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A prophetic, polysemic and proleptic prompt.

History has revealed that any metamorphosis in ecclesial landscape presents possibilities which can prove to be either a promise or a problem for the movement toward visible unity. However, one can say that the recent changes in "world Christianity" (most notably the shift of Christianity toward the global south, postcolonial understandings of mission, "emerging" church movements and changing understanding of church and mission) make the pilgrimage toward visible unity arguably unprecedented in terms of its multi-layered or "polysemic" dimension. The journey today straddles a wide range of questions, ranging from Christian self-identity amid growing religious plurality, varied missiological priorities and competing theologies of ecclesial renewal. These in turn are contingent upon and continually reshaped by the pressure to posit a vibrant and visible Christian presence in contexts of "threats" to Christianity (both palpable and perceived), intra-Christian proselytism and the church's accountability to continuity and change--to name just a few.

As an Indian-Christian belonging to the Church of South India, which is widely considered to be a unique experiment in ecumenism, I find that the Faith and Order convergence text The Church: Towards a Common Vision comes as an invitation to rejoice over, and both re-affirm and re-visit, the call to be "one, holy, catholic and apostolic" church today. With a comprehensiveness which is vital for it to be characterized as a convergence text, the text helps us to engage critically, creatively and constructively with a number of important aspects of "what has long been identified as the most elemental theological objective in the quest for Christian unity" namely "agreement on ecclesiology" (p. viii). As someone whose area of ecumenical engagement involves inter-religious dialogue and cooperation, I found this text an encouragement to ponder afresh the impact and implications of visible ecclesial unity in religiously pluralistic contexts on (a) Christian self-understanding and (b) Christian witness--two areas which the programme in Inter-Religious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches has been thinking theologically about.

Though the array of theological themes which have been touched upon in The Church: Towards a Common Vision is fascinating and tempting to delve into and merits substantive reflection, yet, resisting that temptation, I confine myself to particular areas which I see as impinging upon more directly and being relatively more important to me as an Indian-Christian, who, belonging to an "ecumenical ecclesial denomination," is engaged ecumenically in issues of inter-religious relations. My overall intention is to bring out how this document enables a discussion on the prophetic, polysemic (multi-layered) and proleptic dimensions of the Church.

The Prophetic Dimension

There are three ways in which the document envisages itself to serve the churches (p. 2). I am particularly fascinated by the one which aims at "providing an occasion for the churches to reflect upon their own understanding of the Lord's will so as to grow towards greater unity (cf. Eph 4:12-16)." The document hopes that "such a process of information, reaction and growth, by confirming, enriching and challenging all of the churches, will make a substantial contribution and even enable some decisive steps towards the full realization of unity" (p. 2). One of the issues that this document, which inordinately emphasizes on "full realization of unity" of churches, would raise for the Churches in India would be the question of factors of disunity within churches (intra-church disunity) and the intersection of theological and ecclesial factors with the so called cultural factors like casteism to reproduce "divisions" which distort the unity of the church. This I would call the prophetic dimension of the document.

To be more explicit, in the Indian context the question of unity cannot be discussed without denouncing the sin of casteism, which cuts through and across church denominations. Separate burial grounds and communion chalices for different caste-members within one local church hardly do justice to visible unity. Therefore the sin of silence over caste-based discrimination divests any exploration of visible unity, at either the discourse or practical level, of ethical integrity. This document with its invitation to seek Christ's will of unity in a manner which confirms, enriches and challenges has the potential to expand the horizons of thinking about visible unity by taking into account how theological factors interact with cultural and social factors like casteism and sexism to reproduce disunity which distorts Christian witness. Theology's complicity with casteism, racism and sexism, though widely recognised in liberation discourses, has hitherto not been sufficiently brought under the ambit of discussions on Christian unity. This document for me can inspire ways beyond such an impasse as it conveys the importance of freedom in and the necessity of the local churches' (re)discovery of the Lord's will in their growth toward greater unity through inevitable and overt conversations with contextual realities which have the potential to fragment and divide.

The Polysemic Dimension

The importance of the document for me, particularly in relation to the church's call to mission, is enhanced by the tacit potential of the document to help us conceive of mission and witness, taking into serious account the multiply layered or polysemic nature of global Christian histories and legacies. The document consistently affirms the non-monolithic character of Christianity- and affirms the heterogeneous nature of Christianity throughout. The intentional privileging of convergence over consensus attests to this commitment to difference. The implication of such a posture of recognizing difference should find its best translation in attention to the differentiated versions of Christianity and the ways in which the shaping of local ecclesiology and ecclesial witness is contingent upon multiple factors. The document in tacit ways provides us with snapshots of such layering which have significance when discussing the witness of the church today. For example, discussing the "incarnational" dimension of Christian proclamation, page 7 paragraph 6 gives a post-colonial understanding of the development of the church whereby it recognizes: "At times, the cultural and religious heritage of those to whom the gospel was proclaimed was not given the respect it deserved as when those engaged in evangelization were complicit in imperialistic colonization, which pillaged and even exterminated peoples unable to defend themselves from more powerful invading nations." It then moves on to recognize the shifts in world Christianity where there is a reversal of mission, which has been conceived in terms of the mission of the rest to the West. Through the highlighting of such developments, I see the document helping churches in post-colonial contexts (like the Indian context where I am from) engage in discussion on the impact of Christian histories upon contemporary thinking about mission of the churches today. For example, in the Indian context of growing religious fundamentalism there" is an increasing tendency to scrutinize Christian "mission" in its myriad forms (education, social transformation, philanthropy and advocacy) through the lens of the colonial legacy of Christianity, much like the one described above. As a consequence today serious aspersions are cast on the "motives" of contemporary Christian mission. In a complex landscape, where the interplay of notions of "native" and "foreign," "majority" and "minority" are being employed in an intransigent manner, these impose constraints on the churches' agency in mission and the church's self-understanding as an instrument of God's mission of transformation. The document thus can initiate discussion on the "interstitial" spaces between the notions of "colonial" and "contemporary"; which post-colonial churches across the world inhabit and negotiate in ubiquitous and unique ways today as they seek to engage in God's mission.

The Proleptic Dimension

The document in a fascinating way brings out the proleptic dimension of the church. The proleptic nature of the church is clearly discernible in passages where the church is recognized as a sign and servant of God's design for the world (p. 15, para. 25). However, this proleptic dimension emerges in this document in the context of a dialectical tension whereby on the one hand there is a persistent and overtly optimistic picture of the church as an agent of the "transformation and the salvation of the world" (p. 12), whereas on the other hand there is emphasis on the fragility of the church's witness especially in relation to its call to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic (p. 13, para. 22). The proleptic dimension of the church can be perceived when the document states: "The growth of churches towards the unity of the one church is intimately related to their calling to promote the unity of the whole of humanity and of creation, since Christ who is head of the church is the one in whom all are to be reconciled" (p. 32, para. 37). The conceiving of the proleptic dimension of the church in terms of such a dialectical tension highlights the urgency of the churches to cultivate "bold humility" which can further empower them in their movement toward visible unity and also invest them with new energy to carry on their mission of the transforming work of God's kingdom.

On the whole, in terms of the potential that it offers for the discussing the prophetic, polysemic and proleptic dimensions of the church vis-a-vis its journey toward common visible unity, The Church: Towards a Common Vision, has the capacity not only to widen the horizons of thinking about Christian unity but also to inspire imagination and build confidence in moving toward this goal of visible unity in a creative and critical manner.

DOI: 10.1111/erev.12049

Peniel Rajkumar is a presbyter of the Church of South India, and former professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore. He is a recognized expert in Dalit Theology. Since January 2013, he has been on staff at the WCC as a programme executive in the area of interreligious dialogue and cooperation.
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Author:Rajkumar, Peniel Jesudason Rufus
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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