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Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 The fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the World Council of Churches provides the member churches with an opportunity to reaffirm their ecumenical vocation and to clarify their common understanding of the WCC.

Changing contexts, enduring commitments

1.2 Through the WCC the churches have worked together, reflected together and worshipped together. Restless to grow together according to the prayer of Jesus Christ that all may be one in order that the world may believe (John 17:21), they have been sustained by the assurance of God's purpose to unite all things in Christ - things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:10). Although their common life has been tested during this half century, the resolution expressed by the founding Assembly at Amsterdam in 1948 - "We intend to stay together" - has by God's grace been maintained.

1.3 As the member churches of the WCC seek together to discern the promises and challenges of a new century and a new millennium, the WCC and the ecumenical movement are passing through a period of uncertainty. There are signs of a weakening of ecumenical commitment, of a growing distance between the WCC and its member churches, and of a widespread perception among the young generation that the ecumenical movement has lost its vitality and does not provide relevant answers to the pressing problems of today. Internal factors are preventing many churches from maintaining their level of financial support, thus obliging the WCC to reduce its activities; and some member churches are experiencing internal conflicts and even the threat of schism because of their participation in the ecumenical fellowship. All this gives added urgency to the effort of clarifying a common understanding of the WCC and its role within the ecumenical movement.

1.4 Nevertheless, some of the astonishing changes in the Council and in the ecumenical movement during these first fifty years should be recalled:

  1. the number of WCC member churches has more than doubled since the Amsterdam Assembly; the Council today brings together churches of very diverse cultural backgrounds and Christian traditions, including Orthodox churches and churches from nearly every Protestant tradition;
  2. while nearly two-thirds of the churches which founded the WCC came from Europe and North America, nearly two-thirds of its member churches today come from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific, making the Council more truly a world body;
  3. the new councils of churches and other ecumenical bodies formed in many local, national and regional contexts have created a genuinely worldwide ecumenical network of which the WCC is now an integral part;
  4. the Roman Catholic Church, which maintained a deliberate distance from the ecumenical movement at the time of the founding of the WCC, has become a full member of many national ecumenical bodies and of several regional ecumenical organizations and maintains regular working relationships with the WCC, especially through official membership of the Commission on Faith and Order;
  5. the participation of women in the life of the WCC has increased and their voices have been strengthened in ecumenical gatherings;
  6. an emerging common tradition of shared convictions on faith, life and witness has begun to enrich theological reflection undertaken from a strictly confessional perspective as the churches have drawn closer to each other through the WCC.
1.5 The ecumenical process which led to the formation of the WCC was not only a response to the gospel imperative of Christian unity. It was also an affirmation of the call to mission and common witness and an expression of common commitment to the search for justice, peace and reconciliation in a chaotic, warring world divided along the lines of race, class and competing national and religious loyalties.

1.6 The past fifty years have posed severe tests to the intention of this fellowship to witness credibly to the universality of Christ's church in a divided world and to God's purpose for the whole of humankind. Often, the churches have been too much like the world, participating in its divisions, accepting and sometimes even reinforcing images of the other as the enemy. But at times, even in the darkest moments of the Cold War, WCC member churches and courageous women and men within them have built bridges across ideological divides.

1.7 In these five decades profound changes have taken place in the world as well as among the churches. The major problems have shifted, but not disappeared; and in the new forms which they are taking some are even more acute than before. Even though colonialism has practically disappeared, many of the nations to emerge from former colonies are subject to new kinds of economic and political dependency which bring growing misery upon their peoples. Even though the Cold War has ended and the nuclear arms race has been slowed down, wars are still being fought. New sources of violent conflict have emerged from racial and ethnic tensions. Even though inter-religious encounter and dialogue have become more common, religious loyalties continue to be used to foment hatred and violence. Despite nearly universal legal and constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, the situation of religious minorities, including some Christian churches, has in fact become increasingly precarious in many places; elsewhere, the very principles of religious freedom are being challenged or have given rise to new conflicts. Where cruder expressions of militarism have receded, they have often been replaced by more sophisticated forms of military predominance supported by high technology. International solidarity is giving way to fear and xenophobia as the numbers increase of those leaving their homelands to escape oppression, conflict or chronic poverty and unemployment. As the gap between rich and poor widens, the situation of more and more millions of people is disregarded and even entire nations are treated as expendable. Violence is increasing everywhere, with children and women its principal victims. Political institutions at every level are rapidly losing the confidence of citizens who perceive them as corrupt and out of touch; and their decision-making role is increasingly subordinated to the demands of global business empires whose accountability is measured only in terms of the profits they earn. The growing awareness of threats to the earth's ecology is not matched by a will to make radical changes in life-styles and forms of production. The contemporary global crisis has moral and spiritual dimensions no less profound than the crisis which faced the world in the earliest stages of the ecumenical movement. But the moral foundations of human community have in the meantime become even more fragile.

1.8 The challenge of what it means to be part of the universal church of Christ is posed in new and dramatic ways by the process of growing globalization. Every church must begin its examination of its ecumenical relationships by self-examination: in its life and witness in this global context has it been consistently guided by the common calling to unity, mission and service? Has it drawn the consequences of the communion it has experienced, the widening of the common vision it has gained, the commitments it has accepted? In fact, many indications suggest that a growing denominationalism is reinforcing the tendency of churches to concentrate on their internal and institutional concerns at the expense of their ecumenical commitment. In responding to the call to mission and evangelism churches too often ignore their commitment to common witness and thus introduce or promote divisions within the Christian family. While Christians and churches should be advocates of the rights and dignity of those marginalized and excluded by society, there are shameful examples of complicity with structures of social and economic injustice. Nor has the World Council of Churches in its struggles for justice and human rights been able to act and speak according to the same criteria everywhere.

1.9 Many churches and Christian communities, including some whose witness is vital and whose growth is rapid, have remained outside the fellowship of formal ecumenical bodies. New sources of division have appeared both within and among churches. In some churches, things which have been said or done ecumenically have proved so contentious that ecumenical commitment is itself rejected as heretical or even anti-Christian. At every level, from the local to the global, churches and ecumenical bodies have found themselves in competition with each other when they ought to have cooperated.

Refocusing our understanding

1.10 These limitations, setbacks and failures call the ecumenical movement and the fellowship of churches in the World Council of Churches to repentance and conversion, renewal and reorientation as a new millennium approaches. If a new generation is to make its own the commitment expressed in Amsterdam, the understanding of the place and role of the WCC in the ecumenical movement must be given new focus. What are the distinctive marks of ecumenical commitment that make it different from, even though related to, the many cooperative initiatives to be found in civil society? What is the particular role of the WCC as an organization in its relationship to other partners in the ecumenical movement? How has the understanding of the purposes and "common calling" of the WCC changed in the light of what has been learned during five decades of life together? What can be learned from the signs of new ecumenical vitality among movements of lay people, women and youth

1.11 The answer to such questions will draw on the insights of the many men and women who have wrestled with them before.

1.12 In 1950, the WCC Central Committee, meeting in Toronto, formulated a text on "The Church, the Churches and the World Council of Churches", which remains foundational for any common understanding of the Council. This "Toronto Statement" is in two parts. The first makes five declarations about what the WCC is not:

  • The WCC is not and must never become a superchurch.
  • The purpose of the WCC is not to negotiate unions between churches (which can be done only by the churches themselves).
  • The WCC cannot and should not be based on any one particular conception of the church.
  • Membership in the WCC does not imply that a church treats its own conception of the church as merely relative.
  • Membership in the WCC does not imply the acceptance of a specific doctrine concerning the nature of church unity.

The second part offers eight positive assumptions which underlie life in the Council. The member churches:

  • believe that conversation, cooperation and common witness of the churches must be based on the common recognition that Christ is the divine Head of the body;
  • believe on the basis of the New Testament that the church of Christ is one;
  • recognize that the membership of the church of Christ is more inclusive than the membership of their own church body;
  • consider the relationship of other churches to the holy catholic church which the creeds profess as a subject for mutual consideration;
  • recognize in other churches elements of the true church;
  • are willing to consult together in seeking to learn of the Lord Jesus Christ what witness he would have them to bear to the world in his name;
  • should recognize their solidarity with each other, render assistance to each other in case of need and refrain from such actions as are incompatible with brotherly [and sisterly] rlationships;
  • enter into spiritual relationships through which they seek to learn from each other and to give help to each other in order that the body of Christ may be built up and that the life of the churches may be renewed.
1.13 Important explications of the Basis, nature and purpose of the World Council of Churches have been offered through its successive Assemblies. The New Delhi Assembly (1961) not only enlarged the christological Basis from a trinitarian perspective but also acknowledged the "common calling" of the churches, which was tangibly expressed by the integration of the International Missionary Council into the WCC. The same Assembly also saw the entry of several large Orthodox churches into the fellowship of the WCC and accepted the first formal statement on "the church's unity": "We believe that the unity which is both God's will and his gift to his church is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour are brought by the Holy Spirit into a fully committed fellowship..."

1.14 The Assemblies in Uppsala (1968), Nairobi (1975), Vancouver (1983) and Canberra (1991) continued to deepen this common understanding by unfolding the quest for unity in its universal dimension, embracing the human community as well as the church. They explored such concepts as conciliarity and conciliar fellowship (Uppsala and Nairobi), a eucharistic vision (Vancouver) and "The Unity of the Church as Koinonia: Gift and Calling" (Canberra).

1.15 Many other such significant declarations, both within the WCC and in other ecumenical contexts, could be mentioned. Yet for many people the understanding of the WCC as a living fellowship of churches has emerged more vividly through specific initiatives to engage the churches in reflecting and acting at the local level: among them the Programme to Combat Racism, the convergence texts on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, the study on the Community of Women and Men in the Church, the conciliar process on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, the Ecumenical Decade - Churches in Solidarity with Women, the study on Gospel and Culture and the Programme to Overcome Violence. Controversial though some of these have been among and within the member churches, they are important features of the profile of the WCC; and any attempt to articulate a common understanding of the WCC must take them into account.


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