world council of churches

A Local Church Truly United
Lesslie Newbigin, Geneva, 19761

The Orthodox response to the New Dehli statement on church unity described the problems it saw with a "denominationalist" approach, wherein church unity was a question merely of "interdenominational adjustment". In this paper, presented at a consultation on the meaning of the term ‘local church’, Lesslie Newbigin expands on the New Dehli vision, seeking further to define concepts such as ‘local church’, and the idea of ‘all in each place’. In so doing, he gives a greater complexity and depth to Protestant models of unity than had previously been perceived.

What is ‘A Local Church Truly United’?

The one Church is to be envisioned as a conciliar fellowship of local churches which are themselves truly united. In this conciliar fellowship, each local church possesses, in communion with the others, the fullness of catholicity, witnesses to the same apostolic faith, and therefore recognizes the others as belonging to the same Church of Christ and guided by the same Spirit.2
This formulation of the nature of the Church’s unity, forming part of the report of a consultation held in Salamanca in 1973, has been widely welcomed. It has helped to correct the impression that the World Council of Churches, in taking up the concept of conciliarity as a model for unity, was departing from the traditional concept of organic union. However, the continuing discussion has led naturally to the formulation of a fresh question: what exactly is the meaning of the phrase ‘local churches which are themselves truly united’? What is a ‘local church’, and what does it mean for such a church to be ‘truly united’? The purpose of this paper is to discuss these questions and to seek at least the outlines of an answer.

1. The background of the discussion

At the time when the WCC was formed there were, among the churches which constituted it, very wide and indeed contradictory conceptions of the nature of the unity which God wills for his Church. Almost immediately after the first Assembly at Amsterdam it became necessary for the Central Committee to meet the fears of those who thought that, by agreeing to the formation of the Council, they had compromised their confessional positions regarding the nature of the Church’s unity. At Toronto in 1950, the Central Committee adopted a statement which effectively met these fears, and which rapidly took its place as one of the most important statements of the Council. The Toronto Statement made it clear that the WCC was not committed to any particular doctrine of the nature of the Church’s unity; that membership in it did not imply that any of the member churches either recognized the other members as - in the fullest sense - churches, or modified its own belief concerning its own churchly character, but that membership did imply the willingness to gather to seek that unity which God wills. The WCC was thus acknowledged to be a community which recognized the obligation to seek unity but was itself uncommitted to any particular model of unity.

It was immediately obvious that while the affirmation of neutrality was proper and necessary, it could only be temporary and provisional. For a sincere intention to seek unity is incompatible with an intention to remain permanently uncommitted to any particular form of unity. Consequently, the decade which followed the Toronto statement was marked by a vigorous effort to formulate, if only in a very preliminary way, some statement of the nature of the unity which the member churches are committed to seek. The results of these efforts were embodied in the statement adopted at the Third Assembly in New Delhi in 1961:

‘We believe that the unity which is both God’s will and his gift to his Church is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people.’
This statement, as will be noted, seeks to hold together the local and the universal dimensions of unity. However, the early use of the phrase ‘all in each place’ was what captured attention, and the New Delhi statement was often referred to as though it was concerned only with local unity. This trend was corrected in the discussions of Section I at the Fourth Assembly in Uppsala, which emphasized the universal dimension of unity, and which specifically spoke of the possibility of this unity being expressed in a Universal Council.

Movement towards conciliarity
This reference to a Universal Council echoed and reinforced a growing desire to find a model of unity in the concept of ‘conciliarity’ There were no doubt many reasons for this movement of thought, but three in particular may be mentioned,

(a) The Orthodox churches had not been strongly represented in the thinking of the Council before New Delhi. They had not been involved in any of the movements for ‘organic union’ with which many Protestant and Anglican churches had been deeply concerned. Because of the immense authority accorded in Orthodox thought to the ecumenical councils, the vision of a universal council had great importance, and the model of conciliar fellowship held out great hope for the future.

(b) The ecumenical movement of the past 75 years has found its main structured expression in councils -- local, national and global. These councils are not, of course, of the same nature as the ecumenical councils of the early centuries; they are not councils of the one Church, acknowledged as authoritative by all. Nevertheless, they may truly be regarded as proto-conciliar bodies, preparing for and pointing the way towards a truly universal council. The concept of conciliarity, therefore, while capable of creating confusion and ambiguity, can also provide a model which is not wholly unrelated to present experience.

(c) Those who have been accustomed to using the phrase ‘organic union’ to describe the nature of the unity to be sought understood the New Delhi and Uppsala statements to be describing this kind of unity. However, it has become clear that there are many within the fellowship of the World Council for whom this conception of unity is unacceptable. Especially during the past two decades there has been a strong current of feeling against structures which dominate and oppress the individual. This is, of course, part of a general movement of feeling (occasionally also of thought!) much wider than the churches. In relation to the present debate, it has shown itself in a fear that ‘organic union’ could mean the development of oppressive structures hindering the freedom and spontaneity proper to the Christian life. By contrast the ‘conciliar’ model emphasizes the elements of variety and individuality. Councils are gathering of churches which are different from one another and respect these differences.

The welcome which has been given to the ‘conciliar’ model has thus been based upon differing, and not always mutually re-concilable, ways of understanding unity. What is clear is that, in those circles which were unhappy with the phrase ‘organic union’, the concept of conciliarity has been welcomed precisely because it was thought to be an alternative to organic union.

In particular it has been welcomed by those who do not wish to contemplate the disappearance of the globally organized confessional structures which form such a large part of the present ecumenical scene. On the basis of the ‘conciliar’ model, it has been thought possible to contemplate a form of unity in which varying ‘types’ of ecclesial bodies would continue to exist side by side in each local situation, fully recognizing one another, and meeting together from time to time for common counsel, but retaining their separate existence and continuing to develop their own distinctive ‘styles’ of worship, thought and life.

The Salamanca statement, quoted at the head of this paper, is intended to deny this interpretation of ‘conciliarity’. The conciliar fellowship, it says is to consist of local churches which are themselves truly united. ‘Conciliarity’ is thus not an alternative to ‘organic union’, but is rather a way of describing one aspect of such union. It follows that if the ‘conciliar’ model is to be used, there must be an attempt to answer three questions: what is a local church? What does it mean to say that such a church is truly united? What, then, is conveyed by the adjective ‘conciliar’? To these three difficult questions we must address ourselves.

2. What is a local church?

This apparently simple question raises, in fact, the profoundest issues concerning the nature of the Church. The adjective ‘local’ refers to the ‘place’ where the Church is. But this ‘place’ is part of the secular world, part of the world of nature and of culture. What is the relation of the Church to this ‘place’? It is an intrinsic, not an extrinsic relation. The ‘place’ is not just the latitude and longitude of the spot where the church happens to be: it is not external or accidental to the being of the Church. The ‘place’ of the Church is not thus its situation on the surface of the globe, but its place in the fabric of human society. The Church cannot be described apart from its place. The Church is wrongly described unless it is described as the Church for that place, and the meaning of the preposition ‘for’ is determined christologically; that is to say, it is determined by what Jesus Christ has done, is doing and will do with and for the world as its author, redeemer and consummator. The Church in each place is the Church for that place, in the sense in which Christ is for mankind and for the world. Just as Christ is not understood unless He is understood as the Word by whom all things came to be, for whom they are, and in whom they are to be consummated, and as the Last Adam in whom alone mankind’s destiny lies, so also the Church in any place is not rightly understood unless it is understood as sign, first-fruit and instrument of God’s purpose in Christ for that place. And in this sentence the word ‘place’ must mean the whole secular reality of the place including its physical, social, cultural and political aspects.

At this point, I must interject three qualifications before proceeding with the main argument:

(i) One can point, sadly, to very many situations where the Church has not understood its relation to the place in this sense. There are churches which are essentially external to and irresponsible towards the secular reality in which they are set-churches (for example) which are merely imports from another ‘place’ or survivals from another time; churches whose horizon is bounded by their own existence and which do not understand that they can exist as the Church only for the place in which they are set.

(ii) Even where the Church understands that it cannot be truly the Church apart from the ‘place’ where it is set, it has still to face the profoundly difficult question, on which Christians are not agreed, about the relation between the Gospel and culture. There are wrong ways in which the Church can be related to the place, on the one hand through an uncritical identification with the secular reality around it, on the other hand through a merely polemical confrontation with it. Even between these two wrong extremes, there is a wide field of debatable options as the Church seeks to relate itself to its ‘place ‘.

(iii) The ‘place’ is not an unchanging entity. Every aspect of it, even its physical configuration, is in the process of change. For the Church to be for the place in a christologically determined sense means to be making constantly new and difficult decisions in changing context. The relation of the Church to the place is a dynamic one and not a static one.

We return to the main argument
We have said that the relation of the Church to the ‘place’ is to be understood christologically: the relation of the Church to its ‘place’ is to be governed by the relation of Christ to the world. That relation may be described in a threefold way: Christ is the Word through whom all things were made and in whom they have their being; therefore the Church in each place, being itself part of the secular reality of that place, is to love and cherish all of it in its created goodness. Christ is the one in whom all things are to be consummated and to find their true reconciliation; therefore the Church in each place is to be a sign of the truth and for which everything in the secular reality of that place exists. Christ is the one who has been made flesh, died and has risen again in order to take away the sins of the world and to reconcile all to the Father; therefore the Church in each place, always ‘bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus’, sharing through him in the messianic tribulations which are the mark of the continuing conflict between the reign of God and the power of evil, will also manifest in its life the victorious life of the risen Jesus (II Cor. 4: 10). Thus the Church in each place is to be the sign, instrument and foretaste of the reign of God present in Christ for that place; a sign, planted in the midst of the present realities of the place but pointing beyond them to the future which God has promised; an instrument available for God’s use in the doing of his will for that place; a foretaste - manifesting and enjoying already in the midst of the messianic tribulations a genuine foretaste of the peace and joy of God’s reign. As often as it gathers to hear God’s word and to share in the eucharistic celebration, the Church is renewed as the body of Christ in and for that place.

In order that the Church may truly be sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s purpose to consummate all things in Christ, it must in each place be credible as such a sign, foretaste and instrument in relation to the secular realities of that place. Hence from the very beginning the Church has assumed forms which are related to the secular realities in which it lived its life. All the structures of the Church through history - ministry, synods and councils, dioceses and parishes, national churches, etc. - have been shaped (with greater or less effectiveness and relevance) in relation to the secular structures of the time and place. This must be so if the Church is to be true to its proper nature. When the Church, on the other hand, tries to order its life simply in relation to its own concerns and for the purpose of its own continued existence, it is untrue to its proper nature.

The meaning of ‘place’
If the Church is thus necessarily and intrinsically related to the place, what is the meaning of the word ‘place’? The answer to this question must necessarily be complex, for, except in very simple rural societies, most human beings live at the same time in several ‘places’. That is to say, each person (especially in a ‘modem’ type of society) participates at the same time in a variety of different kinds of secular realities, each of which has to be taken seriously. There is the actual geographical place of his residence. There is the world of work in industry or a profession, the world of kinship and a shared language, the world of shared political or ideological commitment and many others. In a very simple rural society, these different worlds largely coalesce. In a ‘modem’ urban society they pull the same person in several different directions and involve him in different secular commitments. If the Church is to be a sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s purpose to consummate all things in Christ, how can it be actually related to all these different worlds at the same time? Is it enough to define the ‘place’ simply in terms of the location of a man’s residence?

We may begin by recognizing that, as a matter of fact, the Church has in the course of its history accepted a number of other criteria than simple geographical location for determining the proper form of the congregation. The most obvious of these is language. It is normal that in a city with many linguistic groups, congregations are organized for those of different languages. This is generally recognized as proper, since it is proper that people should worship God in their own language. It is also common to find congregations organized in relation to a particular sector of society - college chaplaincies, for example. Common, but much more questionable, is the fact that congregations are organized on an ethnic basis even when this is not openly admitted. Separation of congregations on the basis of wealth and poverty is equally common, but this often coincides with geographical location where large cities have rich and poor quarters. Finally, there is the fact that Christians meet in separate congregations on the basis of differing confessional, liturgical and spiritual traditions. To what extent, if at all, can these distinctions be recognized as legitimate in defining the ‘place’ which is the secular counterpart of the ‘local church’?

In trying to answer this question, we must remind ourselves of the christologically determined definition of the preposition ‘for’ in the phrase ‘the Church for each place’. In terms of this definition we must say that a local church will be a congregation in which everyone who belongs to that place will be able to recognize the call of Christ addressed to him or her in words, deeds and patterns of life and worship which he can understand and receive as being truly the call of his own Maker, Saviour and Friend. The whole existence of this congregation must be such as to mediate to the people of that place the call of Christ which speaks to them as they are but calls them from what they are in order that - in Christ - they may become God’s new creation. We are here marking a path between two opposite dangers. The first danger is that the Church may not be truly local in that its language, worship and style of life belong to another ‘place’ and do not speak to the man of that a ‘place’ as the authentic call of God. The second danger is that the Church may be so conformed to the ‘place’ that it simply echoes and confirms the interests of its members and does not communicate to them the sovereign judgment and mercy of God. The true catholicity of the Church, rooted in the being of the Triune God is such that neither does universality cancel the particularity of each ‘place’, nor does locality deny universality, for the ‘full flowering of the life of Christ must be present in each local Church.3

Thus, on the one hand, the local church is not truly the Church if it merely confirms for the people of that place what they already are. The Lord whom it worships and confesses is Lord of all, and therefore its life must embody a catholicity which calls in question the life-style of that place. This means (as the New Delhi statement makes clear) that each local congregation must be knit by bonds of mutual recognition and mutual responsibility with the Church in all places and all ages. And, on the other hand, these bonds must not be so interpreted that - in the name of catholicity - the life-style of another place or time is imposed upon the local congregation as a condition of recognition. True catholicity will not deny but will confirm a proper particularity in the life-style of each local church.

Factors other than geographical
Bearing in mind the need for vigilance in both directions, what can we say about these different ways in which Christians have modified the purely geographical definition of locality by other factors? What legitimacy can be allowed to these modifications? Let me begin by reflecting on some of the pointers that Scripture gives towards an answer.

(a) The Bible does not see the world as a monochrome mass rather it speaks of ‘the nations’ whose distinct existence is itself the first fruit of God’s primal covenant of blessing (Genesis 9 and 10). At the end their treasures are to be brought into God’s City (Revelation 21).

(b) The confusion of languages, however, is not a sign of God’s blessing but of God’s rejection of man’s effort to construct his own ‘heavenly city’ (Genesis 11). Yet the curse of Babel has been reversed by Pentecost where, though there is still a variety of languages, the mighty works of God are understood by all - each in his own tongue (Acts 2) Pentecost is the baptism of the languages, not their extinction.

(c) Paul resists the demand that those from among ‘the nations’ who turn to God in Jesus Christ shall be required to conform to the law given to Israel. They are to retain their distinct character. Circumcised and uncircumcised are to share together in a common solidarity ‘in Christ’. Jewish Christians will continue to keep the law; Gentile Christians will not. But they will nevertheless be one body.

(d) The possibility that these distinct styles of life might be embodied in separately organized bodies within the local Church is rejected. In the Church at Antioch this was - at one moment - a possibility which even Peter and Barnabas were ready to accept. Paul believes that the whole truth of the Gospel is bound up with the rejection of such a possibility (Galatians 1 and 2). To erect the dividing wall which Christ himself has tom down is to commit the blasphemy of making Christ an agent of sin (Gal. 2: 17).

(e) Christians have always differed among themselves about the proper way of dealing with elements in the surrounding culture which are saturated with meanings incompatible with the Gospel. Such problems are much more divisive in a sacral society than in a predominantly secular one. There will be those for whom loyalty to the Gospel dictates withdrawal from all contact with the pagan ‘sacred’, and others for whom the same loyalty dictates a bold entry into the pagan world which has been desacralized by faith in Christ. The ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ will always be tempted to reject one another as unfaithful to the Gospel; but Paul advises the Roman Christians not to pass judgment on one another in these matters, but to welcome one another and live in mutual solidarity bearing one another’s burdens (Roman 14 and 15).

(f) Christians have often been tempted to divide into parties around the teaching and example of great leaders, and to use their names to define their own identity. Paul severely rebukes this in the Corinthian Church, and bluntly says that it means forsaking the Spirit for the flesh-giving to a human teacher the place that belongs only to Christ (1 Cor. 1 - 3).

(g) Yet human names are used to indicate groups of Christians attached to a household (Romans 16: 5-23). There is no suggestion, however, that these ‘house-churches’, or ‘family congregations’ were distinguished from one another by any sort of cultural or doctrinal emphasis.

(h) In the Letter to the Ephesians, the fact that ‘the dividing wall of hostility’ between circumcised and uncircumcised has been broken down in the life of the Church is seen as sign and proof of God’s long-hidden purpose to ‘sum up all things in Christ’, and the recognition of this fact leads on to the prayer that those who share in it may be enabled to learn ‘with all the saints’ the immeasurable greatness of God’s love. ‘

Taking these indications together one is led to a picture which has the following elements.

(a) Diversity is part of God’s gracious purpose for the human family, but separation and mutual rejection is not.

(b) The death and resurrection of Jesus is the negation of all claims based on some identity which separates me from my fellow man - even the claim which is based on the Divine Law; it is the starting of a new solidarity which is defined by the phrase ‘in Christ’,

(c) This solidarity calls for expression in each place in the form of a unity which neither negates diversity nor permits diversity to be the basis for mutual rejection.

What, then, is the proper form of such local unity? This leads us to the next question on our agenda.

III. ‘Local church truly united’

The New Delhi definition describes the unity of the Church in each place in terms of a complete communio in sacris expressed in a fully shared common life of a witness and service. All will certainly agree that the full mutual recognition of and sharing in each other’s ministries of Word and Sacrament is the indispensable mark of unity. And all will agree that this communio in sacris cannot be - or rather ought not to be severed from the mutual responsibilities of a shared life. For Christians who live in separated bodies to practice occasional ‘intercommunion’ and then to separate again and go their ways as if they were not members of one body is surely a profanation of the sacrament. But, granted this, what is the proper form of this ‘shared life of witness and service’? What form will be a true sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s kingdom for each place? What will be the visible form of a ‘local church truly united’?

In the light of the foregoing discussion we would have to answer this question with the following affirmations.

(1) It will be a Church which takes seriously the full secular reality of its ‘place’ including the many distinct but overlapping meanings which that word may have - language, ethnic group, culture, occupation. ‘Taking it seriously’ will mean recognizing the Church’s calling to be for that place, its calling to be sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s purpose to ‘sum up all things in Christ as that purpose relates to that place. This will mean that the character of the local church will not be determined primarily by the character, tastes, dispositions, etc., of its members, but by those of the secular society in which and for which it lives - seen in the light of God’s redemptive purpose revealed in Jesus Christ for all men.

(2) This implies that the local church cannot be defined in static terms. If it is the Church for the place, it is the Church in the midst of its mission to that place. The unity which it must manifest is, first of all, an eschatological unity, the unity which will be fully manifest only when God has completed his purpose to sum up all things in Christ. The local Church will be a credible sign of that eschatological unity when it is moving towards it, and when it is already embodying a foretaste of it in its own actual life. The fulfillment of this mission may call for strategies of specialization. There may be elements in the local reality which are so alien to the present membership of the local church - by reason of language, race, culture, occupation or other factors - that the existing church is incapable of functioning as sign instrument and first-fruit of God’s purpose to embrace that element in the local reality in his new creation. It is not enough in this situation for the Church to say ‘come - all are welcome’. A few may accept the invitation, but only to become assimilated to the language, culture, style of the already existing congregation. This is not to take seriously the full reality of the ‘place’. Those who are left outside have their treasures to bring into the Holy City - their own treasures, not borrowings from others. The existing congregation must be willing also to go outside the walls of the Church in order to become part of that other reality - in language, culture, style of life. Only does there appear in the midst of that reality the sign and first - fruit of God’s all-embracing purpose.

Separation for mission
At this point we begin to tread on very controversial ground. What do we expect as the result of this going, of this mission? We ought to expect that there is brought to birth within that ‘place’, outside the walls of the Church as it now is, a community which is the first-fruit of the Gospel in that place. It should have its own proper character as distinct from that of the community from which the mission came. The Gentile churches of Galatia will be different from the Church in Jerusalem. The Church in Africa will not be just a replica of the Church in Europe. But is difference the last word on the subject? Is the ‘mission-congregation’ in the downtown area of the city always to be different from the prosperous middle-class congregation from which it was born? Are the black churches in Birmingham to remain permanently different from the white ones? Are the groups which come into existence through the witness of the worker or priests always to be separate from the traditional congregations?

Separation there must be - for the sake of mission. The white middle-class suburban congregations of Birmingham, however devoted they might be, cannot and could not function as sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s purpose or blessing for the immigrants or for the shop-floor workers on the Leyland assembly lines. There have to be communities where these and others can hear and see in terms of their own culture the words and the signs of the Gospel. The Church is not truly local if it does not take these different situations seriously, and if its forms do not provide for them.

But separation cannot be the last word. The Gospel is about God’s purpose to unite all things in Christ. The cross is the place at which all of every kind and place are to be reconciled, forgiven, united; the place at which their different treasures are to be offered not in competition but in mutual love and gratitude.

The existence of separate congregations in the same geographical area on the basis of language and culture have to be accepted as a necessary, but provisional, measure for the sake of the fulfillment of Christ’s mission. Necessary because there must be the possibility to bring to full ripeness the special gifts and insights that God has given to peoples of different language and culture and this cannot happen if some have no place except on the margin of a community of another language or culture. Provisional because the Gospel is the good news of God’s purpose, to bring all these gifts to their perfection in his new creation where - all together - they will shine in their true glory.

How far does this principle extend? We have spoken of language and culture. Neither of these is static. Culture, especially, is something which is always changing. And what about race? The story of the Church’s struggle to come to terms with casteism in India is a poignant illustration of the perplexities inherent in this question. The Portuguese made their first converts into marginal adherents of their own culture. They were assimiladoes co-opted into the foreign ways of thought, life and speech. The great Jesuit Robert de Nobili insisted that high-caste Indians could be Christians without breaking caste, and the fruit of his work was a substantial Christian community drawn from the higher castes of Hinduism. Throughout the 18th century, missionaries both Catholic and Lutheran-accepted caste as a social fact and did not think that they were called to contradict it. In the following century a new generation of missionaries, imbued with the idea of the French Revolution, saw caste as a contradiction of human equality and demanded a total breach with caste as the condition of baptism. This has become the officially accepted view of the churches, whatever the underlying realities may be. Where the Church consists (as in many parts of the country) of an overwhelming preponderance of members drawn from one caste, this means that others can only become Christians at the cost of a total breach with their own kinship group. The missiologists of the ‘Church Growth’ School deplore this and insist that - as a matter of missionary obedience - the Church should accept and welcome the organization of congregations of different castes in the same town or city. Most Indian Christians would utterly repudiate this suggestion as, in present conditions, a denial of the Gospel (rightly I believe). Yet, in situations of racial conflict, we have learned that the demand for integration may in fact be a demand for dominance by one group over another. The assertion of a separate identity may be necessary as the condition for the development of authentic response to the Gospel.

Necessary, but never final. Separation can never be more than provisional. Cultural or ethnic identity can never be an absolute. Only Christ can be the Absolute, and separation can only be for the sake of a more authentic sharing of diverse gifts in a Christ-given unity.

Some affirmations
(3) In the light of this discussion can we come nearer to an answer to the question: What is local church truly united? I suggest that the following things can be affirmed:

(a) Unity must be defined in terms of movement, not stasis. The unity of which the Gospel speaks is an eschatological reality and therefore the question which must be asked in each situation is the question of movement and direction. Not: ‘Is this body of Christians truly united within itself? But ‘Is this body of Christians functioning as a true sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s purpose in Christ to draw all in that place into unity in Christ?’ The unity of the Church at the local as at every other level must be seen in the context of the unity of mankind. One can point to a multi-cultural situation where there is a local church at one with itself but out of contact with the people among whom it lives. This is not ‘a local church truly united’. To be truly the local church in such a situation the Church must be manifestly functioning as sign and foretaste and instrument of God’s purpose to draw those of different cultures into his one family. There must be movement in the direction of unity.

(b) In order that the Church in each place may be truly the sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s purpose of unity, and because there is in each place a plurality of ‘places’; because there is a plurality of secular situations within which the Church in each town or city must live and minister; it may be necessary as a provisional arrangement to acknowledge distinct congregations formed primarily (but never exclusively) by those of a distinct language or culture so that the ‘local church’ takes the form of a plurality of congregations.

(c) But such arrangements must be understood as provisional, looking always to the unity which is the promise of the Gospel. This means that there must be: (i) Full mutual recognition by which the distinct congregations accept and welcome one another, recognizing that their separate meeting represents no mutual estrangement but only the acknowledgement of creaturely distinctions of language and culture. (ii) Total freedom of movement between those congregations and a full welcome for members of each at the meetings of all. A provisional arrangement accepted by all as a means of giving freedom for the development of an authentic experience of the Gospel in each particular community is one thing; and enforced apartheid, especially one defended on dogmatic grounds, is quite another. The latter is a direct contradiction of the Gospel. (iii) Structures which are explicitly designed to promote the growth in unity of those who are provisionally separated. This leads on to a further point which must be separately developed.

(4) How large is the area intended by the phrase ‘a local church’? So far we have refrained from raising this question. In some traditions it is the congregation of believers who actually meet together each Sunday to read the Word, to pray and to share the Eucharist. In other traditions it is the wider family of churches under the pastoral care of a bishop. Within this family there are many local congregations, but all are united in communion with one another and with the bishop. It is also possible to use the phrase in a still wider sense to refer to a regional or national church containing several dioceses but all united under a single head or under the authority of a common synod. On this the following things should be said in this place.

(a) We are not speaking of different kinds of unity at these different levels. The unity of which we are speaking is one reality - whether it is the unity of the congregation in a single village, or the unity which is expressed at the regional or national or world level. At each level and in each place the reality is the same - namely that the risen Lord, Jesus Christ, consecrates’ the gathered believers to be sent into the world as the sign, foretaste and instrument of the reign of God in the form appropriate to that level of secular existence - that of a village, a city, a region or a nation.

(b) These visible forms of unity will include at all levels both the personal pastoral leadership which is appropriate to that level, and also synodical structures through which the common faith of the Church can be expressed. It is true that there are important divisions among Christians as to the relative rules of these two elements - personal and synodical - at different levels of the Church’s life, but the same basic principles apply at all levels because fundamental reality is the same at all levels - namely the reality of the shared life in Christ for the doing of his will at every level of the world’s life.

(c) Where an element of separation is necessary at the local level for the purpose of mission, the opportunity exists to manifest unity across these separations at the regional or national level. There may be congregations which meet separately on the basis of a different language or culture, but they can share the unity of the one Church at the level of the Diocese or Synod. In this way it is made manifest that separation is provisional only, and that it is the one Christ in whom we find our identity whatever be the varieties of our culture. By such sharing in the visible unity of the Church in the larger ‘place’, those provisionally separated expressions of the life in Christ witness to the fact that the Church in each place is for the unity of mankind in all places. It is at this point that the concept of conciliarity can be seen as reinforcing and not negating the concept of unity in each place.

(5) One final point must now be made - a negative one. We have spoken of language, race and culture as possible grounds for a provincial separation as part of the ‘going out’ of the Church to people of every kind. We have not included among the legitimate groups for provisional separation the distinct ‘types’ of Christian discipleship which have developed in history on the basis of the special experiences of individual Christian leaders or national churches, ‘types’ defined by such names as Anglican, Lutheran, Roman, etc. Such forms of separation seem to be roundly condemned by the language of St. Paul in dealing with the Corinthian factions. And the reason is not difficult to state. The provisional arrangements of which we have been speaking are those which arise from the missionary obligation. They look towards the future. It is wholly for the sake of the promised gathering up into Christ of all the treasures of the nations that opportunity is given as a provisional measure for the existence of distinct congregations based on distinctions of culture.

This is a totally different nature from separations which look to the past, which are determined not by the future hope that all share be one, but by the past quarrels through which the Church has been divided, which takes out of the past not the one name of Jesus but other names by which the identity of a congregation is to be defined. This is not part of missionary obedience. It contradicts the promise of the Gospel that in Christ there is the one mercy-seat where all people may meet and be forgiven and reconciled. To qualify the name of the Church by the name of its place to speak of ‘the Church of Corinth’ or ‘the Church of Ephesus’ is proper, because it defines the Church in relation to its true calling as the sign, foretaste and instrument of God’s purpose of blessing for that place. But to define the Church in terms of names other than the name of Jesus; to define one’s Christian identity by saying ‘I am of Paul’ or ‘I am of Cephas’ is not proper because - as Paul says - it is to forsake the Spirit for the flesh. It is to become carnal (1 Cor. 3:1-4).

IV. What, then, is a conciliar fellowship of local churches which are themselves truly united?

‘True conciliarity - is founded on the Trinitarian principle, that is to say, it seeks to make the universal Church an image of the divine Trinity.’4 This is to define conciliarity in eschatological terms; in terms of that to which the Church looks forward and towards which it strives in its mission to the world. The fullness of the glory of the Trinity, which Jesus has given to those who believe in him (John 17: 22-24) will be manifest only when his saving mission is complete and he has drawn all men to himself (John 12: 32). Conciliarity as a model for our journey is that pattern of common life which provides for the imperfect discipleship of each local congregation both the correction and the support of the wider fellowship. It is through this conciliarity that we learn ‘with all the saints what is the length and breadth and height and depth of the love of Christ’ (Eph. 3 :18f). Within this conciliar fellowship the legitimate and proper variety which must mark the Christian discipleship of different human communities inhabiting different ‘places’ is at the same time affirmed and controlled by the unity which is given in Christ himself. Thus the wider conciliar fellowship is not a substitute for unity in each place; rather it is the necessary context in which true local unity is to be progressively learned and experienced. In the wider fellowship we receive the christological correction which is necessary for an authentic local unity. And where, as a matter of missionary faithfulness, there has to be a provisional separation of the congregation in one area in order that the specific gifts of each human community may be brought to the feet of Christ, the wider fellowship of the regional or universal council provides the necessary safeguard against the tendency for these provisional separations to become absolute and permanent. At the same time, the variety of the different local expressions of discipleship provides a safeguard against all tendencies to monolithic imperialism which, in the name of unity, crushes that blessed variety which God the Father has so lavishly bestowed on his creation.

What matters is that the Church should everywhere be recognizable as simply the new, the true humanity; as the place where every human being is given the freedom of his own home where he can know and love and obey God as his Father, and Jesus as his Lord in the power of the Spirit who is himself the living presence now of the blessedness to which all are called. In order that the Church may be this, it must be this in each place where human beings are, speaking to everyone in the language of his own humanity; but it cannot be this unless it is also this universally, unless the local fellowship truly embodies in its own life the universal love which is the being of the triune God and into which He would draw all creatures. The diversity-in-unity which is expressed in the word ‘conciliarity’ must be the mark of the Church at every level from the local to the universal. Local unity and universal fellowship cannot be set against each other. Only if the Church at every level is moving towards the unity to which God calls all human kind is it true to its nature.


  1. From Growing Together into Unity: Texts of the Faith and Order Commission on Conciliar Fellowship, ed. Choan-Seng Song (Faith and Order/Christian Literature Society, Geneva, 1978).
  2. The Unity of the Church: Next Steps’, The Ecumenical Review April 1974, p.293.
  3. Cyrille Argenti: ‘Christian Unity’, in The Ecumenical Review, Jan. 1974, P. 34.
  4. Cyrille Argenti: Christian Unity, in The Ecumenical Review, Jan. 1976. P. 34.

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