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Chapter 2: The Ecumenical Movement


2.1 It is impossible to speak of the World Council of Churches apart from the ecumenical movement out of which it grew and of which it is a highly visible part. While the ecumenical movement is wider than its organizational expressions, and while the WCC is essentially the fellowship of its member churches, it serves at the same time as a prominent instrument and expression of the ecumenical movement. As such it is an advocate of the impulse for renewal which has characterized the movement from its beginnings.

The meaning of "ecumenical"

2.2 Among churches and ecumenical organizations uncertainty, ambiguity and even confusion prevail about what is meant by the "ecumenical movement". There is agreement that the term "ecumenical" embraces the quest for Christian unity, common witness in the worldwide task of mission and evangelism, and commitment to diakonia and to the promotion of justice and peace. But there is no authoritative definition of the term, and it is in fact used to characterize a wide range of activities, ideas and organizational arrangements.

2.3 Perhaps the best-known definition is that formulated by the WCC's Central Committee, meeting at Rolle, in 1951:

It is important to insist that the word [ecumenical], which comes from the Greek word for the whole inhabited earth [oikoumene], is properly used to describe everything that relates to the whole task of the whole church to bring the gospel to the whole world.

This sought to expand previous definitions by integrating the concern for church unity and the concern for cooperative mission and evangelism.

2.4 More recent descriptions of the goal of the ecumenical movement have sought to take seriously the conviction that the object of God's reconciling purpose is not only the church but the whole of humanity - indeed, the whole of creation. Thus, the WCC's Vancouver Assembly (1983) spoke of a "eucharistic vision" which

unites our two profoundest ecumenical concerns: the unity and renewal of the church and the healing and destiny of the human community. Church unity is vital to the health of the church and to the future of the human family... Christ - the life of the world - unites heaven and earth, God and world, spiritual and secular. His body and blood, given to us in the elements of bread and wine, integrate liturgy and diaconate, proclamation and acts of healing... Our eucharistic vision thus encompasses the whole reality of Christian worship, life and witness.

The Canberra Assembly (1991) added: "We need desperately a mobilizing portrait of reconciled life that will hold together an absolute commitment to the unity and renewal of the church and an absolute commitment to the reconciliation of God's world... We need to affirm the vision of an inhabited world (oikoumene) based on values which promote life for all." However, these two Assembly statements do not go much beyond the affirmation that the various dimensions need to be held together.

2.5 Within the ecumenical movement the WCC has sought to integrate the vision of John 17:21 ("that they may all be one... so that the world may believe") with the vision of Ephesians 1:10 (God's "plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth"). But the effort to integrate these two biblical visions has been challenged by a continuing tension and sometimes antagonism between those who advocate the primacy of the social dimension of ecumenism and those who advocate the primacy of spiritual or ecclesial ecumenism.

2.6 More recently, a growing number of voices from the churches, especially in Asia but also in Latin America, have spoken of the need for a "wider ecumenism" or "macro-ecumenism" - an understanding which would open the ecumenical movement to other religious and cultural traditions beyond the Christian community.

2.7 These ambiguities surrounding the understanding of "ecumenical" create the real danger of introducing competitive divisions into the ecumenical movement. What is the meaning and purpose of this movement? Who are its subjects? What are its goals and methods or forms of action? What is the source of the dynamic which warrants speaking of the "ecumenical movement" beyond its institutional manifestations in the WCC and elsewhere?

Some basic distinctions and marks of identification

2.8 In the present situation of uncertainty and transition, the ambiguities surrounding the meaning of the term "ecumenical" will not be resolved by a descriptive - even less a normative - definition which identifies a particular model, strategy or organizational affiliation as criteria for what is "ecumenical". Any common understanding will have to embrace multiple perspectives and a diversity of subjects. Nevertheless, a number of basic distinctions may help to clarify the use of the term here:

  1. The dynamic of the ecumenical movement is rooted in the tension between the churches as they are and the true koinonia with the triune God and among one another which is their calling and God's gift.
  2. The ecumenical vision encompasses the renewal of church and world in the light of the gospel of God's kingdom. In the face of all threats to life it affirms the Christian hope of life for all
  3. The ecumenical movement, while it shares in other efforts at international, inter-cultural, and interreligious cooperation and dialogue, is rooted in the life of the Christian churches. Yet it is not limited to the concern for inter-church relationships and is wider than the various organizations in which it has found expression.
  4. The ecumenical movement seeks to foster cooperation and sharing, common witness and common action by the churches and their members. More specifically, however, it is a renewal movement in and through the churches which has found expression in diverse initiatives and networks among lay people, especially women and youth. It is committed to the search for visible unity, not as an end in itself but in order to give credible witness "so that the world may believe" and to serve the healing of the human community and the wholeness of God's entire creation.
  5. While the ecumenical movement has a worldwide scope - in line with the original use of the word oikoumene for "the whole inhabited earth - it points more specifically to the catholicity of the church, that is, globally. In each place and in all places, the ecumenical movement is concerned with the true being and life of the church as an inclusive community.

2.9 The emergence over the last decades of transnational and increasingly worldwide structures of communication, finance and economy has created a particular kind of global unity. It is evident that the cost of this has been growing fragmentation of societies and exclusion for more and more of the human family. In their own international relationships the churches are under pressure to adapt themselves to this system and to accept its values, which tend to overlook if not deny the spiritual dimension of human life. This therefore constitutes a serious threat to the integrity of the ecumenical movement, whose organizational forms represent a distinctly different model of relationships, based on solidarity and sharing, mutual accountability and empowerment. On the threshold of the 21st century, all existing ecumenical structures must reassess themselves in the light of the challenge to manifest a form and quality of global community characterized by inclusiveness and reconciliation.

2.10 An important affirmation made in the early phase of collaboration between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches was that the two share in "one and the same ecumenical movement". This oneness of the ecumenical movement does not imply that there is a single structure or a single centre among the many different expressions of the movement. Nor does it suggest a normative understanding which would become exclusive and thus contradict the very meaning of ecumenical in the sense of "wholeness". The oneness of the ecumenical movement refers fundamentally to its orientation towards a "common calling". Ultimately this is assured by the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through the manifold manifestations of the movement.

2.11 The World Council of Churches shares with many other partners, institutionalized or not, the legacy of this one ecumenical movement and the responsibility to keep it alive. As the most comprehensive and representative body among the many organized expressions of the ecumenical movement, the World Council has the specific role of addressing the global ecumenical issues and acting as a trustee for the inner coherence of the movement.


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