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NCC Faith and Order Commission Studies Rich Range of Issues

Is salvation a moment in time or a process? Once a person is "saved," then what? By what authority do churches address public policy issues, and preach the Gospel to people not already part of the church? What is the role of the papacy in promoting unity among Christians?

These are just a few of the issues being studied by the National Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission - the most confessionally diverse theological dialogue in the United States - with participants from historical Protestant, Oriental Orthodox, Byzantine Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, African American, Pentecostal, Holiness, Evangelical and Peace churches.

Meeting March 13-15 in Washington, D.C., the commission reviewed progress on its current studies and began to lay plans for a new study, to be launched in 2004.

Hosted at Catholic University of America on March 14-15, the commission took the occasion to honor the 22 years of service to the commission by Father John Ford, CSC, of the Catholic University faculty. Father Ford also has served as a consultant to Churches Uniting in Christ and its predecessor body, the Consultation on Church Union. He addressed the National Council of Churches General Assembly at its November 2000 meeting in Atlanta, Ga.

Here are brief descriptions of current and upcoming studies:

A study on "Full Communion," which by November 2003 expects to complete the first phase of its work -- a text summarizing how the expression "full communion" is used theologically in different churches, and what other expressions are used by churches that do not normally use "full communion" as a category. This study will continue in a second phase of work in 2004-2007.

The study group on "Authority in the Church" expects to complete a convergence text before the end of 2003. Dr. Ann Riggs, NCC Faith and Order Director, said this study is looking at issues that include: What can churches that claim the authority of apostolic succession and those that assert the authority of the local congregation agree on, and where do they disagree? What are the points of agreement and disagreement among churches that understand ordination as a sacrament and those that do not? By what authority does the one who presides at the Eucharist do so? How do different churches regard the authority of the Holy Spirit in relation to the reading and proclamation of Scripture? The wide-ranging discussion in this group has included the authority of reason, the authority of personal spiritual experience, the authority of the saints and of the example of their lives.

The study group on "Authority in the Church" also prepared a draft that the entire commission affirmed in March, a response to "Petrine Ministry: A Working Draft," at the invitation of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The effort originated from the Encyclical "Ut Unum Sint", in which Pope John Paul II invited theologians and church leaders to enter with him into "a patient and fraternal dialogue" on how the papacy might better serve the unity of the churches, without sacrificing the claims of the Catholic Church. The NCC Faith and Order Commission was among initial respondents. The Pontifical Council synthesized the responses of scholars, churches and commissions into the report "Petrine Ministry: A Working Draft". That document in turn was shared with the NCC Faith and Order Commission with a request for continuing dialogue and response. The commission gives the Pope access to voices he will not hear from any other source.

"The Authority of the Church in the World" continues to discuss the nature of the Church's authority and its application in witness, as these affect the divisions among churches and their pilgrimage toward visible unity. The overarching issue at hand, Dr. Riggs said, is "the responsibility and authority in the world that the Church has from God." This has implications both for understanding the churches’ authority and call to evangelize and for the churches’ ministries of social justice and of speaking and acting in the public square - whether on the war on Iraq, welfare reform or the federal budget. "If the churches together believe that God wills full human flourishing," Dr. Riggs said, "how can we understand the authority that God has given to the Church to foster such flourishing?" This study will continue in 2004-2007.

In 2004, the commission will begin a new study, "Justification/Sanctification/Theosis and Justice/Ethics." The title, while cumbersome, embraces exploration of a number of important questions around the relationship of salvation to growth in spiritual relationship with God, as this is understand by diverse churches, Dr. Riggs said. "For example, is salvation a process or a moment in time? After you’re saved, then what? How are salvation and growth in spiritual relationship with God related, in turn, with the love of neighbor and the pursuit of personal moral behavior and social ethics?" This study "will draw on important international work connected to the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" between Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, and dialogue between Lutheran and Orthodox churches, and will address long-standing disagreements within American Protestantism between the more ‘conservative’ and the more ‘liberal’ churches," Dr. Riggs said. The study promises to rebut the stereotype of ‘conservatives’ being focused on justification and ‘liberals’ on social justice. "It’s not the case that NCC member churches have a concern only for social justice and National Association of Evangelicals members care only about the salvation of individuals," Dr. Riggs said.


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