Shakespeare’s famous question posed in Romeo and Juliette was the theme of an address by WCRC’s General Secretary, Setri Nyomi, earlier this week. Nyomi was participating in a panel discussion during the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland on Tuesday, 28 February.
In his remarks, Nyomi focussed on the significance to members of the former World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) in the change from being called an alliance to being called a communion. When WARC merged with the Reformed Ecumenical Council to form the World Communion of Reformed Churches, they found themselves in a communion rather than an alliance. What does this mean? Nyomi explored some answers in his address.
From Alliance to Communion – a contribution to Christian unity
“I ask … 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 that you have sent me.” John 17: 21
The high priestly prayer references that the modern ecumenical movement has constantly used to undergird our commitment continue to inspire us in the quest for Christian unity. The Reformed family continues to do its bit to live this commitment out. The 1986 Belhar Confession, which comes from the South African context not only fosters justice in exposing the evil of apartheid; it in fact is a major statement of faith on Christian unity. It states:
We believe that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one
which the people of God must continually be built up to attain.
This is just one of the pointers to our commitment to Christian unity. We recognise that healing and reconciliation within one church family can be a contribution to Christian unity. We are aware that the Reformed family has a tendency to divide – a reputation we are not proud of. Somebody has said if you are trying to put two Presbyterian churches together – the result is often three. So we do have a responsibility to reverse this and to contribute positively to Christian unity. It is for this reason that we are grateful to God for the process that led to the unity of two Reformed global bodies in June 2010 which also resulted in our intentionally taking on the identity of a communion.
The June 2010 event brought the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, an organisation which had its beginnings in 1875, and the Reformed Ecumenical Council, with beginnings in 1946, together to form the World Communion of Reformed Churches. This marked healing within the Reformed churches. In the twentieth century, new signs of division in the Church of Christ were introduced – Christian right-Christian left, Conservative-liberal, etc. This also had an impact within the Reformed family with WARC: where those who were described as liberal gravitated towards WARC and those who felt more comfortable with the conservative label moved towards the REC. In June 2010, we said “No” to such division and came together in one body – the World Communion of Reformed Churches. I see this as something larger than ourselves – not just an intra communion phenomenon. That healing and reconciliation within the Reformed family is a contribution to Christian unity as a whole.
The identity we chose in this unity – a communion is significant. Even before the merger was decided upon, the old World Alliance of Reformed Churches began a process to question our identity as an Alliance. An alliance is a kind of military term in which parties who normally would not agree together enter into an agreement to do something together usually to confront or fight an enemy together. That is the label we had for more than a century – an Alliance of churches holding on to the Presbyterian system. So around 2003, we began a theological reflection process to question how we could move beyond being an alliance into a quality of relationship within the family that honours God more and enables us to contribute in a stronger way to the quest for Christian unity. Our then Theology Secretary, Dr. Odair Pedroso Mateus produced a good discussion paper which helped in this process of reflection.
It was providential (providence – a good reformed word) that in 2006 we started a process of uniting WARC and REC. And we placed the quality of our relationships in this process. Our consultations with our member churches confirmed this desire to raise the quality of our relationships and to define ourselves more faithfully in terms of koinonia – rather than simply as an Alliance or an association. We enshrined in the first article of our constitution as a communion the following words:
The churches in the World Communion of Reformed Churches are called together in the name of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Under the sovereign God, with Christ’s followers across the globe, sharing one baptism, the members of the communion belong to the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
With these words we celebrate our oneness as the Reformed family and a higher quality of relationship in altar and pulpit fellowship. But we did not do so as an exclusive club. We were intentional about belonging to the one holy catholic and apostolic church. This is a part of Reformed heritage. John Calvin in a lecture to a former Archbishop of Canterbury – Thomas Cranmer – in 1553 stated that he was ready to cross ten seas for the sake of Christian unity. Our DNA tells us, “To be Reformed is to be ecumenical”. Being a communion therefore unites us to continue working for Christian unity. It is an ecumenical call. This in the words of the Belhar Confession is both a gift and obligation.