A REPORT from the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order (WCC), The Church: Towards a common vision, was commended to the whole Church after a debate on Saturday afternoon.
The report was very different from the “classic text” produced by the WCC on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry in 1982, the Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, who chairs the Council for Christian Unity, said.
“Baptism, eucharist, and ministry are very public and tangible, relative easy to describe, if not to define,” the Bishop said. “Everyone can see the difference between infant baptism and adult baptism, or between baptism by immersion and baptism by sprinkling.
“But when we start to think about the doctrine of the Church, then the differences between Churches, and the areas of agreement, are often more subtle, only noticed by specialist theologians or church historians.”
But, Bishop Allister said, we do need a “thought-through ecclesiology”. There were “various forms of personality profiling for clergy, ministry teams and job applicants”, and “it is the same for the Churches.”
The text of the WCC report, together with “straightforward study resources, which the Council for Christian Unity is committed to providing”, would provide a good tool for helping to create “a deeper understanding of our Church and others”.
Bishop Dr Joe Aldred (Black-led Churches) warmly welcomed it. Churches Together in England had become an instrument that Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches wanted to join, unlike the WCC. It was thus unlikely that many of them would engage with this paper. So he welcomed the paper and hoped that the Synod would support the motion.
John Davies (Winchester) suggested that the Church had spent a lot of time and intellectual effort “trying to reconcile interdenominational issues at the highest level”, but that that “goes against Anglican history: most of our fundamental developments were driven by mass movements of the laity.”
Alison Ruoff (London) backed the motion, and particularly the opportunity for “mutual understanding and enhancing partnership in the gospel”, given the “increasing marginalisation in this country. . . I do think we must stand together and work together.”
Moving an amendment to remove paragraph B from the motion, which commended the text “for consideration at every level of the Church of England”, Prebendary Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells) explained that he was not moving the amendment because he had difficulties with the WCC or Churches Together in England.
He wanted to “try to stop the fiction that as a Synod we can keep sending stuff down to the dioceses and pretend that they, at bishop’s councils, or wherever, will dutifully study them”. He was happy that the “content of this report should be discussed at theological institutions and the like”, but “the average PCC member is likely to struggle with the content of the report.”
Bishop Allister said that the motion was merely “commending the text for consideration”.
The vice-chair of the House of Laity, Tim Hind (Bath & Wells), supported the amendment. He described the language of the Council for Christian Unity’s response as “inaccessible to many people in our Church. We cannot afford to deflect the missionary effort in our parishes from the work they are doing day by day.”
Dr Lindsay Newcombe (London) said that she “couldn’t disagree more” with Mr Hind. But she was unhappy with the report’s use of the word “Churches”, which was, she said, “a misuse of language. We follow a man who prayed for unity, and we seem content with disunity.”
The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, speaking as the Bishop to the Forces, also resisted the amendment: unity would come not from formal structures, but from relationships.
He recalled that, in 1995, Pope John Paul II had “invited the Churches together to see what universal might mean. Is this not the hour to say to Pope Francis that we have come to respect your ministry greatly and that of your predecessors? And that, notwithstanding the disagreements and differences that remain, we want to foundationally reconcile with you in relationship?”
Penny Allen (Lichfield) urged the Synod to resist the amendment. “Much of what Churches produce in formal language needs to be translated by priests, church councils, and others. If we just ignore that and say it is not adequate for people in the streets, we are denying access for people who might understand it, and also to those who might want to understand it.”
The Synod rejected Prebendary Lynas’s amendment.
The Revd Professor Paul Fiddes (Baptist Union) expressed his appreciation of the way the WCC report wove together the Trinity, communion, and mission. The text did have an “odd weakness” in its discussion of ethics and ecclesiology. “We need to explore the different kinds of covenant that God makes with the Church and other faith communities,” he said.
Canon William Croft (Peterborough) welcomed the report, but said that the Church of England had a deeper understanding of what a deacon was than the WCC report. He also suggested that the way FAOC spoke about the “pneumatological turn” needed to be “amplified”.
Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities), who had contributed to the FAOC response, apologised if the text was demanding and unclear. He said that ecumenism should play the same part as operating systems that allowed different computers to work together. He also noted how there was lots of agreement between the Methodist response to the WCC report and the FAOC response. “If we can do that with Methodists, can’t we do it with other people?”
The Synod carried the motion. It read:
That this Synod, welcoming the convergence text from the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order, The Church: Towards a common vision:
(a) endorse the response from the Council for Christian Unity and the Faith and Order Commission affirming the consonance of the text with the doctrine of the Church of England;
(b) commend the text for consideration at every level of the Church of England, wherever possible in dialogue with members of other Christian Churches; and
(c) ask the Council for Christian Unity to work with Churches Together in England (CTE) to discern ways of building mutual understanding and enhancing partnership in the gospel across the growing ranges of Churches in this country in the light of the responses to the text from the diverse membership of CTE.