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The role of bilateral dialogues within the one ecumenical movement.

"On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I am thrilled by dialogues; on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I am tired of them; on Sundays I talk only to God!" Many an ecumenical veteran may feel a certain sympathy with this outburst, for the way of dialogue, no matter how hilarious one's companions may sometimes be, is on the whole arduous. It demands patience; close attention to theological detail; willingness to see ourselves as others see us; openness to change; and a constitution which can tolerate nocturnal drafting, unfamiliar diets and jetlag. It also requires an almost defiant confidence that even if the immediate practical results of a dialogue seem meagre, it is still better that the parties met and talked than that they did not.

What could possibly sustain a dialogue through such an experience? What could justify the expenditure of time, money and effort? Surely only the conviction that on the basis of Christ's finished work at the cross God has graciously called out one people for his praise and service. This universal -- eternal -- ecclesia is one in which the barriers are down, and they may not justifiably be re-erected by Christians on racist, sexist, ecclesiological or other grounds. The empirical reality, however, is that the church's God-given unity is obscured by divisions deriving from the several histories of the Christian churches, and by the propensity for some parachurch organizations to go their own ecclesiastically unaccountable ways. Accordingly, until all who have received the one baptism and confess the sole lordship of Christ cordially receive one another -- supremely at the Lord's table -- we need mechanisms to foster progress towards the ever fuller manifestation of the unity into which God has already brought us (whether we like it or not).

Among these mechanisms are the bilateral dialogues between the several Christian World Communions (CWCs). As is well known, these have proliferated during recent decades -- especially since the Roman Catholic Church reached out to other Christian families under the prompting of the Second Vatican Council. Bilateral dialogues have been international, regional and local, but for the purposes of this brief paper I shall concentrate upon international dialogues. In order to draw upon real experiences, and not by way of flaunting a partisan spirit, I shall illustrate my remarks by reference to the eight international dialogues in which I have, in one way or another, been involved. Clarity may best be achieved if I seek to answer some of the questions which have been put to me over the years.

1. What is the nature of the bodies in dialogue?

The short answer is that they are varied. Some CWCs embrace many millions of members, others one or two millions. It is not that the importance of a theological position is determined by the number of people who maintain it, but it is clear that the geographical spread of some is wider, and the cultural diversity correspondingly greater, than that of others. This has implications where reception is concerned: some dialogue partners will simply be unfamiliar at the level of the grassroots. Again, whereas the Roman Catholic Church can, by reason of its authority structures, promulgate positions which should be endorsed by its membership globally, an organization like the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), which is not itself a churchly body but is rather a fellowship of some 180 autonomous churches, unions of churches and united churches which share a common ethos, cannot be so bold. It works at the behest of its member churches, but its recommendations are always for their consideration, and they may or may not be endorsed and acted upon. Indeed, to be frank they may not even be noticed. One of the serious problems which the Alliance faces (and perhaps some other CWCs too) is that of communication. How are dialogue reports to get past the official desk to which they are sent, and find their way to where the church members are?(1)

In addition to questions of geographical and cultural spread, structure and communication, there is the phenomenon of inner theological and ecclesiological diversity. Even the most casual glance at CWCs might lead one to suppose that the Orthodox and the Lutheran communions, for example, are theologically and ecclesiologically more homogenous than the Reformed. It has certainly crossed my mind more than once that some of our WARC dialogue partners must wonder precisely what it is with which they are in dialogue. Unlike some others, the Reformed do not have one confession of faith to which they all subscribe -- indeed, some of us would die rather than formally subscribe to a doctrinal statement, and this not because we are necessarily unorthodox, but for a variety of theological reasons concerning the doctrine of the Spirit and the nature of confessing which I cannot here stay to explain.(2) As in the case of the Anglicans, for example, there is a considerable variety of theological opinion within Reformed ranks: we have our vociferous conservatives and radicals, who from the point of view of their desire to call everyone else to heel can appear as the mirror images of one another, and can even tumble into that inner-family sectarianism by which the Reformed family, for all its protestations of catholicity, has in practice been bedevilled. Again, the Reformed do not have a common polity, encompassing as we do presbyterial and congregational traditions, the former causing us to resemble the Methodists, the latter aligning us more closely with Baptists and Mennonites. Moreover, except in relatively few united churches, we have done little to encourage the sharing of our polities within the family since the World Presbyterian Alliance united with the International Congregational Council in 1970.(3) Yet I am more convinced than ever that such sharing is required if both the ministry of the whole people of God in each place and mutual episcope as between the several foci of churchly life are to flourish.(4) Yet again, Reformed practice in worship and attitudes towards church discipline vary considerably around the world. So one could continue,(5) but the question presses. What holds this CWC together? A shorthand answer is: a conviction that God authoritatively addresses his people by the Spirit through the scriptures discerned in fellowship; that God's word is good news of a salvation to which people are called to respond by grace through faith, thereby receiving newness of life -- life which is inescapably personal and ecclesia. This is the basis of Reformed (I would even say, of all) catholicity. In relation to this gospel, Reformed doctrinal emphases and insights concerning church government, while they may and should be witnessed to in bilateral dialogues, are secondary. After all, the Reformers did not set out to be Reformed in any exclusive sense, but to be biblical and catholic.

2. Do bilateral dialogues have significance for the totality of the CWCs

which participate in them?

This question is sometimes bluntly rephrased thus: "Are not dialogues a peculiarly Western hobby?" This challenge arises from the fact that as the gospel has traversed the globe so have the several Christian histories and polities which have borne it. It is in a sense perfectly understandable that a church in Africa or Asia which may not yet be fifty years old should wonder precisely what the landmarks represented by the dates 1054 or 1517 or 1662 or 1738 have to do with it. On the other hand, do we not have to recognize that as it happens (and may it not be in the providence of God that it is so?) people have received the gospel by one means or another, and that its heralds could only reasonably offer what they had first received? Is it not better to have elders or bishops with the gospel than to have no gospel at all? But if we have these several inheritances, we have the problems and the sectarianism which accompany them. Realizing this, do we not feel the pain of the divided table wherever we live in the world? If we do feel this pain will we not wish to encourage all who seek to remove the obstacles to communion which our self-originated or inherited histories have thrown up? It is not just a question of differing histories and cultures, however, but of circumstances too. Realism prompts the recognition that hard-pressed CWC members who struggle for life in face of famine, civil war and natural disaster quite properly conclude that there are more pressing obligations than responding to bilateral dialogue reports.

While this question is frequently posed by Christians in what has (however unfortunately) been called the third world, it should not be overlooked that as far as the agenda of many Western Christians is concerned, the findings of bilateral dialogues are not high. Creeping secularization, increasing mobility of families and rampant consumerism are not unknown, and these conspire to encourage church affiliation on grounds of availability of gymnasia, day-care facilities, slick liturgical packaging and the like, rather than on grounds of prayerfully considered judgments concerning either doctrine or church order. Many "shop around" for a church's facilities rather than for its heritage. To such as these the reports of bilateral dialogues, if known about at all, may be less than complelling reading.

3. In view of the inner diversity of some CWCs, is it not more realistic

to focus upon regional dialogues?

Not altogether, for (a) in some cases the findings of an international dialogue can strengthen the hands of those in the regions; (b) on occasion (as in the Lutheran-Reformed international dialogue) the international report can build upon work done in more than one region and make suggestions which would carry the work still further forward.(6) In view of this it is more than a little disquieting when regional dialogues proceed without reference to their international counterparts and vice versa.

4. Do the bilateral dialogue participants adequately represent their

respective CWCs?

The question is, of course, ambiguous. It is often taken to mean, "Are both sexes and the several regions of the world adequately represented on a particular dialogue team taken as a whole?"(7) Allowing for the fact that on grounds of numbers and expense alone not every member church could be represented on every dialogue team, I can frankly state that in my experience strenuous efforts (not always entirely successful) have been made to ensure fair representation. But with equal frankness I have to say that the other way of taking the question must be considered: Do the dialogue participants, taken individually, adequately represent the CWC? Are they competent in relation to the business in hand?

At this point it must be recognized that it is not only that CWCs are different in kind; it is also the case that not all dialogues have similar terms of reference, and some heed must be paid to specific objectives when potential participants are being appointed. The official international dialogue between WARC and the Orthodox churches, for example, set out from the doctrine of the Trinity. It was highly desirable, therefore, that a reasonable proportion of those involved should really know patristics (including the relevant languages) and really know the Orthodox. In this ongoing dialogue church union is not an immediate objective, but in others it is a much nearer possibility. Thus, when in formal dialogue with the World Methodist Council, which shares some united churches with WARC, it was important that some of the latter churches should be able to share their experiences of union with the dialogue team as a whole, and also that scholars well versed in the historical disputes between Calvinists and evangelical Arminians should be at hand to assist in the exploration of the question whether such matters should any longer be church dividing. In a word, the subject matter of a projected dialogue ought to have some bearing upon those invited to participate in it so that the task may satisfactorily be accomplished.

Moreover, we ought not to expect that any dialogue will discuss every conceivable or fashionable theological topic under the sun (it is perfectly legitimate to proceed through a dialogue without any mention whatsoever of Foucault or Derrida!). Within these constraints and those of the overall practicable number of participants, as wide a representation of regions and sexes as possible should be striven for. There can in addition be contributions from persons coopted for special purposes; and reports of actual local relations can be submitted from the dialogue partners' grassroots. In the Lutheran-Reformed and Methodist-Reformed dialogues, for example, regional reports were received, and it was disturbing to discover that notwithstanding the smiles around the dialogue table there could be significant strains and stresses between the respective communions on the ground in some parts of the world.

5. What are the possible pitfalls in bilateral dialogues?

I should like to mention two. The first comes into view if and when CWCs fail to speak with one voice throughout their dialogue programmes. While there will be differences of personnel and subject matter as between one dialogue and the next, some attempt should be made to ensure consistency on major points, though complete success in this matter is elusive. Thus, for example, the present moderator of the WARC department of theology has turned the searchlight upon his own family and pointed out that whereas in the reports of their dialogues with the Anglicans and the Disciples of Christ the Reformed attach considerable weight to the eldership, the Lutheran-Reformed report is silent on this form of ministry.(8) Even granting that the eldership may be presumed to fall within the category of "differences [of] form and structure [which] do not challenge our common understanding of the gospel"(9) it would not be surprising if some of the Reformed family's dialogue partners wondered just how seriously we take the eldership.(10)

Similar points, be it gently said, can be made concerning those of families other than the Reformed, who may on occasion appear to be in an ambiguous position. For example in the report of the first round of Roman Catholic-Anglican dialogue it is declared of ordained ministers that "their ministry is not an extension of the common Christian priesthood but belongs to another realm of the gifts of the spirit"(11) whereas in God's Reign and Our Unity, where the same topic was under consideration, no such claim is to be found. Interestingly, and notwithstanding the Roman Catholic-Anglican affirmation just quoted, the report of the first round of Roman Catholic-Reformed dialogue affirms that "we need to go beyond an understanding of ordination which suggests that those consecrated to the special ministry are given a potestas and derive a dignity from Christ without reference to the believing community".(12) It would seem that dialogue teams need to be ever alive to the distinction between speaking (or being silent) to please, and trimming.

Secondly, there is the problem that certain matters are extraordinarily difficult to raise. For example, I have found it well nigh impossible to foster rational theological discussion of the Establishment question -- even among the Reformed themselves; yet one might have expected that in view of their (significantly different) experiences of church-state establishments the Anglican-Reformed and the Lutheran-Reformed dialogues would have yielded fresh insights on this hoary theme. The issue drives to the heart of the nature of the church; it raises the questions "Who is a Christian?" and "How are we to honour Christ's lordship over the church?" It makes for practical difficulties where local ecumenical relations are concerned -- I was appalled when in the course of the Reformed-Methodist dialogue a Methodist theologian reported that in his part of Europe Methodists are made to feel that they are second-class Christians by the Reformed. It has been pointed out to me, sotto voce, that questions concerning the funding of international ecumenical and aid programmes (including those of some CWCs) are among the factors which prohibit the theological treatment of this most significant issue.(13) I should not like to believe that this is true, and resolute attention to church-and-state vis-a-vis ecclesiology would reassure me that it is not.

6. Do not bilateral dialogues militate against the theological work of

the World Council of Churches?

No, they complement it. The World Council's Faith and Order Commission, with its diverse membership, and its inclusion of persons from the Roman Catholic Church, is well placed to take the international theological temperature when the theological status quo needs to be determined. The document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry and its consequent literature represents a prominent example of this work. CWCs are by no means immune from this endeavour; on the contrary, they can encourage(14) and analyze(15) the responses of their members. But when all of this is done, the several Christian traditions remain and, since the World Council of Churches cannot speak for any specific family of Christians, the CWCs have an important role of informing and encouraging their members if there is to be movement between their several traditions on the ground.(16)

7. Have bilateral dialogues been worthwhile?

Unequivocally, yes. The dialogues between WARC and the Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church, with whom visible unity is by common consent yet a long way off, have nevertheless led to the common affirmation of doctrines fundamental to the Christian faith. The report of the second phase of the latter dialogue, for example, witnesses to the shared belief in the sole mediatorship of Christ, and declares that through him "we have reconciliation with God" and "among ourselves".(17) Implicit here, surely, is a challenge to redouble efforts to remove ecclesiological hindrances to the manifestation of that reconciliation. The Baptist-Reformed dialogue participants resolved to commend for discussion the possibility that if Christian initiation were regarded as a process involving "baptism with water in the name of the Trinity, public profession of faith and admission to the Lord's supper" the way might be open for a church order (such as already exists in some churches) in which both infant and believers' baptism would be available.(18) It is a matter of particular regret to me that it has not proved possible to pursue this suggestion more deliberately with the Baptist World Alliance. The recommendation of the Anglican-Reformed report that "where churches of our two communions are committed to going forward to seek visible unity, a measure of reciprocal communion should be made possible; for communion is not only a sign of unity achieved, but also a means by which God brings it about"(19) may be welcomed as directly challenging ecclesiastical sectarianism at the Lord's table. The report of the second phase of the international Reformed-Mennonite dialogue, which focused on the traditionally "neuralgic" matters of baptism, peace and the state, contains a number of recommendations couched in the language of mutual challenge. For example, the Reformed are urged "to revive and practise that understanding of the church as God's covenant people, within which the integrity of infant baptism is actualized", while the Mennonites are urged "seriously to examine their attitude towards Christians baptized as infants who wish to exercise their membership in a Mennonite church, in relation to the questions of the nature and mode of baptism, and in the light of the gospel which has made us one".(20) The manifestation of Christian unity is nowhere closer than as between the Reformed and the Lutherans, Methodists and Disciples of Christ. The three relevant international dialogues were based upon regional and local intelligence, and the reports unanimously concluded that there are no remaining theological obstacles to full pulpit and table fellowship.(21)

It cannot, to put it mildly, be said that the majority of bilateral dialogue recommendations have been put into practice with joy and alacrity. But every so often one comes across a situation in which Christians are clearly conscious of their oneness in Christ and ill at ease with their disunity at the Lord's table. Elsewhere national, regional or local unions are breaking into flower, with the result that the stewardship of personnel, money and buildings is under consideration with a view to the release of energies and resources for mission and service. When these things happen and when, above all, inherited denunciations of fellow Christians are repudiated,(22) all the unfamiliar meals, long nights, rejected drafts and jetlag seem a small price to have paid.


(1)On the question of reception see the collection of articles written from various standpoints in Ecumenical Trends, XV, no. 7, July-August 1986, pp.105-18.

(2)See further Alan P.F. Sell, A Reformed, Evangelical, Catholic Theology: The Contribution of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 1875-1982, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1991, pp.71-91; Alan P.F.Sell, "Confessing the Faith in English Congregationalism", in Alan P.F. Sell, Dissenting Thought and the Life of the Churches: Studies in an English Tradition, Lewiston, NY, Edwin Mellen, 1990, ch. I, especially pp.56-63.

(3)See further, A Reformed, Evangelical, Catholic Theology, pp.83-104. This is an aspect of the wider problem that within the Reformed family we do not know one another's stories very well. It is still possible for Reformed scholars to write on Presbyterianism as if this were a purely British-American phenomenon; and for collections of Reformed theological texts to be published as if Congregationalism (John Owen, P.T. Forsyth et al.) had never existed.

(4)See further, Alan P.F. Sell, Commemorations: Studies in Christian Thought and History, Calgary, University of Calgary Press, and Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1993, ch. XIV.

(5)See further, Alan P.F. Sell, "The Reformed Family Today", in Donald K. McKim, ed., Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition, Louisville, Westminster/John Knox, 1992, pp.433-41.

(6)See, for example, Toward Church Fellowship: Report of the Joint Commission of the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Geneva, LWF and WARC, 1989. See further Nils Ehrenstrom & Gunther Gassmann, Confessions in Dialogue, Geneva, WCC, 1972, pp.140-41. Extracts from this report are reprinted in Reformed World, XXXII, December 1973, pp.339-46.

(7)In this form the question has been posed, inter alia, by Jane Dempsey Douglass, the president of WARC. See H.S. Wilson, ed., Bilateral Dialogues, Geneva, WARC, 1993, pp.34-40. This book comprises reflections of one CWC on roughly a quarter of a century of activity in the field of bilateral dialogue. The paper by Lukas Vischer, "The Bilateral International Dialogues of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches: Achievement and Follow-up" is of particular interest.

(8)See Karel Blei in Bilateral Dialogues, pp.7-8. Cf. God's Reign and Our Unity, London, SPCK, and Edinburgh, Saint Andrew's Press, 1984, pp.60-62,72; Towards Closer Fellowship, studies from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, no. 11, Geneva, WARC, 1988, p.13; Toward Church Fellowship, pp.23-25. Dr Blei asks (op cit., p.7), "Did and do the Reformed representatives who take part in one particular dialogue have the results of the other bilateral dialogues sufficiently in mind?" "Sufficiently" begs the question; but they normally had them to hand.

(9)Toward Church Fellowship, p.24.

(10)See further, Eldership in the Reformed Churches Today, studies from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Geneva, WARC, 1991; A Reformed, Evangelical, Catholic Theology, pp.172-73.

(11)The Final Report, London, Catholic Truth Society and SPCK, 1982, p.36. This wins my prize for the naughtiest sentence in the whole of ecumenical literature! See further, A Reformed, Evangelical, Catholic Theology, pp.137-42; idem, Aspects of Christian Integrity, pp.93-97.

(12)The Presence of Christ in Church and World, Geneva, WARC, and the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, 1977, p.30.

(13)See further, Dissenting Thought and the Life of the Churches, ch. XXII; Commemorations, ch. IV; Alan P.F. Sell, "A Renewed Plea for 'Impractical' Divinity", Studies in Christian Ethics, forthcoming.

(14)See, for example, Alan P.F. Sell, Responding to Baptist, Eucharist and Ministry: A Word to the Reformed Churches, studies from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, no. 3, 1984; reprinted in Reformed World, XXXVIII, September 1984, pp.187-200.

(15)See Alan P.F. Sell, "Some Reformed Responses to Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry", Reformed World, XXXIX, September 1986, pp.549-65.

(16)Much has been written on this subject. See, for examples, the papers in Journal of Ecumenical Studies, XXIII, no. 3, summer 1986; and in Mid-Stream, XXV, no. 3, July 1986.

(17)Towards a Common Understanding of the Church, studies from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, no. 21, Geneva, WARC, 1991, pp.29,27.

(18)Baptists and Reformed in Dialogue, studies from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, no. 4, Geneva, WARC, 1984, pp.19-21.

(19)God's Reign and Our Unity, p.82.

(20)Ross T. Bender & Alan P.F. Sell, eds, Baptism, Peace and the State in the Reformed and Mennonite Traditions, Waterloo, Ontario, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1991, p.238.

(21)See Towards Closer Fellowship, p.14; Reformed and Methodists in Dialogue, Studies from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, no. 12, 1988, p.14; Toward Church Fellowship, p.28.

(22)See Toward Church Fellowship, p.28; Hans Georg Vom Berg, Henk Kossen, Larry Miller & Lukas Vischer, eds, Mennonites and Reformed in Dialogue, Studies from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, no. 7, Geneva, WARC, 1986, pp.42-56; Ross T. Bender & Alan P.F. Sell, Baptism, Peace and the State in the Reformed and Mennonite Traditions, pp.2-4; From Ottawa to Seoul, Geneva, WARC, 1989, p.67. Sadly, there has so far been no reconciliation of memories between the Anglicans and the Reformed in England.
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Title Annotation:The World Council and the Christian World Communions
Author:Sell, Alan P.F.
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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