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Research and ecumenical formation.

Although formation and research have been present in almost all human cultures, it is modern culture in particular which has emphasized them as imperative components of human activity in order to maximize the fulfilment of human possibilities. Both are thus present in the modern ecumenical movement, though as we shall see the relationship between them has not always been clear.

We should begin, however, by considering what is specific about ecumenical formation and research. The Life and Work conference on Church, Community and State (Oxford 1937) gave special attention to defining the term "ecumenical". At a moment in history when the power of the nation-state was being expressed in many different ways and important voices in world opinion were emphasizing the need to develop international institutions, Oxford insisted on a fundamental distinction between "ecumenical" and "international".

The term "international" necessarily accepts the division of humankind into

separate nations as a natural if not final state of affairs. The term

"ecumenical" refers to the expression within history of the given unity

of the church. The one starts from the fact of division and the other from

the fact of unity in Christ. The thought and action of the church are

international in so far as the church must operate in a world in which the

historical bodies share with the rest of humankind the division into

national and racial groups. They are ecumenical in so far as they attempt

to realize the una sancta, the fellowship of Christians who acknowledge

the one Lord.(1)

While the international ethos looks for the realization of "human brotherhood", the churches aim specifically at a unity that witnesses to God's love. Internationalism has a mainly secular dimension; ecumenicity cannot be correctly understood without a theological approach. The contribution of Christian communities to internationalism demands the realization of the una sancta, the fellowship of churches and Christians who acknowledge the one Lord.

This recognition in the 1930s that fellowship is one of the key words of the modern ecumenical movement was echoed in the constitution of the World Council of Churches, which came into being in 1948 as "a fellowship of churches", a koinonia of ecclesiai which witness to what they know: that God "has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:9f.). In the sphere of Christian fellowship, the divisions that separate human beings are turned aside (Gal. 3:26-29).

Ecumenical formation and the research which supports it are thus called to shape that ethos which aims at the fulfilment of the fellowship of God's children -- an ethos of unity and care nurtured by the grace which is God's gift. It takes into consideration first of all those who are weak and suffering. The privileged and stronger members of the fellowship must remember the words "bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2).

The task of the Christian community, and therefore of the fellowship of churches, is to carry on God's mission. For this unity is necessary. As the Father and the Son are one, so too the believers must be one, so that the world may believe. Oxford made the point in this way:

Lack of unity conflicts seriously with the ultimate and supreme purposes of

the church. These purposes are, and must remain, to proclaim the gospel of

God's love in Jesus Christ to all humankind, to administer the sacraments,

to fulfil the Christian ideal of fellowship, and to guide the souls of her

children in the ways of holiness. No other activity in which she may engage

can be a substitute for these.(2)

Beyond these fundamental objectives, however, the churches are also concerned for developments in secular society:

With her members active in every sphere of life, resident in every land,

owing allegiance to every form of state, the church is concerned with the

whole world, and the whole of life within it... There comes a call to the

church to face in the light of Christ all the facts that may be gathered

from every quarter, and thereafter, in the Spirit and through the grace of

Christ, to work for the manifestation of the new divine order which

appeared in the cross and resurrection of the Son of God.(3)

The necessity of formation in order to fulfil God's mission is obvious. And at a moment of history when churches and Christians have become aware that unity is a fundamental condition of faithfulness to God's missionary commandment, such formation has to be strongly influenced by an ecumenical orientation. However, this is not enough. Facing the problems of the contexts in which the churches are called to respond to this missionary calling means that taking the world very seriously is one of the marks of discipleship. It is necessary to know the world, to analyze and interpret its problems, in order to be better equipped to discern the action of the Holy Spirit through historical processes. In other words, both formation and research are necessary in the ecumenical movement.

An ecumenical tradition

The outstanding 20th-century ecumenical leaders have been convinced of the importance of research for the ecumenical movement. During the worldwide depression of the 1930s, the research department of the Universal Council for Life and Work developed a careful study of unemployment and other aspects of the economic situation. Preparations for the Oxford conference unfolded over a period of three years; and its reputation as one of the most important and successful gatherings of the modern ecumenical movement cannot be explained apart from the serious research undertaken ahead of time.

If J.H. Oldham was the acknowledged mastermind of the Oxford conference, a key role in preparing for it was played by the Life and Work study department, directed by Hanns Schonfeld. That would be maintained in the World Council of Churches. As W.A. Visser 't Hooft wrote later:

According to the plans which had been made for the creation of the World

Council, study and research were to be the foremost task of the new

organization. Schonfeld's dominating concern was to ensure that the process

of study and exchange would continue.(4)

The importance Visser 't Hooft himself placed on ecumenical study and research is evident in several ways.

1. The WCC's first general secretary shared Oldham's conviction that the fruitfulness of an ecumenical gathering depends above all on a serious enquiry into and investigation of the matters it is to discuss. Thus preparations for a WCC assembly, which he described as "the toughest part of the general secretary's job", had to begin several years ahead of time. Several years before the second assembly (Evanston 1954), the Council took up a proposal from Henry P. Van Dusen, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, "to form a commission of not more than 25 of the most creative thinkers of the churches to work on the preparation of a document which will be the basis for the consideration of the main theme of the assembly" -- Christian hope.

From this experience Visser 't Hooft drew two lessons. First, it is the most controversial issues which have to be faced. Research should not focus on the obvious, but on what is disturbing and challenging the churches. The vitality of a movement is demonstrated by its readiness to take up problems for which the answers are not easily found. Second, when people who think sharply and creatively come together, it will not be easy to reach a common mind.(5) The key implication of this is that even in the face of lack of consensus a new and wider circle of consultation among the churches -- greater participation -- is called for. The contribution of the participants in this wider round of reflection cannot be improvised. Serious reflection calls for a kind of dialogue that maintains the level of thought, for it is the quality of the dialogue which helps to create the "authority" of what is said by a body like the WCC.

2. Visser 't Hooft believed that while ecumenical research can be crystallized at assemblies and other major gatherings, what matters is not so much these events themselves as the processes of preparation for them, which involve the churches in dialogue. Of course, major ecumenical events can become powerful moments whose results radiate out to the local churches. But the quality of these results depends largely on the process of study and research undertaken beforehand.

3. Research, Visser 't Hooft recognized, is fundamental to implementing new programmatic lines in the ecumenical movement. In 1947 the study department of the WCC (which was still in the process of formation) was instrumental in beginning the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. A similar thing happened in 1970, when the WCC launched the Commission on the Churches' Participation in Development (CCPD) after more than ten years of study of rapid social change undertaken by the WCC's department on Church and Society.

4. Visser 't Hooft's conviction of the importance of study and research was manifest in his determination to create an ecumenical institute. What he had in mind was providing qualified laypeople with ecumenical formation. It was not by chance that he offered the directorship of the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey to Hendrik Kraemer, whose academic excellence was widely respected. Assisted by Suzanne de Dietrich and Paul Evdokimov, Kraemer gave Bossey a distinctive character of which research was one of the marks. Under the leadership of these three laypersons, Bossey became "an energizing centre and laboratory" for the whole ecumenical movement.(6) Its vocation of research and study was affirmed in 1952 when the graduate school of ecumenical studies, organized in collaboration with the theological faculty of the University of Geneva, was added to its programme. Aware that "an ecumenical movement which would proclaim only vague generalities could hardly expect to be taken seriously by the churches and the world",(7) Visser 't Hooft saw the Institute as a place where clergy and laypeople could come together to carry on the* own ecumenical formation and to engage in a careful and diligent search about matters of concern for the churches in unity.

Bossey and ecumenical research

In one of his first lectures at Bossey, Kraemer suggested that "the renewal of the church could be defined in terms which Confucius used, namely the `rectifying of names'. Its purpose was to discover again the true meaning of the church and church membership."(8) What mattered was to liberate laity and clergy of different confessions and denominations from the bewitchment of inherited patterns of thought and action which over the centuries have consecrated the divisions affecting Christianity. To do this, it was necessary to rediscover the sense which had been lost on the way; and such a recovery required research and formation. Research was necessary to overcome futile divisions; formation was indispensable to the shaping of an understanding of Christian discipleship oriented to dialogue, fellowship and unity in faithfulness to the gospel.

It has long been a matter of "common sense" that divisions within Christianity may be inevitable. But the time has come to affirm another sense, a "good sense", which points out that unity is not only necessary but possible, and that divisions can be overcome. To "rediscover the meaning" and "rectify the names" calls for research aimed at understanding what Christian tradition has held regarding the most important affirmations of the biblical faith. That is why Bible study -- research at the level of studying the texts and research into the methodology for revitalizing the message -- has played such an important role in the programmes of Bossey.

Kraemer's recognition of how important research is for the development of the ecumenical movement lay behind the initiative he took at the International Missionary Council meeting in Willingen (1947) to set up Christian study centres, where specialists could devote their time to study, research and dialogue, both among Christians and with participants from other living movements of thought outside the churches. These centres, he believed, could render a unique service to churches in "mission fields" in the process of becoming indigenous churches. The studies they conducted could suggest ways to relate the proclamation of the Christian gospel to their own social and cultural environment. Kraemer saw these study centres as something distinct from research institutions on the Western model, which are primarily concerned with research according to academic standards. In the study centres, the combination of research with dialogue, mainly with persons of other faiths and ideologies, would create a specific ecumenical dimension. One of the outstanding personalities in these centres was Paul D. Devanandan of the Church of South India, director of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society in Bangalore from 1957 to 1962.

This dimension has been very clearly present in the history of Bossey. Under the leadership of Kraemer, H.H. Wolf and Nikos Nissiotis, writes David Edwards,

Bossey has held many international meetings for different professions and

around different concerns of the contemporary world... Despite the

difficulties which are inevitable when busy men and women have to organize

internationally and when participants face many problems of language and

idiom, Bossey has been a home of creative dialogue and study. Being

stimulated by lay pressures, some of its thinking has been radical.(9)

Edwards argues that this dimension of study and research is crucial for renewing both Christian thought and action and the life of the churches.

Other sectors of the WCC have also been instrumental in the development of research. I have already mentioned the importance of study in WCC assembly preparations. Bible studies, preparatory groundwork for the various sections of the assembly and a range of publications sharing ecumenical insights into its theme have provided many Christians with opportunities for study. On a more specialized level one can mention among others the studies and research developed by Faith and Order, helping to clarify misunderstandings and to create a positive atmosphere for theological dialogue among the churches, and by Church and Society, making it possible for churches to concentrate on concrete human issues which challenge their witness.

A spirituality of unity

Philip Potter has argued that ecumenical research should be understood only as instrumental. The distinctive feature of ecumenical research must be the spirituality of unity. "Grace, God's self-giving love, his commitment to us and to all human beings in Christ, is what makes us what we are and enables us to work for the unity of the church." Recognizing that this grace is shared in different ways with different persons, the purpose is to build up the body of Christ into the unity of faith. In this, Potter writes, the contribution of those involved in ecumenical research and study is crucial:

I believe that the cause of unity will be advanced only as we share more

intensively in a common study of the word of God and of the rich

traditions of understanding that work through the centuries. I believe

that such mutual study in prayer and worship should lead to and be inspired

by our common witness to Christ and his work of reconciliation and healing

for every human being. This is the experience of churches and Christians

in many parts of the world today.(10)

Potter emphasizes three things about ecumenical research, which highlight its uniqueness. First, as part of a spiritual experience, it is an experience of freedom. Those who are involved in research must carry it out in faithfulness to the Holy Spirit; and where the Spirit is, is freedom (2 Cor. 3:17). We can then move "from splendour to splendour" in the liberty of the Spirit. Second, in order to be faithful to the Spirit, research in the ecumenical movement must be anchored in the word of God, which believers through the ages have lived by and reflected on. Third, faithful to this orientation, research must be undertaken in the mood of prayer and worship, that is, as a search to receive illumination from God and as an act of celebration.

During the past twenty years the notion of "ecumenical learning" has been developed as another way of talking about ecumenical formation or education. The ecumenical movement is a learning movement, offering an opportunity for permanent education. We are formed in it through different ways: information, sharing of knowledge, dialogue with persons who belong to other traditions and confessions. According to Ulrich Becker, ecumenical learning, which is integral to the formation of clergy and laypeople alike, should be seen more as a dimension of the whole educational task of the church than a segment of it, although it can take the form of particular programmes. Its distinctive pedagogical dimension is the emphasis on learning together with rather than teaching. Its ecumenical character is manifested by its taking place within Christian communities, by its missionary dimension, by its social-ethical element and by its orientation towards action. Ecumenical learning involves the whole person, calling us to transcend our limitations of culture, gender and confession.(11)

Visser 't Hooft recognized this challenging dimension of ecumenical formation. The lectures he gave annually to the Bossey graduate school he described as "a good opportunity to oblige me to formulate in theological terms what I had learned in my daily work", particularly since "the students asked sharp and challenging questions about the life of the ecumenical movement".(12) The process of ecumenical formation demands the articulation of insights experienced through ecumenical praxis in order to communicate them. The challenge from other participants obliges ecumenical leaders to expand their understanding, to study in order to continue a meaningful dialogue, to involve themselves in research to fill the gaps in the formulation of their views. Without the sharpness and depth this brings, the ecumenical movement loses vitality and strength, for its charisma runs the great danger of becoming routine.

The ecumenical character of study and research

The experiences we have mentioned have taught some lessons about ecumenical formation and research. Some of these pertain to the ecumenical character of these activities, taking into account what we noted earlier about the meaning of "ecumenical": that it does not begin from existing divisions but from the unity given by God in Christ to his people.

The starting point is what Potter underscored: that there is already a unity received by the common Christian reference to the word of God. This is a recurring motif in the history of the ecumenical movement. Since the 1880s the Anglican communion, in what is known as the Lambeth Quadrilateral, has identified four elements as necessary for restoring unity among the divided branches of Christianity: (1) the scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the revealed word of God; (2) the Nicene and Apostles Creeds as sufficient statements of the Christian faith; (3) the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper administered with the use of Christ's words of institution and the elements he ordained; and (4) "a ministry acknowledged by every part of the church as possessing not only the inward call of the Spirit but also the commission of Christ and the authority of the whole body". For research and formation, the first element of this quadrilateral is the key one. This is reflected in the revised version of the WCC Basis, adopted by the third assembly (New Delhi 1961), which added the words "according to the scriptures". This reference to the Bible is understood as an element of unity among Christians of different confessions and denominations. It is a theological and spiritual element which must always characterize ecumenical praxis.

But there is more. Ecumenical research and formation must be inclusive. Although all people -- men and women, young and old, from all nations -- can become full members of the body of Christ by baptism, the fact is that leadership in the churches is still predominantly male. Much remains to be done in order to become genuinely inclusive bodies. While some progress has been made since the WCC central committee decided in 1981 that the participation of women should be equal to that of men in ecumenical bodies (at least of the WCC), work must be undertaken in many areas of the life of the churches in order to ensure a basic equality. One of these spheres is that of theological language. Women have become increasingly aware of the exclusion they suffer. The prevailing male domination in the tradition of ecumenical studies must be corrected by introducing more of the perspectives, the language and the conceptualizations of women.

This effort at inclusiveness must not be limited only to gender: it must also take into account ethnic, cultural and other aspects. Inclusiveness also demands that the processes of research should combine the efforts of people in positions of leadership with those of others who are part of the people of God, as well as those of academics and others who have the experience on the subject of study which comes from involvement and praxis. If ecumenical research and formation are confined to professional theologians, they will suffer from parochialism. An ecumenical theology has to pay the price of inclusiveness if it is to be coherent with its aims.

Furthermore, research and formation are part of the service that the ecumenical movement provides to the churches. There is a kind of diakonia which is offered to confessions and denominations through these programmes. The intention of building up the one people of God cannot be achieved if ecumenical formation and research are considered ends in themselves. This means that studies and formation cannot be kept in the hands of decision-makers and church leaders. They must be communicated; their results must be disseminated through appropriate channels (which does not only mean publications). The findings of research can provide the subject matter for seminars, colloquia, permanent educational programmes. One way of disseminating the results of studies is by multiplying opportunities for ecumenical formation.

Methodological lessons

Experience in ecumenical formation and research has also taught some things about methodology. Here I want to single out three of these lessons.

1. Ecumenical research gains depth when it is carried out as a process. I mentioned earlier that for building ecumenical awareness, processes are always more important than events. Of course, events are significant, but it is an important legacy from the ecumenical pioneers that, in order to articulate ecumenical thought, processes are indispensable.

2. Because the oikoumene, the whole inhabited world, comprises the cultures and traditions of all the peoples of the world and all categories of human beings to whom the love of God is graciously given, the variety of the oikoumene must be at least partially represented among those responsible for integrating study groups or research communities seeking to clarify subjects of concern to the ecumenical movement. Study groups must reflect a plurality of cultural, social, ethnic, gender, theological perspectives. The multidisciplinarity of research groups in the ecumenical movement should not express only academic criteria, important as these are. The interdisciplinary character of ecumenical research must be much more comprehensive. There are social, cultural and psychological factors which influence the churches' thought and decision-making processes. As Ernst Lange wrote,

The logic of incarnation and the indigenization of the church meant that

Christian truth was necessarily subject to this all-pervasive reality. It

meant that even the most central utterances of faith (the titles that we

give to Jesus, for example) are conditioned and permeated by it... Yet

there is great reluctance to draw the only possible conclusion from this

insight: namely, that ecumenical theology, indeed theology of any kind, not

only needs interdisciplinary assistance but is itself becoming more and

more an interdisciplinary exercise. Like anthropology, theology too has to

become a joint undertaking of all sciences -- human, social and historical.

If theology is concerned with the truth about reality, then all human

knowledge and experience of reality must be brought into the

reflection process and exposed to the test of truth.(13)

3. It is part of the methodology of ecumenical research that it is born from praxis and returns to praxis. Christians of different confessions have the experience of getting involved in common situations in which their faith is challenged. They begin to formulate questions about the meaning of their faith in these situations. They want to produce meaning as Christians as a contribution to solving the problems that affect human beings. The questions they formulate often converge. They analyze and interpret the situations in which they are acting together. They seek light on these problems from the inspiration they receive from the Bible. The intention is not to produce "academic enlightenment" but to propose ways for meaningful action by Christian communities in order to respond to such challenges. Ecumenical research and ecumenical formation are part of the same process of trying to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ in concrete situations where life is at stake and to participate meaningfully in the fulfilment of God's mission.

Few Christians involved in the ecumenical movement would dispute the usefulness and indeed the necessity of ecumenical research and ecumenical formation. Yet it must be acknowledged that the resources which the ecumenical movement devotes to research and formation are very limited. To quote Ernst Lange once more:

Even the scientific equipment of the ecumenical consultation process

is so modest that it would be an exaggeration even to call it spartan.

Even a cosmetics factory today cannot manage without an elaborate research

department. The most improbable problems today are deemed worthy of their

special research teams and promotion campaigns. Yet the ecumenical

movement, in business for the future of a religious community with

a membership running into billions, still has no research institute of

its own, not even a theological one, let alone an interdisciplinary one,

still has no "Institute for Advanced Ecumenical Studies". The theory of

ecumenical praxis is essentially a leisure-time hobby.(14)

I am convinced that the time is ripe to correct these inadequacies. As the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey celebrates its 50th anniversary, the vitality of the ecumenical movement must be demonstrated through the launching of initiatives which can enable the ecumenical movement to respond to the challenges of the future. Ecumenical research and ecumenical formation, perceived as complementary, are part of this response.


(1) The Report of the Conference at Oxford, July 1937, on Church, Community and State: The Churches Survey their Task, with an introduction by J.H. Oldham, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1937, pp.168f.

(2) Ibid., p. 169.

(3) Ibid., p. 170.

(4) W.A. Visser 't Hooft, Memoirs, London, SCM, 1973, p.93.

(5) Ibid., p.246.

(6) Ibid., p.342.

(7) In Harold Fey, ea., A History of the Ecumenical Movement, vol. 2, The Ecumenical Advance, 3rd ea., Geneva, WCC, 1993, p.23.

(8) Quoted by Visser 't Hooft, Memoirs, p.200.

(9) David L. Edwards, in Fey, op. cit., p.385.

(10) Philip Potter, Life in All Its Fullness, Geneva, WCC, 1981, p.40.

(11) Cf. U. Becker, in N. Lossky et al., eds, Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, Geneva, WCC, 1991, p.341.

(12) Memoirs, pp.346,357.

(13) Ernst Lange, And Yet It Moves: Dream and Reality of the Ecumenical Movement, Eng. tr. abridged by K. Raiser and L. Vischer, Belfast, Christian Journals Ltd, 1979, p. 127.

(14) Ibid., p. 128.

Julio de Santa Ana is professor emeritus of the university of Sao Paolo, Brazil and lecturer at the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey.
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Title Annotation:Bossey and Ecumenical Formation
Author:Santa Ana, Julio de
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Oct 1, 1996
Previous Article:Bossey: moving towards the future.
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