World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Aram I on conciliar fellowship

This text is a chapter in Conciliar Fellowship (Geneva: WCC 1992), by Aram Keshishian, now H.H. Catholicos Aram I of Cilicia. Grounded firmly in his knowledge of and experience with the WCC, and its Faith and Order Commission, Catholicos Aram unfolds his vision of conciliarity in terms of where the ecumenical movement is today, and where it ought ultimately to be headed.

01 January 1992

Aram Keshishian, Geneva, 1992

This text is a chapter in Conciliar Fellowship (Geneva: WCC 1992), by Aram Keshishian, now H.H. Catholicos Aram I of Cilicia. Grounded firmly in his knowledge of and experience with the World Council of Churches, and its Faith and Order Commission, Catholicos Aram unfolds his vision of conciliarity in terms of where the ecumenical movement is today, and where it ought ultimately to be headed.

Ecumenical fellowship: a fellowship of divided churches

Most of the churches, in spite of their many divisions, are part of what is called the ecumenical fellowship. This is a common reality which, in various forms and degrees, is being manifested at local, national, regional and global levels and almost in all parts of the world. In this section, therefore, we attempt to answer the following questions: How did the ecumenical fellowship develop among the divided churches? What characteristic aspects does the ecumenical fellowship in general, and the WCC, in particular, display? In what sense is the present ecumenical fellowship a "preconciliar fellowship"?

A. The modern ecumenical movement, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has created an atmosphere of mutual respect, openness and rapprochement among the churches which have been deeply divided by history, theology, culture and geography. With the growth of the ecumenical spirit, isolation gave way to dialogue, conflict to cooperation and suspicion to understanding. The churches began to pray together, to think together and to act together.

This growing rapprochement among the churches was more tangibly manifested in the creation of "federations of churches", "missionary councils", "national Christian councils" and "ecumenical councils of churches". These ecumenical bodies were mainly missionary in their inception, composition and aim. In course of time, many of them gradually developed into church councils. The inauguration of the WCC in 1948 was, in a sense, the culminating stage in this process.

We now have the following types of church councils (conseils): The papal councils, otherwise referred to as general assemblies, represent the Roman Catholic Church in its worldwide structures, though they claim to be ecumenical. The union councils are the fellowship of those churches that are engaged in "church union negotiations". The national and regional councils point to the fellowship of those churches which have committed themselves to give institutional expression to their ecumenical collaboration at local and regional levels. They vary in form and scope from country to country and region to region. The confessional assemblies and conferences are the representative gatherings of Christian world communions, churches which belong to the same tradition and are willing to live together in the same universal fellowship with some structured and visible expression. The pan-Orthodox meetings are the representative gatherings of Eastern Orthodox churches. The Oriental Orthodox churches have no regular common meetings.1 The World Council of Churches includes almost all the Protestant and Anglican churches as well as the Eastern and Oriental churches.

In matters of structure, authority and style of work, there exist considerable differences between these ecumenical bodies. None of these conciliar structures, however, has authority over the whole Christian world. It is beyond the scope of this study to deal with this issue. We are mainly concerned with the WCC as the most comprehensive and universal manifestation of the ecumenical movement as well as a well-developed conciliar structure of almost pan-Christian nature.

B. The credit for the formation of the WCC goes mainly to the Protestant and Anglican churches. Most of the Orthodox churches joined the WCC in the early 1960s. The Roman Catholic Church at first viewed the new ecumenical body with reserve. But as the WCC was increasingly seen as being authentically concerned with Christian unity, its attitude became more positive. Although the Roman Catholic Church is not yet a member of the WCC, it is a full member of the Commission on Faith and Order and actively participates in the work of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, and in a number of other programmes, studies and meetings of the WCC.

The WCC has never claimed to be the ecumenical movement; it is only a concrete expression of it. In its Toronto statement to which we have already referred the WCC has also made it clear that it does not intend to become a "super-church" or a substitute for the una sancta or an instrument to negotiate unions between churches. It is simply "a fellowship of churches". Therefore, membership in the Council does not imply the mutual recognition of participating churches based on a common ecclesiology, only a common willingness to work together for visible unity. Each member church retains its own identity and brings its own contribution to the Council's life and work.2

Let us highlight some of the significant aspects of the ecumenical fellowship with particular reference to the WCC.

  1. The ecumenical movement has been instrumental in breaking down the "walls of separation" among the churches. Centuriesold misunderstandings and isolation slowly gave way to critical self-assessment, mutual correction and better understanding. The churches entered into a process of interaction and inter-relation which, in turn, led to mutual enrichment. They started to challenge one another through their commitment to the ecumenical fellowship. In fact, this growing sense of togetherness made the churches feel like and act as partners in one and the same fellowship.


  2. Sharing with others, working together and discussing issues with one another gave birth to a new drive for renewal. Renewal was not, of course, a new phenomenon in the life of the churches. It has always been, to a greater or lesser degree, an integral part of the churches' life and witness. What was special now was that the call for renewal was also the call to common mission within the fast-changing contexts of contemporary life.


  3. The ecumenical fellowship provided the churches with wider opportunities to work and witness together. This partnership, particularly in the area of service, was sometimes given spontaneous but more often organized expression. Here it is worth mentioning two points: first, "unity in service" proved to be one of the most, if not the most, concrete and tangible manifestation of the churches' ecumenical fellowship; second, service, now often referred to as diakonia, became one of the major areas where the churches' ecumenical commitment was given a well organized institutional expression.


  4. The ecumenical movement also gave a new impetus to the missionary and evangelistic task of the churches. Not only did it reaffirm the relation between the unity of the church and its mission, and call the churches to a renewed involvement in mission, but it also established a close collaboration between the churches in missionary enterprises. The ecumenical movement condemned the prevailing practice of proselytism. More recently it challenged the traditional practice of "interchurch aid" and developed the concept of "sharing", thus encouraging the "younger" churches to engage in a process of indigenization and become less dependent on the so-called "mother" churches of foreign funding agencies.


  5. The ecumenical fellowship made the churches acutely and existentially aware of their disunity and urged them to strive together for unity. In other words, it became a constant reminder of the present reality of division, and consistently kept before the churches the goal of unity. The WCC never claimed to be a model of unity; it was only a framework within which the churches could work together towards unity. The WCC became, indeed, a fellowship of churches committed to the common search for unity, an important instrument helping the churches to grow together towards full unity. Although the churches are still holding firm to their theological convictions and doctrinal positions and have not yet agreed on the nature and model of the unity they seek, they are, in one way or another, involved in a common search for unity. The present ecumenical fellowship can rightly be considered as a growing fellowship on the way to unity. The Orthodox churches have always regarded unity as the raison d'etre of the WCC and, as such, they have insisted that the concern must acquire a top priority on the agenda of the World Council.


  6. One of the immediate effects of the ecumenical movement was, paradoxically, the reinforcement of confessional awareness. Churches of the same confession, often isolated from one another by culture and geography, rediscovered themselves in the same family and gave organizational and conciliar expression to their confessional unity at the world level. At present there exists an increasing trend towards "re-confessionalization" among the world confessional families.


  7. Through their experience of a worldwide ecumenical fellowship within the framework of the WCC, the churches gained the sense of belonging to one another, and a vision of the universal dimension of the church. For some, it also became a proper context to express the catholicity of the church on a global scale. In fact, a new form of supra-national, supra-racial and universal fellowship began to take shape through the ecumenical movement.


  8. After a period of hesitation and reluctance, the churches started to feel themselves at home in the WCC. Their initial fear of losing their own identities in this universal, ecumenical fellowship was allayed by the Toronto statement: "No church need fear that by entering into the World Council it is in danger of denying its heritage."3 As members of one and the same family, the churches made the solemn promise "to stay together", "to work together" and "to pray together"4. The gap between the World Council and the member churches has been considerably narrowed. The churches have reached an important stage in their journey together towards ecumenical maturity. It is important, therefore, for the churches committed to the cause of unity through the WCC, to "speak of the Council as ‘we' rather than ‘it' or ‘they'", since the World Council "is not something wholly other than the member churches. It is the churches in continuing council."5


  9. It is true that after more than forty years of ecumenical togetherness, the churches do not yet stand together at the same altar. They still hold firm to their respective ecclesiological positions. But does not this ecumenical fellowship, manifested through the very experience of praying, thinking, working, sharing, planning and witnessing together, at least de facto, imply a certain measure of mutual recognition? The churches are aware of this reality in praxis. As they grow in ecumenical fellowship, the measure of mutual recognition will undoubtedly move from mutual love, respect and cooperation into theological convergence and consensus.


  10. The Orthodox presence in the WCC is peculiar for many reasons, and it has opened up important dimensions and avenues in ecumenical discussion. But in spite of growing Orthodox involvement in the life and work of the WCC, the Council still maintains a predominantly Western structure and Protestant ethos. Perhaps this is largely due to the fact that the Orthodox presence and contribution to the Council have not yet made the impact they should have. The Orthodox churches do not yet feel themselves at home in the Council. They have a minority complex. Sometimes they seem to regard themselves as observers rather than full participants. They also have strong reservations over some of the emerging trends and growing tendencies in the life of the Council which they think may jeopardize the basic goals of the WCC. The statement made by the Orthodox delegates at the Canberra assembly6 was a concrete indication of increasing Orthodox dissatisfaction and frustration. However, it is important to note that such reservations are not exclusively Orthodox; they are shared by many member churches of the WCC.

All that we have said points to the fact that the ecumenical fellowship is a fellowship of divided churches which have not arrived at sacramental unity and theological consensus. It also proves that the ecumenical fellowship is not a self-sufficient and self-centred reality in the life of the churches, but a growing future-oriented process.

C. The present ecumenical fellowship contains, explicitly and implicitly, signs and elements of conciliarity. But it is not a conciliar fellowship. Uppsala and Nairobi made a sharp distinction between the present "interconfessional assemblies" and the "genuinely universal council". Uppsala described this distinction in these words: "Some real experience of universality is provided by establishing regional and international confessional fellowships. But such experiences of universality are inevitably partial. The ecumenical movement helps to enlarge this experience of universality, and its regional councils and its World Council may be regarded as a transitional opportunity for eventually actualizing a truly universal, ecumenical, conciliar form of common life and witness. The members of the World Council of Churches, committed to each other, should work for the time when a genuinely universal council may once more speak for all Christians, and lead the way into the future.7 Nairobi spelled out the same distinction in the following way: "Our present interconfessional assemblies are not councils in this full sense, because they are not yet united by a common understanding of the apostolic faith, by a common mission, and a common eucharist. They nevertheless express the sincere desire of the participating churches to herald and move towards full conciliar fellowship, and are themselves a true foretaste of such fellowship."8

Therefore, the present councils (conseils), local, regional and world, as "transitional opportunity" and "foretaste" on the way to true conciliar fellowship, can be rightly regarded as "pre-conciliar"9 gatherings. In fact, this description of Salamanca was a concrete step forward in a twofold sense. First, it affirmed the fact that the churches in the WCC have gained, though partially, some common experience of conciliar fellowship and, as such, they are called constantly to work for its fuller manifestation. Second, by attributing a "pre-conciliar" character to the WCC, Salamanca also implied, directly or indirectly, some kind of ecclesial significance of the WCC, though this is not shared by many churches.

Because of its relevance to the subject under discussion it is worth touching, however briefly, on this issue of the ecclesiological significance of the WCC. This question has often been raised and continues to remain a serious one in the World Council. In its early days, the Council felt obliged to disclaim any such ecclesiological significance because of Protestant fears of a "superchurch" and the Orthodox position regarding the ecclesial status of non-Orthodox member churches. After the New Delhi assembly, the question of ecclesiological significance of the WCC became a major topic of ecumenical discussion. At the fourth world conference on Faith and Order in Montreal (1963), a concerted effort was made to secure an agreement on the "churchly character" of the World Council. This was strongly opposed by the Orthodox theologians who refused to ascribe any ecclesial character to it.10 Recently the same question has again surfaced in the WCC on different levels and in many contexts. There is a tendency, though not strong, to take a fresh look at the Toronto statement. It is true that the WCC is not a council (concile), but a "pre-conciliar" gathering, "a fellowship of churches" because of its very basis, composition and identity, as its constitution makes clear. However, an instrument created by the churches cannot be without some ecclesial character. Furthermore, many years of common experience in shared membership and action have indeed produced among the member churches, both Protestant and Orthodox, a growing sense that the WCC is not without a measure of ecclesiological significance. For many Protestant churches, though the Orthodox would disagree, the WCC does have a "limited" ecclesial reality in so far as it leads the churches to common worship, witness and unity. This ecclesial reality, however, is not to be sought in the structures of the World Council, but in the functions and goals that it is committed to. Therefore, the WCC has only "an instrumental"11 ecclesiological significance in the promotion and pursuit of its goals. Though each member church interprets it in accordance with its own doctrinal convictions, ecclesiological teachings and historical assumptions.

I believe that it is indispensable for the WCC, after many years of ecumenical togetherness, to embark on a process of critical self-assessment. The WCC of 1991 is not the WCC of 1963. It experiences many changes, frustrations, setbacks, achievements and advances in almost all spheres of its life and work. Moreover, radical changes have taken place in the life and mutual relations of the churches, and in the world at large. Therefore the WCC is called to say, with courage and with humility, what it is and what it is not, and where it is in its ecumenical journey. The process of reflection on the self-understanding and common understanding of the nature and vision of the WCC that started some years ago needs to be pursued more vigorously. It is crucial for the future of the ecumenical movement.

D. It is clear from the facts and views given above that the churches in the ecumenical fellowship and particularly within the constituency of the WCC are not in concilium but in consilium, that they are not in a conciliar fellowship, but in a "pre-conciliar" fellowship. The goal of the ecumenical movement is not the convening of a universal council but the restoration of conciliar fellowship. It is imperative, therefore, that the churches make their present "pre-conciliar" fellowship not a hindrance to, but the true foretaste and anticipation of, a full conciliar fellowship. They must take, with a sense of mutual responsibility and accountability, on both local and global levels, that kind of practical initiatives that can strengthen and deepen their present "pre-conciliar" fellowship "on the way" to full conciliar fellowship.

To this effect, Nairobi recommended certain practical steps such as closer cooperation in the areas of diakonia and mission, mutual intercession, reciprocal visitation, joint church services, solidarity in suffering and crisis situations, sharing of personnel and finance, shared pastoral responsibility, a reappraisal of ecumenical commitments at various levels of the church's life, the revision of canonical rules and pastoral practices that are not compatible with the ecumenical fellowship (such as re-baptism and proselytism), cooperation in pastoral care in mixed marriages and joint projects in theological education.12 To these should be added the following, as we have already seen: continuous efforts towards the common confession of the apostolic faith; concrete steps towards mutual reception of baptism, eucharist and ministry; and the development of common conciliar structures.

In fact, through these and similar initiatives, the churches must constantly test their present ecumenical fellowship against the common goal of "one church" which "is to be envisioned as a conciliar fellowship of local churches".13 The ecumenical councils should not become simply coordinating bodies to facilitate ecumenical collaboration, but "instruments of ecclesial communion"14, a provisional form of conciliar life. They have to live the full conciliar fellowship in anticipation, moving "in a continuous and progressive way from their present federal conciliarity to the true eucharistic, doctrinal and synodical conciliarity".15 With such a vision, I believe that the ecumenical councils can provide at all levels an appropriate framework for the development of true conciliar fellowship. It must be stressed that the present ecumenical councils, by their very nature, are provisional; they are only "a transitional opportunity for eventually actualizing a truly universal, ecumenical, conciliar form of common life and witness".16 Therefore, ecumenical fellowship, in whatever form it may exist, is never a static unity but a dynamic and growing fellowship "on the way" to the full restoration of conciliar fellowship.

Conciliar fellowship: a fellowship of reconciled churches

What, then, is conciliar fellowship? We have two major definitions of it. First, the WCC's definition that we have already quoted. Second, the Roman Catholic definition:

The conciliarity which marks the life of the Catholic church and is sometimes expressed in ecumenical and provincial councils (conciles) is based on a full and substantial communion of local churches among themselves and with the church of Rome which presides over the whole assembly of charity. This communion finds expression in the confession of faith, the celebration of the sacraments, the exercise of the ministry and the reception of previous councils. In this sense a council is a means of enabling a local church, a certain group of local churches, or all of the local churches in communion with the bishop of Rome to express the communion of the Catholic church. 17

It is important to note that the definition provided by the WCC, in the formulation of which Catholic and Orthodox theologians played a major role, represents the Orthodox position - "a good way of stating the Orthodox vision of unity".18> It is worth reminding ourselves that neither the statements of a few ecumenical consultations nor the writings of some individual theologians - which we dealt with in chapters 1 and 2 - added anything substantial to these two formulations. They still remain our only major references.

There are four basic elements in these two different descriptions of conciliar fellowship that ought to be taken into consideration. First, conciliar fellowship is the full communion of local churches which is realized through the confession of the same faith, sharing in the same eucharist, and the acceptance of the same sacraments and ministry. Second, conciliar fellowship is the communion of local churches, which may hold assemblies of authorized representatives of the local churches. Third, conciliar fellowship is a "way forward" and a "goal", i.e., both a continuing and growing process and at the same time an eschatological reality. Fourth, for the Roman Catholic Church, the communion with the church of Rome and the pope is a precondition for any conciliar fellowship. It is highly significant that the first three points are common in these two definitions and, as such, they can be safely regarded as convergent points among the churches. The last point remains a major issue in ecumenical dialogue.

Let us briefly deal with some of the important points emerging from the two definitions referred to above. A. "Full and substantial communion of local churches."19 Conciliar fellowship is the coming together of the local churches in a particular place for common eucharist, counsel and decision. It is the meeting of the one people of God in one koinonia. In conciliar fellowship, "the distinctive character of Christian fellowship assumes historical form".20 In fact, conciliar fellowship manifests the nature and the model of the communion by which the churches are held together.21 Therefore, conciliar fellowship is neither a compromise of those theological issues that divide the churches nor the maintenance of the present ecclesial. status quo in a different form. It is the full communion of local churches across local, national, ethnic and cultural boundaries on the basis of one faith, one baptism, one eucharist and one ministry. This communion is expressed in terms of a special "quality of life", a unique "mode of relationship", and a particular "form of unity".22

  1. "Quality of life": Conciliar fellowship basically means that the church is essentially a communion in a twofold sense: a communion with the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit (vertical dimension), and a living communion of people who have determined to stay together on the basis of one baptism, one eucharist, and one apostolic faith (horizontal dimension). As such, let us reiterate, conciliar fellowship is a permanent feature of the church's life. It is a "quality of life" within each local church as well as within the communion of local churches. That is why Uppsala urged the churches to actualize "a truly universal ecumenical conciliar form of common life". This "quality of life" embraces the two vital dimensions of koinonia. The first is the harmonious presence of rich human diversity. As we have seen, conciliar fellowship does not abolish the human gifts given to each member and to each local church, rather it cherishes and protects them. Conciliar fellowship is not a monolithic fellowship but a fellowship of inter-related diversities. The second important dimension of koinonia is the inseparable and mutually committed togetherness of the one people of God at "all levels", "in each" and "in all places" and "in all ages". Conciliar fellowship creates community, the ekklesia in all its diversities, and makes it concilium oecumenicum, thus enabling the local churches to transcend their own "places".


  2. "Mode of relationship": Fellowship of any nature and scope necessarily involves some kind of relationship; otherwise, it is not fellowship. The core of conciliar fellowship is the relationship that generates and sustains communion. To put it in a different way, conciliar fellowship is the mutual relationship of the local churches within the one church. In fact, the churches' relationship with one another is essentially a "conciliar relationship"; it is a "sustained and sustaining relationship" which displays three major characteristics. First, it is multidimensional, multi-level and multifaceted, covering the whole of church life in all its domains, aspects and manifestations. Second, it is an open and spontaneous relationship that transcends ethnic, social, cultural or theological barriers. Third, it is not a one-way movement nor a one-sided commitment, but an interdependent relationship based on mutuality. The conciliar fellowship is "a state of relatedness"23 that engages the churches in a process of common sharing, suffering and joy, liturgical life and mission, personnel and finance. Conciliar fellowship is the rejection of self-sufficiency, an active participation in a shared partnership with others through the day-to-day relationship based on mutual accountability. "Each church needs not only to receive and recognize other churches as belonging to the same church of Christ, but it is obliged to relate to other churches and to feel accountable to them. Conciliar fellowship is a fellowship of exchange, support and mutual correction.24 In fact, the so-called primitive conciliarity was expressed within the framework of diakonia, kerygma and koinonia, and it was, by its very nature, a sharing relationship that touched almost all areas of the life and witness of the local churches.


  3. "Form of unity": Conciliar fellowship is a "form" or rather a "model" of unity that the churches should seek. The visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship can be most adequately defined in terms of conciliar fellowship. However, conciliar fellowship, as we saw in chapter 5, is not unity as such; it presupposes and prefigures unity. It is a framework of unity within which the local churches can experience and practise together a "conciliar form of common life" (Uppsala) in all its aspects and manifestations. It is a "form" of unity that strengthens God's given unity in "each place" and in "all places" enabling the local churches to develop common structures of decision-making. Conciliar fellowship is that "form" of unity which emerges from the communion of local churches and not from the modification of institutional structures.

B. "A genuinely universal council." Uppsala called the chur-ches to work for a "conciliar form of common life" which would eventually lead them towards "a genuinely universal council".25 Nairobi, in its turn, also stressed the necessity of "conciliar gatherings whenever required".26 The holding of an ecumenical council raises a number of basic questions. What is an ecumenical council? What makes a council ecumenical? Who has the right to convoke it ? Who takes part in it? What is the authority of an ecumenical council? Under what circumstances and for what purpose is an ecumenical council convened? These questions are not directly related to our study. What is immediately relevant for us can be expressed in the following questions: Is the reception of ancient councils a precondition for the restoration of conciliar fellowship among the churches? Is an ecumenical council necessary for the life and unity of the church? Is the convocation of an ecumenical council possible in this present situation of disunity?

  1. The problem of "reception" still remains a complex issue in ecumenical dialogue. Any attempt to deal with it seriously, in my opinion, must take the following factors into account.

    First, an important distinction has to be made between the reception of a council as a historical event, and a council as a theological event in terms of its teachings and conciliar decisions. Reception must not be considered as just a theological action. It must take place at the kerygmatic, spiritual and theological levels of church life. Second, reception has to be considered as the action of the church from below and from within, and not from above. The whole people of God should somehow be involved in it. Third, reception must be conceived as a continuing process and not only as a formal approval. Every succeeding generation must receive and re-receive, interpret and reinterpret, formulate and reformulate the teachings of the councils in the light of its own understanding of the apostolic faith and vis-a-vis its particular situation. In other words, the churches have to engage themselves in a process of critical appropriation of conciliar decisions before their formal reception can happen.


  2. The ecumenical council is not a permanent structure of the church. Therefore, its convocation is not an absolute necessity. There is a tremendous difference between conciliar fellowship as an essential and permanent feature of the church's life, and the ecumenical council as an exceptional gathering with a definite purpose. The church does not become conciliar only when it holds an ecumenical council. The church's conciliarity cannot be confined to an ecumenical council. It is more than a conciliar event. In fact, the church is always conciliar. Because of its conciliar nature, it is not obligatory for the church to have regular ecumenical councils. The church can express conciliarity in ways other than through an ecumenical council. The need for an ecumenical council emerges from a common, specific and urgent necessity calling for a common response. This does not exclude, however, the holding of conciliar gatherings. On the contrary, a regular conciliar practice can be of decisive importance for the growth of unity and conciliar fellowship among the local churches.

    In fact, the ecumenical councils have never been permanent institutions of the early church. They were ad hoc meetings to deal with concrete problems that called for immediate solution. The history of the church does not recognize any permanent need for a regular ecumenical council. The church never developed a "theology of conciliarity". Neither did it establish any criteria to assess the theology, authority and the outcome of a council. The councils were held in response to specific crises in the life of the church. Therefore, the urgency and the importance of councils were determined by each given situation. The very fact that the Oriental Orthodox churches, since 431, and the Eastern Orthodox churches, since 787, continued their life and witness without ecumenical councils is, indeed, highly significant in this respect. Even the "ecumenical councils" of the Roman Catholic Church were not regular gatherings, but emergency meetings held to cope with urgent situations and concrete issues. Clearly, "the church can exist without ecumenical councils".27 They are not indispensable for the life of the church. The church is truly church also outside of an ecumenical council. Councils are not supra-structures controlling and guiding the life of the church. Rather, they are organs at the service of the church and always accountable to the church, and subject to its decisions. In other words, a universal council can never be concerned with the objective of restoring the unity of the church; it is only a means of manifesting it. Unity can be rediscovered without a council. Unity in faith, one baptism and one eucharist, and not the ecumenical council, are the locus of unity, and the visible sign of the one church.


  3. When there is no eucharistic communion between the churches, the holding of an ecumenical council is not possible. As we saw, ecumenical councils were exceptional events in the life of the church and they assembled to meet a possible threat to Christian unity. They proceeded from the existing unity of the church and sought to strengthen and protect it against heresies. Even if the urgent necessity to convene an ecumenical council arises today, it would not be possible for the churches to meet in an ecumenical council, since they are still not in sacramental fellowship. An ecumenical council is the visible expression of a unity of faith already experienced within the local churches represented in it. In other words, it is the gathering of official representatives of local churches within a fully united eucharistic fellowship. Only the one church can call and hold an authentic ecumenical council. The attitude of the Orthodox church is quite clear: "A council presupposes and expresses the unity and the catholicity of the church. A council can only be held if all its members fully recognize each other, as belonging to the same church of Christ, guided by the same Spirit. A Council is an assembly representing local churches, each possessing, in the unity with the others, the fullness of catholicity, witnessing together to the same truth."28 This is also the position of the Roman Catholic Church, and is, I believe, to a large degree shared by many churches of the Protestant tradition.

    But the question that is usually raised in ecumenical circles and even in some churches is whether there can be a "reunion council", as Louvain put it, which does not presuppose eucharistic fellowship.29 I think that the question is posed from the wrong perspective. In my view the question is not whether in this prevailing divided state the churches can convene an ecumenical council. The question is rather, do we really need it? An ecumenical council cannot re-establish the broken unity of the church. This must be done through unity in faith and eucharistic fellowship. Furthermore, the churches can "speak with one voice" (Uppsala) to the world without an ecumenical council. Therefore, it is my conviction that the convening of an ecumenical council at the present time is neither possible nor necessary. The goal of the ecumenical movement, as 1 said earlier, is not an ecumenical council, but the visible unity of the church "in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship".30

    However, an ecumenical council as the culmination of conciliar practice and process is always desirable. It may give the ecclesia una et catholica more visibility and universal manifestation. The holding of an ecumenical council still remains a common ecumenical desire and a long-range ecumenical goal. Uppsala considered the holding of an ecumenical council a "dream", and went on to say that "living with this dream means doing something practical towards realizing it".31 The churches must grow in their ecumenical fellowship and reach the stage that would make the holding of an ecumenical council possible if the circumstances require it. For Lukas Vischer a fellowship of churches capable of holding an ecumenical council at least presupposes that the churches are explicitly and tangibly reconciled to one another, that the churches express a definite sense of universal solidarity and that the churches manifest more genuinely their fellowship in Christ across the barriers.32 John Deschner, summarizing Faith and Order's thinking, suggests six main steps to be taken by the churches "on the way" to a global conciliar gathering: conciliar fellowship of local churches; a valid and effective call for a conciliar gathering; a mutually recognizable representation of the people of God; a common act of worship culminating in eucharistic fellowship; a common act of confessing the apostolic faith; a universal reception of this confession among the churches.33

B. A "way forward" and a "goal". Conciliar fellowship, being a "quality of life", a "mode of relationship" and a "form of unity", is also a "way forward" and a "goal". In fact, Nairobi described conciliar fellowship both as the final goal which the ecumenical movement has set before it and as a way to reach that goal. What does this really mean?

The ecumenical fellowship can be characterized, as we have seen, as a "pre-conciliar" fellowship and, as such, it can rightly be regarded as an anticipation of the ultimate goal and a preparation for it. This goal "does not lie exclusively in the future", neither is it "being created anew today";34 In other words, the model of conciliar fellowship is not a mere eschatological goal; it is a partial reality, however faint and incomplete, within the ecumenical fellowship. The churches in the WCC already have some elements of what could eventually become a full conciliar fellowship. The ecumenical fellowship is the "foretaste", the "outline" of it. In fact, conciliar fellowship belongs to the eschatological pleroma or fullness of the church. That fullness can be manifested here in varying degrees of partial fulfilment.35 Hence, conciliar fellowship is not to be seen simply as an "event" to be achieved in a distant future. It is rather a way of living and a process of growing in unity through common witness and diakonia, mutual intercession, reciprocal visitation and sharing in liturgical life as well as in spiritual, human and material resources.

The churches must anticipate this "goal". Their life and work must be inspired and guided by the vision to which they are committed. Conciliar fellowship is also a challenge to the churches to experience unity in their actual life, and to work for its full restoration. As such, it has to be understood in terms of a dynamic process and movement to be entered into, and not in static terms. This process necessarily involves the development of common life, shared decisions and common action at all levels and in connection with all major problems that the churches face in their life and witness.

Conciliar fellowship is the pattern of the churches' life in the present as well as a way towards the future: "Conciliar fellowship begins already on the way to unity and governs our conduct along the way."36 The way leading to that goal is not only theological consensus, but also growing together in love and prayer, in mutual openness and commitment. This process of becoming "a fellowship of local churches truly united" takes different forms in different places and times. In each situation and at each state of this continuous process the churches have to ask themselves how much they have grown into conciliar fellowship.

* * *

Let us, by way of summary, reiterate a few basic points.

The ecumenical movement brought about a momentous change in the life and witness of the churches. The divided churches entered into a common process of dialogue, sharing, reflection and action at local, regional and world levels. However, ecumenical fellowship is only a "pre-conciliar" fellowship, since it has not yet reached consensus on apostolic faith on the one hand and eucharistic communion on the other.

Conciliar fellowship as the communion of local churches is manifested through a special "mode of relationship", a "quality of life" and a "form of unity", where "reconciled diversity" and mutual accountability are given crucial importance.

Conciliar fellowship is at once a "way forward" and a "goal". It constantly grows through common prayer, diakonia and witness. Its full realization lies ahead of us, in the future God wills for us.

Conciliar fellowship cannot be equated with the ecumenical council which is only one of the manifestations of it. The calling of an ecumenical council is neither necessary nor possible at the present time because the churches are not yet in sacramental communion, and the visible unity of the church is only restored through unity in faith and full eucharistic sharing.


  1. For the first time since the rejection of the council of Chalcedon (451), the Oriental Orthodox churches met in 1965 in Addis Ababa upon the invitation of Emperor Haile Selassie I. A standing committee was appointed to implement the decisions of this historic meeting and follow up its work. The committee held five meetings, the last in 1974. A few years ago, several attempts were made by some of the heads and hierarchs of the Oriental Orthodox churches, and even by the general secretary of the WCC, to revive the work of the standing committee and plan a second meeting of the heads of these churches. They all failed, largely for internal reasons. The standing committee has virtually ceased to exist. But the desire for meetings on a regular basis, and even for the creation of a permanent structure of decision and action on issues of common concern, is a growing one. [Editor's note: since 1996 the Oriental Orthodox Churches of the Middle East have established regular high-level meetings.]
  2. "The Church, the Churches and the World Council of Churches: The Ecclesiological Significance of the World Council of Churches", in A Documentary, History of the Faith and Order Movement: 1927-1963, ed. Lukas Vischer, St Louis, MO, Bethany Press, 1963, p. 169.
  3. Ibid., p. 176.
  4. These oft-quoted expressions are from the messages of the WCC's first three assemblies, i.e., Amsterdam (1948), Evanston (1954) and New Delhi (1961).
  5. A Documentary History, op. cit., p. 16 1.
  6. "Reflections of Orthodox Participants", in Signs of the Spirit. Official Report, Seventh Assembly, World Council of Churches, Canberra, Australia, February 1991, ed. Michael Kinnamon, Geneva, WCC, and Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1991, p.279.
  7. The Uppsala 68 Report. Official Report of the Fourth Assembly of the WCC, Uppsala, 1968, ed. Norman Goodall, Geneva, WCC, 1968, p. 17 (henceforth Uppsala).
  8. Breaking Barriers. Nairobi 1975, official report of the fifth assembly of the WCC, Nairobi, 1975, ed. David M. Paton, London, SPCK, and Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1976, p.61 (henceforth Nairobi).
  9. "The Unity of the Church - Next Steps: The Report of the Salamanca Consultation of Faith and Order, September 1973", in The Ecumenical Review, vol. 26, no. 2, April 1974, pp.293-294. "Preconciliar" in the Orthodox context is employed for that specific period in which a council is directly prepared by the churches which are already in sacramental fellowship. Therefore, the Orthodox churches would not use it in the way used by the WCC.
  10. See The Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order, ed. Patrick C. Rodger, Faith and Order Paper 43, Geneva, WCC, 1963, pp.48-49.
  11. Lukas Vischer, "Christian Councils - Instruments of Ecclesial Communion", in One in Christ, vol. VIII, no. 2, 1972, p. 140.
  12. Nairobi, pp.66-68.
  13. Ibid., p. 60.
  14. Vischer, "Christian Councils", op. cit., p. 140.
  15. Nissiotis, "Christian Councils and the Unity of the Local Church", in One in Christ, vol. VIII, no. 2, 1972, p. 165.
  16. Uppsala, p. 17.
  17. Ecumenical Collaboration at the Regional, National and Local Levels, Vatican, Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, 1980, p. 19.
  18. "The Struggle for Justice and the Unity of the Church: Crete, 1975", in Orthodox Contributions to Nairobi, compiled and presented by the Orthodox Task Force of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, WCC, 1975, p. 31.
  19. Ecumenical Collaboration, op. cit., P. 19.
  20. Councils, Conciliarity and a Genuinely Universal Council, Faith and Order Paper 70, Geneva, WCC, 1974, p. 13.
  21. Jeanne Hendrickse proposes to talk of "conciliar community" rather than of "conciliar fellowship". In her view, the concept of "community" is "more inclusive and indicates a common position and body of persons, joint ownership, companionship, koinonia". See Hendrickse, "A Lived Community", in The Ecumenical Review, vol. 31, no. 1, January 1979, p.75.
  22. Nairobi, p.60.
  23. Geoffrey Wainwright, "Conciliarity and Eucharist", in Churches in Conciliar Fellowship? Report of a Consultation at Sofia, Bulgaria, October 1977, Geneva, Conference of European Churches, 1978, p.79.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Uppsala, p. 17.
  26. Nairobi, p.60.
  27. Küng, The Council in Action. Theological Reflection on the Second Vatican Council, New York, Sheed & Ward, 1963, p.51.
  28. "How Do Orthodox Look at the Problem of ‘Concept of Unity and Models of Union-, in Orthodox Contributions to Nairobi, op.cit., p. 12.
  29. Faith and Order, Louvain, 1971: Study Reports and Documents, Faith and Order Paper 59, Geneva, WCC, 1971, p.227.
  30. "Constitution and Rules of the World Council of Churches", in Gathered for Life: Official Report, Sixth Assembly, World Council of Churches, Vancouver, Canada, August 1983 ed. David Gill, Geneva, WCC, and Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1983, p.324.
  31. Uppsala, p. 17.
  32. Lukas Vischer, "A Genuinely Universal Council... ?", in The Ecumenical Review, vol. 22, no. 2, April 1970, pp. 100- 103.
  33. Minutes of the Meeting of the Standing Commission, 1977 Locum, Commission on Faith and Order, Faith and Order Paper 83, Geneva, WCC, 1977, p.25.
  34. To Be One that the World May Believe: Report of the European Ecumenical Encounter CCEE-CEC, Chantilly, France, April 1978, Geneva, CEC, and St Gallen, CCEE, 1978, p. 104 (mimeographed).
  35. Paulos Gregorios, "Conciliar Fellowship: An Orthodox View", in Conciliar Unity: A National Consultation, January 31-February 4, 1978, Bangalore, Ecumenical Christian Centre, p.52 (mimeographed).
  36. Christoph Hinz, "Rediscovery of the Community of the Churches: Conciliarity, the Way Forward? A Contribution of the Reformation Churches", in Churches in Conciliar Fellowship?, op. cit., p.59.