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Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches -- Preface

The text that follows is the outcome of more than eight years of study and consultation on the "common understanding and vision of the World Council of Churches", mandated by the WCC Central Committee at its meeting in 1989. Since the Seventh Assembly of the WCC in 1991, this subject has continuously been on the agenda of the Central Committee; in addition, it has been extensively discussed in meetings of WCC commissions, advisory bodies and staff. Insights have been sought and received from WCC member churches, other churches and a broad range of ecumenical partners, as well as many individual participants in and students of the ecumenical movement.

The WCC Executive Committee agreed in February 1995 that this process of consultation should aim at preparing a document for the Eighth Assembly, on the occasion of the WCC's 50th anniversary, which might serve as an "ecumenical charter" for the 21st century. In September 1995, the Central Committee approved a procedure for preparing such a text. An initial draft came from a consultation in December 1995 which brought together some 35 persons from all regions and church traditions. This was shared with a variety of groups and individuals, then revised in June 1996 and sent to the Central Committee for discussion in September 1996. Its responses were incorporated into a "working draft" distributed to WCC member churches and ecumenical partners, who were asked to react to it by the end of June 1997. On the basis of some 153 written responses received from member churches and ecumenical bodies, as well as discussions during personal visits by WCC staff and others to many churches and partners, a new draft was presented to the Central Committee for discussion at its meeting in September 1997. The text that follows incorporates amendments proposed during that meeting.

The text seeks to address the most important issues that have surfaced during this discussion. Chapter 1 sets the context for the "Common Understanding and Vision" process, outlining some of the changes during the half-century since the founding of the World Council and noting that this document takes its place in a continuing series of efforts over the course of those years to articulate the nature and purpose of ecumenical fellowship within the WCC. Chapter 2 explores the meaning of the ecumenical movement, out of which the WCC grew and of which it is one of many organizational expressions. Chapter 3 discusses the "self-understanding" of the World Council of Churches, fundamentally by explicating its constitutional Basis as a "fellowship of churches" that seek to fulfill "a common calling", then suggesting some implications of this for its life and work as an organization. Chapter 4 speaks of the relationships between the WCC and the many kinds of partners with whom it shares the ecumenical vocation.

The rich, extensive and enthusiastic discussions that have gone into this text have attested to a profound ecumenical engagement and commitment to the WCC among member churches and partners. But it has also become clear that within this "common understanding and vision" there are a number of specific points regarding the goal of the ecumenical movement and the nature of the fellowship already experienced on which the churches do not as yet agree. In bringing this present stage of the process of consultation to an end through adoption of this text as a policy statement, the Central Committee does not claim the authority to resolve these issues or to speak the final word on the WCC and the ecumenical movement.

It is of the essence of the churches' fellowship within the ecumenical movement that they continue to wrestle with these differences in a spirit of mutual understanding, commitment and accountability. The present text is thus commended to the churches to encourage and help them to evaluate their own ecumenical commitments and practice - in their own local contexts, in their national, regional and global relationships and, specifically, in relation to the World Council of Churches.

By way of implementing this policy document, the Central Committee has also taken several other steps. It has amended the rules for its own operation in order to enable the Council to respond more effectively to the needs of its member churches; it has proposed to the Eighth Assembly an amended statement of the purposes and functions of the WCC along the lines suggested in paragraph 3.12; it has approved the outline of a new programme and management structure for the WCC; and it has mandated continued study of both its styles of internal operation and the possibilities of wider ecumenical partnership.


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