Ecumenical conversation is a noisy gong unless it leads to ecumenical conversion. One of the dangers accompanying the ecumenical movement is to become so absorbed in theological dialogues, in fraternal fellowship, in practical co-operation (all of which of course are laudable and necessary activities), that the gaze is diverted from the radical changes which are required throughout the churches’ life for them to become uniting churches. The tragic separations which have occurred in the history of Christianity have become consolidated not only in distinct mentalities and systems of belief but also in different institutional and organizational structures. The scandal of disunity has been institutionalized. And the pervasive influence of such institutional factors is all the more powerful ind resistant to change since they are mostly ignored and unacknowledged.
If the ecumenical movement is to be realistic and down-to-earth, it must, therefore, challenge the churches to become more self-critically aware of the subtle ways in which their institutional structures and procedures obstruct or facilitate
ecumenical advance. Unity, too, needs to find appropriate institutional expression.
It is considerations of this kind that have prompted the production of the present symposium. It brings to focus a longstanding though somewhat sporadic concern of the Faith and Order movement with the implications of social and cultural factors for unity. Among the preparatory material for the Edinburgh Conference in 1937 was a pioneering report on The Non-theological Factors in the Making and Unmaking of Church Union. The issue obtained renewed attention in connection with the next world conference at Lund (Sweden) in 1952, and the ensuing studies were summed up in a pamphlet entitled Social and Cultural Factors in Church Divisions. It is perhaps characteristic of the American religious scene that the first North American Faith and Order Conference, in 1957, devoted one third of its program to an exploration of the bearing of “cultural pressures” on Christian unity.
It became increasingly clear, however, that such occasional reconnaissance flights over the territory were insufficient; they needed to be supplemented by specialized explorations in depth. In 1955 the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches established a study commission on Institutionalism with the following terms of reference:
To make a study of institutionalism as it affects all churches, and in particular:
1. The self-criticism of churches by which they may see their own structures sociologically as well as theologically;
2. The relations both positive and negative of the churches to each other in the ecumenical conversation;
3. The pattern of church relations which is finding expression in the World Council of Churches as an institution.
Adopting an interdisciplinary theological and sociological approach, the Commission has pursued two lines of investigation: (a) Because of the unexplored nature of its subject matter, it has been carrying out a continuing discussion on such basic issues as
the nature and function of institutions especially as they operate in the Christian community, the Church itself as koinonia (fellowship) and as institution, ecclesiastical bureaucracy, and the like. (b) At the same time it has undertaken a series of empirical case studies on the influence of institutional factors in actual church union projects.
In accordance with its mandate, the Commission has produced a joint report, published in the Faith and Order booklet, The Old and the New in the Church, and the present symposium which contains a selection of the material emanating from its work. Both the report and this symposium will be transmitted to the Churches at the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order, to be held in Montreal in July, 1963. The essays here presented are, for the most part, the outcome of a long process of joint planning and the give-and-take of group discussion. There has been revision at each stage of the process. First, the authors have incorporated numerous suggestions; then the editors have made excisions and emendations; finally, the secretariat of Faith and Order has pruned various paragraphs and modified section-headings in the direction of greater consistency. The volume should, if possible, be studied in conjunction with the report. Since there may be readers who do not have access to the report, references to it have been included in the introductory chapter on “The Quest for Ecumenical Institutionalization.”
As will be seen, the case histories in Part II of the volume all deal with relations between Protestant denominations. It is indicative of the complexity of these problems and of the existing lack of primary research, that the Commission has failed in its efforts to procure a number of other projected case studies, for instance, on Eastern Orthodox Churches and on conciliar organizations. Here awaits a vast and rewarding field of interdisciplinary research.
One of the projects initiated by the Commission has resulted in a separate volume, Anglican-Methodist Relations: Some Institutional Factors, edited by W.S.F. Pickering.
There remains the pleasant duty to express our gratitude to the
Council on Christian Unity of the Disciples of Christ, whose generous grant largely made it possible for the Commission to hold meetings and circulate documents; to various publishers who courteously granted permission to use quotations from their publications; to the loyal contributors of papers and critical comments; and above all to our colleagues who so admirably demonstrated that an ecumenical institution, such as this Commission has been, can be a true charisma of friendship and fellowship in Christ.
Walter G. Muelder