Please recall that I am writing these reports largely for my benefit. They are entirely longer than any blog post should be. And silly me, even for a short document I go on and on and on…. So… as always… read only if you’re really interested. And if you do read, please feel free to pass along questions, insights, critiques!
INTRODUCTORY THOUGHTS ON MY RELATIONSHIP TO THE DOCUMENT
I completed a re-read of this significant ecumenical statement (not quite a book, hence the “ish” in the post title) a few weeks ago, but with travels, etc. I haven’t gotten around to posting a quick reflection on it. I read this document for the first time my very first quarter in seminary- almost 10 years ago! Wow. I read it then in the context of a required first year course called “Pilgrimage in Faithfulness” in which we explored these very topics- baptism, eucharist, and ministry- seeking our own understandings of these key Christian practices, from our own experiences and traditions, before diving into the formative studies that would constitute the remainder of our seminary career. Significant to this class process were small group sessions at the end of every 4 hour course period (the last hour or so). Every small group was profoundly diverse and in these groups, using intentional conversation tools such as mutual invitation we would share reflections on these topics. It was through these small group conversations that my eyes were opened to the WIDE range of Christian understandings of the sacraments and the practice of ministry- particularly of the sacrament of baptism. (Perhaps if the population of my seminary included Roman Catholic or Orthodox brothers and sisters I would have found as impressive a range of perspective on eucharist and ministry as well!) I remember being less than enthused about B.E.M. at that early moment in my seminary career. In general, throughout my seminary studies, various ecumenical policy initiatives seemed hopelessly tedious and fairly meaningless to me. In my head I knew these things were significant, but my heart wasn’t convinced. I knew, for example, that it was a big deal that one of my theology professors was having an audience with the pope in her worked on Reformed- Catholic dialogue on apostolic succession, but… do any people in the pews even have a basic understanding of apostolic succession or how their church’s take on it differs from the church of their neighbor? This was the source of my frustration then. Working to hammer out shared doctrine seemed terribly disconnected from the lives of real believers.
And that might be true.
But now that I am thinking more often than not about the divisions in Christ’s church and now that I am thinking more often than not that divisions across which churches do not communicate, do not break bread, do not show mutual respect are tragic breaks in the body of Christ, and now that I am wondering, more often than not, if all our denominations might not be tragic breaks in the body of Christ (but I’m not sure about that, I’m wondering…) I am realizing on a heart level why ecumenical dialogue and agreements matter.
So it was with greater interest that I opened B.E.M. this time around. It took 50 years of work by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches to produce a shared statement on these central practices. It was understood that it is differences in understanding in these very areas- Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry- that led to the divisions between many churches and thus 50 years of careful study on the part of the Faith and Order commission was invested in coming to some common understanding. With the publication of B.E.M. what had been arrived at was substantial agreement, but not consensus. The W.C.C. understands consensus to be “that experience of life and articulation of faith necessary to realize and maintain the Church’s visible unity” (ix). It appears that such consensus is a goal of the W.C.C. as they understand it to be “rooted in the communion built on Jesus Christ and the witness of the apostles. As a gift of the Spirit it is realized as a communal experience before it can be articulated by common efforts into words” (ix). Until churches live and act together in unity- they won’t have full consensus (ix). And I believe the implication is, we won’t be fully faithful manifestations of Christ’s body either.
So what is offered in B.E.M. is not a complete treatise on these three areas, but rather statements on “those aspects of the theme that have been directly or indirectly related to the problems of mutual recognition leading to unity” (ix). In regular font points of convergence between traditions are articulated; in italicized commentary alongside the main text “historical differences that have been overcome” or “disputed issues still in need of further research and reconciliation” are explored (ix).
The discussion on baptism suggests substantial convergence on baptismal doctrine, and substantial divergence on baptismal practice. I say this because the statements about the institution and meaning of baptism have very little commentary attached to them. It seems agreed that baptism was instituted by Christ and has been practiced continuously all the way back to the earliest days of apostolic ministry. It seems agreed that baptism ultimately means being united with Christ and his body, the church- and that this is accomplished in baptism through “Participation in Christ’s Death and Resurrection”, “Conversion, Pardoning, and Cleansing”, “The Gift of the Spirit”, “Incorporation into the Body of Christ”, and baptism appears to be commonly understood as a “Sign of the Kingdom” (2). The only commentary offered on this discussion of the meaning of baptism, in particular on the discussion of baptism as “incorporation into the Body of Christ” struck me 10 years ago and it strikes me again now:
The inability of the churches mutually to recognize their various practices of baptism as sharing in the one baptism, and their actual dividedness in spite of mutual baptismal recognition, have given dramatic visibility to the broken witness of the Church. The readiness of the churches in some places and times to allow differences of sex, race, or social status to divide the body of Christ has further called into question genuine baptismal unity of the Christian community (Gal. 3:27-28) and has seriously compromised its witness. The need to recover baptismal unity is at the heart of the ecumenical task as it is central for the realization of genuine partnership within the Christian communities (3- emphasis mine).
Indeed. If baptism really means being united with Christ and his body, and if we accept the baptism of other churches, then why are we so divided in life and practice? And how can we let variant practices of baptism (more true of some churches than others) call into question the existence of “one baptism” instituted by Christ and handed down by the apostles? What sort of audacity is required to deny the validity of one church’s baptism or another?
(A side note- my guided reading this semester is on practices of the early North African church and we’ve been focusing on baptism to begin with. I’m learning that questions about when baptism is really baptism and baptismal differences leading to division go WAY back. What a painful irony- one that is captured well in the commentary cited above).
It is in the area of baptismal practice that commentary (expressions of divergence) outweighs main text (expressions of convergence). That baptism is a ritual of commitment, requiring faith, is agreed upon. All churches require a confession of faith for baptism, but some baptize infants accepting parental confession on their behalf (as an expression of intention to raise the child with faith) and others baptize only those who can make their own declaration of faith. Though this distinction in practice is significant (and is at the root of many church divisions), B.E.M. acknowledges that “In both cases, the baptized person will have to grow in the understanding of faith” and the commentary on the division between infant baptism and believer baptism suggests that a recognition of the shared necessity for a responsible attitude toward Christian nurture could pave the way to “mutual acceptance of different initiation practices” (5). It is further argued that mutual recognition of baptism will be fostered by the greater attention of communities that practice believer baptism to the protective presence of God’s grace in the lives of the non-baptized and through more careful practice within communities that practice infant baptism to avoid the appearance and/or actuality of indiscriminate baptism with no adequate follow-through in nurture allowing those baptized to develop into mature followers of Christ (6).
Receipt of the Spirit is commonly accepted as a component of baptism, but Christians differ as to where, in what part of the ritual of baptism, the Spirit is given- in the water ritual? in the anointing? in the laying on of hands? in all three? Is the gift of the Spirit delayed until confirmation in the case of infant baptism? These are differences between the churches. But that the giving of the Spirit is linked to this sacrament is not disputed.
The unrepeatability of baptism is stated as a shared understanding, though in the commentary it is acknowledged that some churches have not acknowledged the baptism of other churches and have required baptism upon conversion to their assembly (from another not accepted assembly). It is suggested that such practices should decline as we move towards greater unity and common understanding.
There appears to be greater variance in eucharistic doctrine than in baptismal doctrine. Churches seem agreed that the eucharist, though it takes many names in varying fellowships, is a holy meal instituted by Christ at his last meal with his disciples. It is in the meaning of the eucharist that Christian churches are not yet of one mind. It is agreed that in the eucharist, God acts to unite believers to Christ, connecting believers to God and one another, and offering renewal to “each member” (10). It is also agreed that the Eucharist always includes both word and sacrament and that it “is a proclamation and a celebration of the work of God”; the Eucharist is thanksgiving to God (10). Through the Eucharist the church gives thanks to God on behalf of the whole world, signifying “what the world is to become: an offering and hymn of praise to the Creator, a universal communion in the body of Christ, a kingdom of justice, love and peace in the Holy Spirit” (11). It is also agreed that a significant dimension of the Eucharist is remembrance or memorial of Christ. The remembrance (here called anamnesis), is both retrospective and anticipatory. And it is a remembrance through which Christ is actually made present to us. So a much more inclusive understanding of time is wrapped into this act of remembrance than we typically associate with remembrance. Eucharistic prayers are both prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, growing out of this dual retrospective/anticipatory character of the sacrament. The commentary on this point suggests that the significance of the intercessory dimension of the Eucharist is what lies behind Roman Catholic understandings of “the mass” as “propitiatory sacrifice” and that Roman Catholics agree that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was once and for all. The commentary argues that a revisiting of old debates on sacrifice could lead to greater unity between the churches.
This statement is made in the discussion of convergence in understandings of the Eucharist:
The Church confesses Christ’s real, living and active presence in the eucharist (12).
The nature of Christ’s presence, of course, has historically been hotly debated between Christian churches. The commentary on this affirmation indicates that while many churches believe that “by the words of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit” the bread and the wine actually become the body and blood of the risen Christ, other churches continue to affirm the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist without locating that presence in the “signs of the bread and wine”. The commentary suggests that churches will have to decide whether the above quoted statement represents a convergence which accommodates these two divergent understandings. It seems to me to have the potential to do so, but for one with a more transubstantive (word?) understanding, perhaps it would not. Any believers in transubstantiation out there? What do you think?
It appears to be agreed that Christ is made present in the Eucharist by the power of the Spirit though a caution is offered in the commentary not to interpret this as a spiritualization of the presence of Christ, but rather as an affirmation of the necessary presence and work of the Spirit. Christ’s presence is mediated through the Eucharist not by magic, but by God’s Spirit. While all affirm the real presence of Christ as central to the Eucharist, churches have varied in their need to assert how this is so and in their understandings, when asserting the how, of how this is achieved. It is agreed that the invocation of the Spirit in the Eucharist is what allows for the renewal of the community and is what provides empowerment for fulfillment of Christian mission, offering a foretaste of the kingdom of God enabling Christians to press onward toward the kingdom.
It is also commonly agreed that in the Eucharist believers are bonded to one another, across time and space. This meal is one in which efforts at reconciliation are required, reparation of broken human relationships is a necessary component of Christian table fellowship. If participants in the Eucharist are not participating in the healing of broken relationship on both personal and global levels, something major is being lost (14). Further, the commentary suggests, that limiting access to the table to those baptized in other confessional churches, for example, severely compromises the catholicity of the eucharist. Similarly, the commentary points out, denying eucharistic fellowship to children who have been baptized is highly compromising.
It is also agreed that the Eucharist is “a meal of the kingdom”, allowing a vision of God’s intention for humanity, granting a foretaste of it. It is at Christ’s table that believers anticipate the joyous kingdom to come and are empowered to reach out in love to the outcast of this world (14 and 15). The missionary activity of Christians is made possible at the table. This strong statement is offered in the body of the main text: “Insofar as Christians cannot unite in full fellowship around the same table to eat the same loaf and drink from the same cup, their missionary witness is weakened at both the individual and the corporate levels” (15). Indeed.
The final section of the statement on Eucharist suggests that there is fairly universal agreement on the necessary elements of eucharistic celebration (though in different orders and to different degrees of significance)-
“hymns of praise; acts of repentance; declaration of pardon; proclamation of the Word of God, in various forms; confession of faith (creed); intercession for the whole church and for the world; preparation of the bread and wine; thanksgiving to the Father for the marvels of creation, redemption, and sanctification; the words of Christ’s institution…; the anamnesis or memorial of the great acts of redemption, passion, death, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost, which brought Christ into being; the invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiklesis) on the community, and the elements of bread and wine…; consecration of the faithful to God; reference to the communion of saints; prayer for the return of the Lord and the definitive manifestation of his Kingdom; the Amen of the whole community; the Lord’s prayer; sign of reconciliation and peace; the breaking of the bread; eating and drinking in communion with Christ and with each member of the Church; final act of praise; blessing and sending (15-16).
If it is true that we are so united in eucharistic practice it seems all the more unfortunate that we should be so divided in eucharistic doctrine.
Though Protestants are proud to recite the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers”, implying that the democratization that this has produced in Protestant churches is far superior to the hierarchy of predecessor churches, the opening of the ministry section of this document suggests that it is a matter of agreement among churches with all sorts of political structures, that all of humanity shares a common calling- to be God’s people. And further, it is a matter of agreement that all those within the church share the calling to be in communion with God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. It is agreed that all those in the church are called to service, the foundation of which is found in the servant ministry of Jesus Christ. By the Holy Spirit people are called to faith, granted gifts on the way to sanctification, and are empowered “to serve in hope and love” (20). All church members are called to witness to their faith in word and in action, and the service of all church members together represents a pressing towards the kingdom of God. The service, or mission, of the church does and should vary contextually. Church members are given different gifts for the common good, and are to use these gifts in service “within the community and to the world” (20).
When it comes to articulating the ministry that belongs to all the people (and that is- all the ministry of the church!), all the churches are in agreement (all the churches participating in the W.C.C. anyhow). Diversity kicks in in the area of ordering the ministry of the church. In order to understand the debate between churches about the ordering of ministry, B.E.M. first offers a set of definitions of key terms:
charism- gifts given by the Holy Spirit to the whole body for the building up of the body;
ministry- the service of the whole people of God, but can also be used to describe particular institutional forms of service;
ordained ministry- those who “have received a charism and whom the church appoints for service by ordination through the invocation of the Spirit and the laying on of hands”;
priest- phrase used by many churches to identify certain ordained ministers- matter of significant dispute among churches (21).
That ministry needs to be ordered in the church is not a matter of dispute among the churches and it is commonly agreed that ordination is a practice that stretches far back into the history of the church; one could even say the apostles were the first ordained, set apart, to oversee the ministry of Christ’s church. B.E.M. argues (and this appears to be a point of agreement) that the apostles then, and ordained ministers now “are representatives of Jesus Christ to the community” who “proclaim his message of reconciliation” (21). Apostles and ordained ministers gather, guide, and teach- pointing to Jesus all the while. Ordained ministers and the community of the faithful need each other and have no meaning a part from one another; this too is agreed. 10 years ago, and again now, I find this definition of ordained ministry compelling:
The chief responsibility of the ordained ministry is to assemble and build up the body of Christ by proclaiming and teaching the Word of God, by celebrating the sacraments, and by guiding the life of the community it its worship, its mission and its caring ministry (22).
The commentary provided on this statement indicates that even these tasks (far more limited in scope than the common understanding of many personnel committees in church and ministers serving churches!) are not the exclusive domain of ordained leaders. Every charism is meant to assemble and build up the body and any member may proclaim and teach- the significance of ordained ministry is that those ordained fulfill “these functions in a representative way, providing the focus for the unity of the life and witness of the community.
This document suggests that the nature of the authority of ordained ministers is not as “autocrats or impersonal functionaries”, but rather is the exercise of “wise and loving leadership on the basis of the Word of God” and “they are bound to the faithful in interdependence and reciprocity” (23). The commentary on this expression of the loving, communally grounded, interdependent nature of the authority of ordained ministers suggests that ordained leaders live in a tension- needing to exercise authority with regard to the community, but not being shaped completely by the popular opinion of the community. The commentary suggests that the seat of authority is in the will of God being expressed and done in the community. I don’t know if the fact that this appears in the commentary means that it is not a shared perspective.
As for the matter of the language of priests- B.E.M. expresses that the one, unique priest within Christianity is Jesus Christ, the only one who could make the sacrifice needed for humanity. As all members are called to “offer their being ‘as a living sacrifice’ and to intercede for the Church and the salvation of the world” (23), it is appropriate, in a derivative sense, to call all Christians priests. Ordained ministers, again, can be called priests because they stand between the priesthood of Christ and the priesthood of the church, fulfilling a particular role within that priesthood.
It is apparently agreed that God calls men and women to Christ’s ministry through the church, and that significant growth is needed in facilitating ministry “which reflects the interdependence of men and women”(24). However, churches remain divided about the appropriateness of ordaining women to ministerial roles. The commentary on this division in understanding suggests that both sides of the issue have faithful reasoning behind their decisions and that continued dialogue in ecumenical fellowship is in order.
This document acknowledges that there have classically been three roles delineated in the ordering of ministry- bishops, presbyters, and deacons. These roles can be traced to the New Testament, but a single witness to each role is not found there. No clear pattern for the ordering of ministry is outlined in the New Testament (though all churches locate their models in scripture!). Though the three fold pattern is present in many churches, B.E.M. suggests that all need to revisit their understanding of the various ordained roles, considering whether they are best ordered for optimal witness on the part of the church. Later in the document the following functions are attached to the roles: bishop-preaching, administering discipline, overseeing ministry, continuity, and unity in the Church, leadership in mission, bridging the local and the universal church, responsible for orderly transfer of ministerial authority; presbyters- ministers of word and Sacrament in “local eucharistic communit[ies]”, preachers, teachers, care givings, discipline of congregations, preparation of “members for Christian life and ministry; deacons- servant leaders, meeting needs of societies and persons, representing interdependence of worship and service, serving as worship leaders/assistants and as teachers and in “a ministry of love within the community” (27). The commentary suggests that the greatest confusion among the churches is as to the role of deacon- this role means very different things in different churches and there is even confusion within churches.
B.E.M. lifts up three principle qualities for ordained ministry, and the commentary suggests these three must be manifest together. Ordained ministry should be personal, collegial, and communal.
A distinction is drawn in this document between apostolic tradition and apostolic succession. All the ministry of all the churches ought to be faithful to the apostolic tradition- carrying on the ministry handed down by Christ to the apostles. However, whether there is a continuous line of hands laid on, through bishops- this is a question of apostolic succession as it is a matter on which there is not agreement among churches. The episcopate (order of bishops) does seem to have been organized in order to assure that there would be continuity in the exercise of leadership, from the apostles to succeeding generations. However, it also appears that continuity with the teaching of the apostles has been preserved in churches without bishops. This document suggests that this appearance of continuity without bishops does not negate the importance of bishops, but rather enables “churches who have not retained the episcopate to appreciate the episcopal succession as a sign, though not a guarantee, of the continuity and unity of the Church” (29). I am hazy on whether this document suggests that union between churches that have not retained the episcopate and those that have requires that the episcopate be preserved. Does anyone know how to make sense of the declaration in point 38 of this document?
Ordination involves the invocation of the Spirit and the laying on of hands. A concise definition of ordination is offered in point 40:
Properly speaking, then, ordination denotes an action by God and the community by which the ordained are strengthened by the Spirit for their task and are upheld by the acknowledgment and prayers of the congregation (30).
Ordination is understood to be an act within worship in the whole community (not just among those sharing ordained office) and is an act which includes the laying on of hands of those appointed to do so and is “at one and the same time invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiklesis); sacramental sign; acknowledgment of gifts and commitment” (30). The conditions for ordination as articulated by this document are: call (discerned in different ways- internal and external dimensions both), potentially professional service of the church, but also can be service alongside other professional employment, appropriate preparation academically and spiritually, commitment without reservation or time limit, and the assent of the church (31-32). The discussion of the conditions for ordination concludes by saying that varying discipline in relation to ordination among differing churches should not lead to a failure to recognize another’s ministry and by calling all churches that refuse to consider candidates on the basis of handicap or membership in a particular social group or race to seriously reconsider this practice.
The document concludes with the various barriers to mutual recognition of ministries between churches, most of which had been identified above.
I have begun reading the next book I wish to read off the exam reading list, and so far, actually, I’ve been re-reading. The next book is After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity by Miroslav Volf. Early in this book he indicates that most of the free churches have no use for B.E.M. because they were excluded from the deliberations that led to its formation; their ecclesiology did not inform this significant ecumenical document. This statement resonates with the biggest question that hung over me as I re-read B.E.M.: which churches exactly contributed to this? And which did not? And what are we to make of the many churches who will not come (or are never invited to come) to ecumenical tables? Does the significant convergence articulated in this document represent real convergence in doctrine and practice in the church throughout the world? Or is there more divergence than this document would lead us to believe?