In 2018 we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches. In order to create a lively firsthand account of the ecumenical fellowship and of our shared journey, member churches have contributed stories of people, events, achievements and even failures, all of which have deepened our collective search for Christian unity.
This story was written by Dame Mary Tanner, a lay theologian from the Church of England who served as WCC president for Europe.
Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the World Council of Churches.
The Church of England has been hugely influenced by the programmes of the World Council of Churches (WCC) from the First Assembly in 1948 and indeed before that from the founding meetings of Faith and Order, Life and Work, and Mission. Members of the Church of England have been involved in many areas of the council’s work. Our delegations to assemblies have come back inspired by having been part of a global Christian family with a diversity of traditions, and determined to work harder for the visible unity of the church, for God’s sake and the world’s sake.
It is hard to single out one programme or one assembly that has influenced most the life of the Church of England. Clearly the most important ecumenical convergence document of the last century, “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” (BEM), provided us with building blocks to form new relationships with German and French churches, Moravians, and Nordic and Baltic Lutheran churches, as well as establishing a charter for local ecumenical partnerships in England. It was the inspiration of the work of the council that ever more firmly set the unity of the church in the context of the unity of God’s Kingdom and the unity of God’s world, constantly challenging us to look outwards.
There is so much one might say about the WCC’s central commitment to the visible unity of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and the way it has provided for many not just dry words about unity on a page but offered the experience here and now of what that promise is. For me it was the challenge of the Community Study that dramatically enlarged my own understanding of the unity which is God’s gift and our calling.
The 1950s and 1960s experienced the rise of liberation movements, among them the secular feminist movement with its characteristically sharp language, pressure tactics and political concerns. Some saw this influence invading the ecumenical movement as a shift from the church’s Christian agenda to the world’s agenda and were highly critical of the WCC. Others believed that such a distinction was not theologically or ecclesiologically sustainable. They identified this ‘women spirit rising’ as the work of the Holy Spirit in the world ahead of the church.
What was bubbling up in the late 1960s was focussed in a conference in West Berlin in 1974, Sexism in the 1970s. Women from all over the world gathered to articulate together what it meant for their countries, their families and themselves that they were engaged in a struggle for liberation that brought them together in spite of their ecclesial, cultural and continental differences. They expressed their commitment to end all those things which denied women’s humanity, in church and world, and contradicted the creative purposes of God. The women left Berlin calling on the World Council of Churches to set up a project focused on women’s experience, staffed by women and culminating in an international conference for women. The plan was significantly changed when theologians in the Faith and Order Commission, the theological arm of the council, called for a theological and ecclesiological study to envision the church as a community of women and men living in its own internal life the values of God’s kingdom, a community that would be a sign to the world of what God intends for the whole of humanity. Its executive secretary was an inspirational American woman theologian, Rev. Dr Connie Parvey, indomitable and entirely committed to bringing the voice of women and women’s experience into the ecumenical community.
The Community of Women and Men Study began an ecumenical, global reflection by women – and some men – grounded in their experience in church and society. What was heard over and over again was women’s common experience of being shut out of the charmed circle, their experience of oppression and powerlessness, both in the world and shockingly in the church. The liturgical, ministerial and structural life in the churches was all too often experienced as excluding women and dismissive of women’s perspectives. Women knew that this contradicted the biblical teachings that men and women were equally created in the image of God, and equally redeemed in Christ. We clung to two biblical texts: Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28.
From listening to the experience of women from around the world describe their sense of being oppressed, the study began to ask sharply: what would the church look like if it mirrored in its own life the wholeness that is the promise of God’s Kingdom? The study was a profoundly ecclesiological one calling for a radical renewal in the life of all churches. It called for a revision of the language, symbols and imagery the church uses to talk of God and the people of God, an inclusive language in which women would hear they were fully part of the community of the church. Women began to re-claim the unheard feminine voices in the Bible and the tradition. They called for more inclusive patterns of lay and ordained ministry; a fairer representation of women in the synods and decision-making bodies of the church; a more Christ-like exercise of power and authority; a more active engagement in addressing concerns of economic injustice, especially those things that trap women in a web of sexism, racism and classism; and a more inclusive pattern of mission and evangelism. At the centre of the challenges was the plea that ’Your God is too small’: God is neither male nor female, neither masculine nor feminine. God embraces and transcends all that we know as male and female, masculine and feminine.
The years of reflection on experience and envisioning the church as a community of women and men offered a chance to change. Changes did happen: women’s voices began to be heard speaking with greater confidence in interpreting the Bible and tradition. There were shifts towards more inclusive language in the worship of many churches. Some moved to include more women in officially accredited lay ministry, others began to ordain women the priesthood and the episcopate, while others articulated the arguments for staying with the church’s tradition of an all-male priesthood. More women were appointed to synods and to international ecumenical conversations and to committees of the World Council of Churches. The Community Study contributed to the re-imagining of the sort of church God calls us to be. It recognised that the coming together of divided churches to full visible unity required a deep renewal of the life of the community of women and men in the church.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, spoke at the opening of the international consultation in Sheffield, England in 1983 that was the culmination of the Community Study. He never forgot the affect that conference had on him and in preparation for the 1988 Lambeth Conference insisted that women should offer to the then all-male gathering of bishops their reflections on the themes of the conference. Here was a prophetic world-wide programme of the WCC influencing and initiating reform in the churches of the Anglican Communion and which, even if many cannot identify it today, was to influence the direction of internal debates on the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate.
The Church of England has much to thank the WCC for over 70 years, not least of all in the challenges of the Community Study. So much was opened up for us, and the study helped to renew our life into a more inclusive community, even if more still needs to be done.
If you would like to tell your own story, please be in touch!