Not without the World Council of Churches: A Contribution to the History of the Catholic-Reformed International Bilateral Dialogue

Article excerpt

In recent years, I have dedicated some writing to the way in which the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC)--throughout its history, but particularly after the inception of the World Council of Churches in 1948--has understood itself and acted as a world confessional body engaged in the contemporary ecumenical search for visible Christian unity. (1)

In "Towards an Alliance of Protestant Churches? The Confessional and the Ecumenical in the WARC Constitutions (1)" (2), I propose a reading of the 1875 WARC Constitution and argue that by creating a fellowship of churches whose faith was "in harmony with the consensus of the Reformed confessions" and whose order was generally determined by "Presbyterian principles", the founders of WARC were looking beyond Presbyterian and Reformed confessional borders. One year earlier, in "The Alliance, the Christian world communions and the ecumenical movement (1948-1957)", (3) I reviewed the years in which an accidental interface with the Lutheran World Federation, related to confessional missionary work in the Southern hemisphere, led WARC to clarify its ecumenical engagement in post-confessional terms and-accordingly--to take the initiative of proposing the creation of the conference of secretaries of Christian world communions. My essay "Beyond confessionalism: the specificity and challenge of Reformed ecumenicity" includes dements from the previous ones and pursues the attempt to clarify WARC's self-understanding as an ecumenical actor as it faces a new ecumenical landscape in which the same understanding of Christian unity may be translated into models of unity other than organic union, such as mutual recognition.

The present text stems from the same historical concern with the particularity of WARC's post-denominational self-understanding and engagement in the ecumenical movement. By reconstituting the 1961-1969 process leading to the WARC decision to engage in a bilateral ecumenical dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, I wish to provide not only a description of ecumenical decision-making within a Christian world communion, but also a kind of case study on the practice of Reformed ecumenicity in order to show that during the 1960s WARC remained consistent both with the spirit of the ecumenicity avant la Mire of its 1875 origins and with the way in which it had defined its role in the ecumenical movement in the years following the creation of the World Council of Churches.

I. WARC Observes Vatican II, 1961-1965

The theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) traces its origins to the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches, held in New Delhi, India, 19 November to 5 December 1961. During that meeting, the Roman Catholic observers and the WARC General Secretary raised for the first time the possibility that the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity invite WARC to send three delegated observers to the Second Vatican Council, due to open in Rome in October 1962. (4) The issue was discussed once again in Geneva, in April 1962, at a meeting of representatives of world confessional families. In that meeting, most of the confessional families marked by the Reformation expressed their desire to be invited to send observers to Vatican 11. (6)

Still in 1962 the WARC Executive Committee meeting, held in Ibadan, Nigeria, confirmed the decision, previously taken by its officers, to appoint three observers to Vatican II--one from continental Europe, one from Britain and one from North America. (7) It also clarified, especially for a constituency which included very different, if not contradictory, views on the Church of Rome, the nature of this decision. The primary purpose of sending observers would be "to have direct information about the work of the Second Vatican Council". The WARC observers "will not have authority to speak officially for the Alliance or its member churches or to engage in any negotiations on behalf of the Alliance". …