Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Church: God's Gift to the World -- on the Nature and Purpose of the Church (*)

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Church: God's Gift to the World -- on the Nature and Purpose of the Church (*)

Article excerpt


Impulses for the study on "The Nature and Purpose of the Church"

In the responses of the churches to the Faith and Order study Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry (BEM), many church commissions detected that there had been an implicit ecclesiology, and called for a more explicit and focused study on the church. (1) While BEM itself had not specifically addressed the nature, purpose or form of the church, affirmations in each section of the statement about the church led readers to suggest that a baptismal or eucharistic ecclesiology was an implicit framework for the text, and that the threefold ministry as evident in some Christian traditions was being proposed as a sine qua non of the church.

In the light of those reactions, the Plenary Commission on Faith and Order, meeting in Budapest in 1989, proposed that the overall programme of Faith and Order (F&O) should focus on "The Nature and Mission of the Church - Ecumenical Perspectives of Ecclesiology". (2) The commission felt that such a study might provide a coherent and comprehensive ecclesiological framework for the studies on BEM, apostolic faith, and unity and renewal being undertaken by the commission. The study might also respond to some of the critical comments to BEM, and could draw on the increasing ecumenical discussions on the understanding of the church evident in a number of international bilateral dialogues. (3) The recommendation was that previous work on the topic be brought into consideration alongside that on koinonia, which was the subject of a number of bilateral dialogues, to provide basic ecumenical perspectives on ecclesiology which could serve as an impetus for the renewal and enrichment of the ecclesiologies of the differe nt Christian traditions, and thus for their convergence in the movement towards visible unity. Various themes for the development of the study were suggested - the church as the body of Christ, the temple of the Spirit, the people of God, the kingdom of God and the covenant. The intention was therefore not to develop a detailed ecclesiological system or even an "ecumenical ecclesiology".

The commission also found itself seeking to articulate for the Canberra assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) a statement on "The Church as koinonia: Gift and Calling". This statement, which was adopted at the assembly after a number of emendations, had been a response to a request from the central committee of the WCC. The statement begins with a reflection on the purpose of the church, rooted in the action of the Holy Trinity. It notes that the unity of the church to which we are called is a koinonia given and expressed in faith, worship, ministry and life, and then identifies a number of common actions which might help the churches to realize more faithfully the character and purposes of the church. (4)

A further reflection on koinonia also emerged from a series of essays published by the Joint Working Group between the WCC and the Roman Catholic Church. This was designed as an interpretative study on the Canberra text, setting it in the context of previous ecumenical statements on unity. It was also to be a contribution to the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order in Santiago de Compostela, August 1993. (5)

After the Canberra assembly, the major work undertaken by the F&O Commission was the organization of the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order. This was the first such conference for thirty years, and also the first to draw on the fruits of full Roman Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement. The major theme was that of koinonia, and the conference sought to reflect on the theological and biblical understanding of koinonia, and on koinonia in faith, life and witness. A preparatory discussion paper was prepared and examined in a number of regional conferences. (6) The conference itself explored the importance of an understanding of the Holy Trinity for an understanding of koinonia, and called for a study on the nature of the church -- a community confessing the one faith to God's glory, sharing sacramental and ministerial life, and engaging in common witness. …

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