8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on the Way
3.5. A Common Understanding and Vision: Plenary Discussion

Former general secretary Eugene Carson Blake said at the WCC's fourth assembly in 1968: "Any movement to last must organize and any organization to be important must be faithful to its vision, unwilling to settle down into organizational self satisfaction" (Uppsala Report, p.292). After fifty years of life together, with a changed context in church and society, the WCC reflected on the ecumenical vision. Intended as an "ecumenical charter" for the 21st century, a policy statement entitled "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches" (CUV) was adopted by the WCC central committee and commended to member churches and ecumenical partners for study and action in September 1997. The text was intended to enable churches "to reaffirm their ecumenical vocation and to clarify their common understanding of the WCC". It included an historical overview, a definition of terms, reflection on the self understanding of the WCC, and implications for other relationships. The CUV text was discussed in two successive deliberative plenaries on 6 December, the first moderated by Aram, the second by Soritua Nababan. It then was considered by Policy Reference Committee I, which recommended on 12 December "that the eighth assembly receive with gratitude 'Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches' and urge the WCC to use it as a framework and point of reference as the WCC programmes are evaluated and developed in the future". That recommendation was adopted with four abstentions.

When moderator Aram introduced the process, he said that "the aim of this CUV process, which began in 1989, has been to give a fresh articulation to the ecumenical vision that is faithful to the gospel message and responsive to the needs and experiences of the member churches; to re emphasize that unity is the major goal of the ecumenical movement; to spell out the decisive importance of unity, mission, evangelism, diakonia and justice as the basis of any serious articulation of the ecumenical vision; and to sharpen and give more visibility to coherence, integrity and accountability within interchurch collaboration, interchurch relationships and the WCC's agenda and programmes". He noted that the study process belonged to the WCC's member churches and ecumenical partners, and particularly thanked the Roman Catholic Church for its contributions.

Outgoing WCC president Eunice Santana (Christian Church, Disciples of Christ) also helped introduce the text. She said the term "towards" was significant because the discussion about a common understanding and vision is a continuing process. Retiring executive committee member Metropolitan Zacharias Mar Theophilus (Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar) said the new millennium "calls for a new vision and new action", and noted the challenges of "economic collapse, moral and spiritual decay, denial of human rights, and domination of the rich and powerful..."

Peter Lodberg (Denmark) then interviewed four panellists: Mary Tanner (Church of England), Juan Sepulveda (Pentecostal Church of Chile), Nicholas Apostola (Romanian Orthodox Church), and Thomas Stransky CSP (Roman Catholic Church). Dr Tanner emphasized that "visible unity is at the centre of the ecumenical calling", and identified the marks of visible unity articulated by the Faith and Order commission. Sepulveda urged that we "clarify our common centre" rather than focus on the "limits of diversity", and noted the importance of widening the WCC's ecumenical mandate to include the "high percentage of the world's Christians" in churches which are not members of the WCC. Apostola said that the centre is "God's self revelation in Christ. The further we go from that, the harder it is to achieve unity." Stransky talked about the experience of the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II, and said that participation in ecumenical dialogue means "we can have a deeper understanding of ourselves by having a deeper understanding of others". Marion Best and Georges Tsetsis gave opening presentations in the second session -- which focused on constitutional and institutional implications of the CUV text.

Click to either of the following presentations:

Issues raised from the floor in the two sessions included the following: (1) Orthodox participation in the WCC is a challenge to the whole ecumenical movement, not simply an Orthodox "problem". The Orthodox have felt "isolated and marginalized". What is needed is "a new equality between ecclesial traditions", and a "radical restructuring". The WCC needs the development of a common vision based on the churches' longing for God the holy Trinity. The process for developing this vision should be through consensus rather than votes, but might such a process "silence weak voices"? The proposed mixed theological commission will help address these concerns. (2) Too much emphasis has been placed on arriving at a common confession, not enough on a common calling. The mission of the church has been addressed inadequately by the assembly. Many of our ecumenical struggles are about power rather than theology, and we should acknowledge this. (3) Ecumenism begins with lay Christians, and we should use language that communicates effectively to all Christians. (4) How can confessional bodies contribute to the ecumenical discussion? How can other churches participate? Would an "ecumenical forum" create a more open space for conversation and cooperation by a wider range of Christian bodies and organizations? Does it run the risk of creating a parallel structure, or one enabling churches to disengage from commitments through the WCC? Where are the resources to support it? (5) WCC presidents should not be elected by the central committee, as proposed in a constitutional change, but rather by assembly delegates, as has been the previous practice.

Some 20 participants spoke during the plenary discussions in the two sessions.

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