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Opening up Ecumenical Space

Address at the International Meeting of Interchurch Families at the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, 25 July 1998

Rev. Konrad Raiser

Let me begin by extending a warm welcome to you in this ecumenical centre. When I was asked by Fr. Rene Beaupere many months ago whether you could hold your conference in this place, I was very pleased with the request since it recognized that this ecumenical centre is meant to be the place of meeting and encounter where people from all Christian traditions feel at home. My only regret is that - due to the holiday period - only a few of the staff colleagues working here can join me in welcoming you; but you should know that your meeting here is an encouragement for us as well.

I have been invited - just like Bishop Duprey yesterday - to share with you a testimony of ecumenical concerns and expectations. In reflecting about what might be an appropriate focus and approach, I found myself beginning to meditate about the symbolic meaning of the French expression for an interchurch family, i.e. foyer mixte. 'Foyer' is a term rich in meaning. Originally the place where one makes a fire, it has come to signify the entire house or habitation surrounding a fireplace. In a still wider sense, a foyer is a place where people meet and encounter one another, e.g. the lobby area of a hotel or a theatre. In a figurative sense, it can be used to indicate the core of a process, the headquarters of an enterprise, or the focal point where the rays of light meet and are fractured.

It seems to me that this rich symbolism is in many ways very appropriate for the experience of an interchurch family, but it can equally be applied to a place like the ecumenical centre and its role in the ecumenical movement. Most of you will be aware that the term oikumene, from which our words 'ecumencial' and 'ecumenism' have been derived, literally refers to the whole inhabited earth. It has the same root as economy and ecology, i.e. oikos which means house or household, and thus covers a similar range of meaning as foyer. If we follow this linguistic lead, it appears that our ecumenical calling is related to keeping inhabitable the place which has been entrusted to us, caring for the earth as the household where all the children of God, all god's creatures, should find their place and can be at home.

The symbolism surrounding the term 'foyer' could help us to see what it takes to provide for this quality of household: you need a fireplace, or something like a round table, around which people can meet and where they feel comfortable; you need an open space which facilitates encounter while allowing differences to be expressed; you need both a clear centre of gravity and an open boundary. In most cultures this quality of the open house as a place for people to meet and to share is the obvious symbol of hospitality.

In your experience as interchurch families, the search for this quality of an ecumenical space is particularly important, for in your household two Christian traditions which do not yet enjoy full communion are joined together in the closest form of human community. In many ways, of course, each marriage is an exercise of 'double belonging' - to use Rene Beaupere's very expressive formulation: two family traditions, two life histories come together; while they begin to merge, in many respects their difference never disappears totally.

Each marriage is built on a covenant in which the partners promise to stay together whatever may arrive; they engage together in a process of discovering unity in diversity. The particular identities of the partners which were formed before their marriage do not disappear even though they are being transformed by the experience of common life. The unity of the couple is never simply a given; rather it has to be built and shaped in a life-long process. The two partners become one, but their very union remains alive and viable only as they grant each other the freedom to remain themselves and distinct.

This experience of a 'double belonging' which lies at the core of each marriage is being accentuated in the case of an interchurch couple. For any believing and practising Christian, the faith tradition into which he or she has grown is an essential element in forming personal identity. An interchurch marriage where both partners accept and respect each other in their difference while discovering and shaping their oneness in diversity, expresses the very ecumenical challenge in the everyday life situation of a given household. The experience of an interchurch family is therefore not only the place where the separation and dividedness of the churches is most painfully manifested, but it could - and in many ways does - become the ground where a new reality is being shaped, where 'ecumenical space' is being opened up.

foyer mixte does anticipate the unity of the church in the form of a 'house church'. Our understanding of church is conditioned so much by the institutional forms of ordered church life expressed in dogmatic definitions, canonical rules, ministerial and administrative structures that we hesitate to acknowledge that for generations the early church existed in the form of house churches. In our own time, Christianity has survived in China during and after the time of the cultural revolution through a network of house churches. Could this become, for our time, the ecumenical space where we rediscover together what it means to be the church?

Indeed, we have the gospel promise that where two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, he will be present among them, and we have the teaching of the Apostle Paul that in our bodies and our relationships with each other, especially as women and men, we are meant to become a temple, a space for the Holy Spirit. Our married life, the union of husband and wife, can therefore be taken in the Letter to the Ephesians as a symbol of the unity of the church as the one Body of Christ.

If this is the promise and blessing that is valid for each couple who live their married life as a life of faith, how much more is this true for an interchurch marriage, binding together into union two distinct church traditions. Rather than complaining about the institutional constraints imposed by divided church loyalties, could we not begin to focus on the promise that rests on each of these 'house churches' and trust that they can become an ecumenical space, a foyer, an oiLos or a household, which manifests the new qualities of community which we referred to above?

It is true, there are the barriers and problems of not being able - at least officially - to share the Eucharist together or the religious education of children, but at the same time there is the promise and opportunity of being able - under the presence of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit - to transcend those barriers of the institutional capacity in an open house with a round table or a fireplace, a foyer in the centre. I believe that here we encounter the specific vocation of interchurch families, of this network of house churches. They could become a laboratory for exploring the dimensions of this ecumenical space, for discovering new symbolic acts which express the unity we already experience, for developing a language of common spirituality and providing hospitality for all who suffer from the situation of continuing division.

Perhaps it is this experience of house churches which we need to inspire us to discover new ways of being the church, of building our communion from below rather than waiting for the formal doctrinal and canonical agreements from above. The impression is gaining ground that the organized ecumenical movement concerned with institutional interchurch relationships has reached the limits of what the approaches and methodologies employed so far can achieve. The historic churches have become too heavy, too much tied to their past identities. The call of the Groupe des Dombes for a 'conversion of the churches' is more appropriate than ever before.


What does this mean for the World Council of Churches which is the clearest expression of organized ecumenism? As you will know, the World Council commemorates this year the 50th anniversary since its inaugural Assembly in Amsterdam in 1948. This anniversary will be celebrated in the context of the Eighth Assembly which is to be held in Harare, Zimbabwe, in December of this year. In preparing for this assembly under the theme "Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope", the World Council has engaged with its member churches in an extensive process of reflection about a "Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches" as we move into the 21st century. It is obvious that we cannot continue with business as usual if we want to respond to the challenges of the 21st century. The impression that organized and institutional ecumenism has reached certain limits is being supported amply by evidence from the work of the World Council of Churches. Ecumenical organizations themselves are faced with the need to move through a process of de-institutionalizing to regain flexibility and liberate themselves from the constraints and complexities of structures and procedures which have grown over several decades. The crucial question that is emerging in many contexts is no longer how to achieve institutional and organizational church unity, but what it means to be the church in a situation where most of the institutional expressions of church life have lost credibility or at least do not respond to the search for spiritual meaning and viable community which is alive among many of our contemporaries, not least among the younger generation.

It is hoped that the assembly of the WCC at Harare will be able to convey in its message to the churches an ecumenical vision which could guide the ecumenical movement into the 21st century. A draft statement of "Our Ecumenical Vision" has been shared with member churches and assembly delegates, and this will serve as the basis for a service of recommitment to the ecumenical covenant on 13 December. The statement emphasizes the ecumenical movement as a process in which we find ourselves as those who have inherited a tradition and legacy from the generations that have gone before us, which deserves to be remembered and to be passed on to a new generation. The biblical image of the pilgrim people of God, of the disciples moving in the footsteps of Christ under the promise of God's reign, provides the central focus of this statement which thus echoes, at least indirectly, the assembly theme "Turn to God - Rejoice in Hope".

Rather than staying with this draft statement which has been prepared for the Harare assembly, I want to continue in the line of reflection which was opened up in the first part of my address. If it is true that the root metaphor for our ecumenical endeavour points to the space of an open house which has a clear centre around a fireplace or a round table, and if my suggestion is valid that the early form of a 'house church' may provide the lead in our search for meaningful ways of being the church today, then we might take a new look at the central ecumenical issue of sharing the Eucharist at the Lord's Table. I propose to develop further the motif of 'opening up an ecumenical space' by suggesting the further image of 'extending the ecumenical table'.

The table, in most cultures, is a symbol of community. While people of course sit at and around tables in order to write and work or to do any other kind of business, to take decisions or to pass judgment, the most common use of the table is to gather a group of people for sharing a meal. A family or a community sharing the same house gather around the table for their common meal, at least in those cultures where eating together is still the regular custom. You extend the table when guests are expected and additional space is needed. Most modern dining tables provide for this need and can be extended at least once or even twice. When the table is extended, this is mostly the occasion for a festive meal, to celebrate the fellowship among friends or a particular moment in the life of a family.

Of course, all this imagery will seem somewhat remote and idealized in cultures where members of a family or of a household only rarely eat together around a table and where eating has ceased to be an expression of community life. The fast food culture may have difficulties translating the image of the extended table into everyday experience. In other cultures, like in the Pacific and in many African countries, meals have remained very much a community affair, even where they are not taken at tables, but sitting on the floor or on mats. The appropriate image then would be to add another mat to accommodate the guests at the common meal. In any case, the imagery of extending the table points to a widening of the circle of a community, to the deliberate act of sharing beyond the limits of everyday relationships.

Beyond this everyday range of meanings, the image of the table evokes a rich collection of biblical references. There is, for instance, the experience of blessing associated with the table as in Psalm 23:5-6: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long." But more important are the many references to table fellowship in the gospels where Jesus is being depicted as having shared in table fellowship with sinners and tax collectors, or having engaged the scribes and pharisees in critical dialogue over a shared meal at a common table. Jesus invites himself to the table of the tax collector Zacchaeus. Many of the parables speak of the kingdom of God in terms of the festive meal around the common table. This is comprehensively expressed in Luke 13:29: "Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God." There is no example of a table being extended in the biblical stories, but there are many examples of invitations to guests to join table fellowship with a host, most explicitly in the parable about the festive meal whose original guests all declined and were then replaced by those collected from the street comers and fences. The parables clearly indicate that the extended table in the kingdom of God has its own order of seating which means that there will be a reversal of status and privileges compared to human rules of etiquette. The divine host, in extending the table, is not concerned about propriety, but about opening the house for all who are ready to follow the invitation.

Applied to the present situation of the organized ecumenical movement, the imagery draws attention to the fact that organized ecumenism is indeed an affair only of a minority among the different parts of world Christianity. The membership of the World Council of Churches is limited largely to the churches of historic Protestantism and of Orthodoxy. Most of the Pentecostal churches, the Evangelical churches and communities, the Independent churches in Africa and Asia and, of course, the Roman Catholic Church are not members of the WCC, even though they are part of an increasing number of national and regional ecumenical bodies. Should the WCC seek to extend its membership and to grow in the number of member churches? Should it take a closer look at the barriers which its institutional structures may present to some potential member churches, preventing them from seeking membership? Can the WCC maintain its role as the most representative and comprehensive ecumenical framework if, in fact, it only represents a minority among the world's Christian churches? The theme 'extending the ecumenical table' suggests that the 50th anniversary might in fact be the proper moment to consider whether steps should be taken to widen the circle of the ecumenical community.

'Extending the ecumenical table' could, therefore, indeed become a very telling symbol of the ecumenical vision which seeks to manifest more fully that koinonia which Jesus practiced in offering and seeking fellowship at the table and which is promised to us as the fullness of life in God's kingdom. The presence of God among God's people finds its most beautiful expression in the table fellowship with God shared by all. This koinonia is manifested for us in the Lord's Supper in which we commemorate the last meal which Jesus shared with his disciples and anticipate the meal of communion in God's kingdom. Extending the ecumenical table, therefore, also raises the issue of eucharistic fellowship and hospitality. While sharing together in fellowship at the Lord's Table remains the hope inspiring the ecumenical movement, it points at the same time to the contradictions in our present ecumenical reality. Can we seriously consider extending the ecumenical table when in fact this table is divided and broken?

We, therefore, need to consider further the question of a 'common ecumenical table' before we can seriously approach the possibility of extending the table. A brief historical recollection will remind us that at the Fourth Assembly in Uppsala 1968, eucharistic celebrations were still held separately according to the different traditions. There had been guidelines provided by the Faith and Order Commission suggesting that at major ecumenical conferences two eucharistic services should be offered of which one should include an open invitation, but all participants should be invited to both liturgies, and a common service of preparation and repentance should be held prior to the eucharistic liturgies. When in 1982 the Lima texts on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry were made public, they were accompanied by the so-called "Lima liturgy" which served as the basis for the open eucharistic celebration at the Vancouver assembly in 1983 at which the Archbishop of Canterbury presided. This is being remembered by many as a unique ecumenical experience and it has nourished the hope that in future such common eucharistic celebrations might take place at all assemblies. The fact that the majority of churches of the Protestant tradition have meanwhile entered officially or at least de facto into a relationship of full communion has further strengthened this hope. The pain and disappointment felt by many assembly delegates at Canberra when they could not share in the communion at the Orthodox Eucharistic liturgy shows that it has become increasingly difficult to interpret the eucharistic discipline of the churches which are still divided to participants at ecumenical conferences and assemblies. The doctrinal and canonical reasons are obviously in conflict with a rapidly evolving ecumenical situation and do not respond to the pastoral and spiritual needs of a new generation of active participants in the ecumenical movement.

The question whether a 'common Eucharist' could be celebrated at the Harare assembly has been seriously considered by the Assembly Worship Committee and led to a painful and passionate discussion in the Central Committee. The solution to celebrate the Eucharist at the invitation of four churches of different traditions at Harare does not meet the ecumenical expectations but it is an honest response to the fact of basic disunity which still limits the possibilities of hospitality at the ecumenical table.

It should also be recognized, however, that in many churches and countries, a praxis of open or tacit eucharistic hospitality has developed between Protestant and Catholic communities. This praxis tries to address in particular the situation of couples who share in an interchurch marriage or of ecumenical groups and base communities who have grown together in close fellowship through common ecumenical action. For doctrinal and canonical reasons, the Orthodox churches have rejected both the notion of intercommunion and the praxis of eucharistic hospitality, emphasizing that Eucharistic communion can only be considered as the sign of full church unity.

Under the impulse of a renewal of eucharistic theology both in Orthodoxy and in postconciliar Catholicism, a eucharistic understanding of the unity of the church has moved into the centre of ecumenical dialogue. The sharing of the Eucharist has become the central symbol for the unity we seek. The more this eucharistic emphasis has shaped ecumenical considerations about the unity of the church, the more the impossibility to share a common ecumenical table has become a symbol of division. We have accepted the Eucharist as the touchstone of our ecumenical endeavour to an extent that it has paralysed our ability to engage more fully in the act of breaking bread together.

Perhaps we need to recapture and remind ourselves again of the praxis of the early Christian communities in apostolic times which celebrated the Eucharist as past of a common meal, the agape. The Eucharist then was not yet a liturgical act set apart. The discussion of Paul with the congregation at Corinth (cf 1 Cor. 11:17ff) provides some insight into this situation. The contradictions of the present ecumenical situation could be eased if we could develop a new praxis of sharing a simple meal to affirm our ecumenical fellowship, to invoke God's blessing on the food and to rejoice together. This might also inspire new forms of sharing a meal with the poor in our communities beyond maintaining soup kitchens. It could integrate the symbol of a fasting meal as a sign of repentance and of opening ourselves to the healing presence of God. Such an act of a non-eucharistic breaking of bread together could be a way of respecting the fact that the orders of our churches do not yet allow full eucharistic fellowship, but that the gift of new fellowship which we have received through the ecumenical movement calls for a gathering around the common table.


The very limitations of the ecumenicity of the World Council of Churches, as expressed in its limited membership, should of course invite us to think about ways of widening the circle. It has to be recognized that the constitutional principles of the WCC create barriers which exclude many churches from seeking membership either because of their limited size or because they hesitate to accept the core requirements demanded by full membership. When, in the early 70s, the possibility of Roman Catholic membership was discussed, several options of alternative institutional arrangements were considered, i.e. reconstituting the WCC on the basis of national councils of churches or confessional families. In the end, the Roman Catholic Church decided against seeking membership in the foreseeable future. This situation has not changed, even though the Roman Catholic Church since then has joined more than fifty national councils of churches and three of the regional conferences of churches. There are no indications that institutional or constitutional changes would facilitate the entry of the Roman Catholic Church into a structured ecumenical fellowship on the world level. While the conditions are different for the large number of Pentecostal churches or for conservative Evangelical communities, it does not seem possible to include a larger number of them into fall membership.

From another perspective, questions have been raised about the desirability of 'extending the ecumenical table' in the sense of increasing the number of member churches. The Orthodox churches have increasingly expressed concern about the increase of the number of very small Protestant churches being received into membership, while the number of Orthodox member churches remains unchanged. In order to redress the balance and secure a proper place for the large churches of the Orthodox tradition in the fellowship of the World Council, the proposal has recently been advanced to reorganize the WCC according to families of churches, following the model developed in the Middle East Council of Churches. The discussion about this proposal has only just begun, and it is too early to anticipate the outcome. In any case, this move on the part of the Orthodox member churches would suggest that an extension of the ecumenical table does not and should not necessarily mean a continuous growth in the number of member churches.

The image of the guest joining the extended table of an existing community is misleading if it is applied to the present ecumenical situation. The Roman Catholic Church is not a guest coming from outside, but is a full partner in the one ecumenical movement. This is also true for an increasing number of Pentecostal and Independent churches which have joined national or regional ecumenical so structures. The more appropriate image would be to see the present ecumenical situation characterized by a room with a number of separate tables at which different parties enjoy their meal. As they discover the links of fellowship between them, they decide to move their tables together to enlarge the circle. It was with a similar intention that the proposal of a 'forum of Christian churches and ecumenical organizations' was launched in the context of the reflection process on a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC. This proposal acknowledges the fact that the ecumenical movement is a network of a great diversity of partners who all contribute to the one ecumenical movement in distinct ways. They agree and affirm in principle that there is only one ecumenical movement, while in practice they sometimes find themselves in conflict or competition with one another. Since the Canberra assembly the WCC has been engaged in active dialogue with Pentecostals, Evangelicals and Independent churches and for more thin thirty years with the Roman Catholic Church. These different relationships have so far not been coordinated and linked with the ongoing ties of association with national councils of churches and regional conferences. Recently the WCC has recognized the working relationships with a variety of international ecumenical organizations as constitutive partners in the ecumenical movement.

The proposal of an ecumenical forum is intended to extend the ecumenical table in the sense of developing a praxis of fellowship without structural limitations and conditions. The modalities of this proposal are being developed, and the process of exploring its viability with the main ecumenical partners is under way. It might be advisable to start the implementation of the forum proposal on the regional or even national level before extending it to the global level. In any case, however, the list of those invited to this extended ecumenical table should go beyond the 'heads of churches' and include all parts of the people of God.

There is one convincing example of an extended ecumenical table which has been growing in significance, i.e. the World Day of Prayer. It has succeeded in bringing together members of all Christian traditions, in the majority women, for concerted ecumenical action and prayer. This would suggest that structural arrangements are of less importance in extending the ecumenical table than are simple symbolic acts which can serve as crystallizing foci for the manifestation of ecumenical fellowship.


It has been my intention with these brief pointers to the present discussion within the World Council of Churches in preparation for the Harare assembly to provide some examples where the search for widening the ecumenical space and extending the table is taking place and what preliminary conclusions it has led to. The World Council of Churches as an organization rooted largely in the historic church traditions is exposed to the same disappointments and constraints that characterize ecumenism in terms of inter-church relationships. The continuing ecumenical movement has drawn its vitality from ecumenical experience and endeavours beyond the formal church structures. Meanwhile the World Council is drawn into the same process of transformation that is beginning to change the religious profile of many countries. In the 21st century, worldwide Christianity will probably be shaped much less by the traditions of the historic churches. In visiting member churches in countries in the southern hemisphere, the priority concern that I find myself confronted with is not the question of Christian unity in the traditional sense, but a common understanding and a common witness over against new religious movements and in a situation of growing religious plurality.

It is against this background that I am convinced of the need to widen the ecumenical space and to extend our ecumenical tables. I believe that the experience of interchurch families interpreted as a 'house church' can indeed provide important insights and encouragements for the wider Christian community. It is in this sense that I welcome your conference once again and express my grateful recognition for the contribution that you have already made and will continue to make to the wider ecumenical movement.