I would like to share with you the first of two columns on an important document issued by the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church’s official response. Back in 1982 when I was still in the seminary, I remember that a watershed document, “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” (BEM), was published by the Faith and Order Commission (FOC) of the World Council of Churches (WCC).
The WCC is an organization that brings together more than 350 denominations from more than 110 countries, representing over 500 million Christians, including most of the world’s Orthodox churches, as well as Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed and various independent churches. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC but has worked closely with the Council for over 30 years, with representation on the Faith and Order Commission.
Six volumes were published by the WCC, including the responses to the BEM document. All the member churches of the WCC, as well as our own church, were asked the following questions: “Does the convergence document (BEM) represent the Apostolic Tradition as it is understood in your church? What other questions do you believe need to be answered to promote the unity of the church which Christ founded?” The discussion of the FOC dialogue focused on baptism, Eucharist and ministry because they are crucial to the unity of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church which Christ founded.
From the discussions that surrounded the fruitful publication of BEM over the years came the need to discuss in some depth the very nature of the church itself. And thus the WCC commissioned another document in 2012 that seeks to answer the following question put forth by the WCC, “What is the nature, purpose and common vision of Christians for the church today?” This question deals with an important branch of theology studied by all Christians, ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is the study of the church, its origins, its relationship with Jesus Christ, its role in salvation, its polity, its discipline, its destiny and its leadership. To address this central issue of the Christian faith, the WCC published the document “The Church: Towards a Common Vision.”
That document has four chapters and a historical explanation of what led to its publication. A summary of the document follows:
1) The Mission of God and the Unity of the Church — The first chapter develops the idea that God had a mission or purpose in creation in both eternity and human history. God is free to create or not. Yet the very nature of God is love and magnanimity. God is good and loves all creation; he freely shares his life and goodness with creation. There is a divine purpose for his creating and it is “that we may enjoy God’s love and God’s eternal life.” The church plays a vital role in his plan which glorifies God by its very existence and all that follows in the act of creation.
2) The Church and the Triune God — The second chapter continues this line of thought by asking what is the purpose (or nature) of the church. God is the triune God, communion (koinonia) exists in God himself and his plan for the church and all human beings is that they live, not in selfish individualism, but in love and communion, described in Sacred Scripture by the word koinonia/communion. The church is the sign and servant of God’s design for the world. This communion of the church is unity in diversity and includes the local church where God’s involvement is especially visible.
3) The Church Growing in Communion — Chapter three begins with a discussion of the “already and not yet” existence of the church. It is the kingdom of God already begun by creation and the history of human beings and it is destined to be the kingdom of God in its final realization as the New Jerusalem and the everlasting and glorious kingdom of God when time yields to eternity. In this context, essential elements to the formation and living of eternal life in the kingdom of God includes faith, sacraments and the ministry of the church.
4) The Church in and for the World — Chapter four further elaborates the topic of God’s plan for creation, the kingdom of God, the moral challenge of the Gospel, the church in society. This chapter resembles Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes — The Church in the Modern World.
Next column I will share with you the long awaited Roman Catholic response.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.