by Mary Tanner, moderator, Faith and Order Commission

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


1. What is Faith and Order? When I put pen to paper to answer that simple question my mind went back to 1974 and my first encounter with Faith and Order. I was just, only just, in the category we now call `younger theologians'. My mentor, Professor G.W.H. Lampe, was unwell. With his characteristic commitment to drawing younger theologians particularly women theologians into the Faith and Order tradition he invited me to act as his proxy at the Plenary Commission of Faith and Order. I travelled to the Accra meeting with luggage weighted down with a Hebrew Bible and Brown Driver and Briggs, a Greek Testament and Liddell and Scott. My picture of Faith and Order was of revered professors mostly old men sitting together engaged in erudite, abstruse theological debate on controversial areas of faith and church order. I was totally unprepared for the encounter with men, and some women, from different ecclesial traditions, different cultural contexts with some strong liberation movement voices among them. There we struggled, out of different contexts, to give some account of Christian hope our common hope. There was work too on baptism, eucharist and ministry in the preparation of the Accra Text, the forerunner to the Lima Text.

2. What remains in my mind above all from that meeting are the people I met and the friendships forged across some of the most unlikely divides of Christian affiliation: friendships based in a shared concern for the Church and its unity; friendships developed in praying together, eating together and working around a table; friendships formed through moments of disagreement and moments of suddenly seeing things the same way. However I go on to answer the question, What is Faith and Order?, the personal and relational dimension remains primary. Faith and Order for me is a personal encounter of those engaged in a common task around the call to unity.

3. With that uppermost in my mind I want to answer the question What is Faith and Order? by concentrating on five areas:

  • Faith and Order as a movement
  • Faith and Order as a Commission
  • Faith and Order as an agenda
  • Faith and Order as a method
  • Faith and Order as a future commitment.

I. Faith and Order as a movement

4. The story of the beginnings of the ecumenical movement in this century are well rehearsed. It was the meetings of the Missionary Societies in 1888, 1900 and decisively the Edinburgh Conference in 1910 that gave birth to the modern ecumenical movement. Those who gathered in Edinburgh knew from firsthand experience that the scandalous divisions of the churches were a grave hindrance to the Church's mission: the credibility of the Church's mission of reconciliation and healing was contradicted by Christian disunity. It was more than anyone else an Anglican, Bishop Charles Brent of the Episcopal Church of the USA, who recognised that the unity of the Church would only be brought about if there was firm agreement in faith. He determined to bring together bishops, Church leaders and theologians to begin the task of studying the division of the churches.

5. It took from 1910 to 1927 to set up the first World Conference on Faith and Order held in Lausanne, Switzerland. In those years 70 commissions in 40 countries worked to prepare the meeting. Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox were in the thick of it together. Although the Pope expressed his personal friendliness towards the venture and gave it his blessing, the Roman Catholic Church declined to be a part of it. During the preparatory period the purpose of the meeting was defined as `comparative ecclesiology' with no attempt to commit any participating church and no direct promotion of unity schemes: such powers were clearly recognised as belonging to the churches themselves. As Paul Crow comments `the cautious nature of this approach was to build trust and confidence among churches in the years to come'.

6. It was this first meeting of the expanding Faith and Order Movement in Lausanne 1927 with its high expectations, together with the belief that the goal of visible unity really was attainable, that outlined an agenda that has remained at the heart of faith and order work ever since: the call for unity; the nature of the Church; the common confession of the faith; the ministry and sacraments. This agenda has been focused since Lausanne in a series of World Conferences on Faith and Order: Edinburgh 1937; Lund 1952; Montreal 1963 and Santiago de Compostela, 1993.

7. It is moving to picture that first meeting of the Faith and Order Movement gathered in a Europe ravaged by the first world war and without the easy travel or communications that we take for granted in our ecumenical journeyings today. The note of expectancy and optimism shines through. The movement brought to birth there has become an accepted part of the life of the churches ever since contributing to what Anna Marie Aagard at Santiago de Compostela called the coming out of our isolationisms as, through theological conversation and research, churches have come to respect each other, to know one another and to understand at a deeper level their traditions. The search for agreement on matters of faith and church order begun in Lausanne has continued ever since within individual churches struggling with internal disunity, in discussions between churches in exploration of faith and order issues, at local, regional and international levels. The Faith and Order Movement embraces this all round and all level ecumenical dialogue.

8. It was, however, the entry of the Roman Catholic Church, after Vatican II, that had one of the most significant and intensifying effects on the Faith and Order Movement. It led to the proliferation of bilateral dialogues on faith and order issues. The Roman Catholics began to talk to the Methodists, the Orthodox, the Anglicans, the Disciples of Christ, the Lutherans, the Reformed: the Anglicans set up dialogues with the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the Reformed, the Oriental Orthodox. Every church it seemed in the 70s and 80s was talking to every other church in a complex and incestuous network of theological dialogue. The results of these dialogues have been periodically reviewed in a series of bilateral forums organised by the Christian World Communions in conjunction with the Faith and Order Commission.

9. The work of the Faith and Order Movement, the search for agreement in faith agreement which is `sufficient and required' to bring churches together and hold them together is one essential part of the movement to Christian unity. As the Pope has recently reminded us in Ut Unum Sint, serious matters of difference must be resolved, for if not, they will reappear at another time, either in the same terms or in another guise to haunt us.

10. But the Faith and Order Movement is only one movement within a much more complex and varied ecumenical movement. The search for agreement in faith takes its place, alongside other ecumenical activities: shared service; shared mission; shared living; and most important of all shared prayer for unity. The wider ecumenical movement cannot be fully and authentically itself without the Faith and Order Movement while faith and order has no raison d'ˆtre apart from the wider ecumenical movement. Within interdependence and complementarity it has its unique role.

11. The origins of the Faith and Order Movement are inextricably bound up with the Missionary Movement. In 1925, two years prior to Lausanne another ecumenical group had gathered to consider problems of war and peace, race, education, capital and labour, and the social order. Another Movement within the ecumenical movement was borne the Life and Work Movement.

12. In 1948 three movements eventually came together within the World Council of Churches. Its agreed Basis stated that:

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It is worth reminding ourselves of two of the functions and purposes of the World Council. The first of its functions was acknowledged to be:

to call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe;

its seventh and final function is:

to carry on the work of the world movements for Faith and Order and Life and Work and the International Missionary Council and the World Council on Christian Education.

13. It is worth reminding ourselves that the bringing together of the different movements within a single World Council had from the very beginning its critics. Bishop Charles Headlam of my own Church, for example, warned of an inevitable tension between the interests and agendas of Faith and Order and Life and Work, and the danger of too political involvement of the Council foreshadowed in the capitalist-communist confrontation at the first Assembly in Amsterdam. Moreover, the setting up of a Council for him seemed to point dangerously in the direction of a goal of Church unity which was a federal model and not of a truly united catholic Church. The history of the World Council of Churches since 1947 has shown, at its best, that the bringing together of the different movements illustrates an awareness of the complementarity of the contributions of the different agendas, each enriches the other. But there has also been, and continues to be, competition and a failure to let the agendas illuminate one another. Subsequent restructurings of the Council over the years have sometimes been the occasion for unnecessary antagonisms of the movements that make up the one Council. But as Archbishop Aram Keshishian, the Moderator of the Central Committee, told the Santiago Conference, `Faith and Order should continue to remain with its specific agenda, methodology and style, structurally located within the World Council of Churches'.

14. What is Faith and Order? Faith and Order is then a broad movement in and among churches at every level of their lives a movement motivated in origin by a passion for unity and dedicated to exploring and overcoming those areas of deep difference in matters of faith and order that keep churches apart. It is a dynamic and creative movement which has produced for the churches a huge harvest of theological reflection.

II. Faith and Order as a Commission

15. With its formation in 1948 the World Council became a principal context for the faith and order conversations focused in the Commission on Faith and Order. Through a number of structural reforms of the Council, Faith and Order has remained a recognisable presence within the Council. It is currently set within Unit I of a four unit structure.

16. The 120 member Commission is today the most comprehensive forum for faith and order debate that exists. Its membership has, since 1948, steadily become more inclusive. Many more churches are represented within the Commission. The Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II, while not joining the World Council itself, became a full member of the Faith and Order Commission. Other non-member churches include the Southern Baptists and the Missouri Lutheran Synod. Representatives from Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific are present now in more just proportions. What began as an elite, Western, male, largely clerical academic group has become a worldwide community of women and men, lay and ordained, young and not so young. The gradual widening of the community affects the formation of the agenda and the approach to the work, resulting in texts which at best reflect the concerns of the wide group. The Commission struggles, not always successfully, to create a context where all voices can be heard and the diverse experiences brought to enrich the understanding of the faith and order agenda.

17. The aim of the Commission is set out in its By-Laws. It is:

to proclaim the oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ and to call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, in order that the world may believe.

18. The seven functions spell out how that aim is to be fulfilled. It is worth underlining, that, in addition to the study of questions of faith and order the functions include: the intention of keeping before the Council its obligations to work towards unity; the promotion of prayer for Christian unity (carried out in part through promoting the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity); the review of steps being taken by churches towards unity (carried out in part through the meetings of United and Uniting Churches); and the providing of opportunities for consultation for those engaged in unity efforts (carried out in part in the hosting of the Bilateral Forum). In implementing these different, but complementary tasks, two principles remain crucial: first, only the churches themselves are competent to initiate steps towards unity and secondly, in its work Faith and Order recognises that no-one is called to be disloyal to their convictions, nor to compromise them. Differences are to be recorded as honestly as disagreements.

19. The location of the Faith and Order Commission within the World Council is crucial for the work of the entire Faith and Order Movement. This location provides opportunity for holding together the different aspects of the one, indivisible ecumenical movement. From the start the Council provided for the interplay of unity and mission. In the 60s and 70s the renewal and liberation movements within the Council had a lasting effect in developing the perception of the unity we seek. More recently the movement on JPIC has brought new challenges to the understanding of unity in the light of God's call for a cosmic unity. Currently, the co-operative work on ecclesiology and ethics is adding another dimension.

20. The focus of the Faith and Order Movement within the World Council provides then for Faith and Order to work in symbiosis with other streams of thought leading to a deeper and richer perception of the unity which is both God's gift and our calling. In the multilateral dialogue progress may seem to be slow. Great patience is needed in the attempt to clarify the diverse positions of the churches living in different cultural contexts, to develop a convergence from the many different starting points, and to keep the greatest number of participants in a state of positive engagement for the furthest advance. But the results to date emanating from the Commission are highly significant. The Commission has produced the most important of all Faith and Order texts Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, a text that is proving to be a major building block in the coming together of churches. We can see this in the Porvoo Agreement between Anglicans and Lutherans in Northern Europe. It is hard to see how Anglicans and Lutherans could have made such an advance in their relationship without the existence of the Lima Text. The multilateral context has helped to keep churches honest, making sure that what they say to one partner is consistent with what they say to another.

III. Faith and Order as an agenda

21. The Faith and Order agenda was in basic outline defined already in Lausanne in 1927: the call to unity, the nature of the Church, the common confession of the faith, ministry and sacraments. Each of the bilateral conversations has contributed significantly to this agenda in its own way, as each dialogue has focused on issues that relate to the particular separation of the partners. So Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue has concentrated on justification and the Church while Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue has concentrated on eucharist, ministry and authority.

22. The agenda of the multilateral conversation within the Faith and Order Commission has contributed towards a number of important statements on the unity of the Church, classical statements made by Assemblies of the World Council. The New Delhi Assembly in 1961 saw unity, God's will and gift, being made visible when all the baptised in each place are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages, united in the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all.

23. Uppsala's contribution lay in its emphasis on the notion of the unity of the Church as conciliar fellowship and on the understanding of the Church as sign. The quality of the life of the Church has its model, more than that its source, in the life of the Triune God and in the self-giving love of the Incarnate Christ.

24. By Nairobi in 1975, the three dimensional vision nourished in the Faith and Order Commission became clear. Christians will know they are fully united when they realise at least three basic marks of conciliar fellowship: consensus in the apostolic faith; mutual recognition of baptism, eucharist, ministry and members; and conciliar gatherings for common deliberation and decision-making.

25. The Report of Section II from the Vancouver Assembly in 1983 again emphasised the three marks of the Church but with a significantly new and fresh emphasis. Each of the marks of the Church was linked inextricably with the renewal of the Church for the sake of the healing of the world's divisions and the realisation of God's design for creation.

26. The Canberra Assembly added its statement The unity of the Church as koinonia: gift and calling, the most succinct and fullest portrait of visible unity yet produced by the World Council. The Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order with its theme `Towards koinonia in faith, life and witness' began to show in a suggestive way how the understanding of the visible unity we seek can be renewed and reinterpreted by the notion of koinonia. The World Conference was clear:

There is no turning back either from the goal of visible unity or from the single ecumenical movement that unites concerns for the unity of the Church and concern for engagement in the struggle of the world.

27. For some these successive statements on visible unity, nurtured within the Faith and Order Commission testify to the success of the faith and order movement. But there are those perhaps a growing number who now are suspicious of an agenda formed around the notion of visible unity. Some doubt whether visible unity should be any longer a priority. At one extreme voices complain that ecumenical structures have become primarily a place to plead a shifting agenda of social, political causes: at the other, voices complain that theological conversation of the sort characteristic of Faith and Order on internal Church issues amount to co-opted support for an aggressive social order. This tension is alive within churches, within the ecumenical movement as a whole and within the Faith and Order Movement itself.

28. Each of the studies of Faith and Order has contributed in its own way to understanding the causes of church divisions and to understanding one or another aspect of the visible unity of the Church. The most successful work on baptism, eucharist and ministry has had, and continues to have, its effect on our understanding of unity in sacraments and ministry as well as upon the developing relationship between churches: it has contributed to the agreements of bilateral dialogues and played a part in drawing churches together both in local ecumenical living and in union schemes. It is perhaps the most obvious example of the contribution that theological dialogue can make towards Church unity. The more recent study on Confessing the One Faith, with its threefold emphasis on ecumenical explication of the faith of the Church focused in the ecumenical symbol of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed; recognition of that faith in one another's lives and the movement towards common confession of the faith, has a part to play that I suspect we have hardly begun to understand. To this can be added the more preliminary work on decision making and conciliarity which has never been brought to the same degree of maturity within the Faith and Order Commission's work.

29. Inter-relating and enriching this traditional agenda have been the renewal studies on racism, the handicapped and the most systematic and effective study on the community of women and men. These have helped us to see that the divisions of the human community black and white, women and men, differently abled penetrate the life of all the churches and effect the way we confess our faith, celebrate the sacraments, express our ministry and exercise authority. The pilgrimage to unity itself entails churches being renewed into unity. This insight has to some degree influenced, though some will say not sufficiently, the Lima Text and Confessing the One Faith. It finds its clearest expression in the Faith and Order study Church and World. In a similar way the struggles for justice, peace and the integrity of creation increasingly have been recognised to contribute to the understanding of the kind of unity that we seek if the Church is to be a prophetic sign and instrument of the Kingdom.

30. This rapid overview of the faith and order agenda, pursued within the Faith and Order Movement and focused within the Faith and Order Commission's agenda, gives something of the flavour of the different studies which contribute to the understanding of that unity which we hold as God's gift and our calling and contribute at the same time to the overcoming of the divisions of the churches. There is perhaps a danger that we add more and more subjects to the one agenda and fail to concentrate on that which is `sufficient and required' to bring churches together and to hold them together. The new study on ecumenical perspectives in ecclesiology begun by the Faith and Order Commission may have an important bearing to play on this question.

IV. Faith and Order as a method

31. It is not easy to separate a discussion of the agenda from the method used in exploring the agenda. Faith and Order began working with what is commonly described as the comparative method, the developing and setting out of clear and mutually acceptable understandings of one another's traditions, views and practices. This method leads at the very least to understanding why different communities hold the views they do and provides for mutual understanding. It has less dynamic in reconciling differences in a common understanding.

32. The Third World Conference in Lund in 1952 accepted the methodological challenge:

Beyond ecclesiological comparisons we must employ a new Christological method which seeks to penetrate behind our divisions. As we come closer to Christ we come closer to one another.

It was Montreal with its work on Scripture, Tradition and traditions, its understanding of the Tradition of the Gospel testified in Scripture and transmitted in the story of the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit that opened the way to a new phase in faith and order work. Montreal was able to bridge the polarisation between the traditions of those who held to sola scriptura on the one hand and those on the other who held together Scripture and Tradition. It opened the way for a more dynamic and continuous view of the Church, its faith and order, lived under the guidance of, and in response to, the power of the Holy Spirit. It made possible the move beyond comparative theology to convergence theology. Theologians found it possible to go back together to Scripture, to the earliest Tradition of the Church and to see their own traditions in the light of that common tradition and from that to move to state afresh their common faith for today. The Lima Text is a witness to the success of the convergence method.

33. Through the 1970s and 1980s the Faith and Order method has expanded to include not only the heavily historical and systematic approaches but the contextual and liberation approaches. The renewal studies, influenced by the liberation movements, required Faith and Order to take seriously the place of experience in the ecumenical theological endeavour, as together Christians struggled to understand the unity they seek and to arrive at a new common understanding of matters of faith and order that separate them.

34. The debate on method continued in the Fifth World Conference in Santiago de Compostela. The Latin American theologians in the preparatory process called for a deconstruction of the classical faith and order method, stressing the need to begin from the experience of Christians together in base communities reading and wrestling with Scripture, and out of that working together in common service. This experience does render profound truths about a life of unity. However, the question remains what is the relation of this experience to that which is discovered by going back together to Scripture and Tradition, in the search for that continuity from the apostolic community until now, and finding in that the `nerve centre' that makes us apostolic?

35. The debate on method is by no means over. Dr Konrad Raiser at Santiago challenged Faith and Order by his claim that we need to discover a new form of dialogue `a constructive dialogue among cultures' ... which `does not dissolve the differences into consensus'. `For this' he said `we need an ecumenical intercultural hermeneutic which will enable us to comprehend unity as a fellowship of those who continue to be different and to offer criteria for this'.

36. It augurs well for our time together in Finland that it was the younger theologians in Santiago who made a most penetrating contribution on method. Their advice to Faith and Order was to enter a new dialogue between comparative, convergence/consensus and contextual theologies. Study, they said, how contextual theology can be ecumenical theology and how one context can speak to another. `Theological reflection within the one ecumenical movement finds its context both in the tradition of the faith of the Church and in the struggle of hungry people for daily bread'. The younger theologians counselled `the differing methodological approaches are not opposing, mutually exclusive options'.

37. It is this debate on method that Faith and Order has picked up in its post Santiago work on hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is not confined to the interpretation of the Bible, but is a key element in the whole business of effective communication of any kind. It is about how we can pass beyond hearing words to understanding meanings and how we pass from our different understandings to discover common meanings on areas that have divided us. Only in so far as we make progress with this, shall we in Faith and Order continue to make a significant contribution to the contemporary ecumenical movement.

V. Faith and Order as commitment to the future

38. In the years ahead there should be no lessening of commitment to faith and order, as an all round all level movement with its bilateral and multilateral dimensions. Nor a lessening of commitment within the World Council of Churches to the work of the Faith and Order Commission. Faith and Order, in all its dimensions, has a distinctive role to play within the one ecumenical movement.

39. Continuity in developing the agenda which has emerged through nearly a century of conversation is crucial for the movement to visible unity. Many of the bilateral dialogues are into a second and third round of conversation. After the harvesting of 30 years work in Santiago, the Faith and Order Commission is beginning new work on Ecumenical Perspectives in Ecclesiology. The rich reflections on the nature of the Church as koinonia will surely have a major contribution to make. We have already been reminded that the place of worship in the search for unity brings a dimension to the work which gives meaning to our statements that unity is not just our calling, but is, first of all God's gift. The work on ecclesiology and ethics, and the foundational study on hermeneutics, have their particular contributions to play.

40. All of this should enable Faith and Order within the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches to keep alive among the member churches a vision of visible unity.

41. Commitment to the future must include the commitment to a more inclusive and representative forum around the theological table. This consultation will have its contribution to make in so far as it draws the insights of younger theologians into the circle of reflection and interpretation and determines to do so.

42. There is another challenge for the future expressed sharply by Elizabeth Templeton in Santiago, that is the challenge to show in all faith and order work why the unity of the Church is relevant for the life of the world.

We struggle together with the mystery of the Church as a vehicle of life for the world and with dogmatic and concrete forms as vehicles for the life of the Church ... To test their reality in the teeth of the world's pain, is a task to keep Faith and Order in business.

43. Finally, we have seen that it is not the business of the Faith and Order Movement to produce unity schemes: this is the task of churches themselves. Nevertheless, there is a challenge to be offered by the Faith and Order Movement to the churches who are sponsors of the movement. Unless the churches themselves find ways of turning the ever growing pile of ecumenical texts into a closer degree of shared living it will be little wonder if disillusionment grows with the distinctive task of faith and order. Convergence in faith and convergence in life belong together.