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1.
The Quest for Ecumenical Institutionalization

 

The quest of the ecumenical movement necessarily includes a quest for ecumenical institutionalization. This is perhaps the chief conclusion that can be drawn from the inquiry undertaken by the Faith and Order Study Commission on Institutionalism.

Traditional denominational structures and polities, originating in a pre-ecumenical age, are becoming increasingly obsolescent. The external reason for this is the revolution in the institutional dynamics of society which now is sweeping the globe with accelerating pace — a revolution accompanied by the rapid decline of the institutionalizing influence of a Western culture which once had shaped the life patterns of the Christian church, not only in the Western world itself but also, through the missionary enterprise, in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world. The internal reason is, of course, the unprecedented surge of the ecumenical movement. The ecumenical dialogue in recent years has shown a remarkable growth of a common mind across denominational lines. But if the churches rest content with professions of their unity in Christ, while shirking any determined efforts to embody their maturing insights in new transconfessional patterns of life,

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they can hardly escape the charge of indulging in the comfortable heresy of ecumenical docetism.

A Faith and Order Conference has affirmed in a challenging sentence that “A faith in the one Church of Christ which is not implemented by acts of obedience is dead.” * 1 It was this very same conference which laid the groundwork for the creation of a Study Commission on Institutionalism.2 Those responsible for that decision may not have been fully aware of its implications; it nevertheless indicates a recognition that the struggle between Christian unity and unchristian disunity involves the total range of the Church’s life — its forms of worship and witness, its polities and patterns of organization, its interaction with government and society, as well as the beliefs and the conduct of its members. What is at stake here is the incarnational character of the ecumenical faith. The proposed exploration of institutionalism, moreover, was not prompted by a purely academic interest in increased knowledge about the tangled ways in which institutional factors condition interdenominational relations and the search for unity. It was intended to serve a critical and constructive purpose: to evaluate these developments especially in the field of church unions, and to suggest criteria and guidelines for the manifold experiments in ecumenical institutionalization that are now being undertaken. The present volume and the previously published Report of the Commission3 sum up the preliminary results of the inquiry.

The purpose of this introductory essay is not to present a summary or appraisal of those studies. It will be useful, however, to point up some of the major issues that have engaged the attention of the Commission in its work over the past few years.

 

Sociology and Theology in Dialogue

Does a study of institutionalism and church unity belong in a theological or a sociological frame of reference? Or is an integration


* Notes for each essay appear at the end of the essay, followed by pertinent bibliography.
[35] 1. The Third World Conference on Faith and Order, Lund, 1952, Oliver S. Tomkins, ed. (London: SCM Press, 1953), p. 16.
2. The actual decision to focus the projected study of the influence of social and cultural factors on the problem of institutionalism was prompted by a paper presented to the Working Committee of the Commission on Faith and Order in 1955 by Dean Walter G. Muelder, Boston. His paper entitled “Institutional Factors Affecting Unity and Disunity” was published in The Ecumenical Review VIII:2 (January, 1956), pp. 113-126.
3. “Institutionalism and Christian Unity,” published in The Old and the New in the Church (London: SCM Press; Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961). Henceforth referred to as Report.

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of the two perspectives called for and possible? A convenient answer would obviously be to assert that the Church as a religious reality belongs to the proper province of theology, whereas institutions as a social phenomenon belong to the province of sociology and “never the twain shall meet.” There have been schools of thought which have tended to formulate the doctrine of the Church in such narrowly religious terms as to create the impression that its characteristics as a community of people living in society were theologically irrelevant. James M. Gustafson, a member of the Commission, speaks of a “doctrinal reductionism” which “refuses to take seriously the human elements in the Church’s life, or if it acknowledges them it does not explore or explicate them except in doctrinal language.”4 Such a neat dichotomy between two discrete provinces of knowledge would doubtless be rejected by most theologians and sociologists today as based on false assumptions.

In keeping with the central thrust of contemporary ecclesiological thought, the present inquiry seeks to give full recognition to the divine and human nature of the Church “without confusion or separation.” It takes seriously the truth that the Church is a unique community, the Body of Christ, and at the same time a human community displaying the same characteristics and the same institutional problems as do other social groups; and that these two sides of the Church subsist in a relationship of co-inherence.

The methodological approach adopted in these studies is consistent with that basic conviction, at least in intention. Consequently we find here an attempt, articulated with varying degrees of balance, to integrate sociological and theological perspectives. Without committing itself to any particular school of thought, the Commission has freely used sociological insights and tools of analysis. It has drawn on the vast reservoir of knowledge that sociology and the sociology of religion contribute to our understanding of features in the Church’s life which it shares with other social groups. But the social analysis is not conceived as an end


[35] 4. Treasure in Earthen Vessels (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), p. 105.

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in itself. It is here placed in the embracing frame of Christian interpretation and discrimination.

Where then are the standards of appraisal to be found? A sociology of institutions, apart from sharpening the awareness of often ignored and therefore uncontrolled forces in the Christian community, can furnish valuable subsidiary criteria of adequacy, efficiency, and the like. But it obviously leaves open the question of the determining norm system. Hence the Commission, along with its sociological and historical investigations, has also been grappling with the problem of a theology of institutions.5 This attempt to mesh theological and sociological perspectives has raised a host of questions that will require further elucidation; they illustrate the perennial difficulty of giving a satisfactory explication of what it means that the Church is "in the world but not of the world.” Do the theologians and the sociologists, while intending to study a common subject, the Church, in fact visualize different objects because of their diverse modes of thinking? If so, to what extent can their conclusions be made commensurable? Does the generalized notion of “religion,” with which the sociology of religion operates, enable it to grasp the distinctive properties of the Christian community? How are sociological insights to be incorporated into a theological interpretation of the Church, so as to avoid the perils of arbitrariness and invalid generalizations? Are there certain ranges in the institutional life of the Church which are indifferent to theological values and where therefore such rational considerations as appropriateness, efficiency, technical competence, and prudence are of primary importance?

 

Institutions in the Church and the Church as an Institution

The subsequent essays will portray the wide gamut of meanings attached to the word “institution.”6 A glossary of definitions of the word to be found in American sociological literature alone


[35] 5. See Report, pp. 73ff., and Essays 2, 5 in the present volume. Further essay references below, which give no indication of sources, relate to this volume.
6. See Essays 2, 3, 6 and Report, pp. 56ff.

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lists no less than fifty such definitions. A similar diversity prevails in the theological usage of the concept. To make headway in spite of this confusion of tongues, the Commission has resorted to the device of using broad operational definitions. Thus it speaks, for instance, of institution as “a definite and established structure, built around and sustaining one or more social functions, and characterized by such traits as durability, persistence, and stability.” Institution, in this sense, is obviously a phenomenon to be found virtually everywhere in the life of the Church. Preaching and administration of the sacraments, worship and ministry, creedal statements, missions and moral conduct, may thus be termed institutions or be said to possess institutional aspects. Churches are institutionalized both by their own functions and roles and by their response to stimuli of the environment. The radiance of a charismatic leader, the role of the presbytery in the Reformed tradition, the stereotyped Protestant images of the Roman Church, the tenacious influence of national origins in maintaining Lutheran divisions in the United States, the polarizing effects of the so-called East-West conflict on the polities of the World Christian community — these are familiar examples of institutionalizing agents. Today the ecumenical vision of the Church is another agent of growing strength, producing new patterns of institutionalization which are superimposed upon and which modify the existing denominational patterns.

To obtain a sharper focus for its own studies, the Commission has concentrated attention on such areas as church government, polity, administration, and bureaucracy in their bearing on unity. But, even within this limited area, the inquiry has hardly more than begun to map out the intricate network of institutional factors and patterns that express and mold the life of the churches — partly unitive, partly divisive, and frequently ambivalent.

Problems of a different order arise when the focus is shifted to the theological meaning of those phenomena. Which institutions, if any, are inherent in the very nature and mission of the Church? In what sense can the Church itself legitimately be called

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an institution? Does religious institutionalization perhaps represent a perversion of the freedom and spontaneity of a spiritual life in communion with God and with fellow believers? These questions are evidently crucial here; and the sharp conflict of opinions, stretching from a spiritualizing ultra-Protestantism to an ultra-Catholic legalism, does not admit any easy reconciliation. A step forward can be taken, however, by dissociating two elements in the confused debate.

The controversy partly reflects basic differences in the understanding of the Church; but it also partly reflects unclarified differences in the use of the term "institution," frequently associated in the Protestant mind with such emotion-charged ideas as lack of spirituality, impersonalism, and routinization. At this point, the sociological approach can helpfully contribute to a rapprochement by neutralizing such terminological and conceptual differences, thus paving the way for a grappling with genuine issues of ecclesiology; for here lies the root of the controversy. To clarify the matter it would no doubt be instructive to undertake a comparative study of the beliefs that are actually held by the several denominations about the nature and role of religious and social institutions in the Church. But its usefulness would be limited; though categorizing denominational differences and similarities, it would not transcend them. The Commission on Institutionalism has therefore adopted a different approach. It has taken its stance within the converging movement of thought about the ecumenical Church that is manifested, for example, in the work of the Faith and Order Commission on “Christ and His Church” and in the historic declaration on the goals of church unity emanating from the World Council of Churches Assembly at New Delhi in 1961.

On this basis, the theological problem of institution is analyzed in terms of “koinonia and institution” and “order and organization.”7 According to New Testament scholars, the term koinonia carries a double meaning: participation or sharing, with others, in divine realities and gifts; and derivatively, interpersonal fellowship of Christians. The distinction is pertinent here. The discussion


[35] 7. See Essays 3, 4, 5 in this volume and Report, pp. 76ff.

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of institutions in the Church is oftentimes vitiated by a conception of koinonia as being an exclusively personal fellowship in faith and love, along with a concomitant insistence that Christian unity is a spiritual and not an institutional or organizational unity. If, instead, due attention were paid to the primary meaning of koinonia, it would become more easily recognizable that it also implies a structured community for which institutional features are natural and necessary. Thus, interpersonal fellowship and institution are not opposed to each other; they are interactive and mutually supportive.

The following quotation illustrates the general position which his emerged in the Commission’s deliberations:

To assert that the Church possesses an institutional character and is articulated in a multiplicity of institutions, does in no way imply a derogation of the intensely personal quality of its koinonia. . . . Thus in the Church, in the community of the Spirit, the dichotomy of institution and koinonia is overcome. The institutional patterns of the Church provide an ordered structure for the common life, through which God imparts His gracious love to man and makes a personal existence in freedom and responsibility manifest.8

On this premise, how can we establish viable criteria for discriminating between institutional elements which are essential or appropriate for the Church and others which are not? More specifically: on what grounds can we judge whether the influence of a particular factor or set of factors is divisive or unitive? The complications of the question are patent. Yet it requires some kind of answer since upon it hinges the theological validity of any appraisal of church union schemes or other ecumenical endeavors.

In seeking an answer the Commission, developing the familiar distinction between “order and organization,”9 has identified a series of institutional manifestations, all of which possess theological dignity though in varying degrees.10 The institutional structures and dynamics of the Church, it is asserted, are grounded


[35] 8. Report, p. 77. That this consensus does not exclude considerable variations of interpretation can be seen from two recent books whose authors are members of the Commission — Hans Dombois, Das Recht der Gnade, and James M. Gustafson, Treasure in Earthen Vessels. For Dombois see also his Essay 5 in this volume.
9. For a clarifying discussion of this distinction, see The Nature of the Unity We Seek, Paul S. Minear, ed. (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1958), pp. 229ff.
10. See Essays, 5, 7 and Report, pp. 78f.

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in the primary fact that the Church itself is a God-given institution for the salvation of mankind. It is endowed with a determinate structure which ensures its continuity and identity as a community in history, namely, three dominical institutions: the Gospel, the Sacraments, and the Ministry through which these are administered. These essential institutions and the functions which they perform must, in turn, be distinguished from the varied and changing forms in which different denominations and different ages respond to them in faith and worship, in witness and service. In this manner a continuum is established which makes it possible to distinguish more clearly between institutional elements which are essential or derivative; which are permanent or contingent; which demand fixity or allow flexibility and diversity.

The question of “overseers” may illustrate this distinction between order and organization. Which are the essential elements in the institution of episcopé? Have perhaps certain traditions dogmatized their own historical forms of episcopé, thereby making it difficult for other traditions to recognize and accept its necessary function? Further, which are the functional equivalents of the episcopate in nonepiscopal churches? This question of course does not suggest that if the “overseer” functions in the various denominations were shown to be virtually the same, this would resolve the controverted problem of their ecclesiological status. But it would at least contribute to greater mutual understanding by placing the differences in a dynamic framework of common concerns and responsibilities. And it would challenge every denomination to reconsider what is essential and what is instrumental in its own ideas about leadership roles in the Church.

 

Ecumenical Guidelines

Ecumenical institutionalization is more than a postulate. One of the characteristics of current ecclesiological thought is the insistence on the givenness of unity, and the attendant conviction

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that the ecumenical task is not to create unity but to manifest and bear witness to it. Thus unity is interpreted in a threefold sense: as a gift of God inherent in the very nature and purpose of the Church; as a present reality which binds Christians together, in spite of the fact that it is obscured and distorted by sinful divisions; and as a demand to be obeyed and a goal to strive for.

The same holds true in regard to the institutional life of Christendom. Hence the quest for ecumenical institutionalization is, strictly speaking, no unprecedented innovation. It calls to mind the continual efforts of the Church, even in its processes of self-institutionalization, to remain faithful to its apostolic foundations, to relate its community life creatively to new societies, and to manifest its wholeness in the midst of its divisions. The unity movements of our time are a new, intensified phase of that continuing process. There is consequently much to be learned from a restudy of the interplay of unitive and disruptive elements in Christian institutions in the past.

The inquiry on institutionalism, in this concern to refocus the crisscross patterns of denominational institutional forms on a [riven wholeness, shows a close parallel to other current Faith and Order studies. The Commission on “Christ and His Church” seeks “to penetrate behind our divisions to a deeper and richer understanding of the mystery of the God-given unity of Christ with His Church.”11 The Commission on “Tradition and Traditions” speaks of a common Tradition from which all particular traditions derive their existence, and which affords the criteria for judging their Christian authenticity.12 In the same vein a spokesman of the Commission on “Worship” has suggested that, behind the bewildering variety of forms of public worship in the churches, there can be traced a transconfessional pattern of worship congruent with the shape of the gospel message.13 The lines are indeed remarkably convergent.

Having recognized that the problem of ecumenical institutionalization is, in fact, both old and new, we may well inquire whether the ecumenical movement of recent decades affords any


[35] 11. One Lord, One Baptism (London: SCM Press; Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1960), pp. 7f.
12. The Old and the New in the Church, pp. 20ff.
13. Joseph Sittler, “The Shape of the Church’s Response in Worship,” The Nature of the Unity We Seek, pp. 109ff.

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specific reference points for our present reflection on the matter. It has admittedly been a neglected field; the initiation of a major inquiry on the subject does in itself indicate a felt need. There exist nonetheless several significant instances where representative conferences or agencies have made statements on some aspect or other of the subject. They will be briefly noted here, partly because of their general interest, partly because they have been formative elements in the thinking of the Commission on Institutionalism.

1. In the realm of polity, virtually every church union negotiation of interconfessional type has to come to grips with the familiar fact that in the history of Christendom there have emerged different systems of church government: episcopal, presbyteral, and congregational. Frequently, at least in the past, these have been presented with a claim for exclusive biblical warranty. At present, the actual practice of various Protestant denominations tends to blur those distinctions, displaying instead mixed forms of polity. The Faith and Order World Conference at Lausanne in 1927 issued a statement, endorsing the principle of a conflation of those three systems, which constitutes an early landmark in ecumenical thinking on the subject.

In view of (1) the place which the episcopate, the councils of presbyters, and the congregation of the faithful, respectively, had in the constitution of the early Church, and (2) the fact that episcopal, presbyteral and congregational systems of government are each to-day, and have been for centuries, accepted by great communions in Christendom, and (3) the fact that episcopal, presbyteral and congregational systems are each believed by many to be essential to the good order of the Church, we therefore recognise that these several elements must all, under conditions which require further study, have an appropriate place in the order of life of a reunited Church, and that each separate communion, recalling the abundant blessing of God

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vouchsafed to its ministry in the past, should gladly bring to the common life of the united Church its own spiritual treasures.14

This principle has found widespread recognition and forms part of the constitutional provisions of various church union plans. It is one of the foundation stones of the Church of South India.15

2. The first North American Faith and Order Conference, in 1957, devoted several of its reports to kindred issues: different ways of relating authority, power, and freedom in the American denominations, the relationship between church order and organizational forms, and so forth. Particularly its analysis of the latter problem (already referred to above) is a notable contribution, not least for the reason that it has opened the eyes of many Protestants to the fact that church order is not a “Catholic” idiosyncrasy, nor a matter of organizational pragmatism, but an organic aspect of the Christian faith.

3. The World Council of Churches and the Faith and Order movement have engendered an imposing volume of study and reflection on the nature of unity, climaxing thus far in the well-known statement from the New Delhi Assembly with its broad delineation of the shape of a reunited Church. The material contains few explicit references to problems of interchurch structures, with one notable exception which bears directly on our subject. In explaining its own nature as an instrument of the participating churches, the World Council of Churches has repeatedly repudiated the idea of “becoming a single unified church structure independent of the churches which have joined in constituting the Council, or a structure dominated by a centralized administrative authority.”16

Although this particular statement refers to the World Council of Churches itself, it exemplifies an ecumenical principle of general import: unity in the essentials of the faith coupled with organizational and administrative diversity in differing historical and cultural circumstances.17


[35] 14. Faith and Order: Proceedings of the World Conference, Lausanne, August 3-21, 1927, H.N. Bate, ed. (London: SCM Press, 1928), p. 469.
15. See Essay 10.
[36] 16. The First Assembly of the World Council of Churches, 1948, W. A. Visser ’t Hooft, ed. (London: SCM Press; New York: Harper & Brothers 1949), p. 127.
17. The Anglican world communion and Eastern Orthodoxy illustrate that the principle is capable of realization. Their decentralized structure is telling counterevidence against the claim that church unity inevitably leads to governmental uniformity and top-heavy bureaucracy.

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4. Councils of churches — local, national, and world — must be regarded as pilot laboratories of ecumenical institutionalization.18 In a rapidly expanding range of co-operation and joint planning, they are not merely performing the difficult task of seeking to co-ordinate disparate denominational programs: they are also serving as catalysts of assimilative crossfertilization. Their constitutions, bylaws, and administrative regulations are source data of a nascent ecumenical church law. Their policy-shaping processes, their utterances and actions, are exercises in ecumenical church politics and statesmanship, no less valid and necessary (however imperfectly performed) than denominational and local church politics. To recognize this, straightforwardly and without emotional inhibitions, is a simple corollary of the Christian belief in the Incarnation.

In its own Report the Commission on Institutionalism has been bold enough to seek to distill, out of its discussion of principles and case studies, a series of suggested criteria and guidelines.19 This is admittedly a hazardous undertaking, considering the exploratory stage of the discussion and the relatively limited range of the case studies. Yet the attempt must be made if study is to lead to self-scrutiny and action. These tentative projections have been set forth, therefore, in the hope that they will provoke further constructive reflection.

One thing is clear. There is need for a theological rehabilitation of the institutional, organizational, and administrative structures of the Church, based on the recognition that they, too, form part of the temple of the Spirit. To ignore the pervasive influence of such factors is a disservice to the cause of unity; for then they are left unprincipled, released from watchful scrutiny, and liable to control by forces which may run counter to their religious purpose. Today transversal movements of renewal are overleaping denominational boundaries, new ecumenical vitalities are bursting forth, which demand appropriate institutional expression. This demand is not met by grafting ecumenical organizations on to pre-ecumenical structures and patterns of operation. It requires


[36] 18. A professional study of, for instance, the structures and operational pat-terns of the World Council of Churches in its interaction with the member-churches, would be a highly instructive contribution to our understanding of the dynamics of ecumenical institutionalization.
19. Report, pp. 81ff.

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new forms of ecumenical institutionalization, more venturesome and future-directed, which will serve the upbuilding of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.