Faith and Order Commission wrestles with fundamental ecumenical issues

 — June 16, 199916 juin 1999

When theologians from nearly all Christian traditions – Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic – and more than 20 nations gather in Toronto this month, they hope to shed some light on some of the oldest and most difficult issues facing the church of Jesus Christ.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) Faith and Order Standing Commission will meet June 15-24 on the campus of Emmanuel College to explore such issues as the nature of the church, different understandings of baptism, how ethnic and national identities relate to the universal Christian faith, and who may be ordained to the ministry of the church.

The WCC’s 336 member churches confess a common faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God and Saviour, and testify together to the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are united in their commitment to proclaim Christ’s gospel to all, and to work for God’s justice and reconciliation in the world.

But there are still many issues which challenge the churches in their search for a common confession and witness.

One topic that is sure to attract attention in Toronto is a new study on the ordination of women. The study provides a forum for churches with contrasting views on ordination to “listen and learn from each other,” said Rev. Dr Alan Falconer of the WCC Faith and Order team. “It is hoped,” said Falconer, “the study will contribute to a revision by the churches of their attitudes to each other and the recognition of each other as churches despite differences of attitude and approach on this question.”

Another issue that has generated interest around the world is a proposal that all Christians celebrate Easter on the same date. For centuries, Christians in Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) churches, and most Orthodox churches, have observed Easter – the celebration of the resurrection of Christ from the dead – on different dates. The reason is that two different calendars are used to calculate the date of Easter: the 16th-century Gregorian calendar used by the Western churches, and the much older Julian calendar still used by most Orthodox churches.

This difference is painfully evident in regions where Christians of the Western and Eastern traditions live closely together, as in the Middle East. In March 1997 a consultation in Aleppo, Syria, jointly sponsored by Faith and Order and the Middle East Council of Churches, noted that the varying practices are based not on theological differences but on different traditions as to how the dates should be calculated mathematically. This led the consultation to propose an approach by which all Christians could celebrate Easter on the same date, beginning from the year 2001 when, by a happy circumstance, Easter falls on the same date in both calendars.

Other matters to come before the Commission in Toronto include reviews of the recent publications “The Nature and Purpose of the Church,” which tests the readiness of the churches to agree on a common understanding of the church, and “A Treasure in Earthen Vessels,” which explores the varying ways in which different church traditions interpret the Bible and Christian tradition – and ecumenical texts.

The Commission will hear a report on the study “Ethnic Identity, National Identity and the Unity of the Church” which explores, through theological reflection and a series of case studies, how the search for Christian unity can contribute to justice and reconciliation in situations of conflict. Commissioners will also evaluate plans for further work on “Baptism in Relation to Christian Unity,” calling the churches to take seriously the full implications of their “common recognition” of baptism, and exploring such difficult issues as the relation of common baptism to a common Eucharist, and the continuing practice of “re”-baptism in some churches.

The Commission will also review earlier work in the Apostolic Faith study, the continuing work with United and Uniting Churches, and seek fresh approaches to the celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a long-standing joint collaborative programme between Faith and Order and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Rev. Dr David K. Yemba, a United Methodist pastor from Zimbabwe, is moderator of the Faith and Order Standing Commission. Some 24 commissioners from Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific Rim, Europe and North America are expected to attend the meeting. Monsignor John Radano of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity will be present as a consultant.

Dr Marion Best of the United Church of Canada, a vice-moderator of the WCC Central Committee, will attend the meeting 15-16 June, reviewing with the Commission the new structure and working style of the WCC. Rev. Dr Sam Kobia, director of the WCC Cluster on Issues and Themes, will be present 16-18 June and will address issues of reconciliation and other challenges facing the ecumenical movement today. The Commission will also interact extensively with ecumenical bodies, and commissioners will visit local congregations for Sunday worship.

Posted: June 16, 1999 • Permanent link:
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