The members of the World Council of Churches' Faith and Order Standing Commission, including MTSO professor Sarah Lancaster, approved a groundbreaking document during a June meeting on the island of Penang in Malaysia.
"The Church: Towards a Common Vision" is a common statement years in the making that identifies areas of agreement held by members of the commission. The agreement reached by the commission will next be tested in the 349 member churches, denominations and fellowships of the WCC as the document is circulated for response. (See the WCC's story on the agreement here.)
This is the second convergence statement produced in the 64-year history of the Faith and Order commission, the first being "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry" in 1982. "The Church" builds on two preceding texts, 1998's "The Nature and Purpose of the Church" and 2005's "The Nature and Mission of the Church." Each was subtitled "A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement."
The first two documents on the Church were study documents, which still named many areas of disagreement. The new document, while still acknowledging work that needs to be done, aims to show the growing agreement among churches. By doing so, it achieves the level of convergence text rather than study document.
For all their significance, these documents are generally concise. "The Nature and Mission of the Church" is about 40 pages long, and Lancaster said the hope is that the published version of "The Church" will be shorter still.
"The point was to make it readable, both in writing style and in length, for the widest possible audience in the churches," she said.
"The Church" will be presented to the World Council of Churches Central Committee in August, after which it will be publicly released.
Lancaster, who holds the Werner Chair of Theology at MTSO, began serving on the Faith and Order commission in 2006 and has served as co-moderator of the commission's Ecclesiology Working Group since 2007. It is the working group that met regularly to draft "The Church." MTSO hosted a meeting of the working group in March 2011, when leaders representing 10 denominations on four continents gathered for six days in the Dickhaut Library to discuss areas of both broad agreement and remaining differences.
Lancaster, an elder in the North Texas Conference who is appointed to MTSO, attends Church of the Messiah UMC in the West Ohio Conference. She is the only United Methodist on the Faith and Order commission, though two members of the commission represent autonomous Methodist churches in Argentina and Malaysia.
"Methodists like John R. Mott, Albert C. Outler and John Deschner have made significant contributions to ecumenism from the beginning of the ecumenical movement, and I'm proud to follow in their footsteps," Lancaster said. "I'm pleased to be part of a tradition that thinks beyond itself and commits itself to service in Christ's church as a whole. Seeing the Christian faith from other points of view as I engage in dialogue with other Christians always gives me insights into my own tradition."
Methodist Theological School in Ohio prepares leaders of many faith traditions for lives of significance in service to the church and the world. The school offers master's degrees in divinity, counseling ministries, theological studies and practical theology, as well as a Doctor of Ministry degree. For more information, visit www.mtso.edu.
Danny Russell, director of communications