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Chapter 3: The Self-Understanding of the World Council of Churches

3.1 Any discussion of the WCC's self-understanding must begin with the constitutional Basis on which the WCC is founded, with which all member churches express agreement:

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Two aspects of this statement are of central importance for articulating a renewed common understanding of the WCC: (1) its characterization of the Council as a "fellowship of churches"; and (2) its emphasis on the "common calling" which the churches seek to fulfil in and through the Council.

A fellowship of churches

3.2 The description of the WCC as a "fellowship of churches" indicates clearly that the Council is not itself a church and - as the Toronto statement categorically declares - must never become a "superchurch". Moreover, since the churches within this fellowship themselves maintain different conceptions of the church, their understanding of the significance of this fellowship will also differ. This diversity was present at the WCC's First Assembly in 1948 and at the meeting in 1950 of the WCC's Central Committee in Toronto, which produced the Council's fullest statement of self-definition. It continues to exist after fifty years; indeed, further understandings have emerged as a result of life together. Nevertheless, the use of the term "fellowship" in the Basis does suggest that the Council is more than a mere functional association of churches set up to organize activities in areas of common interest.

3.3 While "fellowship" is sometimes used to translate the Greek word koinonia, which is a key concept in recent ecumenical discussion about the church and its unity, the relationship among the churches in the WCC as a whole is not yet koinonia in the full sense (as described, for example, in the Canberra Assembly statement on "The Unity of the Church as Koinonia: Gift and Calling"). But the WCC Constitution (Art. 3,1) does portray the Council as a community of churches on the way to the "goal of visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, [seeking] to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe". To the extent that the member churches share the one baptism and the confession of Jesus Christ as God and Saviour, it can even be said (using the words of the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council) that a "real, even though imperfect communion" exists between them already now.

3.4 The existence of the World Council of Churches as a fellowship of churches thus poses to its member churches what the Ecumenical Patriarchate has called an "ecclesiological challenge": to clarify the meaning and the extent of the fellowship they experience in the Council, as well as the ecclesiological significance of koinonia, which is the purpose and aim of the WCC but not yet a given reality.

3.5 The following affirmations may contribute to such a clarification:

  1. The mutual commitment which the churches have established with one another through the WCC is rooted in the recognition that they are related to one another thanks to actions of God in Jesus Christ which are prior to any decisions they may make. As the message from the Amsterdam Assembly put it, "Christ has made us his own, and he is not divided".
  2. The essence of the Council is the relationship of the churches to one another. The Council is the fellowship of churches on the way towards full koinonia. It has a structure and organization in order to serve as an instrument for the churches as they work towards koinonia in faith, life and witness; but the WCC is not to be identified with this structure, nor can it serve the churches effectively apart from the constant renewal of their own ecumenical vision and commitment.
  3. This fellowship in the Council is not something abstract and static, nor is it limited to official contacts between institutional church bodies and their leaders or representatives. It is rather a dynamic, relational reality which embraces the fullness of the churches as manifestations of the people of God. It is not an end in itself, but exists to serve as a sign and instrument of God's mission and activity in the world. The WCC may therefore be described as a missionary, diaconal and moral community of churches
  4. While membership in the Council does not oblige churches to understand the phrase "fellowship of churches" in a particular way, it does commit them to dialogue about this. The WCC provides a space in which the churches can explore what it means to be in fellowship together towards greater unity in Christ. It also has the task of calling the churches beyond themselves to a fuller manifestation of that unity.
  5. The churches within the fellowship of the WCC recognize that the other members belong to Christ, that membership in the church of Christ is more inclusive than the membership of their own church and that the others possess at the very least "elements of the true church" (Toronto). Thus every member church is treated as an equally valued participant in the life of the WCC, for what it brings to this fellowship is a function not of its size and resources but of its being in Christ.
  6. By their mutual engagement in the Council the churches open themselves to be challenged by one another to deeper, more costly ecumenical commitment. This mutual accountability takes many forms: recognizing their solidarity with each other, assisting each other in cases of need, refraining from actions incompatible with brotherly and sisterly relations, entering into spiritual relationships to learn from each other, consulting with each other "to learn of the Lord Jesus Christ what witness he would have them to bear to the world in his name" (Toronto).

3.6 While membership of the WCC is by no means the only way for churches to work together ecumenically on an international level, it is a significant acknowledgment of a church's willingness to identify itself in a visible, sustained and organized way with the goals of the ecumenical movement and the search for deeper fellowship. Membership is therefore not just a one-time affiliation which then allows the churches to live comfortably with their continued separation.

3.7 As the understanding of the fellowship within the Council has broadened through the churches' life together, so too has the understanding of what is implied by membership in this body.

  1. To be a member means nurturing the ability to pray, live, act and grow together in community - sometimes through struggle and conflict - with churches from differing backgrounds and traditions. It implies the willingness and capacity to deal with disagreement through theological discussion, prayer and dialogue, treating contentious issues as matters for common theological discernment rather than political victory.
  2. To be a member means helping one another to be faithful to the gospel, and questioning one another if any member is perceived to move away from the fundamentals of the faith or obedience to the gospel. The integrity of the fellowship is preserved through the exercise of responsibility for one another in the spirit of common faithfulness to the gospel, rather than by judgment and exclusion.
  3. To be a member means participating in ministries that extend beyond the boundaries and possibilities of any single church and being ready to link one's own specific local context with the global reality and to allow that global reality to have an impact in one's local situation.
  4. To be a member means being part of a fellowship that has a voice of its own. While the churches are free to choose whether or not to identify themselves with the voice of the WCC when it speaks, they are committed to giving serious consideration to what the Council says or does on behalf of the fellowship as a whole.
  5. To be a member means making a commitment to seek to implement within the life and witness of one's own church the agreements reached through joint theological study and reflection by the total fellowship.
  6. To be a member means participating in a fellowship of sharing and solidarity, supporting other members in their needs and struggles, celebrating with them their joys and hopes.
  7. To be a member means understanding the mission of the church as a joint responsibility shared with others, rather than engaging in missionary or evangelistic activities in isolation from each other, much less in competition with or proselytism of other Christian believers.
  8. To be a member means entering into a fellowship of worship and prayer with the other churches, nurturing concrete opportunities for shared worship and prayer while respecting the limitations imposed by specific traditions.
  9. To be a member means taking a full part in the life and work of the WCC and its activities, including praying for the Council and all its member churches, being represented at Assemblies, making regular financial contributions to its work according to one's possibilities and sharing the WCC's concerns with local parishes, congregations and worshipping communities.

A common calling

3.8 Through the World Council of Churches the member churches seek to fulfil together a "common calling". This phrase, which was added to the WCC Basis by the New Delhi Assembly in 1961, made explicit a dynamic understanding of the Council as a fellowship of pilgrims moving together towards the same goal - an understanding articulated already in its original (1938) Constitution, which said that "the World Council shall offer counsel and provide opportunity for united action in matters of common interest" (Art. 4).

3.9 Amidst a variety of historical circumstances and in many different ways, the member churches have sought to live out this "common calling" over the past fifty years. Their witness has been neither perfect nor consistent. They have not always acted together when they might have. Yet by God's grace they have been empowered to set up some signs of obedience and faithfulness by

  1. building and maintaining fragile links of communication when they have found themselves on opposite sides of wars, hot and cold;
  2. offering service in the name of Christ to millions driven from their homes and helping to rebuild societies shattered by violence, thus learning new forms of mutual sharing;
  3. challenging each other to let go of historic bonds of dependence and dominance and forging new kinds of partnerships;
  4. offering common witness to Jesus Christ in places where a single voice would not have been heard or taken seriously;
  5. listening to and learning from the insights of others into those central understandings of doctrine and life over which they are divided, persisting stubbornly in the hope of seeing the day when unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship will be made visible;
  6. offering pastoral support in many places where human dignity has been trampled, and joining their voices with others to defend in international forums the rights of those oppressed and pushed to the edges;
  7. expressing solidarity in prayer and encouragement with those churches suffering persecution or seeking God's will amidst situations of crisis;
  8. refusing to turn away from the judgment that every form of racism, also in their own life, is contrary to the word and will of God;
  9. committing themselves to solidarity with women, challenging structures that reinforce sexism and insisting on justice and full participation for women in church and world;
  10. seeking to make their own communities and the instruments of their fellowship together more fully inclusive of women, youth, persons with disabilities and all others threatened with exclusion;
  11. joining in intercessions and praise using each other's words and music, and learning how to read the scripture through each other's eyes.

3.10 The elements of this common calling have been summarized in the delineation of "functions and purposes" now found in Article 3 of the WCC's Constitution. The present formulation is that adopted by the Nairobi Assembly in 1975:

  • to call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe;
  • to facilitate the common witness of the churches in each place and in all places;
  • to support the churches in their worldwide missionary and evangelistic task
  • to express the common concern of the churches in the service of human need, the breaking down of barriers between people, and the promotion of one human family in justice and peace;
  • to foster the renewal of the churches in unity, worship, mission and service;
  • to establish and maintain relations with national councils and regional conferences of churches, world confessional bodies and other ecumenical organizations;
  • to carry on the work of the world movements for Faith and Order and Life and Work and of the International Missionary Council and the World Council of Christian Education.

3.11 Such a listing can offer no more than an outline of central tasks expressed in general terms. It is through the churches' continuing fellowship in the WCC that these "functions and purposes" take life in specific activities. In this process, new challenges to the life and mission of the churches highlight new dimensions of the ecumenical calling. Therefore, it is valuable for the member churches periodically to articulate anew the elements of their common calling, both as a reflection of the dynamic nature of their fellowship in the WCC and as an opportunity to recommit themselves to the ecumenical vision. The 50th anniversary of the founding of the WCC and the dawning of a new century and a new millennium make the Eighth Assembly a fitting moment for doing so.

3.12 An articulation of the Council's purposes and functions on the occasion of its 50th anniversary should both express continuity with what has gone before and acknowledge the new challenges of the present day. Such a formulation should:

  1. recognize the essential identity of the WCC as a fellowship of churches which call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life, through witness and service to the world;
  2. enumerate the most important areas of concern in which the churches through the Council pursue this primary purpose;
  3. make clear that the Council as a fellowship of churches is an organization through which its members act together, not a body which acts separately from the churches;
  4. recognize facets of the ecumenical vocation which have taken on a higher profile in recent years, including concerns for upholding the integrity of creation, relating to people of other faiths and promoting processes of education which enable Christians to think and act ecumenically;
  5. emphasize the Council's vocation of strengthening the one ecumenical movement, not only through official organizational ties but also by way of supporting other ecumenical initiatives, creating networks among ecumenical organizations and groups, reaching out to all churches which share the ecumenical vision and working for the coherence of the many different manifestations of the ecumenical movement.

The Council as an organization

3.13 As a fellowship of churches and an instrument for strengthening the ecumenical movement, the World Council of Churches has an institutional profile. This profile has many components, including the work the Council does, the events it organizes, the statements it makes, the images it projects. But the WCC as an institution must not be paralyzed by institutionalism, for its vocation in the service of the churches and the ecumenical movement requires that it be a living organism, responding to new challenges brought by changing times, new ecumenical partners and growing discernment of the ecumenical calling.

3.14 Structures are the means by which the Council seeks at a given moment of its life to manifest effectively its reality as a fellowship of churches. They constitute the basic shape of the Council, the framework for particular working arrangements. Changes in this framework neither replace the insights nor deny the values of what has gone before, but rather reflect a continuing dialogue of understandings and visions.

3.15 The structures for governing the Council are set forth in its Constitution. They establish the basic institutional shape of the WCC. These governing structures are mechanisms to ensure that the activities undertaken by the Council's internal institutional structure are attuned to the vision and needs and concerns of its member churches and ecumenical partners. In the way they are constituted and in the way they function, they should:

  1. ensure maximum representation, participation and transparency in policy- and decision-making and avoid concentrating this power and responsibility in a small group;
  2. give priority to reflection and deliberation on the key issues facing the churches in the world, rather than being dominated by organizational and programmatic decision-making;
  3. provide a setting and process in which the voices of all can be truly heard, rather than one which privileges those whose culture, language, education or experience make it easier for them to speak out;
  4. give continued attention to the coherence and coordination of the WCC's activities and their theological basis, rather than serving as a forum for advocating particular interests and agendas in isolation (and thus maintaining familiar dichotomies between "church unity concerns" and "social justice concerns", "ecclesiology" and "ethics", the "pastoral task" and the "prophetic task", "mission" and "dialogue", "relationships" and "programmes");
  5. stimulate and engage those with policy-making and leadership responsibilities in the member churches to take up the concerns of the fellowship of churches and to act ecumenically in their local contexts, rather than perpetuating an impression of the WCC and the ecumenical movement as something apart from and outside of the churches;
  6. allow for the establishment and deepening of relations with churches which are open to ecumenical fellowship but do not now find membership in the Council ecclesiologically possible or congenial;
  7. therefore make visible a foreshadowing of the full koinonia which the churches seek through the ecumenical movement.

3.16 The internal structure of the WCC, set forth in its rules, regulations and bylaws and the decisions of its governing bodies, is a mechanism for organizing effectively the day-to-day work undertaken by the staff to carry out the decisions and policies made by the governing bodies. This structure should:

  1. manifest the identity of the WCC as a fellowship of churches which have come together in this body on a trinitarian theological basis; this implies both working in an integrated manner on the full scope of the common calling to unity and making evident how all the Council's activities are grounded in the hope that God's purposes, revealed in Jesus Christ and activated in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit, will not fail;
  2. aim at enhancing the fellowship among the member churches, not at building up or maintaining an organization for its own sake;
  3. acknowledge the plurality of cultures and theological and spiritual traditions represented in the member churches and manifest a commitment to being a truly inclusive community;
  4. recognize that the Council's unique identity and experience as a fellowship which is both worldwide and open to churches of all Christian traditions equip it to undertake certain specific elements of the ecumenical vocation:
    • playing an animating and coordinating role in efforts for the coherence of the one ecumenical movement;
    • serving as a mediator among parties in conflict or as advocate for groups who are unable to speak for themselves;
    • being a seed-bed of ideas and a source of analysis, drawing on the breadth of experience of its member churches to help them to grow together in their ecumenical awareness and to arrive at new understandings of reality;
    • demonstrating the intimate relations between the local and the global, in the recognition that local issues often have global implications and that global dilemmas are often most pressing in their local manifestations;
    • speaking the prophetic word which from its global perspective addresses the urgent issues of the day;
  5. ensure that responsibility for ecumenical activities is lodged as near as is feasible to the point of application, in partnership with groups of member churches and other ecumenical organizations;
  6. enable the Council to adapt its work and working style as necessary to meet the rapidly changing conditions of the world and the diverse needs of the churches in a focused, effective and economically sustainable manner;
  7. provide for regular planning, review and assessment of all activities.


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