200 World Council of Churches (WCC), 1895- (Fonds)

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Identity statement

Reference Code:200
Title:World Council of Churches (WCC)
Creation Date(s):from 1895
Level of description:Fonds
 

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Type of Archival Material:Paper
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Context

Administrative / Biographical history:The WCC was constituted at the first general assembly (Amsterdam) on 23 August 1948. It became the most visible international expression of varied streams of ecumenical life in the 20th century. Two of these streams - Life and Work (L&W) and Faith and Order (F&O) - merged at the first assembly. A third stream - the missionary movement, as organized in the International Missionary Council (IMC) - was integrated with the WCC at the 1961 third assembly (New Delhi). And a fourth stream - Christian education - entered through the WCC's 1971 merger with the World Council of Christian Education, whose roots went back to the 18th century Sunday School movement.

In 1920, the Ecuemnical Patriarchate of Constantinople became the first church to appeal publicly for a permanent organ of fellowship and co-operation of "all the churches" - a "League of Churches" (Koinonia ton Ekklesion) similar to the proposal after the first world war for a League of Nations (Koinonia ton Ethnon). Also calling for the same in the 1920s were church leaders such as Archbishop Nathan Söderblom (Sweden), a founder of L&W (1925), and J.H. Oldham (UK), a founder of the IMC (1921).

In July 1937, on the eve of the world conferences of L&W at Oxford and of F&O at Edinburgh, representatives of the two movements met in London. They decided to bring the two movements together and to set up a fully representative assembly of the willing churches.

The proposed new organization "shall have no power to legislate for the churches or to commit them to action without their consent; but if it is to be effective, it must deserve and win the respect of the churches in such measure that the people of greatest influence in the life of the churches may be willing to give time and thought to its work". Also involved should be laypeople who hold "posts of responsibility and influence in the secular world", and "a first-class intelligence staff". S. McCrea Cavert (USA) suggested the name "World Council of Churches".

Both Oxford and Edinburgh accepted the proposal and each appointed seven members to a Committee of 14, which met in Utrecht in May 1938. It, in turn, created a provisional committee responsible for the WCC "in process of formation". William Temple (archbishop of York, later of Canterbury) was named chairman, and W.A. Visser 't Hooft (the Netherlands) general secretary. The provisional committee established a solid foundation for the WCC by resolving constitutional questions concerning its basis, authority and structure. In October-November 1938, it sent out formal invitations to 196 churches, and Temple wrote a personal letter to the Vatican secretary of state.

At Tambaram (India) in 1938 the IMC expressed interest in the WCC plan but decided to continue as a separate body. A number of missionary societies in its constituency did not want to come under the control of the churches, and there was fear that the churches of North America and Europe would not give to the younger churches elsewhere the place they deserved. Nevertheless, the IMC helped facilitate the eventual entrance of these churches into the WCC, "associated" with it in 1948, and eventually integrated in 1961.

In 1939 the provisional committee planned the first WCC general assembly for August 1941, but the world war intervened, and the period of formation lasted for another decade. Between 1940 and 1946, the provisional committee could not function normally through its responsible committees, but its members and others did gather in the USA, England and Switzerland. Under the leadership of Visser ¿t Hooft in Geneva during the war, several activities contributed to the supra-national witness of the church: chaplaincy service, work among prisoners of war, assistance to Jews and other refugees, relay of information to the churches, and the preparation through contact with Christian leaders on all sides for post-war reconciliation and interchurch aid.
After the war the provisional committee met in Geneva (1946) and at Buck Hills, Pennsylvania (1947). The committee could affirm that the tragic war experience increased the churches' determination to manifest their fellowship of reconciliation. By 1948, 90 churches had accepted the invitation to join the WCC.

Second thoughts on representation and WCC membership resulted in careful regard for numerical size and adequate confessional and geographical representation. The principal membership requirement was agreement with the basis upon which the council would be formed; other requirements specified the autonomy of a church, its stability and appropriate size and its good relationship to other churches. Although some favoured a council composed primarily of national councils of churches or of world confessional families (e.g. Lutherans, Orthodox, Baptists), the argument prevailed that the WCC should be in direct contact with national churches and thus would comprise, for example, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, the Methodist Episcopal Church, USA, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, etc. World confessional bodies, national councils of churches and international ecumenical bodies could be invited to send representatives to the first assembly but would have non-voting observer status.

When the inaugural assembly convened on 22 August 1948, its 147 churches from 44 countries represented in some way all confessional families within the Christian world, except the Roman Catholic Church. On the next day the assembly accepted the constitution of the WCC, and the newly organized fellowship of churches issued its message:

"Christ has made us his own, and he is not divided. In seeking him we find one another. Here at Amsterdam we have committed ourselves afresh to him, and have covenanted with one another in constituting the World Council of Churches. We intend to stay together."

Amsterdam defined the WCC tasks in a general way in its constitution and more specifically in its decisions concerning policies, programmes and budget. The assembly authorized the WCC to make common pronouncements to the churches and to the world, but clearly defined the nature and limits of such pronouncements.

The 1948 inaugural assembly declared: "The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour". Soon this formulation gave rise to questions, and requests for a clearer definition of the Christ-centredness of the churches' common calling, a more explicit expression of the Trinitarian faith and a specific reference to the holy scriptures. The result was the re-formulation, adopted by the third assembly (New Delhi 1961), which still stands: "a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

Less than a confession of Christian faith and more than a formula, the basis serves as a point of reference for WCC members, a source or ground of coherence. Since the WCC is not itself a church, it passes no judgment upon the sincerity or firmness with which member churches accept the basis or upon the seriousness with which they take their membership. Thus, the basis itself comes under William Temple's formula: "Any authority the Council will have consists in the weight which it carries with the churches by its own wisdom."
In 1948 the member churches understood that the WCC was not a church above them, certainly not the church universal or incipient "world church". They understood the council to be an instrument whereby the churches bear witness together in their common allegiance to Jesus Christ, search for that unity which Christ wills for his one and only church, and co-operate in matters which require common statements and actions. The assembly acknowledged Visser 't Hooft's description of the WCC: "an emergency solution, a stage on the road,... a fellowship which seeks to express that unity in Christ already given to us and to prepare the way for a much fuller and much deeper expression of that unity".

What was not clear in 1948 was what this spiritual nature of the fellowship implied for the member churches' understanding of the nature and limits of the WCC or of their own relation as churches to other members. In short, did membership of a church in the WCC have any consequences for the "self-understanding" or ecclesiological position of that church?

To clarify positions, the WCC central committee in 1950 adopted the Toronto statement on "The Church, the Churches, and the World Council of Churches". It was forged in "a debate of considerable intensity" (Visser 't Hooft), even though its contents "defined a starting point, and not the way or the goal" (Lesslie Newbigin). According to this statement, the WCC "is not and must never become a super-church". It does not negotiate union between churches. It "cannot and should not be based on any one particular conception of the church". Membership does not "imply that a church treats its own conception of the church as merely relative" or accepts a "specific doctrine concerning the nature of church unity". Nevertheless, the common witness of the members "must be based on the common recognition that Christ is the divine head of the body", which, "on the basis of the New Testament", is the one church of Christ. Membership of the church of Christ "is more inclusive" than the membership in one's own church body, but membership of the World Council "does not imply that each church must regard the other member churches as churches in the true and full sense of the word". Yet common WCC membership implies in practice that the churches "should recognize their solidarity with each other, render assistance to each other in case of need, and refrain from such actions as are incompatible with brotherly relationships".

Over the years since the Toronto statement was adopted, the issues it addresses have remained on the agenda of the WCC, with continued attention being given especially by its Faith and Order commission to "the nature of the unity we seek". WCC assemblies have made major statements about the unity of the church for the first time in New Delhi in 1961, subsequently in Nairobi (1975) and Canberra (1991). But active efforts to amend or replace the Toronto statement itself have not been fruitful. Indeed, many Orthodox churches have cited the Toronto statement as a sine qua non of their membership of the World Council of Churches.
At the same time, an examination of how the functions and purposes of the WCC have evolved - as reflected both in statements and in fact suggests that the strict "ecclesiological neutrality" of the WCC as advanced in those sections of the Toronto statement which say "what the WCC is not" is only part of the story.

For example, the statement in the constitution regarding the purpose of the WCC has developed from the 1948 formulation, "to carry out the work of the world movements for Faith and Order and Life and Work"; to the much more specific language of Nairobi (1975), which speaks of calling "the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in the common life of Christ, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe"; to the even more detailed formulation adopted by the Harare assembly (1998):

"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 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 would be difficult to see this change as fitting in easily with Toronto's conclusion that "membership does not imply the acceptance of a specific doctrine concerning the nature of church unity". It is of course another question whether this indicates that the churches now take for granted what they might not so readily have assumed in 1950 or that those who represent their churches at WCC assemblies have a different understanding of the church from that of their constituents back home.

It is perhaps not surprising that an "emergency solution" of 1950, crafted in the nervousness of an infant taking its first steps, would not do justice to the collective ecumenical and missionary experience of the churches in six continents after fifty years.

The extensive process of study and consultation "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches" (CUV), launched in 1989 and culminating in the policy document under this title adopted by the Central Committee in 1997, treats the Toronto statement as "foundational for any common understanding of the WCC" (para. 1.12). It then goes on to note how reflection and discussion over succeeding years have deepened this understanding. At the same time, it observes that "for many people the understanding of the WCC as a living fellowship of churches has emerged more vividly through specific initiatives to engage the churches in reflecting and acting at the local level" (para. 1.15). In addition, the long chapter on "The Self-Understanding of the World Council of Churches" in the CUV statement picks up the idea of the World Council as an "ecclesiological challenge" to its member churches, noting that while different churches may understand the use of the word "fellowship" in the Council's basis in different ways, the term does at least suggest "that the Council is more than a mere functional association of churches set up to organize activities in areas of common interest" (para. 3.2). The text also outlines some shared understandings of what it means for a church to be a member of the WCC (para. 3.7).
The Central Committee commended the CUV text to the WCC member churches "to encourage and help them to evaluate their own ecumenical commitments and practice" (Preface); and the eighth assembly acknowledged it as the "framework and point of reference" for the WCC's work in the years ahead. These actions underscore that the issues about the identity of the WCC which were raised in Toronto remain alive in the churches - to the extent that they must continue to be a subject of discussion; indeed, says the CUV text: "it is of the essence of the churches' fellowship within the ecumenical movement that they continue to wrestle with these differences in a spirit of mutual understanding, commitment and accountability" (Preface).
WCC member churches today include nearly all the world's Orthodox churches, scores of denominations from such historic traditions of the Protestant Reformation as Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed, and a broad representation of united and independent churches.

The world's largest Christian body, the Roman Catholic Church, is not a member of the WCC, but has worked closely with the Council for more than three decades and sends representatives to all major WCC conferences as well as to its Central Committee meetings and the assemblies. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity appoints 12 representatives to the WCC's Faith and Order Commission and cooperates with the WCC to prepare resource materials for local congregations and parishes to use during the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
 

Access and Use

Conditions of access:Open access
Language of material:English
French
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Physical characteristics:Good condition
 

Description control

Date of description:2002
2015-01
 

Usage

Permission required:None
Physical Usability:Without limits
Accessibility:Public
 

URL for this unit of description

URL:http://archives.wcc-coe.org/query/detail.aspx?ID=100399
 
 
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