8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on the Way
Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC:
Constitutional Implications

by Georges Tsetsis

During the previous session we have been introduced to the general directions of the document "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC", and have participated in the discussion which followed. Now it is time to consider the constitutional and practical implications of this document for the day to day life of the World Council of Churches.

Before we get down to essentials, however, it is important to mention specifically the question which has been at the heart of the churches'common process of reflection from the beginning, namely: who is responsible for promoting Christian unity? - the WCC as an institution, as stipulated by Article III of the present constitution? or the member churches themselves, or these churches which, within the framework created in the WCC, "call one another to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship...and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe"?

The second related question was, what would be the functions and purposes of the WCC, in view of the new role which the member churches would exercise in future within this "fellowship of churches", at the same time working together with other partners who are also committed to the one ecumenical movement?

It was with these two questions on its agenda that the outgoing Central Committee had the task of harmonising the WCC constitution with the spirit and the directions of the document in question. This is the origin of the proposed amendments which you have before you.

1. Proposed amendments to the constitution

Article III on the functions and purposes: The first proposal is to amend article III of the constitution, which speaks of the functions and purposes of the WCC. In fact, proposals for constitutional amendments were already made when the document "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC"(CUV) underwent its first reading three years ago. These were then crystallized at the 48th WCC central committee meeting in September 1997, in the light of comments made by the member churches.

The amendments proposed by the central committee are found in the Assembly Workbook, beginning on page 121; the proposed changes are printed in bold type, parallel to the corresponding portions of the present constitution. As you can see, the proposed article radically changes the basic set-up and roles assigned in the WCC. Henceforth, it is no longer to be the Council which calls the churches to the goal of their visible unity; rather it is the churches themselves which are to make use of the platform offered by the WCC to promote their unity and to work together to fulfil the purposes for which they founded it. This rewriting of the article notably specifies that the WCC is the heir and the continuation of the world movements which preceded it, namely Faith and Order, Life and Work, the International Missionary Council and the World Council of Christian Education. It is also emphasised that the WCC should "strengthen the one ecumenical movement" by nurturing relations with non-member churches, and also with ecumenical organisations at local, regional and international levels.

Other proposed amendments to the constitution affect article V on organization, specifically:

(a) page 124: on the assembly's function in determining the overall policies of the WCC (consisting in the insertion of a single word in Article V.1.c)3), and (b) page 125: on the central committee's function regarding:
  • the method of election the collegial presidency of the WCC (V.2.c), para. 1), which it is proposed would no longer be done by the assembly itself, but by the central committee (it is important to note that this amendment would entail minor changes to paras. 1.c and 2.b of article V)
  • the method of electing WCC commissions (V.2.c)4), which now becomes one of the prerogatives of the central committee
  • responsibility for WCC programmes and activities (V.2.c)5) within the policies adopted by the assembly.
2. Amendments to the WCC rules proposed by the central committee

In parallel to the proposed amendments to the constitution, the central committee is submitting to this assembly a certain number of proposed changes to the WCC rules, to make these compatible with the new provisions of the constitution (if adopted). It would be appropriate to emphasise that these amendments also reflect the provisions already made by the central committee to ensure that the main directions advocated by the document "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC" (CUV) are clearly reflected in the WCC's working structures.

These proposed amendments are also to be found in the Assembly Workbook, printed in italics. To be precise:

  • on pages 129-130 we have proposed changes to the criteria for membership of the Council and for associate membership, and for the financial obligations of member churches to the WCC.
  • page 137: on the role of the central committee's appointed Nominating Committee in electing the presidents;
  • page 138: on the function of the central committee in electing the Programme Committee;
  • also on page 138: on determining priorities and policies for the WCC.
3. Procedure to be followed

In conclusion, I would like to inform you that all member churches have been duly informed of these proposed amendments, in accordance with the rules, and to note that the general secretariat has not received any reaction from the churches to either the content or the nature of these proposed amendments within the time frame specified by the WCC constitution, namely six months prior to the date of the assembly.

The assembly participants are now cordially invited to comment on the proposed amendments, in so far as they wish to do so. Your comments and suggestions will be submitted to the Policy Reference Committee I of the assembly, which will have the task of working out the final text to be submitted to you later for your approval.

Go to Implications of the Policy Statement:
Broader Proposals for Institutional Change, by Marion Best

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