What Next for Ecumenism? John Gibaut on BEM, Ecclesiology, & the Future of Ecumenism

imageLast month, as part of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, John Gibaut, Director of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Geneva, spoke at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, on the work of “Faith and Order.”

Gibaut evaluated the impact of the WCC’s 1982 document, “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” (BEM). BEM has had an important trickle-down effect on improving relationships between churches – an effect which has been positive though widely unrecognised.

I am often sceptical about the ability of documents to change the world, but Gibaut made a good case for the importance of BEM. This directly challenges Denis Bradley’s claim (which I blogged about last week) that these kind of reports ‘haven’t had the slightest effect on relationships.’

Gibaut also raised questions about what’s next for ecumenism, indicating that a wider discussion about ecclesiology is vital for the revitalization of the movement. I’ve paraphrased and quoted selectively from his remarks, below:

John Gibaut on BEM, Ecclesiology and the Future of Ecumenism

In the 1960s, there was a Faith and Order World Conference in French-speaking Montreal, with informal Catholic representation. This marked the start of formulating a plan about what churches can say together around contentious issues, such as: what makes a Christian? What’s salvation? Where do we encounter God or Christ?

Twenty years later a document was produced: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM), published in 1982 … BEM was sent out twice to churches for response and reaction. … The real strength of BEM is not the text itself, but churches’ reactions to it. There are six volumes of responses to it.

BEM meant that new things became possible. The teaching on baptism tries to heal historical rifts, and mutual recognition of baptism has been happening increasingly since 1982 onwards. Mutual recognition of baptism brings you into a different world of recognition of each other’s churches.

In terms of ministry – the document asserts that you start with the ministry of Christ and of the church, not with the ordained.

BEM continues to shape ecumenical world. It is in its 40th printing, and has been our most widely received document (it is available here online). It is the only Faith and Order convergence statement on these key questions. It’s still being received.

But BEM left churches with some questions unanswered. What’s not in the document is an answer to the question: what about the church? This is the question of ecclesiology.

I think it’s helpful to think of ecclesiology as an operating system, as in a computer. BEM has meant that the churches can agree on applications – like the applications you have on an i-phone – but even if you can agree on apps, with no common operating system, nothing happens.

Our churches have separate operating systems, separate ecclesiologies, separate self-understandings of what church is and how church should interact with the world and indeed with other churches.

We now need to increase our mutual understanding of these operating systems before we can move forward. As part of this process, since BEM there have been other documents:

The Nature and Purpose of the Church

The Nature and Mission of the Church

Right now we are working on a new version, simply called “Church.” We hope to have this finished by the middle of 2012, but it is a slow theological and political process. We hope that in the responses to the text, the churches will find themselves in surprising agreement.

“Church” will be a much shorter text. We hope if it is shorter there is more chance people will read it!

Who are we writing “Church” for? Sometimes we are not clear. Sometimes we think we are writing for the academy, but this text will be more like BEM, writing for the churches.

We want to say where we have come from in our disagreements and what we can say together. … But we are not sure all the churches want to say things together right now.

So where does Faith and Order, and ecumenism more widely, go now in the future? We must continue to work on ecclesiology, and this must be done more contextually.

A key to working contextually is asking this question:

How does the disunity of the church hurt in your context?

As readers of this blog know, I’ve recently reviewed two new books about the Emerging Church Movement. Tony Jones’ The Church is Flat and Doug Gay’s Re-mixing the Church also deal directly with questions of ecclesiology.

Questions of ecclesiology, such as how churches organise themselves, how they change and adapt their operating systems in interaction with the (post) modern world and with each other, seem to be becoming increasingly important.

So to conclude, I’d like to ask you to think about Christian disunity, and to leave Gibaut’s question for you to ponder:

How does the disunity of the church hurt in your context?

2 Responses to What Next for Ecumenism? John Gibaut on BEM, Ecclesiology, & the Future of Ecumenism

  1. Lyle Taffs February 14, 2012 at 7:16 am #

    Hi Gladys

    You have shared a topical and important post once again. Thank you.

    The United Nations once defined Australia as a Pagan Nation because less than 5% (I think) of the population identified as having a religion. Imigration to Australia of people of other faiths may have changed the picture somewhat. However, in the christian context there are some denominations here that struggle numerically and do not appear to be able to confidently look forward to being in existence for much longer. One progressive denomination I can think of here will, I believe, be virtually non-existent in 20 years.

    In such a context, an air of desperation is frequently evident in numerically declining churches and they are very protective of their turf. My personal experience has been that there is considerable suspicion among the pastors/priests etc toward what are percieved as competing denominations and toward people who have not been ‘reformed’ in their image. This results in the conservatism of ‘raising the drawbridge’ rather than the risk of a deconstructive ‘pruning’ that can release new life.

    In this context, someone such as myself who seeks to work across denominational lines has a very hard ‘row to hoe’.The message is often “join us and we will talk further – don’t join us and you don’t exist”. So, is it just possible that (in my context at least) the actually existing church has become, in part, irrelevant to the Kingdom of God? It may sound rather extreme to some people but I am becoming increasingly convinced that to do effective work in the Kingdom of God one has to often go outside the churches.

    Another angle to this suggestion is that there are already christians from different faith traditions working very effectivley in such areas as the emergent church ‘movement’ and in other para-church organisations such as Street Pastors (for example). Again, I know this sound extreme but when there are good things happening outside the churches, why should we bother to wait for church hierarchies to get their acts together? Why should we waste our time fighting obstructionist church apparatchiks? Would Jesus waste his time with 21st century pharisees?

    Blessings upon you Gladys and apologies for my seemingly ’emphatic’ tone.

    Lyle

  2. Fr. Lucas Ong'esa May 7, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

    GOOD WORK DONE. THE CONCERN THOUGHTS THAT YOU WANT TO DISCUSS ARE A REALITY IN THE PRESENT SOCIETY THAT HAS MANY CHRISTIAN CHUECHES, FAITHS, AND PRACTICES. tHE DIFFERENCES THAT EXIST BETWEEN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE SEPARETED SISTER CHURCHES IS ON THE GROUND IS IS BIG. MY OBSERVATIONS: 1)THEY DO NOT UNDERSTAND ECCLESIOLGY; 2)SACRAMENTAL REALITIES; 3)THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH AS OPPOSITE TO THE REALITIES OF THE CONTEMPOLARY WORD INFLUENCES.

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