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Address by the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon
to the

National Council of Churches General Assembly
Atlanta, Georgia
November 14, 2000

Almost exactly a year ago, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America and member of the Vision Committee, published a article in the Christian Century which ended with this question: "What is the ecumenical future that God is creating for the churches, and how can we best embrace it?" That, I take it, is the question behind the creation of the Vision Committee and behind our discussions here this afternoon. What kind of witness is God calling us to make as churches, and as a council of churches, in this country? What is the significance of our life together in this body, and how can it be strengthened and enlarged?

The purpose of this presentation is to prepare for our conversation groups by recalling, briefly, some of the previous discussion on these questions within the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the wider ecumenical movement. I hope that all of us recognize why it is so important to remember this history. An outside observer might conclude, from newspaper reports, that the current proposal to reach out to new ecumenical partners is a purely pragmatic response to an immediate crisis; but such an interpretation would be mistaken. The proposal before us to pursue deeper dialogue and collaboration with evangelical and pentecostal churches, and Roman Catholic Church, is part of a long-standing conversation about the nature, scope, and future of conciliar ecumenism. Indeed, it is an expression of, an extension of, the vision of unity in Christ that brings us here with one another.

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It is important to recall that councils of churches are a new thing in the history of Christianity. Prior to the modern ecumenical movement, there were organizations of Christians from various churches dedicated to particular cooperative projects (Bible distribution, overseas evangelism, and so on). But when churches commit themselves to one another for common service, witness, worship and study, something new is happening. In councils of churches, said the Orthodox theologian Nikos Nissiotis, we "face a reality that goes beyond our capacity to conceptualize it theologically."

The past fifty years, however, have witnessed numerous attempts to fill this theological void. The most significant document is still the "Toronto Statement," drafted by the World Council of Church’s Central Committee in 1950. The discussion on the nature of councils and their future in the ecumenical movement was taken up by the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order in 1963, the same year that the NCC produced an important working paper on "The Ecclesiological Significance of Councils of Churches." Since that time, the WCC has sponsored three international consultations for national and regional councils, the Vatican has produced a set of highly-influential "Guidelines on Ecumenical Collaboration at the Regional, National and Local Levels," and the WCC has undertaken a thorough study process entitled "Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches." In 1992, the NCC followed suit by authorizing an Ecclesiology Study Task Force to report on "the ecclesiological meaning of membership in the NCC" and to provide "new insights concerning ecumenical life in the American churches today."

As I survey this half century of discussion, three common themes seem particularly appropriate to our current situation:

1. While a council of churches is not the church, it also is far "more than a .... functional association of churches set up to organize activities in areas of common interest" (WCC). Put simply, the essence of a council of churches is not only what the churches do together, but what they are together.

To come at this another way, the essence of a council is the relationship of the member churches to one another, not their relationship to the structure of the council. "The Council," to quote from the recent World Council study, "is the fellowship of the churches on the way towards full koinonia. It has a structure and organization in order to serve as an instrument for the churches as they work towards koinonia in faith, life, and witness; but the WCC is not to be identified with this structure . . . ."

There are lots of organizations that provide services on behalf of churches. These should not be confused, however, with a council of the churches themselves. Whenever churches see a council as "them" rather than "us" (as "that organization" rather "our fellowship"), then conciliar life is misunderstood and deeply impoverished.

The flip side of this coin is that whenever the staff or assembly of a council acts or speaks as if the council were something alongside of, even over against, the churches, then conciliar life is misunderstood and deeply impoverished. A council such as the NCC should be a constant challenge to the churches, prodding them to go beyond their perceived agenda. But the challenge comes from the commitments the churches have made to one another; it is not invented by professional ecumenists in such places as New York or Geneva.

2. The fellowship that is the essence of a council of churches is and must be a dynamic reality. This is to say that our churchly relationship to one another ought to develop – deepen, intensify – by virtue of our life together over twenty or thirty or fifty years. Membership does not mean that churches enter the fellowship of the council agreeing about the meaning of unity or the nature of the church. To stop there, however, is to reduce the council to a debating society and implicitly to endorse the present form of conciliar relationship as an adequate expression of the unity we seek. "It is good," wrote Lesslie Newbigin following the publication of the Toronto Statement, "that churches should be reassured in respect to any fear that they might surrender their convictions for the sake of some human organization. But it is also good that they should be reminded that they might fall into the hands of the living God" – and be changed!

To put it another way, the fellowship experienced in conciliar ecumenism is not only rooted in what the churches are but in what they are called to become. Through their mutual engagement in a council, our churches should expect, should demand, to be challenged to more costly ecumenical commitment -- by each other. If this is not the case, then the very success of the council at fostering cooperation institutionalizes our present separations.

3. It follows that councils of churches must see themselves as provisional, must always be prepared to be transformed -- and eventually to die -- in order that fuller manifestations of koinonia may appear. Councils are steps toward fuller realization of life together as church, which is why councils dare not become service organizations aimed at self-perpetuation. Councils, through their programs and decision-making bodies, must insist both on the growing commitment of members to each other and on widening the circle of ecumenical partners.

This point has been made a thousand times, but nowhere more graphically than in the writings of the Roman Catholic theologian, Jean Tillard. Unless the constant aim is the visible unity of the whole church, writes Father Tillard, councils run the risk of becoming like DeGaulle’s description of the Vichy government: an institution whose primary accomplishment is "to make the shame of defeat acceptable."

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It is also important to remember that the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA came into existence as a merger of various interdenominational agencies, including the Federal Council of Churches (which, itself, had been formed in 1908 as a forum for consultation and an instrument for cooperative social service). Given this background, it is understandable that the NCC was initially made up of largely autonomous program units with distinct purposes and constituencies.

In 1981, however, the Governing Board voted to change the Council’s self-description, found in the Preamble to the Constitution, from "cooperative agency for the churches" to "a community of Christian communions" that "covenant with one another to manifest ever more fully the unity of the church." A year later, the Board adopted the "Marks of Our Commitment" which I will not rehearse but which, in my judgment, should be posted in ten-foot high letters each time this assembly meets.

If I were prone to sarcasm, I might say that the only problem with this new self-description is that we never tried it. During the next fifteen or so years, the NCC underwent several efforts at restructuring; but, I think it is fair to say, the Council remained something less than the envisioned "community of communions." One of the many documents produced in this period cites a line from the Jewish theologian, Marc Ellis: "... a political solution without a theological transformation simply enshrines the tragedy to be repeated again." Restructuring does not necessarily address the fundamental ecclesiological issue of our churches’ relationship to one another in service to God’s ecumenical future.

Perhaps it was this conviction that led the Governing Board to create the Ecclesiology Study Task Force, which labored from 1993 to 1997. The final report of the Task Force identified three problems that, in the judgment of the committee members, undermine the ecumenical witness of the churches through the NCC:

1. The churches still see the NCC as a cooperative agency, as "them" rather than "us." The Task Force drafted new marks of mutual commitment and urged that these be studied and, if possible, publicly affirmed. The Task Force also reviewed alternative models of conciliar life – including the "churches together" model found in such places as the United Kingdom and Australia, and the "family of churches" model employed in the Middle East and Sweden. But it offered no specific recommendation for change.

2. The NCC, despite the obvious diversity of its membership, does not represent anything like the full breadth of Christian life in the United States. This needs to be said in a nuanced way. All of us, I trust, give thanks to God that African American churches, Orthodox churches, historic peace churches, churches with recent roots overseas, and mainline churches have been brought here together through God’s reconciling love. Such diversity is valued in the Council, and efforts have constantly been made to increase it. Still, the ecumenical tent is too small. The Task Force, therefore, called on the member churches, through the NCC, "to seek partnership with other churches and Christian bodies in order that together they might develop a new, more inclusive ‘forum’ for exploration of common Christian witness" in this country. I will note, as did the Task Force, that this sort of expanded table is already present, in miniature, within the Council’s Faith and Order Commission, which, in addition to Roman Catholic representatives, includes persons from the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, the Churches of Christ, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the International Evangelical Church, the Assemblies of God, the Christian Reformed Church, and the Church of God (Anderson).

I regard the following paragraph as among the most important in the Ecclesiology Study report:

One of the precious vocations of the Council is to see that the levels of unity, mutual accountability, and affection that have been attained between its member communions are deepened within this new chapter of relationships. What the Task Force envisions, to put it another way, is a series of concentric circles – the intimate community experienced as a result of union or full communion agreements; the fellowship known by churches that commit themselves to one another through conciliar membership; the growing relationship that, with God’s leading could, occur through dialogue at this new table of churches and movements – all part of our response as God’s people to God’s gift of unity in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Expanding the table must go hand in hand with deepening our commitment or else we are in danger of losing more than we gain.

The Ecclesiology Study Task Force was aware, as I am sure we all are, that when we speak of evangelical and pentecostal churches, and the Roman Catholic Church, we are, in some sense, talking about apples and oranges. The Roman Catholic Church is already a close ecumenical partner with many of our communions and a long-time collaborator with all of us through the NCC. Beyond that, the Roman Catholic Church is a full member of fifty-seven national councils – and in those places it brings real depth of commitment to the conciliar relationship. It will be some time, I suspect, before the same can be said of most evangelical and pentecostal churches.

3. Beneath both of these problems, said the Task Force, is a third, more fundamental issue: "the need for our churches ... to recover a confident vision of their unity as God’s gift [and calling], a unity which reflects God’s reconciling love for all the world." I believe that the report is on target:

Being ecumenical is often equated with tolerant cooperation in a way that fails to challenge us and our churches to deeper commitment and renewal. Ecumenism is generally viewed as an add-on to our ‘real’ work and even, at times, as a threat to our identity, especially in the face of declining numbers and influence. Instead of being seen as the integrating context for faithfulness, ecumenical commitment is played off against various other priorities – e.g. social justice or evangelism.

In my first address to the Governing Board on this topic, in 1992, I quoted from a memorandum written by WCC staff member Victor Hayward following his visit to nearly every National Council in the world. I repeat it here as a powerful confirmation of this point. "The key issue," wrote Mr. Hayward, "is that most churches show only partial commitment to what is involved in being a fellowship of churches. Where there is commitment, it is often to the council as an institution and not to the other churches that comprise its membership. Most councils, thus, are an ecumenical facade behind which churches remain as unecumenical as ever." No matter what steps we now propose, this is still the bottom line.

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I end by offering three brief principles consistent with this history of discussion:

Be sure that our recommendations and actions do not weaken but build up the bonds of fellowship among the present members of the Council.

Be sure that our recommendations and actions do not weaken but build up the one ecumenical movement. To put this another way, be sure that our efforts to promote a wider national table also strengthen the witness of state and local councils of churches.

Be sure that our recommendations and actions for common service and mission stem from our identity as churches together. Service, said Father Tillard at the third international consultation on conciliar ecumenism, is not something that follows from the nature of the church but belongs to its essence. When churches act together to combat racism or to alleviate poverty, their basic motive is not charity but faithfulness. For too long now, diakonia and koinonia have been split in the life of the Council. Any effort we now make to relate to new partners should not widen but narrow that gap.

What is the ecumenical future that God is creating for the churches, and how can we best embrace it? I pray that these remarks have helped set a context for answering that question together.

Michael Kinnamon
Eden Theological Seminary
St. Louis, Mo.

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