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What Does Mutual Accountability Mean for Christians and the Christian Life?

What Does Mutual Accountability Mean for Christians and the Christian Life? Olav Fykse Tveit General Secretary, World Council of Churches Centro Pro Unione, 15 November 2018

15 November 2018

What Does Mutual Accountability Mean

for Christians and the Christian Life?

Olav  Fykse Tveit

General Secretary, World Council of Churches

 

Centro Pro Unione, 15 November 2018

 

Good evening to you all, and a special thanks to our colleagues here at the Centro pro Unione for inviting me back to participate in your 50th anniversary celebrations through this conversation about mutual accountability as an element in our ongoing and evolving quest for Christian unity and authentic discipleship.

It is a more than serendipitous coincidence that we at the WCC we are also celebrating an anniversary, our 70th, and, maybe more pertinently this evening, the 50th since the WCC’s 4th Assembly, held in Uppsala, Sweden.

I hope that, in conversation this evening, we can affirm, fifty years after its founding, just how crucially important is the work that the centre was founded to pursue.

I am especially eager to do so, since I believe we live in a time when that bright yet elusive star of Christian unity can guide our way as churches and can even keep alive the flame of Christian hope for all humanity during these perilous times.

I believe that that ideal of Christian unity takes on new meaning and new shape and new importance today, and so must the movement that seeks it. So also must our dedication to the Christian life.

A Golden Thread through Ecumenical History

We are used to approaching the history of the ecumenical movement and the theological initiatives that have accompanied and fueled it, through the lenses of unity, witness, and service, through koinonia, missio dei, diakonia, and how such themes play out in theological loci. Through these lenses the movement has been able to find convergence, indeed even consensus, in key areas of ecclesiology, doctrine, and polity, in ways that have led to mutual recognition, communion and even uniting of churches in regions around the world.

Yet from the very start of the organized movement, there has also been the sense that commitment to the spirit and work of ecumenical work also involves not just tolerating each other or navigating around differences or being willing to overlook past insults, condemnations, and conflicts but also genuine, indeed sympathetic, understanding of each other’s distinctive traditions and traits.

For example, in 1913 already, soon after the Edinburgh conference, as the movement began to spread, a  32-page pamphlet “by a layman” was sent to churches, urging  that the  forthcoming conference on Faith and Order  centre, not on competing statements or negotiations between churches or confessions but on “honest and loving examination of our differences.” Cultivating “the true conference spirit” requires cross-examination of our convictions, he said, “not to defeat and humiliate, but to understand each other.”Using examples from ecclesiology and soteriology, and In light of the inexhaustibility of divine mysteries, the author urged a “reverent agnosticsm” toward our own and others’ theological explanations to “open the way for the growth of all into one mind.”[1]

A “reverent agnosticism”: It is this spirit, or more technically, this attitude, that I have tracked and traced in my work on mutual accountability.[2] I found that mutual accountability, as an underlying attitude, runs like a golden thread, through the decades of work by the Faith and Order Commission. It was indeed a mark of the whole movement as it grew, ever more explicitly, right into the contemporary period. Beyond or beneath the growing convergence on specific theological matters, indeed making such understanding and convergence possible, there has been cultivated a radical openness and accompanying humility that we term mutual accountability.

If I may elaborate, mutual accountability refers to a quality of the relationships that we enter when we commit to the search for Christian unity and to the movement for unity.[3] Mutual accountability denotes a kind of covenantal pledge implicit between and among people in community. We can see it at play in our own relations with our friends or spouse or close community. It refers to an attitude of active responsibility that must characterize any authentic relationship, the profoundly moral dimension of life together.

The Moral Core of the Ecumenical Fellowship

In the ecclesial fellowship, mutual accountability means that churches in ecumenical fellowship are related, first and foremost, not to an organization or even to a movement but to each other. It refers to attitudes of openness, constructive critical and self-critical approaches, repentance, reliability, commitment to the common calling and tasks, faithfulness, sharing, and indeed hope. Derived from the Gospel itself, these are all genuine and necessary attitudes in a fellowship that follows the crucified and risen Christ.

In our age, a crucial vehicle of that mutuality lies in communication, not just the one-on-one communication we facilitate in consultations and conferences but also in, with, and for the larger fellowship. Increasingly, it is digital and global, but its marks derive from this same set of commitments: it must be transparent and accessible, of course, but also driven by the stories and activities of the fellowship itself, enabling the churches’ advocacy in the world and their prophetic witness, building their capacities to reach out and, indispensably, it must be driven by and dedicated to the truth.

The truth of the Gospel can only be sought in a sense of accountability to what is given to us as the faith through the ages, to our partners in ecumenical fellowship, and even in a sense of accountability to those whom the Gospel addresses today, in their context, in their time, in their search for hope.[4]

Commitment to the fellowship of Christian churches thus entails a genuine and ongoing search for the deepest, most inclusive truths of faith[5] in order to come to authentic faith for myself and my fellow Christians but also to model a credible, self-critical faith to our contemporaries and to free us from the oversights and biases that keep us from giving ourselves fully to the needs of others.

This has deep implications for theology, for spirituality, for our encounters and engagements in the world, including other religious traditions. It also connects us with the spiritual vision behind the Centro pro Unione, within the broader framework of that spiritual ecumenism which is also a gift of the Atonement Friars through their founder, Father Paul Wattson.

In sum, I argue, mutual account­ability is a matter of how we in the ecumenical movement seek the truth together by sharing insights into the truth we carry. This progressive, collaborative discovery of truth entails as much repentance and self-criticism as it does fidelity to traditions. Churches must be learners as well as teachers! Often your insights shed light on my oversights![6]

Ultimately, the truth we owe one another is an accounting for our hope not just to ourselves and our kind but to others as well. We are as churches and followers of the crucified and risen Christ called always to be ready to give account of the hope that we carry. This is the criterion of our Christian witness. This is in fact the criterion of being church: Are we giving hope to others, real hope? This is also the criterion of what it means to be human, cre­ated in the image of God: How do we give hope to the other?[7]

Walking, Working, and Praying Together

What does mutual accountability mean for Christian life and discipleship? As you can see, I believe that this notion harbors theological and not just historical import. It reframes our work in the ecumenical movement and in the fellowship of churches, covenanting a level of accountability and truthfulness that in effect encourages constant reform and renewal from the churches.

Yet, when we think of mutual accountability in relation to the Christian life, its radicality is perhaps more personally, immediately evident.  It brings into sharper relief the real, profound implications of our personal commitment to God and each other. It illumines our journey of faith. Here are several ways that I see it shedding light on the Christian life:

1. Mutual accountability highlights listening to and learning from each other as a mark of Christian life. Practically speaking, in that fellowship and in relationships, mutual accountability dictates a fidelity beyond even the truths I most strongly affirm in my own tradition. Our God is larger than even our most sacrosanct formulations can contain![8] I open myself not only to learning about you but also from you. I open myself to being challenged and changed by you and by absorbing your insights into my own, newly broadened and deepened faith life.

 

2. In turn I can claim all the brightest insights and profound wisdom of each of the other traditions I encounter. With Catholics we can come to appreciate the depth of theology’s probing the divine mysteries, coupled with its radical social teaching. With the Reformed, we feel the power of the Bible’s account of early Christian communities to propel a vision of reforming or restoring authentic Christian community and discipleship today. With Baptists and Anabaptists we recognize the centrality of discipleship and its inherent challenge to unjust power. With the Orthodox I come to know the wisdom of the Fathers, the purity of worship, and the possibility of divinization. With evangelicals and Pentecostals, we redress modernity’s unrelenting rationalism with the personal and affective appropriation of the Spirit. And, among Methodists andAnglicans, we find the particular genius of relating Bible, tradition, reasoning, and experience to each other to discern the way. And, in all traditions, we encounter the mystery of the cross.

As Christians, we may claim these diverse riches and insights for ourselves, not just to appreciate how they explain how others think and act but also to prod and deepen our own religious lives.

3. Conversely, mutual accountability invites critical and self-critical theology. It means that I must also be able to hear and absorb the criticism and critiques of my traditions and my theology from those who see it all differently.  I must really accept and learn from them, when, for example, they point out that my proud Christian history also includes moments of oppression and persecution. Or that my tradition, which  deeply values justification, sometimes gives short shrift to the hard work of sanctification. It means that a tradition that values adult baptism must also recognize the ways in which infant baptism has served to affirm generational fidelity to the faith. I have to recognize that, as Pope Francis recently argued, the gift and blessings of ministry have been sometimes skewed into a patriarchal clericalism that can then be employed to facilitate abuse or that my religious life has accommodated itself uncritically to nationalism or colonialism or demagoguery or economic powers. Or, as Jürgen Moltmann argues, how our prizing of our personal relationship with God and preoccupation with personal justification sometimes obscures the justice that we owe to the victims of our way of life. I must recognize shortcomings in how our shared Christian tradition has treated women or Indigenous Peoples. More broadly, I have to recognize that the Church itself, the body of Christ, is simply broader, more encompassing and inclusive, than my structures and strictures allow.

Mutual accountability is thus a critical and indeed self-critical feature of Christian discipleship, individual and communal, ignited by open encounter with other Christians different from myself. Nor can it be just theoretical or hypothetical. Above all, perhaps, as we have learned over the last 50 years, such learning, such theology, must come from concrete engagement with and learning from those who are on the margins of our societies, those who often are left behind by our way of life, those who are different from us.[9]

4. It recasts the Christian life as one of ongoing conversion to the needs of the other. Conversion has often been conceived as a life-changing experience that leads to a change of religious allegiance or affiliation. But more commonly our encounters with God are ongoing, our experience of the mystery of death and resurrection ever deepening, and our involvement and engagement with the world ever more pressing. So conversion actually sets up an ongoing dialectic of repentance and growth, often occasioned by the unwelcome truths that others reveal to us[10] or by the needs of the others around us. The Christian life is a kind of faith journey or pilgrimage toward the reign of God, glimpsed here through radical openness and progressive inclusivity.  As Pope Francis remarked in his recent visit to the WCC:

Walking, in a word, demands constant conversion. That is why so many people refuse to do it. They prefer to remain in the quiet of their home, where it is easy to manage their affairs without facing the risks of travel. But that is to cling to a momentary security, incapable of bestowing the peace and joy for which our hearts yearn. That joy and peace can only be found by going out from ourselves. That is what God has called us to do from the beginning.

 

5. It recasts the criterion of authenticity of the Christian life. What is the authentic Christian life? Certainly one measure is its responsiveness to the other and the quality of our relationships with others: honesty, inclusiveness,  placing ourselves at their disposal. "When did we see you, Lord?” This concrete measure of Christian authenticity breaks through the tendencies in religious life toward solipsism, self-delusion, and hypocrisy to more open, inclusive, learning way of life.[11]

6. Mutual accountability also reframes discipleship itself. We see that following Jesus can be characterized as “transformative discipleship,” that is, action and advocacy for justice and peace that is inspired by Jesus and that transforms not only the situations it addresses but ourselves in the process.[12] Our engagement with refugees, the homeless, the poor, the marginalized, the outcast is not an afterthought to conversion but its agent. In the end, the pilgrimage changes the pilgrim.

7. Likewise, spirituality and the spiritual life are nuanced differently in light of our ultimate and proximate accountabilities. In a framework of mutuality, spirituality becomes more communal, more globally oriented, less introspective—rather like the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle or the songs that have so richly animated the ecumenical movement since at least the 1980s.[13] Our prayer puts us in touch with the deepest longings and aspirations of the world around us as we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” Ecumenical spirituality, seen so well in movements like Taizé, is perhaps the underappreciated side of the whole movement and a key to its future.

8. Finally, mutual accountability reveals just how utterly relevant our faith is to the lives of those around us and, indeed, to the future of humanity itself. The progressive openness of ongoing conversion not only makes us available to address the ills we see in the world around us. It also models an authentic and credible Christian witness to the world that is based on truth and self-transcendence rather than bias, lies and greed. It overcomes the opposition of “us” and “them,” which is dominating thinking and action at a time when we need to speak of “we” as a planetary community. Christian solidarity can be a key catalyst in the global quest for peace and justice.

An pilgrimage ongoing

So, in the end, our commitment to Christian fellowship (as churches) or community (as individuals) creates sets of accountabilities—not a list of obligations or duties but marks of a whole life in the Spirit, a nexus of mutually accountable relationships and an ongoing dialectical quest for a truer, more authentic Christian life, a dynamism of love that mirrors the mutuality and truth in God’s own self.

This of course, seems to claim quite a bit for the humble notion of mutual accountability. Yet perhaps you will agree with me that, based on this description, we can see that, in the context of Christian life and discipleship, mutual accountability is seen as simply another word for love.

My fellow pilgrims, our long pilgrimage is not over. In word and sacrament, in conscience and calling, God still urges each of us to transcend our stubborn boundaries of self and reach out in love for God and each other, to follow Jesus more truly, to articulate a message of healing and salvation, and to open ourselves up in radical hospitality to the needs of our neighbour. This indeed is our ultimate accountability, our vocation, and indeed our joy.



[1] Joint Commission Appointed to Arrange for a World Conference on Faith and Order, The Conference Spirit. By a Layman (1913).

[2] See Olav Fykse Tveit, The Truth We Owe Each Other: Mutual Accountability in the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2016).

[3] Thus the constitution of the WCC speaks of a spirit of mutual accountability in terms of “the prayerful search for forgiveness and reconciliation.” We can find strikingly parallel language in Redintegratio unitatis, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, especially in section 8. Mutual accountability is a theme which holds together many of the varied dimensions of the search for Christian unity. Mutual accountability is also a vision about how we work together in the ecumenical movement as a demonstration that we are one. It is an ecumenical attitude required wherever we are and on our way towards unity. It bridges the quest for unity (the traditional Faith and Order movement) and the ecumenical action (the traditional Life and Work movement) through an overarching moral framework.

[4] This in turn sheds light on what we do as the WCC: serving as convener, catalyst, facilitator of the fellowship of churches, i.e., nurturing real fellowship through creative and committed interaction of the churches and their partners.  It also casts light on the role of such a fellowship in the world: we relate to the world and its troubles through witnessing to and offering genuine hope—not because we have the answers but because we our faith-inspired hope gives us the confidence, the willingness and openness to find and fashion them together.

[5] This of course is the age-old affirmation of a via negativa and apophatic theology.

[6] This means that the ideal of “reconciled diversity” involves not just appreciating each other’s gifts and insights but also laying bare our oversights and inadequacies.  To repeat, accountable reconciled diversity is a spur to church reform and renewal.

[7] Here I am quoting from The Truth We Owe, pp.vii-viii. I think that this vision is also deeply compatible with that articulated by Pope Francis in his comments, for example, during his visit to the WCC. See the documents gathered at https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/other-meetings/papal-visit, and pubished in The Ecumenical Review 70:3.

[8] Our encounters invite and occasion deeper theological probes of the central mysteries of our faith, shared by all of us. See The Church: Towards a Common Vision, Faith and Order Papers 214 (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2013), esp. ch. 2.

[9] This is argued most powerfully in the landmark mission statement Together toward Life:Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes , ed. Jooseop Keum (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2014).

[10] Bernard Lonergan, the Canadian philosopher-theologian, observed that, although authenticity is conceived in positive terms, it is often experienced in negative ones, i.e., as a challenge to relinquish the major and minor inauthenticities that bedevil our lives and even our communities. My love for you reveals shortcomings I need to address in order to free me to love more fully and authentically.

[11] These principles are given contextual life and dynamism in the reflections from the theological study group of our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace: Walking Together: Theological Reflections from the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, ed. Susan Durber and Fernando Enns (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2018). The appendix contains the important new paper from the Faith and Order Commission, ”Come and See,”  on how the pilgrimage relates the journey toward justice and peace to the perennial quest for Christian unity.

[12] See the articles in the International Review of Mission 105:2 on the notion of “transforming discipleship.”

[13] The Ecumenical Prayer Cycle can be accessed each week at oikoumene.org.  See also the new songbook, gathering ecumenical songs from around the world: Hosannah! Ecumenical Songs for Justice and Peace, ed. Andrew Donaldson (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2016).