in North America and Europe; some represent the union of former mission churches, including Anglicans, in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Recent decades, as the list of celebrations indicates, have seen a growth in covenant relationships that maintain confessional identities while forming a new whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Participants in the consultation agreed that a model of unity, if it is to deserve such a label, must be tangible enough to make a witness to the world, intense enough that those in it recognize their responsibility for one another, costly enough that churches are changed as a result of being in it, and intentional enough that the body of Christ is renewed through the sharing of gifts. We also agree, however, that no one model guarantees (or denies) such an outcome. The new models remind us to look for partners in unexpected places and to expect to be surprised by what God will do in our midst.

The tone of the consultation was actually a mixture of celebration for what God has done and repentance for what we have left undone. The Dutch unity process, Samen op Weg (Together on the Way), which served as a most gracious host for the meeting, exemplifies this tension. We were grateful for the opportunity to experience something of the life of Dutch churches and to enter into valuable and enjoyable discussions in local congregations. Many local Christians and church leaders with whom we spoke rejoiced in the reality or prospect of shared life among the Netherlands Reformed Church, the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Others, however, expressed discouragement with the length and tedium of the effort. We could only offer the courage that comes from following God's calling and from knowing that they stand in the company of ecumenically-minded Christians around the world, many of whom have successfully completed such a journey. We ask you to pray for and with these sisters and brothers in The Netherlands as they look toward full unification at the beginning of 2004.

III. Central Issues of the Consultation

The discussions at the consultation yielded a number of important insights and affirmations that are difficult to convey adequately in summary form. Among them:

Authentic unity must directly address the issues that divide the human family in our particular settings (e.g. racism in the US, casteism in India, closure to refugees in Europe, and disparity of wealth in the Philippines). A uniting process that concentrates on traditional questions of faith and order without relating them to these issues of human division is responding only in part to the gift and command of unity in Christ.

The gospel must be incarnate in each place, even as it transcends every culture. United and uniting churches manifest catholicity by their adaptation to diverse local settings; but this must be coupled with a global vision manifest in intentional, intense relationships with churches in other cultures.

Mission must be comprehensively defined as including kerygma (preaching), koinonia (fellowship), diakonia (service) and leiturgia (worship) - all understood as essential and interrelated dimensions of witness (marturia) to God's reign.

Unity demands such qualities as mutual trust and mutual accountability and responsibility. Indeed, the presence of these is a measure of the "success" of the union. Participants spoke of a "spirituality of renunciation" that dares let go of cherished identity markers in order to receive a fuller identity through oneness in Christ. It is our experience that, again and again, we have been led to the foot of the cross, discovering there our true identity as followers of one who emptied himself that we might have fuller life. For this reason, we believe that the "burden of proof" is not on those who unite but on those who persist in division.

It is important for united churches to remember and celebrate the time of union in order to keep fresh the uniting identity. Being "simply another denomination" is always a danger for these churches. For example, the Protestant Church in Baden has recently celebrated the 175th anniversary of its union, using this occasion for renewal of its commitment to mission and to a wider sense of the unity of the church.

At the heart of our discussions, as these examples indicate, was a concern to explore the interrelatedness of unity, mission, and identity. Previous consultations in this series have asked whether there is a distinctive witness made by united and uniting churches and whether there is evidence that unity enhances mission. The answer, we must acknowledge, is mixed; but we note for example that the Church of South India considerably increased its membership in its first fifty years, and the United Church of Zambia has played a vital role in building a new nation. We remain convinced that disunity is an impediment to mission, and that the very fact of being united in one body is a witness to the reconciling power of God. Nevertheless, the search for ecclesial unity can never be an end in itself. Without a constant focus on the imperative of mission, the search for unity will falter.

On the other hand, the search cannot be identified with one particular mission task. Colleagues from South Africa told us how Christians drawn together in the struggle against apartheid have experienced a slackening of mutual commitment since apartheid was abolished. The new relationships of unity need to be expressed in church life, worship and theology. In this respect, we share the hope of United States colleagues that Churches Uniting in Christ, emphasizing both eucharistic sharing and combating racism in the recently-inaugurated covenant, will demonstrate the credibility of church reconciliation in everyday life.

This consultation has reaffirmed that the gift of resurrection and new life is the heart of our being as united and uniting churches, celebrated as we gather at the Lord's table, made real as we seek to live God's unity by combating violence, racism, and economic injustice. We have discovered in our various settings that a willingness to give away treasured but separate identities has helped us to receive the gift of God's superabundant generosity. Our faces are set to God's far horizon. There can be no turning back. What has been achieved is as nothing compared with what God has in store. Until all God's people, in all their amazing diversity, experience God's reconciling love, we will remain a people on pilgrimage.

IV. Questions and Recommendations to Specific Constituencies:

A. To United and Uniting Churches:

Through this letter, we, representatives of united and uniting churches from around the world gathered in Driebergen, invite you to join the conversation outlined above. What are the issues of division and signs of reconciliation in your situation? Has your identity as a united or uniting church strengthened your witness with regard to these issues? The papers presented at the consultation, and included with this letter, may be of use as your church reflects on these questions. Responses (which we strongly encourage!) may be sent to the WCC's Commission on Faith and Order which continues to serve as a point of contact for united and uniting churches.

There are many aspects of church life which can strengthen and encourage the church union process, or enrich the lives of churches already united. One example is joint theological education as undertaken by the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands even before its union (as well as by other Jamaican churches), with faculty and students exploring together the faith, worship life and witness of the still-divided churches. This promoted both an understanding of the wholeness of the nascent united church and a respect for its component parts, training a generation of pastors for service in a united, rather than a divided, church. We commend this model for wider adoption.

The sharing of experience can be crucially important in nurturing united churches and union processes. All sharing among the still-divided denominations and their congregations should be encouraged; but the most effective is a focused, official sharing of the churches' worship, fellowship, witness and service. A good example is the sharing of worship materials and the joint preparation of eucharistic liturgies through the US Consultation on Church Union (Churches Uniting in Christ). Creative sharing at the international level is expressed in another way in the special relationship between two united churches, the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Church of the Union. We commend such sharing and the development of such relationships within the family of united and uniting churches.

B. To the International Mission Partners of United and Uniting Churches:

We give thanks for those international mission boards and agencies which over the past forty years have restructured their organizations, creating a common pool of resources (not only financial) to which all contribute and in the allocation of which both givers and receivers make decisions together. We welcome the development of church to church relationships through which there is authentic partnership, including mutual sharing of resources, transparency, and mutual accountability and responsibility. We celebrate the emphasis on "mission to six continents," for example Ghanaians helping to shape mission life in the United Reformed Church in the London area and Indonesian teachers contributing to Philippine church life through ecumenical volunteer programmes.

At the same time, we recognize that even in the most radically restructured organizations there can still be a tension between what mission bodies wish to support and what their partner churches regard as mission priorities. In this way, unequal power relations between churches (especially churches in the South) and mission agencies can be perpetuated. This means that indirectly the agency sets the agenda of the churches, rather than the other way round, thereby distorting the missional identity of churches in both North and South.

Since our consultation affirmed the inseparable link between mission and unity, we celebrated the ways in which international bodies have, in many places, contributed to an ecumenical sense of mission. We are also aware, however, that "mission" and "ecumenical relations" are often handled separately in churches and agencies, thus undercutting even the best intentions.

Another problem is that historical ties often determine contemporary mission relationships, which means that some churches have a plethora of partners while others, facing the same challenges, have few, if any. Sometimes mission bodies relate to only one part of a united church, thus fostering fragmentation. Sometimes united churches are tempted to be less than transparent in their dealings with multiple mission partners. Historical mission links should not be ignored, but they do need to be reviewed in order to address these issues.

With these issues in mind, we invite our mission partners to join the discussion of this consultation. Specifically, we ask you to think with us about the following questions: How can international mission relationships best be shaped, or reshaped, so that they facilitate authentic mission by each church in its own context? Are there ways that mission and unity can be held together more fully and effectively? How can international mission agencies cooperate more fully with one another in order to enable more effective local mission? Responses to these questions (which we strongly encourage!) can be sent to the Commission on Faith and Order through which we all can continue the dialogues.

C. To the General Secretaries of the Christian World Communions:

Participants in the consultation are convinced that united and uniting churches and Christian world communions can be and in many cases, are mutually helpful colleagues in the work of the ecumenical movement. Because of this conviction, we wish to offer gifts we have received through the experience of union, to enlist your help, and to ask you to explore some questions with us.

Through the act of uniting, and with the guidance of the Spirit, we have received important insights about what it means to be "church". For example, some of our communions have discovered that infant/child and believers' baptism are not mutually exclusive, but complementary expressions of grace. The gift is in living the unity, not in inhabiting the past. We believe that we have much to offer from our experience to churches which are seeking to unite, and to world communions as you wrestle with issues which continue to divide us as Christians. We hope that we might work with you so that these gifts can be shared among ourselves (for we have no permanent institutional form beyond this consultation) and with those who are setting out on the road to unity.

One area where we certainly need your help has to do with new divisions in the body of Christ. We hope that the Christian world communions discourage divisions not only within their confessional families but within united churches. Should any group seek to secede from a united church, they should not be received by any world communion. This is not a theoretical matter. For example, you will be aware that twenty-three years after the Church of North India was formed in 1970, a group in the diocese of Eastern Himalayan broke away while still claiming to be the united Church of North India. We ask that Christian world communions reflect carefully on the implications of recognizing such groups as members, both in light of their own self-understanding as world communions and of their involvement in the one ecumenical movement. We commend the practice of some world communions of discussing such applications with other churches, including united churches, in the country concerned before decisions are taken.

We hope that as Christian world communions you will proclaim loudly your own commitment to unity and encourage dialogues and programmes that will lead to better ecumenical relations at all levels. We trust that you will do all you can to enable and support local churches that are engaged in a quest for new united identity.

Finally, difficulties are created for some of our churches by the proselytising behaviour of some Christian bodies which do not belong to Christian world communions, but also by some churches which are part of world communions. We hope that you will bring pressure to bear on the latter, and encourage the former, to co-operate with united church partners.

There are several questions that it would be good to reflect on together. United and uniting churches, for example, emphasize adaptation to diverse local contexts rather than trans-contextual confessional unity and the importance of transformation rather than confessional continuity. Some united churches find that affiliation with more than one world communion can be burdensome, even divisive. We welcome (even strongly encourage) direct conversation between representatives of united and uniting churches and representatives of Christian world communion, perhaps facilitated by Faith and Order, on these and other issues.

D. To the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches:

We rejoice that by their very nature united and uniting churches are bound closely to the work of the World Council of Churches including the Faith and Order Commission which has provided both pastoral understanding and theological sustenance for our journeys. With this in mind, we ask that Faith and Order help us in further theological reflection on our experience as united and uniting churches, most particularly in our ecclesiological self-understanding, and in our eucharistic experience as churches.

On the other hand, we believe that we have developed considerable expertise in the joys and difficulties of journeying towards unity, and would willingly make that expertise available to any churches which might benefit from it. We would be pleased to work with Faith and Order in order to share our ecumenical experience.

The participants in Driebergen are grateful to Faith and Order for all the commission has done to make this Seventh Consultation of United and Uniting Churches such a significant event, and wish also to record our thanks to the Council for World Mission for their encouragement and generous financial support.

V. Conclusion: Moving Forward Together

The united and uniting churches meeting in Driebergen, at this moment of promise and peril, have affirmed their commitment to one another, as churches committed to the continuing search for unity. They have also affirmed the considerable, indeed surprising, diversity found within this family of churches, a diversity born of their attempts to be effective and faithful signs of God's reconciliation within their own contexts. They seek bonds of sharing and support, both spiritual and material, which can sustain their common life and strengthen them when they become weary. They look together to the Source of their faith and life, longing to be a sign, to both church and world, of the power of the gospel to unite that which is divided and to reconcile that which is estranged. Together they hope to experience, and to be, truly "a demonstration of the Spirit and of power".

I. Churches and Church Union Processes Represented at the Consultation

Arnoldshainer Conference [Germany]
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) [US]
Church of Bangladesh
Church of Christ in Thailand
Church of England
Church of North India
Church of South India
Churches Uniting in Christ [USA]
Church Unity Commission [South Africa]
Communion of Churches in India
Dutch Reformed Church [South Africa]
Ecumenical Partnership (Disciples of Christ/United Church of Christ) [USA]
ENFYS: The Covenanted Churches in Wales
Evangelical Church in Germany
- Evangelical Church in Baden
- Evangelical Church in Hessen and Nassau
- Evangelical Church of the Church Province of Saxony
Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren
Evangelical Church of the Union [Germany]
Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Kingdom of the Netherlands
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia
Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Ghana
Form of Cooperative Ventures [Aotearoa/ New Zealand]
Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar [India]
Methodist Church of Southern Africa
Netherlands Reformed Church (NRC)
Philippine Independent Church
Presbyterian Church of Ghana
Presbyterian Church of New Zealand
Reformed Church in the Netherlands (RCN)
Scottish Church Initiative for Union
Scottish Episcopal Church
United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands
United Church of Christ [USA
United Church of Christ in Japan
United Church of Christ in the Philippines
United Church of Zambia
United Congregational Church of Southern Africa
United Evangelical Church - Anglican Communion in Angola
United Reformed Church [UK]
Uniting Church in Australia
Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa
Uniting Protestant Churches in The Netherlands (the Samen op Weg or ?Together on the Way? Churches)

II. Christian World Communions Represented as Observers

A. CWCs which include United and Uniting Churches
Anglican Consultative Council
Disciples Ecumenical Consultative Council
Lutheran World Federation
World Alliance of Reformed Churches

B. Ecumenical Patriarchate

C. Roman Catholic Church

III. International Mission Partners of United and Uniting Churches Represented

Council for World Mission
Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, World Council of Churches
Mission and Evangelism Team, World Council of Churches
Netherlands Missionary Council

IV. International Theological Commissions Represented

Faith and Order Commission, World Council of Churches

V. Theological, Material and Organizational Support for the Consultation

Council for World Mission
Faith and Order Commission, World Council of Churches
Uniting Protestant Churches in The Netherlands (the Samen op Weg or "Together on the Way" Churches)

See release on the conference