The Requirements and Challenges of Full Communion: A Multilateral Evaluation?

Article excerpt

As the Christian churches move forward on the pilgrimage toward full, visible unity to which they are called by Christ, various stages in this journey can be noted. In the last decades of the twentieth century, it became common to use the language of "full communion" for that moment in the journey at which two or more partners were able to put aside what each considered church-dividing and to celebrate together a future as one church. Even when only two churches unite, only on a national level, such unions are of theological significance for all Christians. It is one visible church that we are seeking, one faith, one sacramental life, and one mission that we are contemplating in the diversity of the Christian mystery, which is the church. The real, if imperfect, communion that links all who confess Christ's church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic makes any moment of reconciliation an occasion for celebration and for reflection by all Christian believers.

Faith and Order work in both the World Council of Churches (W.C.C.) and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. provides an ideal venue for theological reflection on these ecclesiological developments within the churches and for the exploration of models of visible unity emerging in particular partnerships and contexts around the world. The focus of this survey will be to review some of the functions of Faith and Order within the one ecumenical movement; to observe the use of "full communion," especially among the churches in the United States; and to suggest what contributions Faith and Order can make.

I. Functions of Faith and Order

The first purpose of the W.C.C. skillfully articulates a clear goal for the ecumenical movement: "To call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and common life in Christ, and to advance toward that unity that the world may believe." (1) It is this element of the one ecumenical movement that the Faith and Order movement is intended to serve. This formulation is seen by some as a comprehensive, brief statement of elements agreed upon among the churches that would be necessary for a consensus in ecclesiology sufficient for the unity of the church. However, it can, in fact, be an ecumenical compromise including the diversity of unresolved goals brought by various churches.

As it is interpreted, often a confessional rather than an ecumenical hermeneutic is used. For example, Methodists may subordinate the faith and sacramental elements to the drive for mission and action in the world, while Orthodox may feel that elements of mission are a distraction from the careful work on faith and eucharistic fellowship. The ecumenical program may be inclusive as stated in commitment to conciliar membership or in the constitutional commitment to seek unity with other churches. Nonetheless, those individuals or groups with particular goals can create competitiveness in the ecumenical community. This can be seen with some Catholics, for example, who prefer a particular Protestant or Orthodox position to that of the Catholic Church. (2)

Councils have an array of purposes, including evangelism, joint educational programming, social witness and service, and common prayer. However, Faith and Order within the one ecumenical movement has the particular task of serving unity through theological research. Within this vision a Faith and Order institution, such as a national commission, carries several functions. It can produce texts resolving issues that divide churches, provide materials for common prayer and guidelines for worship, contribute to the reception of international Faith and Order texts or bilateral agreements, contribute to the coordination of agreements between and among churches, and contribute to the reception of new or muted voices into the wider dialogue. This section of the essay deals with the last three of these functions, as well as some of the challenges provided by contemporary culture. …