World Communions, the WCC and the Ecumenical Movement

Article excerpt

What is the role of the "world communions" in the ecumenical movement? How do they relate to the World Council of Churches (WCC)? The question is as old as the WCC itself, indeed it was being asked before the Council was ever founded. Most of the world communions are older than the Council and had been considering the question of their relationship to the whole Christian community before the WCC came into being. However, the founding of the World Council of Churches created a new situation. At first it looked as though this new world body might overshadow the world communions, but it soon became apparent that this was by no means the end of the story. Many aspects of their role in the worldwide fellowship of all the churches remained unclarified and had to be re-examined and discussed from decade to decade. Relations were defined and redefined. No solution fully satisfactory to all parties was ever found, either then or later. Gradually a structure evolved that made a modus vivendi possible. Much was left unsaid, and only when the situation had changed so radically that a serious breakdown in communication seemed likely was a new attempt made to clarify relations.

The last two decades have been no exception to this rule. The world communions and the World Council of Churches continue to exist relatively peacefully alongside one another, but almost everyone is aware that the relationship needs rethinking. The role of the world communions has altered once again; the World Council of Churches has gone through a process of considerable re-structuring. Even if some would like to maintain the status quo, it is clear that it has been overtaken by historical developments. If the cohesion of the ecumenical movement is not to be jeopardized, a new--and common--definition has to be found.

The World Council of Churches seems to be aware of this. A resolution passed by the assembly in Harare (1998) refers to the WCC's responsibility for maintaining the cohesion of the one ecumenical movement. A renewed effort is to be made to find solutions:

   The eighth assembly recommended that a process be initiated to facilitate 
   and strengthen the relationships between the WCC and the CWCs, as called 
   for in the "common understanding and vision" document. The assembly 
   recognizes the unique historical and ecclesiological contribution of the 
   CWCs to the ecumenical movement. The proposed process aims to foster 
   cooperation, effectiveness and efficiency in the quest for visible unity. 
   The assembly noted with appreciation the important work already done by the 
   conference of secretaries of CWCs, and encouraged that this conference be 
   called upon to contribute to this work in the future. (1) 

What needs to be done to implement this resolution? A look at the past may help us to identify the necessary steps.

Similar yet not similar

What are world communions? In a text dating from the 1960s they are described as "communions of churches belonging to the same tradition and held together by this common heritage, conscious of living in the same universal fellowship and giving to this consciousness at least some structured visible expression". (2)

World communions thus share a universal perspective. They represent a group of churches, they seek to strengthen the fellowship among them and bear witness on their behalf at international level. However, despite having all these features in common, they cannot really be reduced to a common denominator. Depending on their underlying ecclesiology, they have a different self-understanding, a different profile, a different ethos, a different shape and structure.

Every world communion is sui generis. Almost all the texts and reports on the relationship of the world communions to the WCC begin with an observation to this effect, and it is very important not to lose sight of this fact. …