Ecumenism and Church Relations

Minna Hietamäki

Ecumenism refers to the wide and multifaceted movement to advance Christian fellowship and the unity of the church. The contemporary ecumenical movement was preceded by nineteenth-century missionary and youth movements mobilizing Christians from various church backgrounds. Ecumenical prayer for Christian unity, joint activity for peace, theological discussion on the unity of the church, and shared diaconal assistance and advocacy are some of the key aspects of contemporary ecumenism.

This article starts with a brief discussion on the themes of unity and fellowship in the scriptures. It then presents a short overview of theological approaches to church unity in various church traditions, followed by an exploration of the processes and results of bilateral and trilateral dialogues. These dialogues have resulted in church unions and significant rapprochements between churches. Multilateral ecumenism facilitates theological discussion and joint action between multiple churches and traditions. This will be considered in part through exploration of the role of the World Council of Churches, the largest convener of multilateral encounters in the world today. This article finishes with a discussion on the role of spiritual and receptive ecumenism for the future of ecumenism and church relations.

1 Introduction

The word ‘ecumenism’ is often used to refer to the organized movement toward Christian unity and cooperation that emerged in the nineteenth century. Initiatives that later became understood as the ‘ecumenical movement’ arose in various parts of the world, although in the first decades this was predominantly in Europe and North America. Ecumenism today is a diverse phenomenon encompassing a wide range of activities, initiatives, and theological reflection, aiming to advance relations between Christians and churches of various backgrounds.

The formation of the early ecumenical movement was influenced by a number of prior theological and spiritual currents. German Pietism and the Anglo-American evangelical ‘Awakening’ of the eighteenth century played a significant role in facilitating cooperation across confessional lines. Both also contributed to the rise of Protestant missionary efforts that in the beginning were not organized confessionally but in cooperation across Protestant traditions. The rise of confessional consciousness and increasing financial resources in the mid-nineteenth century led to a confessional division of Protestant missions. The turn of the century saw a new beginning of ecumenical mission cooperation based on confessional identity. The World Mission Conference in Edinburgh (1911) was the first large-scale meeting of Protestant missions and a precursor to later international ecumenical meetings.

The twentieth-century ecumenical movement also owes much to the nineteenth-century organized youth and student movements. The YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) and YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) movements, as well as the Student Volunteer Movement and the WSCF (World Student Christian Federation), were at the forefront both in creating a theological basis and international structures for Christian cooperation, and in creating platforms for young people to meet and develop ecumenical friendships. Ecumenical cooperation became formalized, and main points on the ecumenical agenda identified towards the beginning of the twentieth century. Ecumenical organizations such as the World Council of Churches continue to base their work on similar convictions as those formulated in the nineteenth-century youth movements.

Ecumenism is about the unity of the church, but it is also about the Christian community. The enthusiasm of individuals and relationships between invested persons have always played a significant role in ecumenism. Examples of pioneering ecumenical personalities include Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1769), who aimed to unite all Christians into one church; John Henry Newman (1801–1890), who in the early nineteenth century argued that the teachings of the Council of Trent are compatible of the Thirty-Nine articles of the Church of England; ecumenical patriarch, Germanus V (1835–1920), who sent an invitation ‘To the Churches of Christ Everywhere’ calling for organized cooperation; John R. Mott (1865–1955), who was a leading figure in the YMCA movement, the WSCF, the first World Mission Conference (1911), and the movement founding the World Council of Churches; Archbishop Nathan Söderblom (1866–1931), who called for joint peace efforts during the First World War and is recognized as one of the founders of the so-called ‘life and work’ movement; and finally, Charles Henry Brent (1862–1928), who was a key person in the corresponding ‘faith and order’ movement concentrating more on doctrinal issues. This short listing of ecumenical personalities exemplifies a problem of diversity in the ecumenical movement; leadership positions were overwhelming occupied by men or male clergy of European or North American origin. However, simultaneously the grassroots of both the youth and mission movements offered opportunities for a greater diversity of people – including young people, laypersons, and women – to pursue ecumenical and international relations.

Ecumenism in general has been motivated by a sense of unease with the divided state of Christians. Ecumenical orientation is profoundly motivated by an understanding that a church disunited does not reflect God’s will towards God’s people. This understanding represents what could be called a family resemblance among a great variety of ecumenical approaches. Historically, there have been various opinions on both how to advance the goal of ecumenism and what the goal of ecumenism should be. Theological approaches to unity have proliferated, especially in bilateral dialogues between various churches. Some dialogues have resulted in united or uniting churches where one or several churches have consciously merged their congregational or parish life, decision-making bodies and theological traditions to pursue shared ecclesial existence. Others have reached theological agreements that have led to full or partial recognition, which has allowed for an exchange of members and ministries. Yet other dialogues have served as a means of building trust and friendship across theological lines of division. During the past century, the study of ecumenism has developed into an academic discipline and several academic institutes around the world focus on the study of ecumenism.

Ecumenism today takes many forms. The connection between ecumenism and mission is historically strong and complex. Many find the church’s mission of sharing the gospel the greatest motivator for strengthening ecumenical cooperation. Others agree with the imperative to preach the good news but are more selective in choosing which Christian communities they can cooperate with. Ecumenism is at heart also a peace movement. Overcoming past divisions requires active peacebuilding among Christian communities. The ecumenical movement has also recognized the central role of churches, and faith communities in general, in creating and resolving conflicts. Churches have come together in global organizations such as the World Council of Churches and ACT Alliance in joint advocacy, humanitarian aid, and long-term development cooperation to support peace and sustainable development. Theological dialogue on issues relating to church unity has been going on for over a century. Bilateral dialogues often address specific issues that have historical relevance for the two communions in question. Multilateral dialogues have addressed various contemporary topics, harvested fruits of the bilateral dialogues, and set the agenda for wider ecumenical discussion. Joint spirituality and prayer are at the heart of ecumenism, which can be especially seen in ecumenical communities, such as Taizé, Iona, or Chevetogne; religious orders with ecumenical vocation or ecumenical identity; and international ecumenical prayer initiatives, such as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity or YWCA-YMCA World Week of Prayer. Theologically, spiritual ecumenism holds a special place seen, for example, in the ecumenical thinking of the Second Vatican Council.

This article has four parts. The first part gives an overview of some of the main theological discussion on the unity of the church. This part includes an introduction to both discussions to the ideas of unity and fellowship in the scriptures and confessional approaches to unity in various church traditions. This introduction should be read with the consciousness that the specific theological traditions have been explicated in ecumenical conversations with other traditions. The confessional approaches presented in the first part are consequently connected with the second and third part of the text investigating bilateral/trilateral and multilateral ecumenical relations.

Bilateral/trilateral ecumenical relations focus on ecumenical dialogues and processes between two or three church traditions. The text begins with a description of bilateral/trilateral processes that have resulted in church union, meaning full merger of two or three traditions into one church. The following subsections look at dialogues resulting in full communion of two distinct churches and other dialogues which so far have not yet been reached or are not aiming at full recognition.

The third part, on multilateral ecumenical relations, focuses on ecumenical processes facilitated by ecumenical organizations. This begins with a general discussion on conceptions of unity in multilateral ecumenism followed by a more specific focus on the role of the World Council of Churches and two theologically key ideas of visible unity and unity as koinonia. The third part finishes with a discussion on churches’ joint participation in mission and advocacy. The article ends with a fourth part on spiritual ecumenism and its significance for contemporary and future ecumenism and church relations.

2 Unity as a theological theme

2.1 Unity, fellowship, and the scriptures

One of the basic questions of ecumenism is the question of the relationship between unity and diversity. What kind of unity is required for churches to experience themselves as ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church’? (World Council of Churches. 2013b) What kind or what degree of diversity can be understood as the Spirit’s work in this world, not divisions detrimental to the communion of the faithful? These questions are older than the modern ecumenical movement; they are as old as Christianity. This is evident in both the scriptures and early church writings. Questions of Christian unity were from the earliest Christian centuries closely connected to the expansion of the Christian community, the growing number of local Christian communities, and the varieties of Christianity that developed in different cultural contexts. Similar issues like contextuality, culture, and language, in relation to the universal message of salvation for all, have reappeared on the agenda of the modern ecumenical movement. For the ecumenical movement, the early church period is inspirational for several reasons. Early church studies have challenged churches to evaluate critically how they read and interpret early church writers and how texts have been used to argue both for and against contested theological positions (Louth 1996). One of the ecumenical outcomes has been a shared realization that churches do not fully share an understanding of the scriptures and early church writings. These texts testify to the development of a diverse Christian community where it often was difficult to recognize each other as fellow Christians. At the same time, it affirms the conviction that Christian unity is at the core of authentic Christian faith. One of the central findings of the ecumenical movement has been that unity already existed in the early church through diversity.

New Testament scriptures are themselves an example of the diversity of early Christian communities. The emergence of not one but four authoritative gospels, letters sent between early Christian communities, and other texts are indicative of the early struggle towards Christian communion. Some of these texts explicitly address discord in the local communities and encourage Christian unity (Gros 1998). Already in the early Christian centuries, theological issues connected to Christian unity were: who may become part of the Christian community? Who may serve the communion as ministers? How do Christians speak together theologically of God, of Jesus and salvation, and the workings of the Holy Spirit? How should Christians worship God and live in this world in relation to political rule, other non-Christian individuals and communities, and other Christian communities? Other passages shed light on the early understanding of unity and Christian communion. Essential features included common faith, common worship life, connection or communion with the apostles, and charity (Gros 1998).

Some particular passages are often referred to as the motivation to seek Christian unity. Essentially, the unity of the Church is understood to derive from the unity of the Trinity (see Divine Simplicity) and the person of Jesus Christ. Participation in communion with the Triune God has been expressed with the notion of ‘koinonia’ (Greek: fellowship, joint participation, or community), seen for example in 1 John 1:3. In Ephesians 4, the unity of God is explicitly related to ‘one body and Spirit, one hope, one faith, one Lord, one baptism’ (Eph 4:4–6). Jesus, the ‘Good Shepherd’, is the one shepherd of the one flock (John 10:16). Jesus is also understood to express his will for the unity of his followers in a prayer: ‘that they may all be one. As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe’ (John 17:20–21).

In general, unity has been accepted as a basic tenet of Christian communion in the scriptures. However, the scriptures are not only inspiration for unity, but also a source of discord; thus they remain a topic of ecumenical discussion, as various theological traditions approach them differently. For example, passages relating to sacraments and ministry are often interpreted variously. On a more general note, the authority of scriptures is conceptualized differently in various churches and theological traditions. Decades of ecumenical cooperation and dialogues have gradually generated an ecumenical biblical hermeneutic, a joint way of approaching scriptures informed by an ecumenical attitude. Varying approaches to scriptures have played a significant part in the development of both confessional and ecumenical approaches to the unity of the church.

2.2 Confessional approaches to unity

The existence of and relationship between various theological traditions and confessions and the theological idea of the unity of the church is itself a question of ecumenical theology. The idea of contextual diversity or diversity resulting from cultural, historical and other human factors has been widely accepted. Even the early Faith and Order movement recognized that ‘the unity of the Church implies a unity in Faith and Order, but it does not mean uniformity’ (‘Reports of the World Conference on Faith and Order, Lausanne, Switzerland, August 3 to 21, 1927 (Includes Report VII)’ 1928: 20). The issue of diversity in teaching or doctrine has proven more difficult. Over time Christian traditions have developed various understandings of church unity, and its relation to diversity, reflecting their specific theological and ecclesial emphases. The lack of joint agreement on the idea of the unity of the church has been raised as one of the main challenges of the contemporary ecumenical movement. Separate agreements on individual doctrinal questions may exist, but there is no shared understanding of the relevance of each issue to the overall issue of the unity of the church. This section gives a brief overview of typical theological approaches to unity in some of the main Christian traditions, followed by a discussion on bilateral/trilateral and multilateral dialogues that both influence and are influenced by confessional theological traditions.

2.2.1 Anglican approaches to unity

The Anglican communion first articulated its understanding of ‘reunion of Christians’ in the late nineteenth century. As with many confessional families the question of unity of all Christians and the unity of the growing Anglican communion were greatly interlinked. What emerged out of the first two Lambeth conferences was a commitment to ‘visible’ or ‘organic unity’ as spelled out in the so-called Lambeth Quadrilateral. The Lambeth Quadrilateral outlines four requirements for unity: (1) ‘The Holy Scriptures […] “as containing all things necessary to salvation”’; (2) ‘The Apostles’ Creed as the baptismal symbol’; (3) ‘The two sacraments ordained by Christ himself – Baptism and the Supper of the Lord’; and (4) ‘The historic episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration’(Anglican Communion. 1888: resolution 11).

The idea of a visible or organic union has become one of the two major ways of understanding the unity of the church. The concepts of ‘visible’, ‘organic’, or ‘corporate’ unity, refer to unity based on universal structures of ordained ministry and oversight, although other aspects of church order or practice have been suggested to contribute to the ‘visibility’ of unity as well. This understanding of church unity gained prominence through the active involvement of Anglican churches in ecumenical processes, first through bilateral dialogues and later within the multilateral Faith and Order movement.

2.2.2 Protestant approaches to unity

Protestant churches began forming confessional bodies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Churches were drawn together by a certain kind of ecumenical desire for greater unity around their confessional and cultural heritage. Confessional bodies later become international ecumenical actors in their own right. The first meetings of the Alliance of the Reformed Church throughout the World holding the Presbyterian System (1875), the first Ecumenical Methodist Conference (1881), and the Baptist World Conference (1907) were held in London. Lutheran churches began organizing in post-World War I Europe. The focus of the Lutheran World Conventions was on promoting Lutheran fellowship and cooperation in international relief efforts. Today Reformed churches come together in the World Communion of Reformed Churches, Methodists in the Methodist World Council, Baptists in the Baptist World Alliance, and Lutherans in the Lutheran World Federation. Each of the confessional families have developed their understanding of church unity both as they have strengthened their own confessional identity and in bilateral dialogues with other churches.

The number of bilateral dialogues among individual churches, confessional world communions, and the Catholic Church increased significantly from the late 1960s. This led to a proliferation of various ecumenical methods and ideas on church unity. In general, one could say that the idea of unity that overcomes confessional differences was the dominant paradigm both in the early bilateral dialogues, the multilateral Faith and Order movement, as well as the World Council of Churches and the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council (Meyer 1999). Bilateral dialogues among Protestant churches produced an alternative way of speaking about unity emphasizing unity that exists amidst certain diversity. This approach has become known as ‘unity in reconciled diversity’, and is characterized by mutually shared faith, life, and mission without the loss of denominational characteristics (Lutheran World Federation. 2018). Originally the question was about reframing the relationship between confessional identity and ecumenism not in opposition to each other but paradoxically, as the same thing. Hence one frequently finds statements such as ‘to be Lutheran is to be ecumenical’. Later on, the ‘diversity’ in reconciled diversity has been interpreted more generally and not necessarily in connection with a particular confessional identity.

One of the consequences of the unity in reconciled diversity approach was a certain concentration on defining the line between necessary unity and legitimate diversity. Legitimate (or reconciled) diversity is a diversity that can still be contained by unity or what the churches share. An example of reconciled diversity is the Lutheran World Federation, which is a communion of churches consisting of both episcopal and non-episcopal churches, free churches, and state churches and churches with various levels of affinity to traditional forms of ministry or liturgy. Emphasis on legitimate diversity has sometimes been criticized as not ambitious enough or ecumenically ‘cheap’. Some have questioned whether the idea of reconciled diversity allows for a diversity of any kind to continue without enough effort towards unity or ‘wrestling with the truth’. Both concepts of ‘reconciliated’ and ‘legitimate’ do imply theological discernment. Especially bilateral dialogues offer numerous examples of how reconciliation or ‘legitimacy’ of diversity has been dealt with (Lutheran World Federation 1999). Harding Meyer (1928–2018), one of the leading Lutheran ecumenical theologians, has shown how the idea of reconciled diversity both connects to earlier models of unity and has been applied in bilateral dialogues with ‘differentiated consensus’ (Meyer 2021). The reconciled diversity approach has raised a question on the relationship between unity and uniformity. Growing awareness of contextuality and global theological hermeneutics warns against forced uniformity across churches. The idea of reconciled diversity does not in itself explain what is reconciled and how. Consequently, the idea of reconciled diversity could be applied to a variety of ecumenical approaches even if the concept itself has been mostly utilized in Lutheran and more generally Protestant ecumenical approaches.

2.2.3 Catholic approaches to unity

The Catholic Church officially entered the modern ecumenical movement after the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The work of the Second Vatican Council on ecumenism was prepared by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, a preparatory commission founded by Pope John XXIII and led by Cardinal Augustin Bea (1881–1868). After the Second Vatican Council the task of advancing Catholic ecumenism was given to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), which was later renamed as Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.

Individual Catholics had participated in ecumenical endeavours well before the Second Vatican Council and the establishment of official structures to promote Christian unity. One of the most well-known, although failed, attempts towards closer institutional ecumenical relations was the reinvestigation of the validity of the Anglican orders by the Catholic Church, which led to them being declared ‘null and void’ by Leo XIII in 1896. This decision had a profound impact on the later bilateral relations between Catholics and Anglicans that started with a series of unofficial meetings in 1921. The example of Catholic-Anglican relations is paradigmatic of the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council. On the one hand the Catholic Church’s official stance did not encourage cooperation and dialogue with other Christians, several developments moved the Catholic Church toward a different attitude to ecumenism. A major contributor was Catholic theological scholarship, especially the shift in ecclesiology brought about by the ressourcement (that is, the movement towards renewal in twentieth-century Catholic theology) and the theological rearticulation of the church as ‘communion’. Academics such as Henri de Lubac (1896–1991), Jean-Marie Tillard (1927–2000), and Yves Congar (1904–1995) contributed to the idea that ecumenical attitude is integral to the Catholic identity. Academic journals, such as Irénikon (1926) and Catholica (1932) were dedicated to specifically ecumenical themes.

Early ecumenical initiatives were led by individuals with personal relations to Christians from other traditions and focused on spirituality and joint prayer. Examples of such initiatives are among others the ‘three days of prayer for church unity’ that later developed in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as a shared week of prayer for all Christians, pioneered by Paul Couturier (1881–1953). Some of these initiatives were oriented towards closer relations with Eastern churches, such as the creation of a ‘monastery of union’ in Chevetogne that incorporated both Eastern and Western liturgical traditions (Bliss 2007).

The principles of Catholic ecumenism are presented in Unitatis Redintegratio (UR), the Second Vatican Council Decree on Ecumenism. Individual decrees are understood in the context of all conciliar documents. Especially important for the interpretation of UR is Lumen Gentium (LG), the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. The two interrelated conceptual foci that have impacted Catholic ecumenism are emphasis on the church as communio and spiritual ecumenism. In addition, UR speaks to the ecumenical method by referring to three aspects of ecumenical movement: efforts to speak truthfully of other Christians, dialogue between competent experts from different churches and communities, and spiritual ecumenism and common prayer (Bliss 2007).

Communio ecclesiology has been widely adopted as the main theological way of speaking about the church also in ecumenical contexts. This idea is often referred to with the Greek word koinonia. Communio ecclesiology or koinonia can be seen in the World Council of Churches and in various bilateral dialogues. While communio is a widely recognized biblical and early church concept, it is variously interpreted in different theological and ecclesial traditions. The concept of communio itself does not relate to any one structural model of unity or church. Interpretations of communio have in general developed from more diversity allowing for more ‘organic’ or ‘visible’ unity. For example, in an article from the early 1990s, Cardinal Kasper quotes Patriarch Athenagoras from 1964 saying ‘we were never united […] we have lived alongside one another in community, and we will live together in community once again’, concluding that communio ecclesiology ‘stands particularly close to the ecumenical model of reconciled diversity’ (Bliss 2007). At the same time, there has been increasing discussion on ‘elements of the church’ (UR 3) or ‘elements of communion’ both within the Catholic Church and in ecumenical dialogues. Particularly bilateral dialogues have focused on individual aspects of the church, such as ministry or sacraments. This concentration has created a sense of unity that focuses on agreement on one or another critical ‘element’ of the church, leaning more towards the idea of church unity through shared or ‘visible’ characteristics. An ecumenical approach emphasizing agreement on various points of Christian teaching as a precondition of unity has been called ‘consensus ecumenism’. Bilateral ecumenical dialogues offer a variety of examples of consensus ecumenism.

In recent years Pope Francis has emphasized the integral connection between ecumenism, evangelization and mission. He has spoken of the ecumenism of martyrs or the ‘ecumenism of blood’ in reference to persecuted Christians, and has particularly emphasized the shared life of Christians (Pope Francis. 2013).

2.2.4 Orthodox approaches to unity

Orthodox churches began creating ecumenical relations in the early twentieth century. Ecumenical patriarchate was active in both encouraging inter-Orthodox discussion on involvement in the ecumenical movement and in reaching out to non-Orthodox churches with a plea for unity. A crucial issue informing the emerging early ecumenical relations was the issue of proselytism. Possible dialogue partners were split in two categories characterized by a ‘spirit of love’ towards churches that did not proselytize Orthodox Christians (Oriental Orthodox Churches, Old-Catholic, and Anglican Churches), and a careful defensiveness towards those that did (Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, and Adventist Churches). The relationship between the Vatican and the Orthodox Churches as well as the question of the validity of Anglican orders were on the agenda in the mid-twentieth century. Orthodox churches participated actively in the early organized ecumenical movement, such as the Faith and Order movement (1927 onward) and the World Council of Churches (1948 onward). Although the question of proselytism has not been completely solved, the active participation of Orthodox churches in multilateral and bilateral ecumenism has significantly ameliorated tensions. Bilateral dialogues with the Catholic Church have improved relations to the degree that Catholic and Orthodox churches have in some contexts been called ‘sister churches’ (Skira 2022).

A particular characteristic of Orthodox ecumenism has been a systematic emphasis on ecumenism as an agreement ‘of all ages’ or focus on the return to Christianity’s perennial ethos. Orthodox churches have engaged in several pan-Orthodox conferences to foster joint theological discernment and participation in the ecumenical movement. Some of the main theological emphases in Orthodox ecumenism have been trinitarian theology, the centrality of the Eucharist, a holistic approach to the church, and an understanding of the church as a koinonia or communion of churches. Holistic understanding of the church does not encourage ‘piecemeal’ ecumenism or gradual ecumenical advance. At the same time, the trinitarian, Eucharist-centered understanding of unity as a koinonia of eucharistic communities gives room for a significant amount of diversity. An additional emphasis on the interrelatedness between faith and liturgy or prayer (lex orandi-lex credenda) does emphasize the visible aspects of koinonia.

2.2.5 Pentecostals and evangelicals on unity

The relationship of Pentecostals and evangelicals to the ecumenical movement has been twofold. On the one hand, both traditions have drawn from a variety of theological and ecclesial backgrounds where emphasis on gifts of the Spirit, or the power of the gospel have created ‘ecumenical’, cross-denominational or non-denominational communities. On the other hand, Pentecostals and evangelicals have been relative latecomers into bilateral dialogues and have at times preferred to cooperate ecumenically primarily with other evangelical churches. The entry of Pentecostal and evangelical communities into ecumenical cooperation with the so-called ‘historical churches’ has often challenged established forms of ecumenical cooperation, even though churches from Pentecostal and other free church traditions have engaged in bilateral dialogues from the 1970s. One of the challenges is related to the internal diversity of Pentecostal and evangelical communities that complicates both ecumenical representation and reception. The impact of Pentecostal and evangelical communities entering modern ecumenical movement resulted in separate consultations between Pentecostals and the World Council of Churches and, eventually, the creation of a new ecumenical platform, the Global Christian Forum in 1999 (Creemers 2015).

3 Unity in bilateral and trilateral relations

Bilateral and trilateral dialogues refer to theological discussion between churches from two or three different traditions, confessional families, or Christian world communions. The first modern bilateral relations started to emerge in the late nineteenth century. The number of bilateral dialogues grew significantly after the Catholic Church began forming bilateral relations in the late 1960s. Ever since bilateral dialogues have become a constitutive element of the search for church unity (World Council of Churches. 2013c). Dialogues are conducted on international, regional, and local levels and they may have various goals.

The aim of bilateral dialogues is ‘reception’. Reception refers to the various processes of approving and implementing the results of the dialogue, such as agreements, statements, or reports. In some cases, results of the dialogue may have been formally approved but the approval fails to have any impact on the life of the churches. This is referred to as ‘lack of reception’. There are instances in which one or both dialogue partners have refused to approve formally the results of the dialogue. These are cases of ‘non-reception’. The reception of bilateral dialogues may take various forms. Some bilateral dialogues have resulted in a creation of a new, united church body. Several churches have reached ‘organic union’ and others are uniting churches on the way to complete union. Early examples of united churches include the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren (established 1918), the United Church of Canada (1925), and the Church of South India (1947). Similar processes started in Great Britain between, for example, Anglicans and Methodists in 1950s and later between Presbyterians and Congregationalists in 1970s.

Other dialogues have reached full communion agreements. Under these agreements, both churches recognize fully the ministry, sacraments, and membership of the other church without forming a singular church body. Examples of full communion agreements are the Anglican-Old Catholic agreement (Bonn Agreement 1931; see Meyer 1984); Anglican-Lutheran agreements in Europe (‘Together in Mission and Ministry: The Porvoo Common Statement with Essays on Church and Ministry on Northern Europe: Conversations between the British and Irish Anglican Churches and the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches’ 1992) and North America (‘Called to Common Mission’ 1999 [USA]; in Gross 2005; ‘Called to Full Communion: The Waterloo Declaration’ 2001 [Canada]); and Lutheran-Reformed relations in USA (‘A Formula of Agreement: The Orderly Exchange of Ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament Principles, Policies, and Procedures’ 2000) and Europe (‘Leuenberg Agreement’ 1973; in Sekretariat für die Leuenberger Lehrgespräche. 1993). Significant progress has been made also in dialogues with Anglicans, Lutherans and Reformed churches in Germany (‘On the Way to Visible Unity [The Meissen Common Statement]. Relations between the Church of England, the Federation of the Churches in the German Democratic Republic, and the Evangelical Church in Germany in the Federal Republic of Germany’ 1988), France (‘Called to Witness and Service. The Reuilly Common Statement with Essays on Church, Eucharist and Ministry’ 1999) and, following on the same lines, between Scottish Episcopal Church and Church of Scotland (‘Saint Andrew Declaration’ 2021).

A number of bilateral dialogues have reached consensus on individual theological topics without organic union or full communion. Early examples of such dialogues include the Arnoldshein Conversations between the Evangelical Church in Germany and the Russian Orthodox Church (1959) and between Lutherans and Reformed in the USA (1962) and Europe (1963). Even without reaching ‘full visible unity’ or full communion, many dialogues have resulted in formal rapprochement. Examples of these are the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which led to a ‘Common Christological Declaration’ (1994) and, in the case of the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, a permission for eucharistic sharing (2001) (Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. 2001). Another example is The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) between Catholics and Lutherans declaring that neither church in their teaching on justification any longer falls under the condemnations of the Reformation era. This declaration has brought Catholics and Lutherans closer together in many ways, even though recognition of ministries or sacraments has not followed. Similar developments could have been said to have happened between Anglicans and Catholics. Some dialogues have resulted in continuing forms of joint discernment even without full communion. The long-standing Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue (the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission [ARCIC]) has been supplemented with other forms of cooperation, such as the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM).

Bilateral dialogues often have impact beyond the original dialogue partners. Some approaches have appeared particularly fruitful and have been adopted in other dialogues. This can be seen in the Meissen and Porvoo types of agreement, as mentioned above. With the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification the sphere of the agreement has been widened by joining or associating with the original agreement. By association the Joint Declaration now brings together on top of the original signatories – Catholics and Lutherans – Methodists (World Methodist Council, 2005), Anglicans (Anglican Consultative Council, 2016), and Reformed churches (World Communion of Reformed Churches, 2017). Churches engaging in bilateral dialogues also participate in various forms of local and regional ecumenical cooperation such as ecumenical councils. On the global level, the World Council of Churches brings together a Forum for Bilateral Dialogues to harvest fruits from the bilateral dialogues. In addition, some dialogues are from the beginning designed as trilateral, that is including three dialoguing partners. Examples of trilateral dialogues are the global level dialogue between Catholics, Lutherans and Mennonites (2012).

Many bilateral dialogues aim at reconciling historical conflicts and strengthening common witness in the contemporary world. Reconciliation of historical conflicts may be enabled through joint investigation of past condemnations or other historically traumatic events. This has taken place in dialogues among Catholics, Reformed, Lutherans and Mennonites. Joint events, such as the common commemoration of the Augsburg Confession (1980), 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth (1983) and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (2017) between Lutherans and Catholics, and the public asking for forgiveness by the Lutheran World Federation from the Mennonites (2010) have been organized to manifest reconciliation between dialogue partners.

Bilateral dialogues are often both theologically and historically contextual. The dialogues regularly focus on the conflict that originally separated the two churches or address a contemporary issue challenging both churches. Developments in theological research have also contributed to this development. Hermeneutical approaches in philosophy and theology have emphasized the significance of ‘understanding’ and investigated possibilities for mutual understanding. Various relational theories emphasize the relevance of relating to the ‘other’ (Hietamäki 2017). Biblical studies have challenged narrow and ahistorical readings of the scriptures and various contextual theologies have highlighted the diversity of global Christianity. Focusing on a contextually relevant issue has made bilateral dialogues an effective way to advance ecumenical relations. At the same time the results of bilateral dialogues are less transferrable to ecumenical relations beyond their original context.

3.1 Examples of dialogues resulting in united and uniting churches

United and uniting churches differ from full communion churches on their history, method, and principles of unification. The main difference between united and uniting churches and full communion churches is that united and uniting churches have common structures that allow for them to make common decisions. United churches share common statements of doctrine, common practices, and shared policies. There is a clear intention to create shared expressions of faith and engage in shared missions starting from being united, not from the earlier confessional standpoints.

The idea of church unions may historically be traced to both the formulation of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and international cooperation in mission. The first initiatives for organic union among churches in North America were made in the late nineteenth century. The need for more than practical cooperation among churches was identified in the 1910 World Mission Conference in Edinburgh and the idea of ‘organic unity’ was also brought on the agenda of the early conferences on Faith and Order.

One of the first examples of a united church was the United Church of Canada, which was established in 1925 by bringing together English-speaking Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and independent churches. The Basis of Union (‘Subscription to the Basis of Union between the Members of the First General Council of the United Church of Canada’ 1908) outlines in its introductory part the participating churches’ shared commitment to ‘the substance of the Christian faith’ including the ‘foundation laid by the apostles and prophets’, belief in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament, and the creeds of the ancient church. In addition, the churches recognize their allegiance to ‘the evangelical doctrines of the Reformation’ as understood by the signatory churches. On top of these, the Basis of Union includes a summary of the shared faith (Schweitzer 2011). All the participating churches shared linguistic (English) and cultural (English or Scottish) heritage and, to a significant degree, similar theological beliefs on sacraments and ministry.

The first ecumenical church union following the principles of the Lambeth Quadrilateral, in including the requirement for historical episcopacy, was the formation of Church of South India in 1947. Theologically, the union was seen to exemplify the visible fellowship of all Christians in one place and their shared mission. It is important to note that this unification was preceded by a century of ecumenical cooperation, especially around joint mission. Various missions had started negotiations already in the 1800s and the first unions among Christian missions took place at the turn of the century. Unification was seen to strengthen Christian witness in the local multi-religious context. Union negotiations between the already united South India United Church, Anglicans, and Methodists were finalized in 1929. The Church of South India is an interesting example as it united churches with both episcopal and non-episcopal traditions (Raja 2019).

An interesting and influential example of uniting churches is presented by the long-standing Consultation on Church Union (COCU) process in North America. Consultation on Church Union sought to unify nine religious bodies in the United States. The consultation continued for forty years (1960–2002) after which a decision was made to commit to a visible union among the participating churches (Best 2002). This decision started a new form of shared life as Church Uniting in Christ (CUIC). CUIC is not a structure and therefore not a united church as such. At the same time, fellowship in CUIC is far-reaching, including mutual recognition of each other as church, mutual recognition of members in baptism, shared eucharistic celebration, engagement in shared mission, structures of accountability and means of consultation, and commitment to theological dialogue. In addition, CUIC shares joint commitment to inclusiveness and action to oppose marginalization (Best 2002). COCU principles have inspired later full communion relations.

3.2 Examples of full communion agreements

Full communion agreements are characterized by far-reaching theological agreement followed by mutual recognition of agreed ecclesial elements such as sacraments, ministry, and commitment to shared life and joint mission. Churches come together under full communion agreements understanding that while the agreement respects their historical and confessional differences, the churches still commit to growing closer together. Within full communion, differences are recognized but not considered ‘church-dividing’. Here some representative examples of full communion agreements will be given, focusing on their theological content and ecumenical and ecclesial consequences.

The Bonn Agreement (1931; see 1984) resulted in a full communion between Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht and the Church of England. The agreement was later extended to include all churches of the Anglican Communion. Full communion within the Bonn Agreement rests on three elements: agreement on the sacraments; agreement on ministry; and agreement on ‘all essentials of the Christian faith’ (Meyer 1984: 37). In the Bonn Agreement, convergence of faith and praxis is a consequence of agreement allowing for shared sacramental life. The agreement exemplifies well a form of communion that is not ‘organic’ in the sense of merger but ‘full’ in the sense of allowing for otherwise fully shared ecclesial life. It also allows for participating churches to verbalize and conceptualize the relationship in different ways but exemplifies shared understanding to the degree that no ‘fundamental differences’ remain. At the same time the communion, even though it is ‘full’ is perceived to be wanting of ‘full visible unity’. What ‘full visible unity’ might look like in this context remains to be seen. Some indications are to the direction that would be something of a ‘communion of communions’. For example, in the continuing work between Anglicans and Old Catholics it has been recognized that the Bonn Agreement, when it was established, reflected a specifically European ecumenical situation. The extension of the agreement to the whole Anglican Communion, on the one hand, and the diversification of Europe as a continent, on the other, has created opportunities to reconsider the European roots of the agreement and the specific missionary challenges faced by churches in Europe (Anglican Old Catholic International Coordinating Council. 2012).

The Leuenberg Agreement (1973; see 1993) brings together a large number of Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed and United churches under the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE). The agreement is characterized by doctrinal minimalism and a significant emphasis on growing together as fellowship or communion. The Leuenberg Agreement’s doctrinal minimalism reflects its understanding of doctrinal agreement, which focuses on the ‘center of the gospel’ and the common witness to the gospel truth. Signatory churches come from Protestant traditions that identify themselves through ‘confessional writings’. Consequently, the Leuenberg Agreement is being perceived in the context of churches with varying confessional backgrounds and identities. The agreement itself is not a ‘new confession’ and it does not replace the confessional writings of the participating churches. This means that the agreement recognizes the historical identities of the participating churches. At the same time the agreement declares the condemnations of the Reformation era no longer applicable. Both convictions allow for the continuation of reconciled confessional diversity. There is also no indication of striving towards structural unity except for what is needed for sharing of sacraments and ministry. The Leuenberg Agreement is structured from the beginning as a process evolving or deepening in communion. In other words, the agreement appears to anticipate its own reception. The form of the agreement reflects its own understanding of unity where unity ‘becomes’ as it is lived out. Churches in the Leuenberg Fellowship and later in the CPCE have engaged in extensive theological discussion on various topics and equally extensive advocacy and policy work especially in Europe.

The Porvoo Agreement (1992) is a full communion establishing a communion of Lutheran churches in Nordic and Baltic countries and churches of the Anglican communion in the British Isles and Europe. The Porvoo Communion is based on shared faith and shared understanding of the unity of the church. A separate section of the Porvoo Common Statement is dedicated to episcopacy because theology and the practice of episcopé (Greek: oversight) varied among the participating churches. Agreement on episcopal ministry was possible because apostolicity was in the agreement first and foremost associated with the whole church, not only with the ordained ministry. Ordained ministry is in turn understood to serve the apostolicity of the church and the episcopal office the continuity of church’s apostolicity (apostolic succession). The association of apostolicity with the whole church allowed the signatory churches to recognize a variety of ways in which the church’s apostolicity is upheld and somewhat relativize the significance of any particular way. For the establishing of the (full) communion it is significant that the churches recognized fully each other’s apostolicity before establishing communion. At the same time the churches committed to discontinue any possibilities for non-episcopal ordinations and to invite bishops to participate in the laying on of hands at the ordination of bishops. Churches in the Porvoo Communion commit to receiving members of other churches in the communion and episcopally-ordained ministers into their church.

A Formula of Agreement (1997; see 2000) is an agreement between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (USA), the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ (USA). Entering into full communion under this agreement has implications reminiscent of the Leuenberg Agreement, but with more emphasis on agreement on various points of doctrine. In speaking of doctrinal consensus, the agreement emphasizes the sufficiency of ‘fundamental doctrinal consensus on those areas that have been church-dividing’. It also recognizes diversity in non-church-divisive issues and emphasizes the relevance for common witness. Both the Leuenberg Agreement and A Formula of Agreement see the right preaching of the gospel and right administration of the sacraments as a criterion for unity and both withdraw any existing historic condemnations.

3.3 Examples of other bilateral dialogues

The following few examples exemplify dialogues that focus on specific historical disagreement between two churches or communions. None of the examples have resulted in mutual recognition, but each of them has had a significant impact on ecumenical relations.

Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches initiated an unofficial dialogue on Christology in the 1960s. Already in the first communiqué in 1964 the churches declared being in full agreement on the essence of the christological dogma: ‘we recognize in each other the one Orthodox faith of our Fathers […] On the essence of the Christological dogma we found ourselves in full agreement’ (Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Churches. 1964. ‘Unofficial Consultation Between Theologians of Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches. 11–15 August 1964: 14–15). The dialogue continued with official meetings in the 1980s. The fourth meeting of the official dialogue proposed the mutual lifting of anathemas from the fifth century. The proposal was made in reference to the agreement that while both communions traditionally use different ways to describe the two natures of Christ, both speak of the union ‘without confusion, without change, without divisions, without separation’. The commission additionally referred to shared Tradition

in all important matters of liturgy and spirituality, doctrine and canonical practice, in [our] understanding of the Holy Trinity, of the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, on the nature of the Church as the Communion of Saints with its ministry and Sacraments, and on the life of world to come when our Lord and Saviour shall come in all his glory. (Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Churches. 1970: 4)

So far, the agreement has not been received in Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches beyond a separate agreement between the Syrian Orthodox and Romanian Orthodox patriarchs of Antioch.

Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church started manifesting ecumenical attitudes towards each other officially in early 1960s, for example the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras’ declaration of intent to serious dialogue (1963) and the meeting of Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras in 1964. Mutual anathemas were lifted already in 1965. This was followed by a regional dialogue in North America (1969). The international Catholic-Orthodox dialogue started in 1980. Among the historically challenging topics discussed in the dialogue were the question of the so-called ‘uniate churches’ and the role of the bishop of Rome. Uniate churches were discussed intensively as a separate dialogue while the international dialogue was on hold in the early 1990s; in a 1993 statement ‘uniatism’ is presented as a ‘method of union of the past’ (Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. 1993). The text implies that no further attempts should be made to change the allegiance of individual Christians or entire communities. At the same time religious liberty and past decisions need to be respected and joint efforts directed to ‘the re-evangelization of [our] secularized world’ (Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. 1993). Since late 1980s the other main topic of discussion has been the role of the bishop of Rome. The latest dialogue document from 2016 discusses the synodal structure and the various levels (local, regional, universal) of the church. The document describes the development of historical patriarchates and emphasizes the ‘practices of the first millennium […] [as] a necessary reference point and a powerful source of inspiration’ as Catholics and Orthodox ‘seek to heal the wound of division’ (Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. 2016).

The Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) is often mentioned as one of the key ecumenical agreements of the twentieth century. It harvests decades of international and regional dialogues in the form of a declaration that was officially approved by both Catholics and Lutherans. The agreement both declares that the current Catholic and Lutheran teachings no longer offer ‘the occasion for doctrinal condemnations’ and do so by introducing a form of consensus that allows for a certain amount of variation, known as ‘differentiated consensus’. Justification was one of the key points of doctrinal disagreement during the Reformation period. Differing theological interpretations fueled a significant amount of animosity and discord. One cannot belittle the significance of reaching a substantial agreement on a topic with such a divisive past.

Some of the fruits of the Joint Declaration were witnessed during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation jointly commemorated by Catholics and Lutherans in 2017. In conjunction with the ecumenical commemoration the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity published a joint document From Conflict to Communion (2017) describing the implications of the Joint Declaration on Catholic-Lutheran relations and further commitments. A major implication of the Joint Declaration is the reconceptualized understanding of the Reformation. Both churches recognize the former, negatively biased view of the Reformation era and describe how the antagonistic attitudes have affected their historical understanding. The document then offers alternative perspectives to church history from a more reconciled viewpoint. The document ends with five imperatives that draw from the agreement reached in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and guides future Catholic-Lutheran relations. The first imperative emphasizes the importance of always starting from the viewpoint of unity, not of division. The second imperative describes how Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves be transformed by the encounter with the other. This transformation aims, thirdly, to seek together visible unity. The fourth imperative reminds of jointly rediscovering the power of the gospel for our time. The fifth imperative continues to call Lutherans and Catholics to witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is significant for several reasons. The dialogue explicitly brings together results from local and regional dialogues and describes a new way of understanding unity in difference. Catholics and Lutherans were also able to create a process of reception that made it possible for both to sign the Joint Declaration. The form of agreement has invited others to join or associate themselves with the agreement to the degree that it today brings together five communions (Notre Dame Consultation. 2019). The dialogue has continued with an emphasis on receiving and implementing the agreement and taking on new topics, such as baptism.

4 Multilateral ecumenical relations

4.1 Theological discussions on unity

Since its first meeting in 1927, the Faith and Order movement has been the most comprehensive and enduring space for multilateral theological cooperation. As of 1948, it continued as a commission within the World Council of Churches. Significant points of discussion within the Faith and Order movement include questions of what the unity of the church should look like and how to advance towards it.

4.1.1 Conceptions of unity in multilateral ecumenism

Over the years, the Faith and Order movement has proposed several conceptions or models of unity. Early Faith and Order meetings investigated formulations such as ‘a confederation or alliance of Churches for cooperative action’, ‘intercommunion or mutual recognition’, ‘corporate union’, and ‘organic unity’ (Vischer 1963). Since the early 1970s, Faith and Order has prioritized ‘visible unity’ as a goal of the ecumenical movement and this goal has also found its way into the constitution of the World Council of Churches (World Council of Churches. 2013a). Multilateral discussions under the World Council of Churches have had two foci, one of which dealt with theological understandings of unity and the church in general, the other which explored the nature of the cooperation under the World Council of Churches as a manifestation of unity.

One of the paradigmatic visions of unity, that later had a strong influence on unity within the World Council of Churches was formulated in the Unity Statement of the New Delhi Assembly. This formulation emphasizes unity made visible

as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship […] and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian Fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people. (World Council of Churches. 1962: para. 2)

Historically, more emphasis was put on the unity of ‘all in each place’, but the vision soon started to extend to ‘all places and all ages’. This led the ecumenical movement towards a conciliar vision of unity where locally united churches ultimately come together globally under a conciliar structure.

4.1.2 Role of World Council of Churches in the unity of the church

Overall, discussions on church unity in the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Faith and Order Commission must be contextualized through a wider understanding of the WCC’s role within the ecumenical movement. Even if the vision of unity is ‘conciliar’, the WCC has been understood to serve the churches in their ecumenical quest, not to become a unifying conciliar structure. This was made clear in the so-called Toronto Statement in 1950 (Hooft 1982: 112–120). The Toronto Statement speaks of unity as God’s gift and the churches’ duty ‘to make common cause in the search for the expression of that unity in work and life’ (Section I). The role of the WCC is to serve as an instrument of witnessing to churches’ common allegiance to Jesus Christ and ‘cooperate in matters requiring united action’ (Section I). The Toronto Statement also recognizes that ‘churches themselves have refrained from giving detailed and precise definitions of the nature of the Church’ (Section II). Because of this, the ecclesial character of the developing WCC was first and foremost described by negations, that is by what the WCC is not. The statement also outlined what was called ‘positive assumptions’ (Section IV) underlying the formation of the WCC and the consequent ecclesiological implications of membership in the WCC. These included the assumptions that ecumenical cooperation is based on ‘common recognition that Christ is the Divine Head of the Body’ (Section IV); that based on the New Testament the Church of Christ is one; that membership of the church of Christ is more inclusive than membership of their own church body; that membership in the WCC does not mean that any given member church must recognize the full ecclesial character of another church, but that all member churches recognize in each other elements of the true church and are willing to consult together in seeking the mind of Christ; and finally, that churches are willing to show solidarity and seek to learn from each other. This means that to a certain degree the theological work within the WCC and the WCC as an organization must be kept apart. At the same time describing the sought-for unity as ‘visible’ suggests that unity is somehow perceptible or tangible.

4.1.3 ‘Visible unity’ in Faith and Order

In Faith and Order, ‘visible unity’ has been strongly associated with a ‘basic agreement’ on Christian teaching or doctrine, more specifically on baptism, Eucharist, and ministry (World Council of Churches. 1982). Faith and Order have produced two so-called convergence documents that exemplify the degree to which theological thinking in various churches has been coming together or ‘converging’. These are the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (1982) and The Church: Towards Common Vision (2013c). Convergence does not imply full agreement but speaks to changes in attitude or interpretation based on mutual trust.

The first convergence document on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (BEM) collates and develops Faith and Order’s work since its inception. BEM must be read as the continuation of a complex ecumenical journey. In the early years, Faith and Order met at large-scale world conferences every ten years and the working method was comparative. This method was declared insufficient at the Third Faith and Order World Conference in Lund 1952. The conference proposed a new, Christocentric method that aimed not only at comparing theological approaches but also at theological reconciliation around Christ (Tanner 1995).This decision marked a significant shift in ecumenical cooperation with more attention being paid to what churches may say together. The change affected both the choice of topics and the way the topics were approached. Churches’ joint witness in the world was approached in the 1960s under headings such as ‘creation and new creation’ and ‘biblical hermeneutics’. Classical topics such as Eucharist and ministry stayed on the agenda but with a new approach; the question was whether or not a reflection on the experience of churches would bring new, common perspectives to traditional theological themes (Vischer 2002). The practical way of engaging in dialogues changed as the Commission started asking for feedback from theological institutions and churches for the draft texts.

The official entry of the Catholic Church to the ecumenical movement after the Second Vatican Council influenced greatly the developing understanding of ‘visible unity’ in Faith and Order. In dialogues with the Catholic Church, Eucharist had become the prioritized sign for unity (Vischer 2002). At the same time, there was a realization that the Eucharist cannot be discussed separately from baptism and ministry. By the World Council of Churches’ General Assembly in Nairobi 1976 an understanding had emerged that the ‘visible unity’ proposed by Faith and Order would manifest itself in ‘conciliar fellowship’ meaning ‘a fellowship capable of holding a council’ and that the criteria for such a fellowship were agreement on baptism, eucharist, and ministry (‘The Unity of the Church - Next Steps’ 1974: 119–131). The BEM document is a reflection of these developments and this understanding.

4.1.4 Unity as koinonia – unity in mission

One of the ways WCC communicates its vision for church unity is by the unity statements issued at various assemblies. So far, such unity statements have been issued at five assemblies in New Delhi (1961), Nairobi (1975), Canberra (1991), Porto Alegre (2006), and Busan (2013). A shift from the unity of all in each place model to a conciliar model may be seen between the two first unity statements (Saarinen 2008). Since the Canberra Assembly (1991) and the Faith and Order meeting in Santiago de Compostela (1993), koinonia/communio has become the main concept for theologically describing the unity of the church. Koinonia/communio is not immediately related to any specific concrete model of unity, but the theological idea that is possible to implement in various ways.

Since the early 1990s, Faith and Order has significantly intensified its work on the ecumenical understanding of the church. At the same time, the WCC has gone through periods of intensive discussion on the WCC’s role and character, including joint prayer and decision-making in the WCC. These discussions are a consequence of the continuing tension between the Toronto Statement that does not require the WCC member churches to have a shared understanding of the church and WCC’s explicit goal to advance the unity of the church. This tension has become more prominent since the introduction of koinonia/communio as the main theological approach to describe the unity of the church. Some confessional bodies, such as the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), and ecumenical ecclesial bodies such as the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCPE) identify themselves as communio/koinonia in the theological sense. Based on the Toronto Statement the WCC may serve as an instrument toward such unity but cannot itself be identified as koinonia in the theological sense. Neither are WCC member churches required to have a shared understanding of the church to remain in the WCC. Nevertheless, the Faith and Order Commission started work after the Canberra Assembly (1991) on an ecclesiological document. The first draft, The Nature and Mission of the Church (Faith and Order Commission. 2005), was published at the Porto Alegre Assembly (2006) and the second, final version The Church: Toward Common Vision (World Council of Churches. 2013c) at the Busan Assembly (2013). Both Assemblies also issued a separate unity statement.

The Porto Alegre unity statement, Called to be the One Church (2006), addresses the WCC as a ‘fellowship of churches’ committed to one another on the way towards ‘full visible unity’. Unity as koinonia is further defined as

given and expressed in the common confession of the apostolic faith; a common sacramental life entered by the one baptism and celebrated together in one eucharistic fellowship; a common life in which members and ministries are mutually recognized and reconciled; and a common mission witnessing to the gospel of God’s grace to all people and serving the whole creation. (‘Called to be the One Church’ 2006)

This koinonia is to be expressed ‘in each place’ through a conciliar relationship of churches in different places. As koinonia, the church’s oneness is an image of the unity of the Triune God where interrelated diversity is essentially related to unity. The emphasis in the latest unity statement, God’s Gift and Call to Unity – and our Commitment (2013b) is quite different. Without referring to koinonia as a theological concept, the text addresses challenges of experienced tensions and diversity. The church’s unity is associated with ‘our shared scriptural vision’ and emphasis is put on the shared mission of the church following the sending of Jesus Christ and his ministry. In this document, the focus has shifted to the church’s instrumental, vocational role in serving the unity of all humanity and creation; ‘the unity of the Church, the unity of the human community and the unity of the whole creation are interconnected’ (‘God’s Gift and Call to Unity – and our Commitment’ 2013b).

The Church: Toward A Common Vision (2013c) is a convergence document, describing what the churches may at this point say together. The document starts by outlining the church as part of God’s salvific plan for all creation. The church’s unity is derived from the church’s significance for God’s mission in the world. The church’s nature as koinonia reflects the koinonia of the Triune God. The main text is supplemented with segments of meta text explaining the complexities and remaining issues attached to the topic at hand. This kind of meta text is used to discuss, for example, the expression of the church as a sacrament, legitimate and divisive diversity, the relationship between the local and universal church, sacraments and ordinances, and ordained ministry, among other things. Like the BEM document, The Church: Toward A Common Vision was sent to WCC member churches for reception.

Faith and Order’s work on church unity for the past hundred years has sparked various discussions ranging from ecumenical method to ecclesiology, to individual points of Christian teaching, to discussions on what defines a ‘church-dividing’ question. There is also a long-standing discussion on the general principle that church unity requires agreement on doctrine. Much ecumenical cooperation has taken place without explicit consideration of forms of unity. This cooperation has been motivated by a sense of shared responsibility toward the whole creation and sense of shared mission.

4.2 Prophetic voice and shared mission

In the history of ecumenism, ‘Faith and Order’ has focused on doctrinal consensus as a requirement for the unity of the church and ‘Life and Work’ on shared mission including either evangelization or social action or both. This duality does not do justice to the complexity of ecumenical engagement. Many ecumenical dialogues both bilateral and multilateral frame their understanding of church and unity by shared mission. Historical events and processes, such as colonialism, mass migration, urbanization, or the post-war context have all left their mark on the ecumenical movement. From the beginning, ecumenical social action has been accompanied by theological and socio-ethical reflection. It has been strongly influenced by liberation theologies and the idea of the ‘preferential option for the poor’ (see e.g. Pope John Paul II. 1991). These ideas started to materialize at the end of 1960s. The WCC World Conference on Church and Society (1966) had a significant impact on the tone of WCC Assemblies in Uppsala (1968), Nairobi (1975) and Vancouver (1983). Especially the Uppsala Assembly is known for its strong emphasis on human rights and social and economic justice. The Uppsala Assembly was followed by one of the most discussed ecumenical initiatives, the WCC Programme to Combat Racism.

One of the often-overlooked aspects of the WCC’s work that explicitly brings together the theological, ecclesial and socio-ethical dimensions of the church, is the work on empowering women in the church and gender justice. These topics were on the agenda of the nascent WCC through an ambitious research program, The Life and Work of Women in the Church, which led to the creation of The Role of Women in the Church Commission in the newly founded WCC. In the early decades women’s full inclusion in the church was at least at times considered part of the restoration of the wholeness of the church (World Council of Churches. 1956). In the 1970s, discussion on women’s roles was associated with the WCC’s engagement with racism, giving the discussion on church, gender, and race an intersectional tone. Towards the end of 1970s, the WCC organized a study on The Community of Women and Men in the Church (Parvey 1983) that became a turning point in the WCC’s engagement with gender and church unity. The key discussion around the study was on its location in the WCC structure: should it be considered a question of ‘justice’ and located in the sub-unit for women or a question of ‘unity’ and dealt with in the sub-unit for Faith and Order? At the end the study was situated in Faith and Order but conducted with external staff and external funding. The study process ended with a large scale gathering in Sheffield 1981, the results were brought to the WCC central committee the same year and finally reported in the 1982 Faith and Order meeting in Lima. This was the same meeting that received the BEM study.

Because it was decided that The Community of Women and Men study should not be continued but ‘infused’ into other Faith and Order work and because of the immense impact of the BEM document for the global ecumenical movement, it does appear as if the issue of gender justice was sidelined on the WCC agenda. At the same time a paradigm change was taking place within the WCC that moved focus from the unity of the churches to the unity of the whole of humankind (Raiser 1991). This was reflected in the Faith and Order project on ‘The Unity of the Church and the Renewal of Human Community’. In the 1980s, the WCC’s programmatic work was framed by the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) programme. Towards the late 1980s, the notion of koinonia was emerging as a key ecclesiological concept with some discussions on women and men as part of the same community or koinonia. The success of the JPIC program has been debated widely. Some argue that the program veered the WCC from its ecumenical task to advance the unity of the church. Others have found the JPIC as a model for a more integrative and holistic approach to ecumenism. All through its history WCC has been an active participant in various global actions, such as action for ending poverty (World Council of Churches. 1998), nuclear disarmament (e.g. in partnership with ICAN), engaging with the HIV/AIDS pandemic (EHAIA) and the climate crisis (Care for Creation and Climate Justice), among others.

The integration of the International Missionary Council into the World Council of Churches brought cooperation around mission as part of the organized global ecumenical movement. Following the four International Mission Conferences by International Missionary Council (Edinburgh 1910, Jerusalem 1928, Tambaram 1938, Whitby 1947), the WCC Committee for World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) has continued to organize a series of World Mission conferences (Willingen 1952, Mexico City 1963, Bangkok 1972/1973, Melbourne 1980, San Antonio 1989, Salvador de Bahia 1996, Athens 2005, and Arusha 2018) dealing with a wide range of issues around organizing joint mission, developing mission theology such as the idea of missio Dei (God’s mission), mission in secularized Western contexts, mission and social justice, and the plurality of cultures and religions. The most recent conferences have consciously sought to include participation beyond WCC membership (World Council of Churches. 2019).

WCC has issued two position papers on mission, Mission and Evangelism – An Ecumenical Affirmation (1983) and Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes (2013d). The earlier document has a clear christological starting point and an emphasis on evangelization as proclamation of the word and the need for conversion. The reality of God’s kingdom and this world are clearly set against each other. The more recent document is noticeably more trinitarian and focused on God’s mission and the church as an instrument of that mission. Ecumenical developments between the first and second documents are clearly seen in the emphasis for justice, inclusion, and fullness of life in Together Towards Life.

5 Spiritual ecumenism

Prayer for unity is a traditional part of Christian liturgy since the early church. Joint prayer has also been an essential part of the ecumenical consciousness. Theologically, shared prayer brings Christians into a relationship with Christ and with each other. Prayer also opens them to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Praying for unity manifests the deep conviction that the unity of the church is not a human achievement but God’s gift to God’s people. Prayer, also, is not reserved for ordained ministers or theological experts but is accessible to all Christians.

Organized ecumenical prayer for the unity of the church has roots in the nineteenth century with the establishment of the worldwide week for prayer in 1846 by the Evangelical Alliance in Great Britain. Both the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church urged joint prayer for the reconciliation among Christians and re-union of Christianity, although with differing understandings of the method of unification. The early twentieth century saw the emergence of another week of prayer, an ‘Octave of Christian Unity’, organized by Paul Wattson, the founder of the Society of the Atonement seeking unity between Anglicans and Catholics in the US. Similar spiritual movements in Europe, although seeking closer contact between Catholics and Orthodox Christians, gave a rise to another version of the prayer week, the Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Both the Octave of Christian Unity and the Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity were supported by a spiritual society with specific ecumenical intentions and experiences. After the establishment of the WCC, the organization of Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has been facilitated by WCC, subsequently in conjunction with the PCPCU. In addition to prayer movements for Christian unity, there are numerous ecumenical spiritual communities in the world with an ecumenical calling. Some of these include the Benedictine monastery of Chevetogne in Belgium, the Taizé community in France, ecumenical monastery in Bose in Switzerland, the Community of Grandchamp in Switzerland, and the Iona Community in the UK. These and other ecumenical spiritual communities foster ecumenical prayer for Christian unity and participate in various ways into Christian mission in the world.

The last decades have witnessed a growing sense of lack of progress in the ecumenical movement. This has often been referred to as ‘the winter of ecumenism’, an idea which emerged in the ecumenical discourse in the mid-1990s. The sense of stagnation was associated with a lack of ecumenical breakthroughs, a weakening of ecumenical institutions both in the outreach and weakening finances, a lack of shared vision for the ecumenical movement, and disappointment with the reception of ecumenical dialogues. In addition, the method of ecumenical dialogues was perceived as lacking in spirit and enthusiasm, and finally, the dialogues were recognized to be problematically Eurocentric. On top of these factors, the ecumenical landscape itself had changed. There was more acceptance and tolerance for diversity, but at the same time a lack of urgency in overcoming diversity. To compensate this rather bleak picture, renewed emphasis has been put on spiritual ecumenism, which stresses ecumenical reconciliation as a movement of the Spirit. Spiritual ecumenism encompasses not only joint spiritual life in the sense of life in prayer but also shared action in Spirit. For example, the report of the recent International Mission Council meeting in Arusha 2018 envisions ‘transforming discipleship’ as ‘moving in the Spirit’. The Arusha Call (2019) is a call for living out the Spirit-led Christian calling and to participate in God’s transforming and salvific mission in the world.

Another ecumenical approach drawing from spiritual ecumenism is the receptive ecumenism approach. Receptive ecumenism aims at the same time to respond to the criticism of the ‘ecumenical winter’ and to offer new avenues for ecumenism in the contemporary world. It emphasizes mutual learning and receiving from the other without losing one’s integrity. In this way receptive ecumenism hopes to lead both to the strengthening of ecclesial identities and to draw individuals closer to Christ and each other. Receptive ecumenism stresses the importance of attending to the shortcomings of one’s own tradition by receiving from the gifts of others. Receptive ecumenism has two features that make it potentially fruitful for the future ecumenical movement. It has conceptualized both the ‘affective’ aspect, that is ecumenical attitudes, and the ‘effective’ aspect, that is the need for self-criticism and healing learning from the other (Ryan 2021). In this way receptive ecumenism bridges the gap between institutions, be they churches or theological traditions and individuals.


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  • Further reading

    • Briggs, John, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, and Georges Tsetsis (eds). 2004. A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1968–2000. Volume 3. Geneva: World Council of Churches.
    • Ferracci, Luca (ed.). 2021. A History of the Desire for Christian Unity. Volume 1. Leiden: Brill.
    • Fey, Harold, Ruth Rouse, and Stephen Neill (eds). 1967. A History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1517–1948. Volume 1. Louisville: Westminster Press.
    • Fey, Harold (ed.). 2009. The History of the Ecumenical Movement, 1948–1968. Volume 2. Eugene: Wipf and Stock.
    • Kalaitzidis, Pantelis (ed.). 2014. Orthodox Handbook on Ecumenism. Resources for Theological Education. Regnum Studies in Global Christianity. Oxford: Regnum Books International/World Council of Churches.
    • Murray, P. D., G. Ryan, and P. Lakeland (eds). 2022. Receptive Ecumenism as Transformative Ecclesial Learning: Walking the Way to a Church Re-Formed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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