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