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From Antelias with love

20 November 2003

A diverse group of people - theologians, church leaders, social scientists, ecumenists and others - came together from 17-20 November 2003 at the invitation of the World Council of Churches to reflect on the reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement. Although participants came to the consultation in their individual capacities and not as representatives of their organisations, they were drawn from different constituencies, traditions and regions of the world. The meeting was enriched by the participation of young people who earlier in the week had met separately to discuss the same issue.

Antelias, Lebanon, the centre of the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, was the venue for the consultation, where participants enjoyed the warm hospitality of His Holiness Aram I, moderator of the World Council of Churches, and appreciated the opportunity to join in the community's morning prayers and to learn more about the rich traditions of this ancient church.

The realities of world politics intruded into the consultation when Lebanon changed its visa rules for citizens of some countries, which meant that some participants arrived one or two days late and some were not able to arrive at all. Participants were grateful for the tireless efforts of the Armenian Catholicosate to assist participants who were stranded in airports in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

The Antelias consultation on ecumenical reconfiguration was called to:

  • analyse the main challenges presented by the changing world situation and their implications for the configuration of the ecumenical movement
  • identify the key areas of change and renewal necessary for a reconfiguration, and
  • design a process of consultation and study leading to a report on reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement to the Central Committee in 2005 and eventually to the WCC Assembly (2006). 

The group was not asked - nor did it have the authority - to propose a new configuration of the ecumenical movement. Discussions need to take place in many different fora over an extended period of time. Rather, with the help of a skilled external facilitator, participants were encouraged to begin the process of thinking about the challenges presented by today's world and about the vision and values of the ecumenical movement.

A changing context

The world has changed dramatically in the 50+ years since the establishment of the World Council of Churches. Participants considered some of the effects of economic globalisation, the explosive growth of communications, the increasing importance of civil society, the increasing role of religion in public life, and the profound changes in the churches over the past five decades. But they realized that they only scratched the surface in analyzing these changes. Much deeper analysis will be required in order to understand the political, economic, social, and cultural changes which shape the context of the ecumenical movement in order to enable the churches to strengthen their witness and service. As analyses are inevitably shaped by the context in which they are carried out, it will be important to share our analyses with each other.

Our vision, our values

Since its beginning, the ecumenical movement has been dedicated to pursuing the goals of the visible unity of the church and common witness and service to the world. Participants in the Antelias meeting reflected on the relevance of this vision in light of the new global realities and affirmed that both of these goals for the ecumenical movement are still relevant. Unity and common witness and service to the world are not mutually exclusive, but in fact are mutually enriching.

There was considerable discussion about the common values that undergird the ecumenical movement: the integrity of the Christian church as the one body of Christ, the agreed faith basis of the World Council of Churches and a shared commitment to reconciliation as the basis for transformation. The meeting agreed that common values which were relevant in the past are also important in this process: participation, community, justice, diakonia, equity, vulnerability, accountability, sufficiency, mutual respect, and solidarity. It was also suggested that these are covenantal values which imply mutual commitment.

Reflections from Antelias

An ecumenical world with many actors

The ecumenical movement today is characterized by a rich array of ecumenical actors, including: churches, conciliar bodies (e.g. WCC, regional ecumenical organizations, and national councils of churches), regional and sub-regional fellowships and partnerships, ecumenical agencies/specialized ministries, international ecumenical organizations, Christian World Communions, ecumenical communities, mission agencies, theological colleges and associations, ecumenical academies and lay training centres, and many other ecumenical bodies. Relationships between these ecumenical actors vary tremendously. For example, churches are often members of several conciliar bodies and of their Christian World Communion while participating actively in international ecumenical organizations. Ecumenical agencies/specialized ministries may have close relationships with conciliar bodies, international ecumenical organizations, and some Christian World Communions while having a less direct relationship with churches.

While relationships between ecumenical actors are constantly evolving, participants in the Antelias meeting agreed that further collective reflection is needed on the future configuration of the ecumenical movement. As one working group summarized: "The challenge is to provide a reconfiguration within the ecumenical movement with a view towards more effective co-operation and greater coherence in our witness and service to the unity of the church and to the wholeness and fullness of life."

What does reconfiguration mean?

In the course of the discussion, it became clear that the word "reconfiguration" can be interpreted in three different ways.

One understanding refers to "broadening the ecumenical movement" by reaching out to churches such as the Roman Catholic Church, and Pentecostal and evangelical churches, and seeking ways of greater engagement with them. Participants were reminded that the Global Christian Forum which was created after the 1998 Harare Assembly is an on-going 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. Participants affirmed this process of widening the circle, but recognized that this goal is largely being carried out in other fora.

A second understanding of reconfiguration refers to the process of "deepening the fellowship" between churches. This emphasis on relationships between churches and ecumenical actors is central to the ecumenical movement, but is also primarily carried forward in other ways, as in the important bilateral discussions taking place between churches .

A third understanding addresses the question of how relationships can be strengthened between existing ecumenical actors to ensure greater coherence and effectiveness in our work. This refers to questions about the relationships between our structures and the extent to which our actions complement one another's.

Clearly these three understandings of reconfiguration are related. Strengthening the ways in which existing ecumenical actors work together can and should be done in such a way as to invite others into the process, rather than to create further barriers between Christian organizations. Similarly, ecumenical developments between churches not only deepen relationships between churches, but contribute to greater coherence in the common work. By focusing on the way in which ecumenical actors relate to one another, we hope to become more effective in our ministries and to be better witnesses to the God we seek to serve.

The group strongly affirmed the call for further discussions on ecumenical reconfiguration, with an emphasis on the third understanding of strengthening relationships between ecumenical actors to ensure greater effectiveness in our work. These discussions have the potential to re-vitalize the ecumenical movement and to ensure that our structures and our actions respond to the changing global realities.

Why reconfiguration?

Participants suggested many reasons why a reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement is needed now: 

  • to ensure that our structures are agile and able to respond rapidly to changes in the world
  • to develop new methodologies and to renew the confidence of churches to confront the forces of globalisation and hegemony
  • to strengthen opportunities for all churches, including those who are not active participants in conciliar bodies, to work together more effectively
  • to ensure that ecumenical structures reflect the realities in the world and the churches, by becoming less Euro-centric and more reflective of the churches in the South.
  • to respond to the frustration of churches who are asked to participate in many ecumenical structures at many levels
  • to strengthen coherence in our programmes and to avoid duplication in our activities
  • to respond to the fact that we operate in a marketplace characterized by competition for money, media, delivery of aid, and partners.
  • to affirm the contributions of agencies/specialised ministries as an integral part of the ecumenical family and to recognize that some agencies/specialised ministries yearn for closer cooperation with each other to respond to the pressures of a competitive environment and to be more effective in fulfilling their mandates
  • to strengthen the base of the ecumenical movement and to reach out to the grassroots
  • to increase the coherence of our common work, by recognising our mutual vulnerability and by increasing mutual accountability, self-constraint, and mutual nurturing of each other.

A call for a broad participatory process

Questions of reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement are too important to leave to a small group of people. The processes of discussion and reflection must invite all those committed to ecumenism to participate in the process, whether they are involved in conciliar bodies or in the many other dynamic expressions of ecumenical engagement. In this process, it will be important to recognize and to respect the fact that different actors have different procedures of consultation and decision-making.

Strong participatory processes are needed to carry this process forward. In particular, it is essential to re-centre these processes in the South if a new configuration is to respond to the realities of global Christianity.

Next steps

WCC will invite churches and ecumenical partners (and potential partners) to enter into this conversation on reconfiguration. Based on their responses to the invitation to participate in the process, a meeting will be convened within a year by WCC of representatives of churches and partners who are interested in participating in the discussions on ecumenical reconfiguration. WCC will also consult with other churches who are part of the ecumenical movement, such as the Roman Catholic Church, to encourage their participation in discussions of reconfiguration. Similarly, efforts will be made to inform evangelical and Pentecostal churches about this process and to invite these churches to participate in appropriate ways. WCC's role will be that of facilitator of this first representative meeting on reconfiguration but the meeting itself will decide on how the process will be carried forward (processes, tasks, timelines, etc.). While WCC will make interim reports to its Central Committee, the process will be carried forward by participating organizations in light of their own constituency needs. During the period leading up to this meeting, participants in the Antelias consultation agreed to provide needed advice and support to the process.