Background to the Recommendations for Action - The search for visible unity between the churches

The search for visible unity between the churches

The gift and task of unity

(B1) Any reflection on the ecumenical situation must begin by remembering the commandment of our common Saviour, to make visible to the world that communion which, according to the Holy Scriptures and all Christian confessions, is formed by God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit together. Faith in God the Three in One, which we confess at baptism, is the precious, firm bond which holds us together in a real community, beyond all divisions, though imperfect because of them. This already existing unity must be expressed publicly and given visible form. We must reach a better understanding as to the conditions and the form church unity should take. However, a consensus has already been reached on the necessity of unity within diversity, within which the multiple differences amongst us serve to enrich our community rather than acting as a burden upon it. A community reconciled in this way could also provide a model for shaping political life in Europe.

The burden and mission of this Assembly

(B2) As delegates of our churches, both women and men, we have brought not only the richness of our experience to Graz, but also, concealed in its differences, the material for conflict. But we are agreed that, in the light of our faith and the ecumenical mission of the churches, we have no reason which could justify breaking off the conversation among us or refusing to begin it altogether. We must learn to listen attentively and patiently to one another, as well as to present our various points of view candidly and with mutual respect. This also includes readiness to accept painful truths.

The persisting necessity for reconciliation

(B3) As an Assembly we are united in our intention to testify as an ecumenical community to our faith in the mercy of God, and to contribute, spurred on by G od, to reconciliation in Europe. Nevertheless, we must confess to the fact that, in the past, the churches were often poor witnesses to the Christian message of reconciliation. Even today, the reality of our situation, caused in part by our sins, undermines the credibility of our witness. For example, we Christians are still not in a position to be united around the Lord's table. This scandalous state of affairs should never leave us indifferent, for it contradicts the will of God, and diminishes the credibility of the Church's message. This particularly applies to relationships between women and men in the Church and society, which reveal the sinfulness of the world instead of reflecting the intention of the Creator and Jesus Christ`s work of redemption. In the absence of justice for women and proper appreciation of their capabilities and achievements, we cannot speak of a truly reconciled community.

The gift of the ecumenical movement

(B4) The division of the Church into Eastern and Western churches on the one hand, and the divisions within the Christian Church in the West on the other, have had a lasting effect on the face of Europe, in cultural, political and ecclesiastical terms. The conflicts within the Western Church were exported to other parts of the world along with its missionaries, and the Church`s message overshadowed as a result of competitive thinking and colonial motives. It is against the backdrop of this mainly dark side of the Church`s history that the ecumenical movement is to be understood, which did not in fact begin to gain acceptance until the beginning of the 20th century as the work of God and a gift of the Holy Spirit. Inter-church relations in a spirit of dialogue have led to constructive work together. The theological conversation which has been going on intensively for many decades has produced impressive results, and must now be continued with equal intensity. The opposing convictions of earlier generations have in many cases led to mutual excommunications or condemnations which we must take seriously. Reconciled diversity requires that such judgments be officially revoked with regard to the churches of today. This especially takes place in arriving at theological common understandings and agreements. In a few cases this has made possible full communion between the churches, and in other cases helped us to make firm agreements which have established new relationships between the churches involved on all levels. In light of the reconciled community, we can even learn better to understand the history of our differences as a path by which the Holy Spirit leads us to testify more clearly to the fullness of the truth.

The ecumenical movement and the Cold War

(B5) During the Cold War the ecumenical bond within and among the churches often proved to be an important bridge, across which, despite the Iron Curtain, help reached the churches which had to live under Communist rule. For example, one fruit of such efforts was the founding of the Conference of European Churches, one of the organisers of our Assembly. The pressure exerted by the socialist states on the churches of Eastern and Southern Europe has sometimes given rise to or strengthened ecumenical solidarity, but in other cases has hindered our ecumenical life together and has shown the seeds of mistrust and suspicion, especially since the Communist states constantly endeavoured to weaken the churches. Furthermore, we know of the contradictory role which ecumenical institutions and contacts sometimes played, voluntarily or against their will. We do not deny that much more often the Western churches have lacked interest in their Christian sisters and brothers in the so-called socialist countries, and the solidarity with them left something to be desired.

The ambivalence of the new situation

(B6) With the end of the East-West conflict, pastoral and political opportunities for all churches have been widened an d ecumenical contacts put on a new footing. Old ties have been intensified, new ones established; inter-church aid has been reorganised and beneficial new projects started in many areas. But the new situation has also produced uncertainty and aroused old fears and new anxieties. The ecumenical community continues to face difficult tests of its staying power, and in many places churches are threatening to break up altogether. Most of these problems have to do with the burdens of historical conflicts, which are interpreted and judged in very different ways. And these conflicts are often involved with a fundamental conflict between majorities and minorities in a country or region, such as are also seen in Western, Southern and Northern Europe. Even with great good will it is often hard to find just solutions. But all churches and Christians involved must always be aware that our first and highest loyalty is to God alone, whose Holy Spirit has formed us into the one Body of Christ. Thus we stress, with the Basel Assembly: "All other loyalties (national, cultural, social etc.) are of secondary importance." (No. 77)


(B7) Truthfulness demands that we also address a problem facing ecumenical relations in Eastern Europe, that of proselytism. Even reaching agreement as to the nature of the problem, and the differences in the way it is experienced, are proving more difficult and painful than virtually any other area. We would therefore like first to recall a few important principles: The spirit of respectful and trusting ecumenical community prohibits any form of proselytising. This prohibition has, from the beginning, rightly been one of the central rules of ecumenical life together. No church, church society or movement can claim to be doing Christian mission if it is trying, with financial means or propaganda, to win over members of another confession. We respect the right of all Christians to convert to another confession, but this must never be brought about by pressure or manipulation. Especially in cases of conversion of those holding ministries or offices in the church, it is important for both churches involved to share information, to avoid misunderstandings. As a matter of urgency, we need to clarify the relationship between the ecclesiastical concept of the canonical domain and the human right to freedom of religion, and arrive at a clear understanding of Christian mission. We therefore emphatically welcome the document produced by the joint working group of the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church on the topic "The Challenge of Proselytism and the Call to Common Witness", the insights of which can be helpful for future discussions. In any case, we will have to observe caution and respect in dealing with one another if we are to carry out the Christian mission in Europe together rather than in mutual competition.

Ecumenical bodies and partnerships

(B8) In looking towa rds the future, however, we would like to point out the numerous signs of hope that exist, rather than dwell on the existing conflicts. One of the most notable areas of ecumenical progress is that of church and Christian councils which have been founded in numerous European countries. They hold regular meetings of official representatives of member churches for consultation, to coordinate and carry out common actions, to develop materials for information or for ecumenical work, or to discuss controversial issues with one another. These indispensable instruments for living and working together should be a permanent part of inter-church relations everywhere. In many countries there are in addition local partnerships between congregations of different confessions, which share church buildings and worship, pray together or work together to discover more inviting forms of evangelism and witness to their faith.

Ecumenical initiatives

(B9) Besides these formal ecumenical structure s there is an extraordinarily broad range of ecumenical initiatives, more than can be catalogued. For example, thousands of young people from the north, south, east and west of Europe meet at Taizé and many other centres to sing, meditate, pray and discuss together. With regard to the theme of our Assembly, special attention should be given to actions and initiatives which foster understanding in the midst of violent conflicts or reconciliation after the end of hostilities. These extend from cooperative relief and development aid to organising encounters between people from groups hostile to one another, to community centres. The churches should officially support such efforts on every occasion, if possible financially as well. Ecumenical education, training and continuing education courses are important to prevent conflict, as are all ways and means of promoting shared spirituality. These include especially common translations of the Bible, ecumenical hymn and prayer books an d, not least of all, common days of prayer, such as the World Day of Prayer initiated by women and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. For it is not enough to impart knowledge; there is need for shared spiritual experiences and the practice of a basic spiritual attitude which combines unconditional respect for freedom of conscience with joy in the richness of the Christian faith.

The limits of community among us and ecumenical duty

(B10) There must be no form of unity among us which is purchased at the cost of renouncing the truth which God has entrusted to us. We have no right to suspect our mothers and fathers in the faith of dividing the churches, or accepting division, out of impure and reprehensible motives. In the same way respect is due all those who feel compelled for the truth's sake to hold fast to certain convictions and decisions, even when this limits the communion among us. It would be dishonest to keep silent about such limits, and wrong to simply leap over them. Nevertheless, we must always honestly ask ourselves whether we are doing all that is possible here and now in ecumenical communion, without offending anyone's conscience. In the light of our faith and the challenge of the church's ecumenical mission, we must continue the dialogue to achieve unity. None of us should dare to disregard our Saviour Jesus Christ's prayer for unity, or to turn a deaf ear to St Paul's instruction, still echoing in our heads, to be ambassadors of reconciliation. God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ and has given us to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5.18). We cannot ultimately create ourselves the communion that God has offered to us, but only receive it as a gift from God, by sharing and living out the Gospel together on the way to reconciliation. This is a duty, but above all, encouragement and hope that point towards the future.

© 2001 by Ulrich Schmitthenner • Bildschirm-Version