Unity is God’s gift to the church, says Archbishop of Canterbury

Dr. Rowan Williams (pic courtesy WCC)

On the morning of 28 February, his second day visiting the offices of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva, Archbishop Rowan Williams of the Church of England addressed a round table discussion on the unity of the Christian church.

“Unity is neither a means nor an end,” he told assembled staff, visitors and governing body members of the WCC and other organizations in the Ecumenical Centre. “Unity is what God has given us in the church.”

The responsibility of Christians who receive the gift of unity, he continued, lies in “seeking a life in which no one is without the other.” This life, “constantly moving us forward into a further truth”, compels all who live within the love of God to ask the question: “Who is not yet here?”

In addition to other panellists from the Anglican Communion, of which Archbishop Williams is senior prelate, participants in the round table included representatives of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed confessions of faith.

The discussion was moderated by the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the WCC.

Rev. Dr John Gibaut, director of the WCC joint commission on Faith and Order, observed that disunity is often more evident than church unity. Different traditions describe the church in differing terms. “If we cannot agree on what we mean by the church,” said Gibaut, “we cannot begin to say much about the unity of the church.” The commission continues to work on a proposed consensus document on “The Church”.

Another important submission to the WCC 10th Assembly in 2013 will be a statement on mission and evangelism. Dr Annemarie Mayer, a Roman Catholic theologian working as a member of the WCC staff, stressed that unity of the church implies obligation to manifest unity in Christian witness and service.

Dr Mary Tanner, the current WCC president for Europe, described the early stages of drafting a unity statement to be presented at the 10th Assembly of the WCC, to be held at Busan, Korea in 2013. A first full draft of the document is to be completed by June 2012.

Dr Tamara Grdzelidze, an Orthodox theologian on the staff of Faith and Order, recalled the role of Orthodoxy as a driving force behind the modern ecumenical movement while always taking very seriously ancient teachings on the church.

Rev. Dr Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, reminded the gathering that Christians are called together for a purpose. Quoting the Belhar Confession of the anti-apartheid era, he depicted the unity of the church as both “a gift and an obligation for the people of God.” Christians are not called simply to “be” one, but to act together against injustice and violence, and to establish peace.

Two bishops of the Church of England, Rt Rev. Dr John Hind of Chichester and Rt Rev. Dr Peter Forster of Chester, commented on their service, respectively, on the WCC Faith and Order Commission and the WCC Central Committee.

Hind argued that church unity must be seen by Christians not merely in terms of institutionalism, sociology and ethics, but as having a sacramental significance.

Forster recalled the Central Committee discussion in seeking a theme for the 10th Assembly. They finally adopted a prayer, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.”

“Unity is the air we breathe,” Forster concluded, “not one more issue to be examined.”

(This story was provided and used with permission by the World Council of Churches.)