Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Costly Communion: Mission between Ecclesiology and Ethics

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Costly Communion: Mission between Ecclesiology and Ethics

Article excerpt

The modern ecumenical movement was born in the missionary movement; and the impulses that led to the founding of the World Council of Churches almost 50 years ago in Amsterdam can be traced back to the world missionary conference in Edinburgh in 1910. However, the road from Edinburgh to Amsterdam was not direct, following two separate paths: the Faith and Order movement, focusing on issues of doctrine and church order, and the Life and Work movement, devoted to addressing together urgent social and economic problems. Ironically, when these two movements merged to form the WCC, the originating movement remained outside as the International Missionary Council. Not until 1961 did the mother move in with her child.

This thumbnail sketch of 20th-century ecumenical history indicates the sources of the three currents that run through this essay. Two converge in the document on which I shall focus -- Costly Obedience: Towards an Ecumenical Communion of Moral Witnessing, which represents the final phase of a WCC study programme on ecclesiology and ethics.(1) This collaborative project has involved two of the WCC's programme units: Unit I (unity and renewal), which provides the contemporary bedding for the Faith and Order stream, and Unit III (justice, peace and creation), through which the Life and Work stream flows.

The joint project was deliberately launched to overcome the tensions that have always existed between these two ecumenical movements. Though representatives of the two movements have consistently acknowledged that both the quest for the visible unity of the church and the church's common witness to and pursuit of peace and justice are ecumenically indispensable, the tension arises from a different sense of priority and urgency. From the viewpoint of Life and Work, the painstakingly slow process of theological and sacramental rapprochement among the churches diverts too much energy from the task of tending to the acute suffering of our world. From the viewpoint of Faith and Order, such impatience courts the danger of turning the church into a political agency and substituting collaboration for communion.

Costly obedience

The two historic streams are clearly evident in the subtitle of Costly Obedience: "Towards an Ecumenical Communion of Moral Witnessing". "Ecumenical communion" captures the church-unity concern of the Faith and Order movement, while "moral witnessing" captures Life and Work's world-renewal concern. The Johannesburg report continues the discussion begun in the Tantur report, Costly Commitment (1994), which introduced the notion of the church as a community of "moral formation". Costly Obedience seeks to deepen the ecclesial-ecumenical understanding of community and to expand the ethical dimension of "moral formation".

1. The challenge of multiple formative powers

Before expanding on the theme of moral formation, the Johannesburg report points to various complications.(2) While describing the Christian faith community as one which seeks to shape the believer by telling and retelling the Christian story, the report grants that such formation is often "more challenge than accomplishment", and admits, "We are not doing it very well" (23). Indeed, citing problems within the churches, the report asks to what extent the formation which does take place is not in fact "malformation" rather than "genuine training in the faith". The report does not elaborate on these theological "malformations" except to point to nationalistic, ethnic and racist ideologies that have led to discrimination, hatred, violence and war. Moreover, the possibility that the emphasis on moral formation may bring new divisions within and among churches is candidly contemplated (25).

In addition to these "internal" problems with moral formation, the churches face an enormous external obstacle. The eroding and fragmenting effect of modern life, especially in the West, means that the Christian story is not effectively transmitted from one generation to the next: "We are suffering a grievous loss of biblical literacy" (23). …

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