8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on the Way
Implications of the Policy Statement:
Broader Proposals for Institutional Change

by Marion Best

Concluding his analysis, in the July issue of The Ecumenical Review, of the responses to the Common Understanding and Vision process, Peter Lodberg underlined that "the central committee had to adopt a rather conservative and cautious document which in itself will not make a great change in the life and the immediate future of the WCC." He added however straightaway, and rightly so, that "the central committee could not do otherwise than it did if it wanted to be in accordance with the churches."1

In the preface to the CUV document, the central committee stated that through adoption of this text, it did not claim the authority to speak the final word on the WCC and the ecumenical movement. In fact, the central committee recognized that "it is of the essence of the churches' fellowship within the ecumenical movement that they continue to wrestle with these differences in a spirit of mutual understanding, commitment and accountability."2

As a consequence of the reflection process, churches and ecumenical partners have already begun wrestling with a number of specific points regarding the present institutional profile of the WCC. The intensive discussion around issues emerging from the CUV policy statement -- a discussion reflected both in the moderator's and general secretary's reports to this assembly --, clearly indicates that the debate should continue. Many may think immediately of the Eastern Orthodox churches and the meeting in Thessaloniki, last May. One should also add, however, that concrete proposals and recommendations have recently come, as for example, from the Lambeth conference, from the Nordic churches, or from Christian world communions; and others may be expected.

We are therefore entering the important phase of the institutional implications of the policy statement. What are the principal areas of concern? What are the churches asking for, with regard to the future institutional profile of the WCC?

I would like to simply refer to a number of areas where further work will be needed in the coming years. And there is no doubt that the results of this common work can significantly influence and even reshape the present structure of the WCC. Clearly, this assembly is the most appropriate body to give the necessary instructions and orientations for such a work.

(a) Membership in the WCC -- Criteria: At the heart of the reflection process was the understanding of what is implied by membership in the Council."3 The proposed amendments to the Rules constitute a concrete result of the process, and reflect a renewed understanding of membership in the WCC. Yet, the debate seems to remain open rather than being closed. The question being frequently raised is whether there are alternative forms of membership or participation in the WCC which would support the efforts of "being churches" today, rather than focusing on the organic link to an ecumenical organization. Churches' contributions to the reflection process included certain proposals with regard to the present understanding of membership: some argue strongly for participation and not membership, others suggest a review of membership to include the Roman Catholic Church, yet others invite a common reflection which may lead us to a solution "beyond membership". There is also concern among certain member churches whether the purely formal character of the criteria for membership is appropriate for a "fellowship of churches."

(b) Orthodox concerns: Orthodox churches, for example, are among those raising fundamental questions about membership in the WCC. Should the understanding of membership be limited to an institutional arrangement with rights and responsibilities? Could not member churches review the present forms of representation in the WCC, looking together for a participation which would allow a qualitative contribution to the fellowship, and which would take into consideration ecclesiological criteria rather than structural rules and regulations? Related to these questions are Orthodox concerns about the present forms of decision-making. Certainly the Orthodox churches are joined in this particular concern by many other member churches, especially from the South. The suggestion is to explore ways for adopting a decision-making process by consensus, i.e. without majority vote which will better manifest the spirit of the fellowship and permit the elaboration of a commonly accepted agenda.

Having these important points in mind, Eastern Orthodox churches have asked for the formation of a commission after the assembly, to discuss "Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement and the radical restructuring of the WCC."4 This recommendation was endorsed by the executive committee at its meeting in Amersfoort (September, 1998) and is now being submitted for action to the assembly.

(c) Models for councils Obviously, every suggestion for "restructuring" of the WCC points to the need of looking carefully both at the history of the ecumenical movement and the recent developments in institutional ecumenism at the regional and national levels. Recalling the history of the WCC, one discovers that a model of organization based on "confessional families" had been seriously considered, although the present structure of the WCC, based upon national church representation, was finally preferred. It would be important, therefore, to re-examine what was the rationale at that time for the adoption of the present structure and see whether it is still valid. On this same issue, there have also been discussions within the framework of the Joint Working Group between the RCC and the WCC, as well as within the context of discussions about church and ecumenical relationships. Should it not be essential to look afresh at the outcome of these discussions? In the meantime, certain ecumenical organizations have seen the need to rethink and restructure themselves. To give only some examples, the MECC opted for the "Church families" model, including in its membership the Roman Catholic Church; churches in Britain and Ireland chose the "Churches Together" model; Canadian churches formed "ecumenical coalitions" and moved to a forum model. It would be appropriate to recall ongoing discussions on and experiences of "Christian councils", or "councils of councils."

The search for churches' participation and representation in ecumenical organizations, as well as the concern for relationships with churches and ecumenical partners within the "one ecumenical movement" seem to be the major leading forces of this debate around the models for ecumenical organizations. What could be the specific contribution of the WCC to this debate? How could the WCC learn from other experiences? What are the necessary steps for undertaking a serious effort to make the institutional structures of the WCC better serve and better reflect the reality of a "fellowship of churches"?

(d) Relations with REOs and CWCs: The challenge for a possible representation and participation in the WCC structures and its processes of programme planning and decision making has also come from ecumenical partners such as the REOs and CWCs. How would it be possible to translate the spirit of relationships with partners in the ecumenical movement into concrete forms of structural cooperation?"5 Could we explore ways of involving the REOs and CWCs more directly in the structures of WCC decision making bodies? Is it time to engage in a process of reflection about a new configuration linking more directly the global and regional structural expressions of the ecumenical movement?

These questions point to the fact that part of what one may qualify as the "unfinished agenda" of the CUV is to further deepen the whole area on relationships with partners in the one ecumenical movement.

(e) The forum of Christian churches and ecumenical organizations: Today all churches and ecumenical organizations are challenged to reflect on the re-orientation of their work and to assess together what instruments would be necessary in the future to serve the "one ecumenical movement". The concept of a forum of Christian churches and ecumenical organizations was proposed as one way that those involved in the ecumenical movement, whether structurally related to the WCC or not, could come together for purposes of dialogue and co-operation. After a process of consultation involving churches, ecumenical organizations, confessional families and ecumenical associations, this proposal emerged in the course of a consultation which took place in Bossey (August 1998).

The proposed forum is intended to help build more significant, more inclusive relationships. It would give primary attention to issues of Christian unity and common witness with the objective to share insights and information and to build up common orientation. Those who have elaborated the proposal were fully aware that the Forum should not become a new organization with its own administration and the ambition to set policies; it should rather remain flexible, open, expectant and relying on a minimum of rules and structures. The WCC would be one of the partners, not the organizer of the Forum. The intention is not to change the WCC into the forum.

The forum is envisaged as an occasional gathering which would provide opportunities for worship, exploration of matters of common Christian concern and development of mutual understanding, rather than for decision making, programme initiatives or producing documents. The proposal is to be shared with member churches and ecumenical partners for their comments and responses. We are in a very early stage with the proposal and a possible action for this assembly would be, at this stage, to encourage the WCC to continue the consultation process with all those ecumenical bodies involved in this project.

The floor is now open and you are all welcome to share your views. You are also encouraged to present your written comments to Policy Reference Committee I. Its task is to listen carefully to all contributions during this assembly and to formulate guidance for appropriate action by the assembly.

  1. Peter Lodberg, Common Understanding and Vision: An Analysis of the Responses to the Process, in The Ecumenical Review 50(1988), 3, pp. 268-277.

  2. Preface to the CUV Document, in The Assembly Workbook, p. 98

  3. CUV 3.7, in The Assembly Workbook, pp. 108-109.

  4. Evaluation of New Facts in the Relations of Orthodoxy and the Ecumenical Movement, Thessaloniki, Greece, 29 April-2 May 1998, in: Orthodox Reflections On the Way to Harare, Edited by Thomas FitzGerald and Peter Bouteneff, WCC: Geneva, 1998, pp. 136-138.

  5. CUV, chapter 4, in The Assembly Workbook, pp. 113-116.

Go to Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC:
Constitutional Implications, by Georges Tsetsis

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