Chapter 4: Relationships with Partners in the Ecumenical Movement,Churches Outside of WCC Membership, and Other Bodies

4.1 Whenever people are drawn together in the name of Jesus Christ, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. This means that all efforts aimed at promoting the unity of the church and all initiatives in which Christians seek to participate in God's healing of creation are fundamentally related.

Councils and conferences of churches

4.2 The relationship between the WCC and regional, national and local councils (conferences) of churches or Christian councils (conferences) is crucial for the vitality and coherence of the ecumenical movement. These latter bodies differ from one another in their constitutional basis and their composition. While most, like the WCC, are constituted by churches as members, some also include other Christian organizations (e.g. Bible societies, the YMCA and YWCA). Several of the Regional Ecumenical Organizations (REOs) include National Councils of Churches and National Christian Councils (NCCs) as full members. Nevertheless, despite these differences, all such ecumenical bodies share the same basic purpose.

4.3 All councils are independent bodies whatever the structural links between them. The Constitution and Rules of the WCC acknowledge that such bodies at the regional and national levels are essential partners in the ecumenical enterprise. National councils, in particular, can be recognized as being in association with the WCC. In addition, the member organizations of the Conference for World Mission and Evangelism have a structural link with the WCC through this Conference. The evolution and interrelatedness of the ecumenical agenda call for the establishment of more structured relationships and better coordination of activities among the councils on all levels.

4.4 Because local, national, regional and world councils of churches are all expressions of the one ecumenical movement, their relationships should be characterized by a conciliar spirit of mutuality and cooperation, rather than competition and the demarcation of areas of influence. The worldwide ecumenical movement and its organizational expressions form a network with many centres of activity, not an hierarchical structure with superimposed levels of authority. As part of this network, the WCC has an essential and distinctive role as "the unique place where churches can gather ecumenically on a global level to share in dialogue and common action. The Council demonstrates visibly the global interaction of Christians and makes it possible for the whole church to stand beside Christians in crisis situations" (Central Committee, 1989). In this age of fragmentation, the WCC's task of global witness and coordination may take on greater significance. But this is not a "superior" role. All councils, in so far as they serve the ecumenical vision of wholeness and healing, are gifts of the same Spirit and expressions of the same fellowship in Christ.

4.5 In 1992 the WCC Central Committee accepted a set of "Guiding Principles for Relationships and Cooperation between Regional Ecumenical Organizations and the World Council of Churches". They define the relationship as one of "partnership based on their common faith and commitment", characterized by complementarity, mutual trust and reciprocity. While much progress has been achieved in information-sharing, mutual consultation and programmatic collaboration, the magnitude of the common tasks and challenges to be faced with severely limited resources suggests the need to establish more intentional structural links to enable common planning and decision-making as well as an effective division of labour. Both the WCC and the REOs recognize the NCCs as essential partners in their work, mediating and coordinating relationships with the member churches in a given country; and this should be recognized in any effort to develop a comprehensive framework linking the different councils and conferences of churches in the one ecumenical movement.

4.6 The ecumenical movement is both universal and local. The oneness of the ecumenical movement worldwide should be evident in each local, national or regional council of churches, just as the WCC must remain firmly in touch with the reality of local communities where Christians are gathered to worship and serve.

Other ecumenical bodies

4.7 In addition to its relations with councils of churches of differing geographical scope, the WCC is in relationship with a variety of other ecumenical bodies.

4.8 An important relationship is that between the WCC and the diverse bodies known generally as Christian World Communions. Again, these relationships should be marked by mutual accountability and reciprocity, and the Council should seek ways to share tasks and resources with these partners in the ecumenical movement. Such sharing is particularly important for those bodies which understand themselves as one worldwide communion of churches and of which most if not all members are also member churches of the WCC. Ways should be found to associate such bodies more directly with the organized life of the WCC. A strong relationship between the WCC and these bodies can be enriching for both, strengthening the sense of the latter that they are part of the worldwide fellowship of Christians and reminding the churches in the World Council that ecumenical commitment can be nourished by rootedness in an ecclesial tradition.

4.9 The WCC is constituted as a council of churches. This is a central statement of its identity. However, the constitutional documents of the WCC recognize that the Council must maintain working relationships with a wide variety of international ecumenical organizations, some of which are older than the WCC itself. These include organizations representing particular constituencies - such as youth, students, women, lay people - and bodies and agencies with a particular functional purpose or ministry in such fields as education, communication, resource sharing and development. As organizations with an international scope and mandate, most of them understand themselves as carrying out a specialized ministry in response to the same ecumenical calling as the member churches of the WCC. Strengthening the partnership with these organizations will be of vital importance for the WCC in the effort to maintain the coherence of the ecumenical movement.

4.10 The dynamic of the ecumenical movement over the past decade has given rise to various Christian communities and movements. Most have a flexible organizational structure as part of the wider network of social or popular movements, but they have become important partners of the WCC in service, especially in working for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. Many of these movements have been prophetic within and beyond the churches and have opened up new ways of Christian witness in the wider community. The WCC should continue to offer itself as a forum where such communities or movements whose objectives and activities are in harmony with the Basis, purpose and functions of the WCC can meet and cooperate.

Churches which are not members of the WCC

4.11 The Roman Catholic Church has been, since the Second Vatican Council, an active participant in the ecumenical movement and a valued partner in numerous ways with the WCC (especially through the Joint Working Group and participation in the Commission on Faith and Order). The member churches of the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church are inspired by the same vision of God's plan to unite all things in Christ. It is inconceivable that either the WCC or the Roman Catholic Church could pursue its ecumenical calling without the collaboration of the other; and it is to be hoped that both will find ways to deepen and expand this relationship, particularly since the Roman Catholic Church has in recent years become part of a growing number of local, national and regional ecumenical bodies of which WCC member churches are also part. While membership in the WCC is by no means the only way for the churches to work together on a worldwide level, some member churches of the WCC which maintain bilateral relations with the Roman Catholic Church believe that the fellowship of the WCC is impoverished by the absence of the Roman Catholic Church from this circle of churches.

4.12 The fellowship of the WCC is limited by the absence of other churches which, for various reasons, have not sought membership. For example, unjustifiable barriers have arisen between the WCC and some Evangelical and Pentecostal churches because of tendencies on both sides to caricature or remain indifferent to each other. Some of these barriers have begun to break down through the development of ongoing contacts between the WCC and other bodies, such as the World Evangelical Fellowship. These efforts should be sustained by the search for new forms of relationships at all levels between WCC member churches, other churches and other ecumenical organizations.

Other organizations and groups

4.13 The inseparable connection between work for the unity of the church and work for the healing and wholeness of all creation will often bring the Council into dialogue and collaboration with persons, groups and organizations that are not identified by a specific Christian purpose or commitment. This includes in particular representative organizations of other faith communities or inter-religious bodies. While in these cases a structural relationship would be not be possible or appropriate, they are indispensable partners for the WCC in its effort to foster dialogue and cooperation with people of other faiths in order to build viable human communities.

4.14 Mention must also be made of the large number of international non-governmental organizations and other groupings of civil society at the national and international levels, as well as governmental and inter-governmental institutions, particularly the United Nations and its various specialized agencies (with which the Council has long maintained consultative status). The challenges of globalization and the search for an international order of justice and peace necessitate close contacts between the WCC and such organizations.

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© 2001 by Ulrich Schmitthenner • Bildschirm-Version