History of Faith and Order
Fifth world conference 1993 Santiago de Compostela, Spain

The Faith and Order (F&O) movement serves the churches by leading them into theological dialogue as a means of overcoming obstacles to and opening up ways towards the manifestation of their unity given in Jesus Christ.

Together with the movement for Life and Work and the International Missionary Council, the F&O movement shaped the first phase of the modern ecumenical movement between 1910 and 1948. Soon after the 1910 world missionary conference in Edinburgh, the 1910 convention of the (Anglican) Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA resolved "that a joint commission be appointed to bring about a conference for the consideration of questions touching Faith and Order".

Several other churches passed similar resolutions, but the responsibility for preparing the envisioned worldwide conference remained with the newly appointed commission until 1920. In that year a preparatory meeting for the planned world conference on F&O was held in Geneva. Under the leadership of Charles H. Brent, this was a first occasion for the nearly 80 churches represented to exchange their respective positions concerning Christian unity and to create an international and interconfessional continuation committee.

After further preparation the first world conference on F&O took place in 1927 in Lausanne. Over 400 participants, representing 127 Orthodox, Anglican, Reformation and Free churches, assembled under the leadership of Brent "to register the apparent level of fundamental agreements within the conference and the grave points of disagreement remaining".

This comparative method was continued at the second world conference (1937) in Edinburgh. Again more than 400 participants, representing 122 churches, met and, under the presidency of William Temple, were able to clarify several concepts of church unity. They also agreed, despite some opposing voices, to unite F&O with the movement for Life and Work "to form a council of churches" - a decision which led to the formation of the WCC in 1948.

After 1948 the tasks of the F&O movement were carried on by the commission on F&O within the WCC. Under the leadership of Yngve Brilioth the new commission held the third world conference on Faith and Order (1952) in Lund, Sweden, and moved from the comparative method to a form of theological dialogue which approaches controversial issues from a common biblical and Christological basis. Oliver Tomkins chaired the fourth world conference in 1963 in Montreal, Canada.

After a longer interval the fifth world conference was held in 1993 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The conference was chaired by Mary Tanner and outlined the future work of F&O under the programmatic theme "Towards Koinonia in Faith, Life and Witness".

Structure, methods and membership

With its 120 members the commission on F&O, which meets every three or four years, is the most representative theological forum in the world. Its aim is, according to its bylaws, "to proclaim the oneness of the church of Jesus Christ and to call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, in order that the world may believe". The bylaws provide for membership in the commission of representatives of churches which are not members of the WCC, thus underlining the movement character of F&O. The ongoing work of F&O is supervised by a board (30 members) and is carried out by the Geneva secretariat of F&O.

Since 1948 the work of F&O has found its most important expression in the meetings of the commission. There, study projects have been initiated which were carried out through international consultations and smaller study drafting groups. The results of these studies have been received by or formulated at commission meetings. Increasingly churches, ecumenical organizations and commissions and institutes as well as interested individuals have participated in F&O studies and thus have provided a much broader basis and involvement.

The composition of the commission has changed considerably since 1948. The rather small percentage of Orthodox members and representatives of the churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America has increased to over 20% and 40% respectively. Women, who were once virtually absent from the commission, represent now nearly 30% of its membership. Since 1968 the Roman Catholic Church has been officially represented with 12 members and participates actively in all F&O studies. Moderators of the commission were Yngve Brilioth (1947-57), Douglas Horton (1957-63), Paul Minear (1963-67), H.H. Harms (1967-71), John Meyendorff (1971-75), Nikos Nissiotis (1975-83), John Deschner (1983-91), Mary Tanner (1991-98) and David Yemba (1998-).

Themes and achievements

Since 1910 the F&O movement and the commission have dealt with a broad spectrum of theological issues: understanding and practice of baptism, eucharist and ordained ministry; the church and concepts of its unity; intercommunion; scripture and Tradition; the role and significance of creeds and confessions; ordination of women; the influence of so-called non-theological factors on efforts for church unity.

Alongside these controversial issues, F&O has increasingly taken up themes which are of common concern for the churches or are fundamental for expressing their already-existing fellowship: worship and spirituality (e.g. the commission prepares jointly with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity the material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity), Christian hope for today, inter-relation between bilateral and multilateral dialogues (since 1978 the commission has organized nine meetings of the forum on bilateral conversations).

The commission continues to serve united/uniting churches by organizing regular consultations for them, and it publishes a bi-annual "Survey of Church Union Negotiations". Since 1982 the work of F&O has become more widely known than ever before through the unprecedentedly broad and intensive discussion and reception process in connection with its 1982 Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM) document. This process continues, and F&O will deal with some major critical points raised in the almost 200 official responses of the churches to the so-called Lima text within the framework of a comprehensive ecclesiological study on "The Church as Koinonia" - a study which formed the integrating centre of F&O work beginning in 1994.

Within the wider ecumenical movement, and as part of the structure of the WCC, the commission on F&O sees its task in a concentrated theological effort to assist the churches in overcoming their dividing doctrinal differences, in sharing their diverse theological insights and forms of life as a source of mutual renewal, and in re-appropriating and expressing their common apostolic Tradition. All these efforts have as their goal the manifestation of the visible unity of the church of Jesus Christ. On the way to this goal the churches are called to become a credible sign and instrument of God's plan for the salvation and transformation of humanity and all creation. With such a commitment, F&O has rendered a significant contribution to the radically changed relationships between the churches and the many steps they have taken to express their full (or at least their growing) unity.

This article by Günther Gassmann appeared in the second edition of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, published by the WCC in 2002