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Thomas RyanJune 19, 2006

"I take on as my primary task the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers,” said Benedict XVI in his first message after being elected. Primary task, one might well ask? Is this primary task of full, visible Christian unity something that is even on the radar screen of most church members? And if not, why not? The question takes me back to the early years of my ministry as a university chaplain. Faced with two invitations, one to work in the area of seminary formation and the other to join a national ecumenical staff team, I asked a circle of young couples in our church community where they saw my gifts being best put to use. “Ecumenism? Christian unity?” they responded with (alarming) unanimity. “That’s not even an issue in our experience of church life. Why would you want to devote some of the best years of your life to that?”

The reasons I laid out in response were not, to my mind, lightweight: the prayer of Jesus in the closing hours of his life for the unity of his followers (John 17:20-21); the teaching of the apostles (“Let there be no factions.... Has Christ been divided into parts?” [1 Cor 1:10]); the credibility of the Gospel we preach: that we are reconciled to God and to one another through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; the vocation of the church to be a sign in the midst of the world of God’s reconciling power; God’s own Trinitarian life of unity in diversity as a model for our own. But as I think back, I suspect that these motivations were not concrete enough to hold much currency with my friends, preoccupied as they were with children and careers.

Twenty-seven years later, still in the saddle and riding in the service of the church’s mission for unity, I keep in touch with those friends, hoping that words like those of John Paul II in his encyclical That All May Be One have helped them understand my choice at the fork in the road: “The quest for Christian unity is not a matter of choice or expedience, but a duty which springs from the very nature of the Christian community. It extends to everyone, faithful and clergy alike, according to the ability of each.”

What progress is there to report? The head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, observed several months ago that the last decade has seen Catholics experiencing signs of tiredness, disillusionment and stagnation in Christian unity efforts. “The dialogues and meetings, the visits and correspondence continue, but one justifiably asks: Where is the forward movement? Situations and moods have changed. There is an increasingly clear sense that the ecumenical movement today is at a turning point,” said the cardinal.

Called to Be the One Church

At the Ninth General Assembly of the World Council of Churches meeting on Feb. 14-23 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the outgoing moderator of the W.C.C. Central Committee, His Holiness Aram I, catholicos of the See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church, expressed a concern similar to that of Cardinal Kasper.

In his report to the world’s broadest gathering of churches and Christian organizations, Aram worried that the ecumenical vision is facing a twofold crisis: the ecumenical institutions have started to lose contact with the vision, and the vision appears to be vague and ambiguous. “For many, unity is no longer an ecumenical priority, but rather an academic topic or at best an eschatological goal,” he said.

The good news is that the concern expressed to the assembly, the highest governing body of the World Council of Churches, received an action response. In a plenary session dedicated to “Church Unity: Claiming Our Common Future,” the 691 delegates from the 348 member churches adopted an ecclesiology text as an invitation and challenge to the member churches to strengthen their alliance through theological agreement and to give an account to one another of their faith and the ways they order the life of their churches.

The 2,000-word document is titled Called to Be the One Church: An Invitation to the Churches to Renew Their Commitment to the Search for Unity and to Deepen Their Dialogue. It confesses one, holy, catholic and apostolic church as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, our common belonging to Christ through baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and our call to share in the church’s mission of proclaiming the Gospel and to work for the healing of divisions both within the church and within the human community.

The invitation seeks to state what the churches can say together about the church, to affirm the churches’ commitment to one another within the ecumenical fellowship and to encourage a renewed and more intense discussion on issues that still divide them. It was accepted as an invitation to further and deeper dialogue, and it will provide, one hopes, some of that forward movement for which Cardinal Kasper is looking.

The Catholic Church is not a disinterested bystander. While it has declined to become a member for “structural reasons” (membership in the World Council of Churches is principally by national churches, and the Catholic Church relates to other world bodies as a world Christian communion), the Catholic Church has joint responsibility for preparing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, full membership in the commissions of the World Council of Churches on Faith and Order and on Mission and Evangelism, and provides staff in areas of mission and at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute outside of Geneva. In his greetings to the assembly, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s intention to continue “a solid partnership” with the World Council of Churches in the quest toward the visible unity of the church.

The Ecumenical Indicative and Imperative

The opening paragraph of Called to Be the One Church brings forward a critical cornerstone of the World Council of Churches from its constitution and reaffirms that “the primary purpose of the fellowship of churches in the World Council of Churches is to call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, through witness and service to the world, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe.”

The text reiterates that the churches in this fellowship “remain committed to one another on the way towards full visible unity.” Implicit in the stress on visible unity is a conviction that has marked the ecumenical movement in the 20th century and distinguished it from unity efforts in earlier centuries: the present fact of our unity in Christ.

Flowing from this ecumenical conviction is a grammar based upon an ecumenical indicative and imperative. The indicative is that since it is God who assembles the one church, unity is not something we have to create. It is a present reality given by God to the church and is presupposed in every effort for unity. The ecumenical imperative is that Christians must give expression to the essential unity of the church. It must be lived and be made visible. The work still before us is a consequence of our fundamental communion in Christ, not a prerequisite for it.

The goal is to allow the unity that already exists among us as God’s gift to become more fully manifest in the way we Christians relate to one another, articulate our faith, make decisions, worship and act in the world.

To this end, Called to Be the One Church concludes with 10 questions on recurrent matters to which each member church of the World Council of Churches is to respond by the date of the 10th assembly, projected for 2013. To make sure that the churches follow through, the Commission on Faith and Order is to prepare periodic reports to the Central Committee of the number and content of responses received, deepening mutual understanding among member churches and furthering progress toward the visible unity of the church.

Adoption of this text and strategy of accountability is all the more important given the reconfiguration now taking place in the ecumenical movement both globally and nationally.

A Reconfiguration of the Movement

The ecumenical landscape is undergoing rapid and radical change. Protestant mainstream Christianity is ageing and shrinking, and divisions in many of its churches on ethical, social and pastoral issues are creating confusion and estrangement. Pentecostal groups, growing fastest, now account for one in every four Christians in the world.

World Council of Churches member churches account for another quarter of world Christianity, but it is not the segment where the most energy is to be found. Mega-churches like Willow Creek, with nondenominational congregations, and donor agencies like Christian Aid, World Christian Service and Bread for the World are forming their own new networks. Networking, like that taking place within the World Alliance of Evangelicals, is replacing institutions, and advocacy groups are shaping the agenda.

New ecumenical models and norms are emerging. New ecumenical alliances and partnerships are being formed, and new ecumenical agendas are being set. At the World Council of Churches Assembly in Brazil, there was concern that an ecumenism of partnership and alliance is pushing aside the goal of visible unity and bringing more and more churches to relate to the ecumenical movement as a forum or space for encounter and collaboration.

Aram declared in his moderator’s report that “free-lance” ecumenism is not enough: “We need ecumenical models that constantly challenge the churches not simply to co-habitate, but to grow together, to move from self-sufficient existence to interdependent existence, from unilateral witness to multi-lateral witness.”

One idea being tested in international regional consultations has drawn participation from a wide range of evangelical and Pentecostal churches, the Catholic Church and representatives of World Council of Churches member churches. It is called a Global Christian Forum and would gather a broader representation of Christian churches than currently are members in the World Council of Churches for consultation on issues common to all Christian churches and interchurch organizations. The next global forum event is scheduled to take place in late 2007.

A New U.S. Fellowship Group

Closer to home, this pattern of reconfiguration took concrete expression at a meeting on March 28-31 near Atlanta, Ga. Thirty-four churches and national Christian organizations, representing over 100 million Americans, have formed the broadest, most inclusive fellowship ever of Christian churches and traditions in the United States. National leaders from five Christian families—evangelical/Pentecostal, historic Protestant, historic racial/ethnic, Orthodox and Catholic—made the decision to organize officially as “Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A.” Its mission is “to enable churches and Christian organizations to grow closer together in Christ in order to strengthen our Christian witness in the world.”

The Catholic bishops of the United States voted to participate in this new organization at their meeting in November 2004. A 12-member U.S.C.C.B. delegation was present at the Atlanta meeting, headed by Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, a former chairman of the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. In accord with the structure of the new organization, the U.S.C.C.B. delegation chose Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, Bishop Blaire and Rev. Ronald G. Roberson, C.S.P., of the staff of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, for the three places on the C.C.T. Steering Committee reserved for the Catholic family.

So the ecumenical panorama today presents a new picture. While the veteran partners renewed their commitment in Brazil, they are also sitting at a wider table internationally and nationally with new partners who are bringing fresh energy, resources and vision. Any initiatives Benedict XVI takes to fulfill his “primary task to rebuild the unity of Christ’s followers” will not be greeted with indifference. It seems like a prime moment for his brother bishops, along with Catholic clergy and laity, to renew their commitment as well.

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