by Günther Gassmann, former director, Faith and Order Secretariat

This paper was prepared for a Faith and Order consultation with Younger Theologians held at Turku, Finland, 3 - 11 August 1995.


The question which is our theme should be answered by combining a number of elements related to the history, purpose, methodology and content of the Faith and Order Movement and its organizational expression, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. 1 I propose to present these various elements by way of a series of theses and their short explications. It is quite obvious that all these theses are closely interrelated and only for the purpose of clarification and clarity, the focus is directed each time on one of them. Though I am trying to be as objective as possible, the selection and formulation of the theses reflect my own personal experiences and convictions.

1. Faith and Order represents a significant and permanent element of the ecumenical awakening of this century.

When the dreams and hopes of ecumenical pioneers in the late 19th century received more structured and continuing expression at the beginning of the 20th century. the emerging Faith and Order Movement was part of this new reality. Inspired by the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910 three major streams of ecumenical reflection and action emerged, and Faith and Order was one of them. The logical structural continuation of the Edinburgh World Conference was the International Missionary Council seeking to promote cooperation and common witness in announcing the Gospel to all people. The movement on Life and Work was the result and the instrument of the new awareness that the churches are called to respond in common to the social and political challenges of a new era in world history. At the origin of the movement on Faith and Order was the realization that the goal of common Christian witness and of practical cooperation implies the overcoming of the barriers which prevent the implementation of these common tasks. In addition, this movement grew out of the deeper recognition that the painful historical reality of Christian division represented a counter-witness to the will and prayer of Jesus Christ "that they all may be one" (John 17:21). Therefore, a determined theological effort was called for in order to move from division to the manifestation of the unity willed by and given in Jesus Christ.

In 1910 the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA decided to appoint a commission for the preparation of a World Conference for "the consideration of questions touching Faith and Order". 2 From now on the theological struggle to overcome past history and prepare the way towards unity in faith, life and witness became a significant and permanent element of the ecumenical movement.

2. Faith and Order manifests the conviction that without determined theological dialogue centuries of division cannot be overcome nor the deeper foundations of Christian unity be laid.

Among the three streams of the ecumenical movement after 1910 Faith and Order was and remains the decidedly theological movement. This has been a burden because of the attitude of suspicion or reluctance over against theological work in many Christian circles or because of a one-sided emphasis on commitment and relevant action in certain ecumenical circles. In a way, these critical attitudes have been beneficial for Faith and Order. They have helped to develop an understanding of its theological task which is clearly related to history and is conceived as a service to the churches. But Faith and Order remains also convinced that to deal adequately with the deeply rooted and far-reaching divisions within Christianity requires an intensive theological and intellectual effort as does the reflection on and clarification of the steps towards Christian unity.

This theological service to the churches and the whole ecumenical movement is not implemented in isolation from other ecumenical endeavours nor does it claim to occupy a superior place within ecumenism. Without this service, however, the ecumenical movement would soon lack one of its fundamental inspirations and instruments for changing the course of church history.

3. Faith and Order has always been broader, more comprehensive than its organizational forms of expression.

Faith and Order was and is a movement of and in the churches. All theological efforts on all levels within churches and between churches towards closer and, finally, full communion are, in a way, Faith and Order efforts. The necessary, but modest organizational arrangements between 1910 and 1948 were to provide continuity and working facilities for the movement. The Faith and Order Commission in the World Council of Churches since 1948 constitutes the framework for the necessary continuity of theological work and long-term projects; it is a working instrument for the Faith and Order programme; it serves relationships within the WCC, with other ecumenical bodies and with the churches; it is, to a certain degree, a point of reference, inspiration and orientation for all efforts towards closer and full Christian communion.

The Faith and Order Commission transcends the organizational structure of the WCC by including non-member churches and enjoying a degree of necessary independence. In a similar way the Faith and Order movement extends far beyond the structure and work of the Commission. Conversations and negotiations between churches or ecumenical dialogue on local, regional or national levels, to mention only two examples, are part of the wider movement. And yet the movement and the Commission need each other for mutual inspiration and encouragement, for serving the same divine mandate in complementary ways.

4. In its basic methodology Faith and Order has moved from comparison to dialogue.

In its foundational mandate the Faith and Order Movement aimed at a clear statement and analysis of the existing differences and agreements between the Churches. The presentation and comparison of the position of the churches, was accordingly the prevailing methodology at the First and Second Faith and Order World Conferences 1927 at Lausanne and 1937 at Edinburgh. 3 On this basis the existing agreements and differences were noted and summarized in reports. But there was also an attempt to search for possible similarities or affinities behind differences and to evaluate the weight of the differences (which led not always to the same conclusions, e.g. on the issue of ministry).

In the new ecumenical and theological context after the Second World War and the foundation of the WCC, Faith and Order moved from the method of comparison to the method of dialogue. The Third World Conference 1952 in Lund signalled and practised this change. 4 Theological reflection and exchange was now mainly based on the common basis of Holy Scripture, to be soon broadened by including Scripture and Tradition, and was carried out in a common christological framework which was in recent years broadened to a Trinitarian framework and orientation. Elements of comparison, however, remain because the dialogue is conducted between people who represent different Christian traditions and are shaped by them. But the nature of the ecumenical dialogue in Faith and Order consists now in re-discovering and clarifying jointly the rich content of the one Tradition and to present it to the churches for the renewal of their life on the way towards their visible unity.

5. The communion Faith and Order helps to bring about is for the glory and the service of God.

Faith and Order is an integral part of the one ecumenical movement with its multiplicity of efforts, levels and organizational expressions. It is not so obvious, however, that Faith and Order has an "immanent" as well as "instrumental" mandate. From early statements in the Faith and Order Movement on it was clear that the unity of the Church was not sought as an end in itself. Rather, this unity was for the fellowship of all Christians in common mission and service and to be celebrated together in one Holy Communion. But this legitimate and important instrumental concept of the work of Faith and Order has increasingly been balanced or complemented by the more immanent or internal emphasis on achieving communion among Christians for the sake of their life and sharing together and for the sake of the common praise and glorification of the Triune God.

This Christian communion of participating in the divine Trinitarian koinonia and being thus built up as a communion of praise, confession and sharing is, at the same time, seen as being sent into the world as an instrument of God's saving and transforming purpose for all humanity and creation. Thus, both orientations of the growing communion of the churches served by Faith and Order are not only held together, but interrelated. The praise of the creator implies the care for creation. The praise of the Redeemer implies the care for justice and peace. The praise of the Sanctifier implies care for the life and dignity of all people.

6. Faith and Order seeks to describe the "unity we seek" in order to provide orientation and guidance for the ecumenical movement.

Already early in the Faith and Order Movement the question about the goal of this movement was raised. How should the - generally undisputed - goal of the unity of the Church be described, what are its presuppositions and forms and structures of expression. Throughout its history Faith and Order has endeavoured to clarify the raison d'ˆtre of its own existence: the concepts and models of church unity as the guiding horizon of its own work.

Important stages or signposts in this work were the first clarification and description of several concepts of Christian unity in the report of the 1937 Edinburgh World Conference. 5 In 1961 Faith and Order prepared for the WCC the historic statement on the unity of the Church which was accepted by the New Delhi Assembly of the WCC. 6 With its emphasis on the unity of all baptized in each and all places in one fully committed fellowship of faith, proclamation, sacraments, prayer, mutual acceptance of members and ministries and of witness and service, the statement proposed a widely accepted basis for all future work. The New Delhi concept was further developed by the perspective of a "conciliar fellowship of local churches which are themselves truly united" which should find its expression in conciliar gatherings on different levels. This concept was presented in the report of a Faith and Order consultation at Salamanca in 1973 and was then taken over into the report of the 1975 Nairobi Assembly of the WCC. 7

The basic elements of the New Delhi and Nairobi statements have been re-stated in the statement of the 1991 Canberra Assembly of the WCC on "The Unity of the Church as Koinonia: Gift and Calling". 8 But this statement introduces the concept of "communion/ koinonia" as the governing perspective because of its richer and more comprehensive and integrative meaning compared to "unity". The goal of the full communion of the churches will have been realized "when all the churches are able to recognize in one another the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in its fullness". Over against earlier preference for the model of organic unity or union, usually implying a uniting/merger of churches, the Canberra statement and other recent descriptions of the "unity we week" leave the structural form of full communion open and allow for a diversity of implementations.

The reflection on and clarification of the goal of Christian unity will continue in response to new developments, and it will remain a major service of Faith and Order to the whole ecumenical movement.

7. Faith and Order has, first of all, concentrated its theological work on those issues which have played an important role in the divisions between the churches.

In accordance with its original mandate to identify the major church-dividing issues and to seek to overcome them, Faith and Order has concentrated its theological work during the 80 years of its history so far on the issues of baptism, eucharist, ministry and the Church. The agreements and convergences reached in view of the first three issues have been formulated in the 1982 "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" document, 9 the most widely distributed, discussed and responded to text in the history of the ecumenical movement. This text has become a widely used ecumenical text of reference in many contexts. A similar text should summarize the bilateral and multilateral agreements and convergences concerning the nature, mission and unity of the Church, which is now high on the Faith and Order agenda. 10 The remarkable results of the work on these issues constitute a historic reversal of centuries of controversy and mutual isolation and exclusion.

8. Faith and Order has, also from the beginning, focused its work, in addition, on issues of basic criteria and method.

Divisions and differences between the churches are also caused and marked by the choice of the basic criteria for defining the faith of the Church and by the ways in which this faith has been expressed and the unity of the Church conceived. Accordingly, Faith and Order has dealt with the role, place,nature and forms of confessing the one faith and has sought to overcome wrong alternatives like the ones between historic confession and new confessions, formulated fixed confessions and free forms of confessing, etc.

Another area of study has been the fundamental issue of Scripture, Tradition and traditions and their interrelation. Here, the clarification reached at the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order at Montreal in 1963 11 represented a breakthrough. The opposition between Scripture and Tradition was overcome by a broader concept of Tradition which includes Scripture as basic criterion and understands Tradition as the process, guided by the Holy Spirit, of transmitting and re-interpreting God's revelation in Jesus Christ, the kerygma, by the Church throughout history (or: "the Tradition of the Gospel testified in Scripture, transmitted in and by the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit", Montreal 1963).

Closely connected with the issue of Scripture and Tradition was the work on biblical interpretation 12 which has helped to become aware of the various hermeneutical keys which are used by different Christian traditions when they interpret Holy Scripture and thereby decide which biblical texts or perspectives are fundamental for Christian faith and life. This question of interpretation relates to the issue of hermeneutics 13 which has again come to the fore in Faith and Order and has received additional urgency by an ecumenical controversy and uncertainty concerning the relationship between the universality of the Christian faith and the particularity of its contextual interpretations and expressions. The question to be further clarified is: what are the hermeneutical criteria and means which enable meaningful mutual communication and understanding so that a dialogue becomes possible. And how can a deductive methodology, which focuses on the universal doctrines of the Christian faith, be constructively related to a contextual methodology which stresses the particular incarnation of the faith.

9. More recently Faith and Order has given increased attention also to issues of common concern and to themes which further and express the already existing communion between the churches.

In recent decades Faith and Order has included on its agenda also such themes and issues which have not been directly a cause of division but are of importance for ecumenical advance. One of these issues is the relationship between the ecumenical theological efforts directed towards the visible unity of the Church and the ecumenical concern for common witness and service in a broken world. These two fundamental ecumenical concerns, the first one represented by Faith and Order, have often existed in isolation from or in tension with each other. The study on "The Unity of the Church and the Renewal of Human Community" 14 was Faith and Order's response to this ecumenical "schism", exhibiting the inner connection between the nature, unity and mission of the Church within an ecclesiology of communion. One specific and interpretative aspect of this study was the ecclesiological and practical re-consideration of the community of women and men in the Church, a follow-up of the pioneering "community study" between 1977 and 1981. 15

Faith and Order has also paid much attention to issues which are basic for any advance towards communion and for expressing this communion in so far as it is already an existing reality. The most prominent and fundamental study in this respect is the one on the common confession of the apostolic faith. This project is marked by three insights: (1) The common confession of the faith, in whatever form, is fundamental for any Christian community. (2) The common confession of the one, apostolic faith is essential for the manifestation of Christian koinonia between different churches. (3) The common confession of the faith, especially in the form of the ecumenical creeds, is already a real possibility because there exists a wide agreement among the churches concerning the fundamental convictions of the Christian faith. The study "Towards the Common Expression of the Apostolic Faith Today" explicates these three points, especially the third one and wants to help the churches to recognize in each other's faith and life the reality of the common apostolic faith and to confess this faith together. 16

Basic for all ecumenical endeavour is also the reliance upon prayer and worship as the deepest sources of the Holy Spirit's guidance and sustenance in times of ecumenical excitement as well as difficulties and frustration. This has been a firm conviction in Faith and Order from the beginning. It has led to the joint preparation with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity of the material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the participation in the elaboration of the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle ("For All God's People", 1978, and "With All God's People", 1989). The role and place of worship in ecumenical dialogue has been a theme at several larger Faith and Order meetings and most recently was taken up again in a consultation in 1994.

Faith and Order's involvement with united and uniting churches and church union negotiations by organizing from time to time consultations of these churches - so far six 18 - and by putting out every two years since 1954 the Survey on Church Union Negotiations, is a further area of supporting already existing forms of communion.

10. Bilateral and multilateral dialogue are complementary to each other.

With its entry into the ecumenical movement as part of the advance of the Second Vatican Council the Roman Catholic Church chose the international bilateral dialogues with Christian World Communions as the most appropriate ecumenical method in line with its own self-understanding as a world-wide communion. As a result a growing number of bilateral dialogues, also among non-Roman Catholic communions emerged since the late sixties. These international bilateral dialogues (so far over 30) have become a significant ecumenical activity which involves by far more people, groups and themes than the multilateral dialogue conducted by Faith and Order. In order to avoid competition or even isolation between these two forms of ecumenical dialogue, efforts were undertaken during the 70's to facilitate a proper interrelation between them. These efforts were based on the recognition of the legitimacy and importance of both bilateral and multilateral dialogues and their specific purposes and advantages.

Thus, bilateral dialogues are able to focus in a more specific way on the particular issues that have divided two communions, and these dialogues may propose concrete steps towards closer communion between the churches involved. Multilateral dialogues involve the broader spectrum of Christian tradition and they aim at a more comprehensive advance towards ecumenical convergence and agreement. The results of multilateral dialogues are thus able to provide a general ecumenical frame of reference to which bilateral dialogues, but also direct conversations and negotiations between churches may relate. Finally, both forms of dialogues have supported and enriched each other by the mutual reception and integration of some of their results.

These considerations and realities led to the conclusion that multilateral and bilateral dialogues stand in a complementary relationship. The task of Faith and Order in this context is to carry out organisational responsibility for the - so far six - meetings of the "Forum on Bilateral Conversations", 19 to send, where this is possible, observers to dialogue commissions and to follow as carefully as possible the developments and achievements of the bilateral dialogues.

11. Faith and Order as a significant factor of 20th century church history.

If the history of the churches in the 20th century is indeed marked to an extraordinary degree by the ecumenical movement and its implications, then Faith and Order in the sense as described in section 3 above represents a significant factor in 20th century church history. It is, of course, not possible to measure in an "objective" or factual way the influence and impact of Faith and Order. But there are approximative ways in which this influence and impact can be estimated.

(a) It is obvious that the theological work of Faith and Order has helped to prepare the ground, steps and decisions that have enabled churches to enter into changed structural relationships with each other. This applies to church unions, uniting churches, church union negotiations, agreements on full communion or on eucharistic sharing and present negotiations aiming at full communion.

(b) But even where such structural changes have not yet been realized, the theological agreements and convergences achieved by Faith and Order have significantly contributed to better mutual understanding and many forms and attitudes of communion between churches. Changed relationships exist now between many churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, and this represents a far-reaching reality in the flow of 20th century church history.

(c) The theological dialogue in Faith and Order has been able to facilitate mutual enrichment of the thinking and life of the churches. Theological insights and spiritual experiences of the broader Christian Tradition have been re-discovered and re-appropriated in Faith and Order dialogues and have been communicated to the participating churches. Where these insights and experiences have been taken up and shared between churches the theological and confessional positions and the life of churches have been opened up, enriched, renewed and thereby brought closer to each other.

In these and other ways Faith and Order has helped to change the course of church history by enabling the churches to move from separation and isolation towards communion.

12. Faith and Order has a permanent mission in the ecumenical movement. Despite the remarkable ecumenical advances just mentioned, the goal of full communion among all churches and a conciliar life, witness and service among them has not yet been achieved (and will be fully achieved only in the end time). However, this goal of full communionwill have to remain at the centre of the ecumenical movement despite all the shifting priorities and tasks. Accordingly, Faith and Order has precisely the continuing mission within the wider ecumenical movement to be a reminder of and pointer to God's gift of Christian unity in Jesus Christ and the churches' calling to manifest this gift under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a communion of faith, life, witness and service.

This mission of Faith and Order includes the commitment, sometimes an unfashionable one, to pursue its task with intellectual integrity, theological competence and seriousness in searching for the truth. The permanence and mandate of this mission, its relative freedom and its commitment to the churches is guarded and stated by the Constitution of the Faith and Order Commission. Without its institutional framework of Commission, Constitution and Geneva Secretariat the concerns of Faith and Order would continue to be pursued in bilateral dialogues and in other forms. But the present centre and the instruments for this work would be no longer there, nor the impulses, exchanges and orientations that come from this centre. Faith and Order, therefore, needs the constitutional and institutional provisions, like any movement. With their help and despite all its weaknesses and imperfections Faith and Order has become a valuable and precious instrument of the ecumenical movement and of the churches. Its ministry will continue to be necessary and its work will, God willing, continue to bear fruit.


1. Descriptions of the history, mandate and work of Faith and Order can be found in several theological and ecumenical dictionaries, books on the history and purpose of the ecumenical movement and the Histories of the Ecumenical Movement, ed. by Ruth Rouse and Stephen Charles Neill, vol. 1, 1517-1948, and ed. by Harold E. Fey, vol. 2, 1948-1968. Major Faith and Order documents have been published in Lukas Vischer, ed., A Documentary History of the Faith and Order Movement 1927-1963, St Louis: Bethany Press, 1963 and in Gnther Gassmann, ed., Documentary History of Faith and Order 1963-1993, Geneva: WCC Publications, 1993. (Lit.) Closely connected with this last book are the two overview articles by Paul A. Crow, "The Legacy of Four World Conference on Faith and Order", and Gnther Gassmann, "From Montreal 1963 to Santiago de Compostela 1993", in Lausanne 1927 to Santiago de Compostela 1993, Faith and Order Paper No. 160, Geneva, WCC, 1993.

2. Vischer, op.cit., p. 199.

3. The reports are printed in Vischer, op. cit., and are published as books edited by H.N. Bates, 1927, and Leonard Hodgson, 1937.

4. Oliver S. Tomkins, ed., The Third World Conference on Faith and Order, Lund 1952, London: SCM, 1953, pp. 15-16, and in Vischer, op.cit., esp. pp. 85-86.

5. Cf. Vischer, op.cit., pp. 61-67.

6. Cf. ibid., pp. 144-145.

7. Cf. Gassmann, op.cit., pp. 1-3.

8. Cf. ibid., pp. 2-5.

9. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Geneva: WCC, 1982, and Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry 1982-1990: Report on the Process and Responses, Geneva: WCC, 1990.

10. Cf. "Conspectus of Faith and Order Studies 1994-1998" in Minutes, Standing Commission 1994, Geneva: WCC, 1994, pp. 95-96.

11. P.C. Rodger and L. Vischer, eds., The Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order, Montreal 1963, London: SCM, 1964, section II.

12. Ellen Flesseman-van Leer, The Bible: Its Authority and Interpretation in the Ecumenical Movement, Geneva: WCC, 1980.

13. Cf. ibid., and the "Conspectus" Referred to in no. 10.

14. Church and World: The Unity of the Church and the Renewal of Human Community, Geneva: WCC, 1990.

15. Constance F. Parvey, ed., The Community of Women and Men in the Church, The Sheffield Report, Geneva: WCC, 1983.

16. Confessing the One Faith, Geneva: WCC, 1991.

17. Cf. the overview in Gassmann, op.cit., pp. 205-206.

18. For reports cf. ibid., pp. 323-324.

19. For reports cf. ibid., p. 324.