The History of Ecumenical Work on Ecclesiology and Ethics

Article excerpt


It has been widely understood that there is an ongoing tension within the World Council of Churches between the two streams: Faith and Order, which is occupied with classical academic ecumenical theology, and the Life and Work tradition, concentrating on the social-ethical engagement of the churches in the political and economic realities of the world.

Thus much theological research has been done in describing and defining the development of ecumenical thinking in either Faith add Order or Life and Work.(1) But little has been done in analyzing the interaction between Faith add Order and Life and Work, ecclesiology and ethics. I This will be pursued in the following by a theological-historical analysis of how and when both streams have been dealing with the issue of ethics and ecclesiology in their interdependence. Analysis of this kind has become increasingly important because of the manifold experiences of ecclesial fellowship in the course of the conciliar process of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. One of the shortcomings of this paper is that it does not relate the issue of ethics and ecclesiology to the theological work on missiology (missio Dei), that has taken place within the WCC and especially the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism. This task still remains to be fulfilled.

Faith and Order between ecclesiology and ethics

In the process leading to the formation of the WCC in 1948 the Faith and Order movement played an important role in discussing the ecclesiological meaning of unity and the ecclesiological significance of the WCC as an institution founded by confessional churches. The "fathers" of Faith and Order tried to balance between the quest for a theological understanding of church unity and the real, existing disunity among confessional churches by implementing a double strategy which could help safeguard the neutrality of the WCC and the sovereignty of the local confessional church at the same time. On the one hand the double strategy stressed the importance of a pre-existing hidden una sancta in the visible separated churches. On the other hand the strategy wanted to formulate a consensus of how the ideal of church unity might be realized in the world.

Behind the double strategy we find the Protestant distinction between invisible/hidden and visible church, the esse and fieri, the being of the church and the function of the church. The key-word to combine both sides in the double strategy is koinonia. It was introduced by the ecumenical patriarch in 1920 in his encyclical "Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere" and used by the delegates in Utrecht 1938, when they formulated the first basis of the WCC: "The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour".

"Fellowship" is the English translation of the Greek word "koinonia" and in the accompaning letter written by Archbishop William Temple the nature of the fellowship is interpreted within the church-political realities of that day: "It [the WCC] is not a federation as commonly understood, and its assembly and central committee will have no constitutional authority whatever over its constituent churches. Any authority that it may have will consist in the weight which it carries with the churches by its own wisdom." This basic understanding of the relationship of the WCC and its member churches was authorized in the Toronto Statement by the central committee in 1950.

The critical question to William Temple is, is he trying to unite two incompatible themes? On the one hand the WCC is more than a federation, because it is a fellowship (koinonia), but on the other hand it does not own any of the notae ecclesiae that are normally associated with the word koinonia. This means that the koinonia referred to in the basis of the WCC is understood as a reality which is ontologically prior to the decisions of church leaders to form a council. …