One Church of Christ for the Sake of the World: Introduction

Article excerpt

During its annual September conference in 2008, the North American Academy of Ecumenists chose for its study a thematic title that touches the heart of the ecumenical movement: ecclesiology, Christology, and missiology, titled "One Church of Christ for the Sake of the World." The Academy's officers invited ecumenists and other interested people to come to St. Louis, MO, to engage in a multilateral exchange of two fundamental points that would disclose today's ecumenical urgency about Jesus the Christ and about the church understood as the continuing presence of Jesus in the world today manifested by its identity and mission. The points are: (1) That Christ has made humanity one by the blood of the cross is a New Testament given. Living out that oneness is another matter altogether. (2) Throughout the church's history, its nature and shape, purpose and mission have generated a variety of accounts, depending on its status in society and the theologies of specific communities of faith. Is something like an ecumenical ecclesiology emerging, an expression that might inform all traditions? Or, is ecumenical ecclesiology more a matter of a method for reconciling diverse ecclesial structures? Can ecumenical ecclesiology suggest something more satisfying than a catalog of the many ways church is organized and structured?

The invitation was accompanied by a certain enticement: distinguished, seasoned ecumenists and theologians as presenters and responders, as well as interactive discussion among all attendees in both plenary and group sessions. Acceptance of the invitation revealed a multiracial representation of the Christian oikoumene in the U.S.A. and Canada. Presenters, responders, and participants were Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Classical Reformation, Radical Reformation, and Pentecostal. What follows is a precis of four of the papers presented at the conference.

Opening the conference was an address given by the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. As Kinnamon introduced the two parts of his presentation, Elements of an Ecumenical Consensus on Ecclesiology, and Councils of Churches as Not Only Settings for Ecclesiological Dialogue but also Experiments in Ecclesiology, he admitted having searched for a symbolic number of points to offer for the theological exchange. Given the density of the presentation's two parts, it was not only Lutherans who were musing ninety-five theses. More modest and certainly biblical, however, Kinnamon was thinking of seven or twelve points-but came up with fourteen. Throughout them weaves a sacred ecumenical thread: The ecumenical findings of dialogues, bilateral and multilateral, evince an extraordinary consensus on ecclesiology: (1) a God-given gift, the church is inherently one; (2) this unity is inherently a unity in diversity; and (3) the church does not exist for its own sake but "for the glory and praise of God, to serve the reconciliation of humankind, in obedience to the command of Christ." (1) The three points remind us that unity is both a divine gift and a human call; that unity is multivalent, not monolithic; and that unity is missional, interrelated with the renewal of all creation.

For Kinnamon and many ecumenical theologians, one concept best captures the understanding of the church and its unity and mission: koinonia. This multivalent Greek term is often rendered in transliteration rather than translation (communion, fellowship) in order to accentuate its organic and reconciling quality. In his essay Kinnamon recognizes the concept of koinonia as an operating principle of dialogue that has helped the ecumenical movement "conceive of unity as a deepening and expanding quality of life together" and to "overcome the divisiveness of such traditional dichotomies as worship/mission and local/universal." (2) Furthermore, an emerging ecumenical ecclesiology of communion then gives way to diverse ecclesial paradigms from which the churches together may confront the paradox of unity and division. …