“This is a digital library of more than one century of ecumenical theology,” explained Rev. Dr Odair Pedroso Mateus, WCC interim deputy general secretary and director of the WCC Commission on Faith and Order. “By ‘ecumenical theology,’ I mean theology focused on overcoming divisions among Christian churches.”
In fact, Pedroso Mateus added, it’s a library of ecumenical theology “in the making” because it documents not only the theological results of studies and conferences, but also the processes whereby studies of conferences were conceived, implemented and concluded.
“I wrote recently that ‘throughout the 20th century, no other movement or institution embodied with comparable longevity and persistence the service of theology to the search for Christian unity as the 1910 movement on Faith and Order and its successor after 1948, the World Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Order,’ ” he said. “The statement lacks some modesty but it’s not inaccurate.”
As Pedroso Mateus—working with WCC communications director Marianne Ejdersten, and consultant and former WCC staff J. Michael West—moved to digitise the Faith and Order library, they began to think about ways of facilitating access to its content.
"Access is free of charge, including downloading,” explained Pedroso Mateus. “The library’s opening page, on the WCC website, includes abstracts of almost all documents.”
Those abstracts, written by young and aged theologians from all continents and main Christian traditions, give the reader an idea of the content of the document in order to facilitate research.
As West explains: “The publications themselves, broken into two series (before and after the inauguration of the WCC in 1948), capture the insights and convictions of several generations of ecumenists and theologians on a full range of theological and practical issues: ecclesiology, Christology, liturgy, social ethics, the work of the Spirit, biblical authority and hermeneutics, and of course baptism, eucharist, and ministry.”
Some 60 experts contributed abstracts to the project. Pedroso Mateus likes to go through their names, which are followed by the name of a university and a city somewhere out there. “It gives you a sense of something that transcends borders, that builds bridges rather than walls,” he said. “Ecumenical theology is theology in the service of peace.”
Content aggregator Internet Archive, WCC’s partner in the project, strengthened the presentation and searchability of the collection. “Integrating the abstracts and key words into the collection really enhances its searchability and usefulness for theological and historical research,” said West.
West added that editing and composing abstracts for this project showed him the radicality of the ecumenical movement at its origin a hundred years ago. “Participants were strongly urging Christians and Christian churches to set aside their beefs and some of their most cherished distinctive theological stances and practices for the sake of presenting a common, authentic witness to and for the world,” said West.
Protecting our memory
Yet it’s just this kind of theology—the kind focused on overcoming divisions among churches and cultures—that runs the risk of being forgotten in the coming years and decades. “Why?” asked Pedroso Mateus. “Because the important transformations that Christianity is undergoing in our days throughout the world do not go in the sense of producing greater visible unity among churches.”
In such a global church landscape, he is grateful that the memory of one century of ecumenical theology will be protected in the hope that it will become once again an urgent requirement of Christian witness. “This was my major concern when we embarked in the digitisation of the Faith and Order Papers,” he said. “I am glad that the theological memory of Faith and Order is protected for the moment.”
A 36,000-Euro grant from Otto Per Mille foundation helped to realize the wider project of digitalization. The web-based digital collection will be used by theologians, researchers, students, church leaders and others in the worldwide fellowship.
“Accessibility can be increased through initiatives like Faith and Order Papers Digital Edition,” said Ejdersten.
She concluded: “The access to electronic means of communication is very important, and plays an enormous role in development in the future. This is the first part of a larger investment in digital presence of the WCC material. We are very grateful to the editorial team and the project team, the leadership, Internet Archive and the Otto Per Mille foundation for their contributions to establish the first collection online.“
With newly organized library and archives, WCC’s legacy is more accessible than ever (WCC feature of 5 May 2021)