BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA – Delegates to the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches meeting here have adopted a new statement, “God’s Gift and Call to Unity – and our Commitment.” The three-page document opens as does the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and moves immediately to referencing the vision cast in the letter to the Ephesians, “It is the will of God that the whole creation, reconciled in the love of Christ through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, should live together in unity and peace.”
Consistent with the parliamentary process used by the WCC, the three-page statement was amended at several points and then approved by consensus – with just a few individuals disapproving. The only disagreement expressed against approval came from Fernando Enns, a German Mennonite delegate, who was disappointed that the existing points of disunity were not named – such as disagreement on matters surrounding sexual orientation, and especially for him, disagreement on matters of justice and peace.
While the topic of unity has been one of the key elements of the WCC since its inception in 1948, the shape and meaning of unity is in constant flux. One part of that flux is how challenges to unity are changing. Some highlighted in the document are “violence and terrorism and the threat of war, particularly nuclear war;” HIV and AIDS and other epidemics; peoples displaced and their lands seized; women, children and men being victimized by violence; inequality and trafficking. And, it adds, dangers to the creation, resulting in a “growing ecological crisis and the effects of climate change.”
“These are signs of our disordered relations with God, with one another and with creation, and we confess that they dishonor God’s gift of life.”
The paper celebrates the vitality of faith resident in many churches as well as considerable progress made in some ecumenical relations. Yet, it also admits that in some places “diversity has turned into division and we do not always recognize the face of Christ in each other.” Indeed, new issues keep arising “which create new divisions within and between churches.”
The paper offers steps and practices to foster greater unity. “As we read the Scriptures together, under the guidance of the Spirit, our eyes are opened to the place of the community of God’s people within creation.” The paper points to Jesus’ ministry, and adds, “By his life, death and resurrection, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus revealed the communion of the life of God the Holy Trinity, and opened to all a new way of living in communion with one another in the love of God” (1 John 1:1-3).
The paper also lifts up the work of the church as the body of Christ, which “embodies Jesus’ uniting, reconciling and self-sacrificial love to the world on the cross.”
It also speaks to the matter of unity and diversity, key terms in recent decades of church life: “The unity of the Church is not uniformity; diversity is also a gift, creative and life-giving. But diversity cannot be so great that those in Christ become strangers and enemies to one another, thus damaging the uniting reality of life in Christ.”
The church is called to be a sign to the whole of creation of what the life of God looks like, but it is “hardly a credible sign as long as our ecclesial divisions … remain.”
With hope, the paper suggests, “Only as Christians are being reconciled and renewed by God’s Spirit will the Church bear authentic witness to the possibility of reconciled life for all people for all creation.”
As it carries out its work of “service, evangelism and mission done in Christ’s way,” the church is participating in “offering God’s life to the world.”
In spite of all of its problems, the paper affirms “the place of the Church in God’s design” and it repents for the divisions and conflicts that remain – and especially confesses “with sorrow that our disunity undermines our witness to the good news of Jesus Christ and makes less credible our witness to that unity God desires for all.”
It calls upon all member churches to remain committed to “the primary purpose of the fellowship of churches” in the WCC by quoting from its constitution:
“to call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ, through witness and service to the world and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe.”
It offers a series of resolutions to receive one another’s gifts, to commemorate the church’s martyrs, to continue theological conversations, to intensify our work for justice, peace and healing of creation, and to continue to address contemporary social, economic and moral issues.
The paper concludes with “Above all, we will pray without ceasing for the unity for which Jesus prays (John 17): a unity of faith, love and compassion that Jesus Christ brought through his ministry; a unity like the unity Christ shares with the Father; a unity enfolded in the communion of the life and love of the Triune God. Here, we receive the mandate for the church’s vocation for unity in mission and service.”
The paper was commissioned by the Central Committee of the WCC, with an eye to updating the Council’s perspectives and hopes for unity that have been articulated in assemblies held in 1961, 1991 and 2006. The statement was written by a group of 10 people invited by General Secretary Olav Fykse Tveit that included youth, indigenous, Orthodox (Eastern and Oriental), Roman Catholic, those with much experience in the ecumenical movement and those with little. The group included some with experience in the Faith and Order Commission, some with experience in the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism and some with Just and Inclusive Communities. Natasha Klukachwas the staff person who oversaw the work in conjunction with the General Secretary.