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Unifying behind unity

Leaders attending the World Council of Churches’ 11th Assembly look at developments, including the upcoming 1,700th anniversary of the First Council of Nicaea

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Participants in Wednesday’s World Council of Churches press conference included, left to right, H.G. Archbishop Justin Welby of the Church of England; H.E. the Most Rev. Brian Farrell, secretary of the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity; H.E. Metropolitan Job of Psidia of the Ecumenical Patriarchate; and the Rev. Dr. Sandra Beardsall, a member of the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission. (Photo by Sean Hawkey/WCC)

LOUISVILLE — A united church “shares the pain of all churches and lives the service-led, foot-washing life of Christ.”

That’s a vision for Christian unity, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, H.G. Archbishop Justin Welby, said during a press conference Wednesday on the next-to-last day of the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Watch the press conference here.

The 41-minute session also included H.E. the Most Rev. Brian Farrell, the secretary of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity; H.E. Metropolitan Job of Psidia, the permanent representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the WCC; and the Rev. Dr. Sandra Beardsall, Professor of Church History and Ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon and a member of the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission.

“A church that cannot disagree well will have nothing to say” to the rest of the world, Welby said. “Disunity ruins the obedience of the church to transform the world because our disunity begins with disobedience and pride.”

Beardsall called the First Council of Nicaea, held in 325, which will see its 1,700th anniversary celebrated in three years, “foundational for Christians. It helped to define the edges and boundaries of the Christian faith. It modeled decision-making and confronted dissent.”

That same council “also gives us much to ponder,” Beardsall said, including “the role of state and empire in the church’s life, relationships with other faiths, the ways our unity and disunity may be shaped by our economic and political contexts and the strengths and limits of diversity.”

During the celebration, which will include a conference set for Aug. 28 through Sept. 2, 2025, “we hope to re-energize ourselves to the task Jesus calls us: to love one another into unity so that we can truly love the whole Creation together as it cries for mercy, justice and peace,” Beardsall said.

Farrell prefers the term “communion” over “unity” “so people won’t think we’re going to be thinking the same way and doing the same things. That didn’t happen in the church that St. Paul himself started.”

Unity “is not something we do for political, strategic or tactical reasons. We do it because that is the fundamental mission that Jesus gave to us. As Catholics, we are deeply committed to the ecumenical movement,” Farrell said. “We have no idea what unity will be like. We don’t. It will be a gift, as Pope Francis recently said. It’s not going to be a matter of our policies and our strategies and our work and our efforts. It is a gift.”

“I was happy we had a plenary this morning on Christian unity,” Metropolitan Job said, noting that the Faith and Order Commission has produced the document “The Church: Towards a Common Vision.”

“I think it’s very important to discover how much in common we have,” he said. With “Christians killing Christians” in the Russian war with Ukraine, “Is this the Christian witness we want to give to the secularized world? If not, we have to repent and work toward reconciliation — inside our Christian families, between our churches, with the rest of humanity and with God’s Creation.”

During a question-and-answer time with reporters, Welby was asked about churches continuing to lose membership. “I think we have to be lighter on our structures and stronger on our love for the world in the way Christ loved the world,” Welby said. “We must be seen as those who wash feet, not as those who judge and give orders. … We must be clear on our faith and be strong on what we believe but relaxed about our boundaries and frontiers. Our frontiers are barbed wire, and the barbed wire needs to come down so that people can come easily into the church without being judged, without being condemned, knowing they are loved and welcomed, and we need to demonstrate community. It’s easier said than done.”

“If we want reconciliation and dialogue, we have to have all the people on the inside,” Metropolitan Job said. “For the Orthodox Church, the World Council of Churches is important because it’s a place where we meet frequently. … Through this dialogue, the process of reconciliation can go on and bear fruits in the future.”

“In a large church like the Catholic Church, you can’t speak of one path toward reconciliation. It’s different in Central America and South Africa and the Balkans,” Farrell said. “The wise answer when we face these huge problems is to go back to the simplicity of the gospel. Unless we have a genuine spirituality, all our policies and theologies cannot solve the question.”

The 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches concludes Thursday. Learn more here.

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