An Instrument of the Ecumenical Movement: The Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches

By Mayer, Annemarie C. | The Ecumenical Review, October 2018 | Go to article overview

An Instrument of the Ecumenical Movement: The Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches


Mayer, Annemarie C., The Ecumenical Review


Dates, Facts, and Figures

The official date on which JWG was born was 18 February 1965. It has so far held 44 plenary sessions and produced nine official reports as well as about 20 theological studies and texts. (1)

The JWG consists of two co-moderators, two co-secretaries, and the ordinary members appointed by each of its constituent bodies. While there were initially eight WCC and six Roman Catholic Church (RCC) members, their number increased over the course of time to 18 on each side. With the most recent mandate in 2014 it was reduced again, however, to 10 people from each side. If I have not miscalculated, during the last 53 years of the JWG's existence, 98 theologians from the side of the WCC and 96 from the Roman Catholic side have been appointed as members by the respective parent bodies, the WCC and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), or as it was called before 1988, the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (SPCU). Some members belong ex officio to the JWG and its executive group (such as the director of Faith and Order, the WCC deputy general secretary, the head of the Western Section of the PCPCU, and the Catholic consultant at the WCC).

The JWG meets once a year in plenary session; its executive group, consisting of the co-moderators, co-secretaries, and ex officio WCC and PCPCU staff members, meets at least once between the plenary meetings, and, if necessary, more often. The mandate of the JWG runs from one WCC assembly to the next. At the end of each mandate, there is an evaluation of the work of the JWG by the WCC central committee and the PCPCU. Meanwhile, each mandate begins with the new group familiarizing itself with the particular structures of the parent bodies in Rome and Geneva and with "building a sense of teamwork and of shared spiritual commitment." (2) Each plenary meeting of the JWG starts with a sharing of information drawn from the recent experience of the members who come from different parts of the world. The JWG is merely a consultative body, acting as a kind of think tank, and it is able only to issue recommendations to its respective constituencies, helping them to respond to issues emerging on the way to Christian unity today. The JWG is meant to provide the space to share and discuss important topics affecting the relationship between the WCC and RCC, and to be a concrete sign for the structured and sustained relationship between the two parent bodies.

Today the WCC, with its 350 member churches, represents more than 550 million Christians from Orthodox, Anglican, and various Protestant backgrounds. The Catholic Church, according to the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2016, counts about 1.3 billion members. (3) It is more than obvious that not every WCC member church and not every bishops' conference can send a representative to such a small body as the JWG. Nevertheless, the self-understanding of the JWG is that it undertakes its work on behalf of all the members of the respective parent bodies.

The very fact that this form of cooperation between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches was established and has continued for 53 years must in itself be considered as one of the significant achievements of the modern ecumenical movement.

The Beginnings: How Did It All Come About?

On 15 April 1964, at a small unofficial meeting in Milan--at which Cardinal Augustin Bea, then president of SPCU, and the then general secretary of WCC, the Rev. Dr Willem Adolf Visser 't Hooft, were present--it was agreed that something like a joint working group would be desirable. The meeting participants felt that the time had not yet come for permanent representatives in Rome and Geneva, but that close cooperation was indispensable. Therefore, they thought, a joint group should dedicate itself to sketching out the principles necessary for future cooperation and addressing theological questions and practical matters. …

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