Disunity about Unity: “All in Each Place” vs. Christian World Communions

Posted on Posted in Theology

The 1961 assembly of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, India, had yet another ecumenical vision in mind: “all in each place.” The idea was that ecumenical reconciliation must begin locally, so that all Christians in each “place” in the world could have one fellowship and speak and act together.

But that is not exactly an obvious idea either. What constitutes a “place”? Is it a city or a state? Is it in church or in every place where Christians meet each other? What about linguistic and cultural differences within each “place”? Does such a local focus actually create a new kind of nationalism within the churches? Does it do justice to the global unity of the church?

These are real difficulties, yet it is hard to imagine how ecumenical reconciliation is at all meaningful unless churches within the same locale are able to speak and act together as friends and fellow members of the same body. A heartening effort to gather “all in each place” in one city today can be found in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A variation on this theme that has been particularly succesful in England and New Zealand is the “local ecumenical partnership,” which is a very specific cooperation between individual parishes across denominational lines, for all kinds of activities from worship to mission to service.

Perhaps the opposite of “all in each place” is the development of Christian World Communions. These started in the 19th century with the consolidation of the Anglican communion through the Lambeth Conference of bishops, followed by an Alliance of Reformed Churches through the World Holding the Presbyterian System and an International Congregational Council (which merged in 1970 to form the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which itself merged with the International Reformed Council just this year to form the World Communion of Reformed Churches), a World Methodist Council, and an Old Catholic Union. The 20th century saw the formation of the Baptist World Alliance, the World Convention of Churches of Christ, the Friends’ (Quakers’) World Committee for Consultation, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Evangelical Fellowship (now the World Evangelical Alliance), the Pentecostal World Conference, and still others.

In some sense these Christian World Communions have pursued global interconnectedness, based on a common confession or theology or church structure, to mirror the global interconnectedness of explicitly episcopally governed bodies like the Orthodox and Catholic churches. The benefit is in helping churches to get out of the ghetto of their own national circumstances or church culture, recognizing that their theological commitments span the globe and are embodied in many different cultures and languages. They allow for mutual support and theological integrity. But in the same way these Christian World Communions have been criticized exactly for putting emphasis on global instead of local concerns and strengthening a theological identity that some see as an obstacle to full church unity rather than an asset.

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