by Theodore Gill (*)
"We must find a way to build on what we have achieved, or else it will evaporate", warned Mary Tanner, a former moderator of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Faith and Order Commission. Suggesting that she might be considered a "grandmother of Faith and Order", Tanner reviewed highlights of the quest for unity since the early 1900s, and she recalled an exhortation from the most recent World Conference on Faith and Order in 1993: "There is no turning back from either the goal of visible unity or from the single ecumenical movement that unites concerns for the unity of the Church and concern for the engagement in the struggles of the world."
More than 150 participants in the Faith and Order Plenary Commission are meeting from 7 to 13 October at the Orthodox Academy of Crete in Kolympari, Greece. The theme for this gathering is "Called to Be the One Church". A Plenary Commission is convened once every six to eight years, approximately midway between WCC assemblies, with delegates including representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and several other communions that are not WCC members.
For at least 80 percent of commissioners to this plenary, including 37 "younger theologians", this conference serves as an initiation into the life of the WCC's advisory body on unity, theology and the ordering of Christian churches. Together with reports from the commission's moderator and director, Tanner's presentation provided a broad introduction on the first full day of proceedings.
A recollection of figures who served as past participants and leaders in the commission included the names of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the current Patriarch of Moscow, the current Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who gave the opening keynote address on Wednesday, as well as Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger three decades before he became Pope Benedict XVI. Mary Tanner stressed the importance of remembering that Faith and Order dialogue has always been characterized by "deep spirituality grounded in prayer; it is not an arid academic exercise".
Early discussions, especially from Faith and Order's first world conference in 1927 to the third in 1952, centred on comparison of doctrines and organizational structures in various churches. Thereafter, the commission sought consensus on "convergence documents" in the hope of moving toward agreement on critical issues.
The best-known such document was "Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry" or BEM, approved in 1982, an exploration of common ground on matters related to the sacraments and church leadership. This text was sent to churches and Christian councils throughout the world with a request for their responses. During the 1980s, six volumes of official replies were compiled and have served as the basis for further dialogue on the path toward visible unity. While admitting some flaws in the process, Tanner hailed BEM as "nothing less than one of the miracles of the ecumenical movement".
Requirements for visible unity
Tanner traced a variety of conversations that have taken place among churches and continue under the banner of Faith and Order. She spoke of three primary categories that the commission has identified as "requirements for visible unity" among the churches and within the one Church: "the common confession of the apostolic faith; common sacraments and ministry; and ways of deciding together and teaching with authority".
John Gibaut, director of Faith and Order, explained the three areas of concentration for this meeting: "Moral discernment in the churches", "Sources of Authority: Tradition and traditions" and "The nature and mission of the church". He situated all three topics within the context of the church's self-understanding and a WCC document on that topic. "The overarching theme of our gathering this week is ecclesiology", he said, "with specific attention given to The Nature and Mission of the Church." Like BEM before it, the latter text has been sent to churches with a request for comments that will be reported to the next WCC assembly in 2013.
Advice and commentary arising from this meeting of the Plenary Commission will be published within the coming year and presented to the 2013 assembly by way of the Faith and Order Standing Commission, a smaller body than the plenary, and through the WCC's central committee. John Gibaut also predicted "many outcomes that are both uncontrollable and unpredictable", just as the publication of BEM in the 1980s came to influence new and revised worship manuals, amended church constitutions and the writings of individual theologians in ways that the Faith and Order Commission had never planned.
The commission's moderator, Metropolitan Vasilios of Constantia-Ammochostos in Cyprus, told the commissioners that the theme, Called to Be the One Church, "touches on the work of Faith and Order in its entirety, from its earliest beginnings as a movement for church unity and later as a WCC commission. This plenary is called upon to define the will of the churches on the issue of unity and to redefine the nature of the unity we seek. In other words, we are called upon to open new horizons, trace new perspectives and specify our new visions in this call for unity, in order to emerge from the stalemates and crises of the ecumenical movement".
In a careful analysis of different understandings of "unity" among theologians and the churches themselves, the moderator demonstrated that there remains much work to be done by the commission. Asserting that the plenary "will define the future and help the further course of Faith and Order", Metropolitan Vasilios suggested that the body could forward a recommendation to the WCC that the Plenary Commission be given the degree of visibility and standing within the World Council that it held in former years. After all, he added, "all the Plenary Commission's member churches display lively interest in the work of Faith and Order".
(*) Theodore Gillis senior editor of WCC Publications in Geneva and a minister ordained by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)