Ecumenical Ecclesiology: One Church of Christ for the Sake of the World

Article excerpt

I appreciate what is implied by the theme chosen for this year's meeting of the N.A.A.E.: that, as a result of ecumenical dialogue, we may be on the threshold of a major theological shift--to an ecclesiology developed by the churches together. If taken seriously, this would challenge each church to ask how its own ecclesiological understanding measures up to the emerging consensus. Does our own self-understanding serve the unity of the church? How might this emerging consensus call us to renewal?

This essay has two--I hope related--parts. First, I will try to identify the central element of this emerging ecumenical ecclesiology, drawing primarily on three conciliar texts: "The Unity of the Church: Gift and Calling," from the World Council of Churches' Canberra Assembly (1991); The Nature and Mission of the Church, a study document produced by the W.C.C.'s Faith and Order Commission and now before the churches for their response; and "Called to Be the One Church," an "invitation" to ecclesiological dialogue, sent to the churches by the W.C.C.'s Porto Alegre Assembly (2006). (1) Any such summary is reductionistic, but perhaps it will be useful for reminding us of the extent of this emerging consensus and for framing our discussion. Second, I will suggest that councils of churches are not only settings for ecclesiological dialogue; they are--at least, potentially--also "experiments in ecclesiology." This will require us to revisit the old discussion of the ecclesiological significance of councils of churches, with some new twists.

Both parts of the essay obviously reflect my relatively new position as General Secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. I will conclude by identifying lessons 1 draw from these reflections for my work at the N.C.C.

Elements of an Ecumenical Consensus on Ecclesiology

I tried to have a good holy number, like seven or twelve; in fact, I have fourteen points. Some could have been combined, but I left them separate for the sake of emphasis. The points are not necessarily in order of importance, al though the first three and the last are clearly foundational. Each element named is grounded in the texts referenced above and is widely affirmed in the literature of the ecumenical movement.

1. The church is, most fundamentally, a gift of God, a creation of the Word and of the Holy Spirit. This claim counters the implicit ecclesiology of some of our churches (and promoted by the culture) that the church is a voluntary association of like-minded believers. This is spelled out most clearly in NMC, which puts it this way: "The Church is not merely the sum of individual believers in communion with God, nor primarily the mutual communion of individual believers among themselves. It is their common partaking in the life of God, who as Trinity, is the source and focus of all communion." (2) This means that the essential attributes of the church, discussed below, flow from God and are not simply the product of human industry, let alone human merit. The church is holy because God is the Holy One. It is apostolic because it participates in the mission of the "sending" God. It is one-in-diversity because that is God's essential nature.

2. The nature of the church is best expressed as "koinonia"--which is why, in the words of NMC, this biblical concept "has become central in the quest for a common understanding of the nature of the Church and its visible unity." (3) A good, brief discussion of koinonia is the presentation of John Zizioulas (Metropolitan John of Pergamon) to the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order (Santiago de Compostela, 1993). As he pointed out, the W.C.C., until its New Delhi Assembly in 1961, had a "Basis" document that was strictly christological--and this was reflected in its approach to ecclesiology. In 1961, however, the Basis was amended to speak of God's trinitarian nature, and "koinonia" began to enter the ecumenical vocabulary. …