Making "Common" More Common: Extending the Boundaries of the Ecumenical Movement

By Johnston, Robert K. | The Ecumenical Review, July 1998 | Go to article overview
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Making "Common" More Common: Extending the Boundaries of the Ecumenical Movement


Johnston, Robert K., The Ecumenical Review


Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches (CUV), the Council's new statement on purpose and mission, has been written to serve the WCC as an "ecumenical charter for the 21st century" (preface). On the positive side, both the jubilee of the WCC in 1998 and the approaching new millennium have provided motivation for producing this document. On the negative side, the document notes that impetus for this rethinking of the WCC's vision has also come from a weakening ecumenical commitment by many in its member churches and a growing fiscal crisis.

But beyond these particulars, the document seems to have arisen from an evolving recognition that it is not enough for the WCC to stress relationships and programmes within the Council, whether those be to call its fellowship of churches to be a sign of visible unity or to assist its members in fulfilling their vocation of witness and service to the world. The Council must also become a more effective instrument of the "one ecumenical movement", as it uses its distinctive place to reach out as a servant beyond its borders to engage the world church in its breadth and diversity.

Embracing the whole church

The WCC has insisted "that the word [ecumenical], which comes from the Greek word for the whole inhabited earth [oikoumene], is properly used to describe everything that relates to the whole task of the whole church to bring the gospel to the whole world" (2.3, quoting the WCC central committee meeting in 1951). With regard to the creation of the CUV policy statement, this has meant concretely opening up the process of its development to those both inside and outside the structures of the WCC, even from its initial planning stages.(1) Thus, although a member of a denomination that has not joined the WCC, I have been involved in discussion concerning the WCC's common understanding and vision for the last six years. I speak as one who is thankful to have been included in the process and who shares in the outcome of the document, whether for good or ill. As an evangelical I will be in Harare to lend my support to the recommitment process.

As an evangelical, therefore, my first response to CUV is one of appreciation for our inclusion in the process. In the initial study guide prepared for member churches in 1993, a section was set aside for reflection on "relations with non-member churches". Recognizing that the majority of Christians in the world belong to non-member churches, the guide summarizes the WCC's present practice of trying to make contact with those outside the Council, exploring means of collaboration, mutual exchange and common witness, and seeking closer ties whenever possible.

Theuide then notes as a practical example of this commitment the WCC's interaction with my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church in the United States, a church which has sought to be involved ecumenically while declining to take formal membership in either the WCC or the National Association of Evangelicals or National Council of Churches in the US. We have had both official advisors and official observers at the WCC's last several assemblies and world gatherings, and even brought a group of seminary students and a professor to Canberra, using the occasion for a course on ecumenism. The Covenant Church has been enriched by such opportunities and has sought in return to offer its expertise when provided the opportunity. Having described the WCC's present position and illustrated what that means concretely, the study guide then asks the member churches among other things, "What patterns of cooperation could promote the WCC's relations with churches which are not members?" And again, "How can and does the WCC provide a forum for dialogue with these churches?" It is out of such questions that the present statement was born.

But the inclusive nature of CUV is evident not just in the process of its creation.

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