The Church: Towards a Common Vision

The goal of the ecumenical movement is to recover the visible unity of Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  2010 marked the 100 year anniversary of the founding of this movement.  One of its major streams has been the Faith and Order Movement which met for its first world conference in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1927. 

What does that title mean, Faith and Order? “Faith” refers to doctrine: what we believe about God, the Trinity, the person of Jesus Christ, the bible, salvation, sacraments, ministries, and the nature of the Church.  “Order” refers to how the churches are ordered or organized, and what is the relationship between the local, national, regional, and international levels of the churches. 

At its second world conference in 1937, Faith and Order made the decision, along with another movement called Life and Work, to create a World Council of Churches (WCC) which came into being in 1948. Ever since, Faith and Order has been a commission of the WCC.  

The commission is an interdenominational community of top theologians who reflect on the issues that divide us. The form it presently takes is that of a fifty-member commission of theologians formally nominated by their churches. It includes both mainline Protestant and Orthodox churches as well as non-WCC member churches such as the Roman Catholic Church, Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, historic Peace Churches, and others.  It is considered the most comprehensive theological forum in the world. 

In 1982 the commission offered to the churches a benchmark convergence text entitled Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM) which was received as a vision of renewal for the lives of the churches. BEM contributed to a growing mutual recognition of baptism and common liturgical renewal in our understanding and celebration of the eucharist. The least well-received part of BEM was the section on ministry, especially its teaching on episcopacy. 

Not surprisingly, then, the commission focused its work on our ecclesiastical operating systems. Anglican Canon John Gibaut, the previous Director of Faith and Order at the WCC, uses an analogy drawn from our world of smartphones and computers to explain the importance of this.  If our computers or smartphones are using incompatible operating systems, then it makes it difficult for us to communicate with each other, work with one another, or ever recognize each other. 

This led the commission in 1993 at its world conference in Spain to focus its work on ecclesiology: the study of the Church. Namely, what is our understanding of the Church: What is essential to be the Church? The ecumenical question is whether we have compatible ecclesiastical operating systems, can recognize the “Church” in the other, and receive from one another.

The Faith and Order Commission’s first preliminary text on The Nature and Purpose of the Church (1998) was sent for response to churches, ecumenical institutes, faculties of theology and others. On the basis of feedback received, the commission published in 2005 a significantly revised version, The Nature and Mission of the Church, and once again sent it out for response. 

Subsequent to the responses received, the work produced in 2012 by the commission was given the special status of being a “convergence text”, only the second of its kind, The Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry document in 1982 being the first.

This new text is titled The Church: Towards a Common Vision. The WCC Central Committee commended it to the churches for study and formal response. It is a relatively short text, totaling just 40 pages comprising  69 paragraphs in four chapters. It is available online; one only has to type the title of it into the search engine of one’s computer to come up with it and read it.  

It addresses first the Church’s mission, unity, and its being in the Trinitarian life of God. It then addresses our growth in communion – in apostolic faith, sacramental life, and ministry – as churches called to live in and for the world.

The Church represents a synthesis of twenty years of reflection by theologians, pastors, lay people and church leaders from around the world in an effort to arrive at a common theological understanding about the Church.  It is not a “lowest common denominator” understanding, but an ecumenical vision that challenges the churches to grow more into what God calls the Church to be in terms of self-understanding, witness and mission, and unity. 

To be sure, a convergence text does not claim complete agreement, but recognizes that there is a coming together on things we can say together about the Church and things we cannot yet say. The Church has been sent out for study, formal response and reception.  If there is a significant acceptance amongst the churches in their response to it, then we can identify a “common vision” and a major obstacle to the visible unity of the Church will be overcome. 

At its annual conference, which took place this year September 25-27 at the Mount Carmel Centre in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the North American Academy of Ecumenists devoted itself  to reflecting on, discussing, and offering its appraisal to the Faith and Order Commission.

If you have a study group in your parish, read The Church: Towards a Common Vision and discuss it. Allow yourself to be both challenged and encouraged by it. The deadline for responses to it is December 2016. Over the long haul, of course, the churches will have to “live into” the understanding expressed in the text, in the same way that the churches have and continue to receive BEM by living into its vision. 

This is a potentially historic moment that is worthy of the attention, participation, and response of laity, clergy, theologians and church leaders alike.    

                                                                                                  September 2015

Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC.