Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ecumenical Guidelines

At the bi-annual General Assembly of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada this summer, the following motion was brought to the floor and carried as written:
Resolution #5:
The President of The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada provide guidelines for ecumenical cooperation that honour our heritage and Statement of Faith and submit them to General Assembly 2016 for approval.
At first this seemed a harmless, if not encouraging, resolution, but in the course of the debate it became clear that it was raised in response to Ambrose University's recent collaboration with Roman Catholics. Thus it would seem that the spirit behind it was not the promotion of ecumenical activity but its further limitation.

The resolution carried after a relatively short but nonetheless extended discussion. While people were streaming to the microphone I flipped open our Local Church Constitution to see what we already had on this; to see whether we indeed needed something more. What I found in Article 9 of our Statement of Faith was this:
 “The local church, the visible expression of the universal Church, is a body of believers in Christ who are joined together to worship God, to observe the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper, to pray, to be edified through the Word of God, to fellowship, and to testify in word and deed to the good news of salvation both locally and globally. The local church enters into relationships with other like-minded churches for accountability, encouragement and mission.” 
I'd be interested to hear what people inside and outside of my denomination think of it, but when I looked over it again I was actually rather impressed. To me it seems like a pretty good set of ecumenical guidelines. Not a full-on manifesto, mind you, but a concise and encouraging guide.

In fact it called to mind a debate that took place several Assemblies ago when it was discussed whether to have the word "believer's baptism" in there. At that time I recall we opted to leave it at just "baptism" because this was not a statement of our church's particular belief and practice (we declare ourselves a credo-baptist tradition elsewhere), but a statement of what we felt a local church to be. If we added the word "believer's" we would be implying that we did not consider paedo-baptist traditions part of the universal church.

Obviously each word of the Article is as important as what it decides not to say. That it decides not to say a whole lot means that we are fairly open, actually, when it comes to co-operation. So when it says "the local church enters into relationships with other like-minded churches for accountability, encouragement and mission," I think it places the onus for ecumenical engagement and discernment on each congregation in its locality.

That means that the definition of a church which is given in the first part of the Article serves as all the ecumenical guideline we are (formally) going to get. From there it is up to each local church to discern in each case what is the level of "like-mindedness" appropriate to the task at hand.

If local churches are co-operating in a bake sale to get a playground built they are pretty much just going to have to agree on the guiding values that got them into that project in the first place.

If local churches are co-operating on a newspaper advertisement declaring their shared beliefs to the community, then the definition of "like-mindedness" might take a bit more work and discernment. In that case if the Statement of Faith is not specific enough on some point of doctrine the local church would be free to consult further, but it would still be the case that the local church (or college) ought to be able to do that work in their locality rather than be overly regimented by national policy.

In other words, I think the ecumenical guidelines that already exist are good enough. They are appropriately succinct and specific. If there is a desire for something particular to be added, maybe we should put the onus on those making the request to specify what exactly that is--at which point we could have a much more productive discussion.

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