An ecumenism of the heart
by Sr. Donna Geernaert, SC
Gathering for a WCC Assembly in Germany
At the invitation of the churches in Germany, Alsace–Lorraine, and Switzerland, the World Council of Churches (WCC)
will hold its 11th General Assembly
in Karlsruhe, Germany, from August 31 to September 8, 2022. Usually held every eight years, this assembly comes after a year’s delay because of the COVID pandemic which has taken many lives and highlighted the profound inequalities that exist in contemporary society. Bringing together more than 4000 participants from all over the world, a WCC Assembly is a special event in the lives of its 350 member churches, ecumenical partners, and other churches. With a membership including most of the world’s Orthodox churches, scores of Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Reformed churches as well as many charismatic, independent, united, and uniting churches, a WCC Assembly is the most diverse Christian gathering of its size in the world. It is a unique opportunity for the churches to deepen their commitment to visible unity and common witness.
As the highest governing body of the WCC, the General Assembly is the only time when the entire fellowship of member churches comes together in one place for prayer and deliberation. It has the mandate to review programs, issue public statements, and determine the overall policies of the WCC. It also elects the Council’s eight presidents and its 150 member Central Committee to oversee the WCC’s work until its next assembly. Each of the WCC member churches selects its own delegates to the Assembly, with allowance made in the allocation of delegates for balancing of confessional, cultural, and regional representation. At this upcoming Assembly, there will be approximately 45 Canadian delegates who have already begun to meet in preparation for their participation. In addition to delegates and advisors from member churches, there will also be a number of delegated representatives form associated organizations and from non-member churches like the Catholic Church and Pentecostal churches with whom the WCC is in dialogue. Considerable effort is made to bring together as wide as possible a group of participants, and in recent years extensive programs have been organized for visitors. Worship and Bible study give the Assembly its spiritual and theological grounding. Small group sessions invite the building of friendships and community across multiple boundaries, and some enjoy the experience of the Assembly as a kind of Christian festival.
The relationship between the Catholic Church and the WCC is monitored by a Joint Working Group
(JWG). Established in 1965 to support ongoing dialogue and collaboration, the JWG has an advisory role to its parent bodies, namely the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
(PCPCU) and the Assembly of the WCC to which it regularly presents an account of its activities. In this context, the Catholic Church through the PCPCU appoints 12 Catholic theologians as members of the Faith and Order Plenary Commission
, and 18 members of the JWG. About 12 experts are invited regularly to different programs of the WCC, and two full-time Catholic staff members are seconded to the WCC office in Geneva. During its second five-year mandate, the JWG studied the possibility of Catholic membership in the WCC. Over the course of this study, the JWG became increasingly aware of disparity between the two bodies, particularly in terms of relative size and differing organizational structures, which would present challenges for both. In 1972, the focus of the JWG shifted from the membership issue to improved collaboration.
Exploring the Assembly theme
A 24-page reflection booklet
on the Assembly theme, “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity”, notes this is the first time “love” has been part of an assembly theme and calls for an “ecumenism of the heart” in a broken world.
“Many people among the churches are urging that our seeking of unity must be not only intellectual, institutional, and formal, but also based on relationship, in common prayer, and, above all, in mutual affection and love,” the text asserts (p. 19). God’s foremost attitude to the world is love which “more than ideas and ideals, gathers, inspires, and creates unity”. As the language of our faith, love “can actively and prophetically engage the world as we see and experience it today in a way that will make a difference for a shared tomorrow” (p. 20). “Those who are in Christ, . . . are called to do so in this world, . . . living as a sign and a foretaste of the kingdom to come and making visible the love that fills our hearts with joy, even on the bleakest days” (p. 4). Churches are called to be a sign of this sacrificial love of Christ. “This witness does not come from human effort alone . . . but is made possible by the love of Christ working in us” (p. 16). Further, churches are not only witnesses to the world but, as part of the world God has made, “Already, within the church itself, the world is being gathered into unity” (p. 17). Affirming the need for a “renewed ecumenical movement for the sake of the world”, the text says that churches “are called by the risen Christ to be ‘sent’ into the very public and open spaces of the world, to reframe our corporate sense of what matters, to make idols fall, and to be part of welcoming the kingdom of God in which the poor are blessed and captives set free” (p. 23).
Differing understandings about the nature and mission of the church have been either an overarching or an underlying theme in many ecumenical dialogues over the years, and during the 1970s, the concept of koinonia
(communion) has emerged as central to the quest for a common understanding of the church and its visible unity. The term has proved helpful ecumenically, offering a biblical basis for the churches’ search for unity and for their common engagement in service and mission. Dialogue about the reign of God has also affirmed the notion of koinonia
as descriptive of the right relationships God wills for the whole of creation. Bringing the two themes together, there is an emerging consensus about the relationship between the church and the reign of God in which the church, precisely as koinonia
, is affirmed as a sign, instrument, and foretaste, as a “kind of sacrament” of God’s eschatological reign.
Of particular interest is the third phase of the international Reformed/Roman Catholic dialogue on The Church as Community of Common Witness to the Kingdom of God
, which makes use of case studies from Canada, South Africa, and Northern Ireland to explore how the two churches’ actions on behalf of social justice reflect their understandings of the church’s role in relation to the reign of God and what that has to say about the specific ecclesiology of each (nos. 68-123).
Reflecting on the case studies, the dialogue report states: “There is no disagreement between us regarding the basic affirmation that the church is and should be a community of common witness to the kingdom of God.” Further, “Our common understanding of the kingdom enables us to read together many of the signs of the times” (no. 157). In the final chapter of their report, members of this dialogue group affirmed the dialogue itself as a form of common witness as well as a challenge to renewal in both churches. They assert, “In a fundamental sense, our dialogue itself is already an act of common witness, a reconciling experience that calls for further reconciliation of memories as obedience leads us to unity in faith and action, to a common witness in which the signs of the Kingdom are shared with the poor” (no. 198). With its participants coming together from all over the world, this WCC Assembly, too, will provide opportunities for dialogue calling the churches to ever greater fidelity in their common witness to the kingdom of God.
The WCC describes itself as a fellowship of churches who confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour. Usually seen as a translation of the Greek koinonia
, the word fellowship
in this description recognizes that the unity in Christ of all who believe in him already exists before any decision to come together. It is a given reality which the WCC member churches are pledged to making visible; they are committed to being together and to staying together. Succinctly stated at the 1991 Canberra Assembly, the unity of the Church is both a gift and a calling. May this assembly with its focus on an ecumenism of the heart be for the churches and the world at large a Gospel witness to the Christian meaning of love and the kind of unity for which Jesus prayed
Sr. Dr. Donna Geernaert, SC, served for 18 years in promoting ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. She has been a staff member, consultant, and member of numerous multilateral and bilateral theological dialogues in Canada as well as internationally.