This is the first major ecumenical convergence text commended to the churches for study and response to be issued since the landmark 1982 document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (Faith and Order Paper No. 111; Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982) [BEM]. The new text The Church: Towards a Common Vision has taken into account the responses of the churches to BEM and is rooted in twenty years of work that included the drafting of, responses to, and revision of the predecessor documents The Nature and Purpose of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement (Faith and Order Paper No. 181; Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1998) and The Nature and Mission of the Church. A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement (Faith and Order Paper No. 198; Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2005).
I represented the Baptist World Alliance as a member of the WCC Plenary Commission on Faith and Order that met in Crete in October 2009. One of our tasks during this meeting was to discuss the 2005 paper The Nature and Mission of the Church. A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement in working groups and plenary session and to offer feedback that was taken into account in the drafting of The Church: Towards a Common Vision. The paragraphs below from the preface of The Church: Towards a Common Vision explain the background, process, and goals of this new convergence text:
For twenty years, the delegated representatives of the Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic churches in a World Conference on Faith and Order (1993), three Plenary Commissions on Faith and Order (1996, 2004, 2009), eighteen meetings of the Standing Commission, and countless drafting meetings have sought to uncover a global, multilateral and ecumenical vision of the nature, purpose, and mission of the Church. The churches have responded critically and constructively to two earlier stages on the way to a common statement. The Commission on Faith and Order responds to the churches with The Church: Towards a Common Vision, its common – or convergence – statement on ecclesiology. The convergence reached in The Church represents an extraordinary ecumenical achievement.There are at least two distinct, but deeply interrelated, objectives in sending The Church to the churches for study and official response. The first is renewal. As a multilateral ecumenical text, The Church cannot be identified exclusively with any one ecclesiological tradition. In the long process from 1993-2012, the theological expressions and ecclesial experiences of many churches have been brought together in such a way that the churches reading this text may find themselves challenged to live more fully the ecclesial life; others may find in it aspects of ecclesial life and understanding which have been neglected or forgotten; others may find themselves strengthened and affirmed. As Christians experience life-long growth into Christ, they will find themselves drawing closer to one another, and living into the biblical image of the one body: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”The second objective is theological agreement on the Church. As important as the convergence achieved by Faith and Order in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry was the official response process that followed. The six published volumes of responses manifested the varying levels of documented convergences among the churches themselves on the key questions around baptism, eucharist and ministry. The effects of the ecclesial convergence surfaced by Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry toward Christian unity are well-documented and ongoing. The responses to The Church: Towards a Common Vision will not only evaluate the convergence reached by Faith and Order but also reflect the level of convergence on ecclesiology among the churches. Just as the convergence on baptism in the responses to Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry gave rise to a fresh impetus toward mutual recognition of baptism, similar ecclesial convergence on ecclesiology will play a vital role in the mutual recognition between the churches as they call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship.“Ecclesial responses” for the Commission on Faith and Order includes the churches that are members of the Commission and the fellowship of churches in the World Council of Churches. It is also hoped that those churches that are new to the ecumenical movement will accept the invitation to study and comment on the text. The Commission also welcomes responses from ecclesial bodies, such as national and regional councils of churches and the Christian World Communions, whose official dialogues among themselves have contributed so much to the convergence reflected in The Church. The specific questions posed by Faith and Order to the churches to guide their response process are found at the end of the Introduction to The Church. The questions for study and response are theological, practical, and pastoral. The Commission requests that official responses be sent to the Faith and Order secretariat at the World Council of Churches no later than 31 December 2015.I hope all readers of Ecclesial Theology will download and read The Church: Towards a Common Vision and contemplate how their churches might respond to the ecclesial vision proposed by this document.