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What is Faith and Order

The following essay represents personal reflections on Faith and Order, written for the internet by staff members. It is an attempt to introduce the Faith and Order Commission, the reason it was formed, the questions on its agenda, and the way in which it operates. Several other essays by different authors, which probe deeper into the subject, can be consulted on our essays page.


Christian unity and the world

The problem of the divided churches

Since the foundations of Christianity, Christians have confessed one Christian Church. St. Paul wrote that "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:4-6). Yet it can also be said that since the foundations of the Christian Church history has seen Christendom divided into countless communities, separated either geographically, culturally or doctrinally. Even though one can say about some of these divisions that they might represent something of a healthy diversity, or that they have occurred through some sort of necessity, be it historical or cultural, it is impossible to view our divided life as Christians with complacency. The Christian Church cannot be divided -- for it identifies itself with the undivided Body of Christ!

The attempts to heal: discussing and doing

Many factors have divided Christians. Some are doctrinal in nature, some historical, some cultural, some are a matter of political or even financial concerns. As soon as one senses the tragedy of Christian divisions, the question must be asked: what can be done about them? Is there a way to heal? In some Christian churches, it is felt that Christian unity can only be effected by a universal "return" or assimilation into that church. In other quarters, it is felt that one needs only to peel away the cultural and formal layers in order to find that we really are in fact one already. There are surely other ways of regarding the task of Christian unity. Yet the question remains: looking at Christianity today, what can be done to bring Christian denominational families and Christian churches closer together, closer towards the unity to which they are called (John 17:21)? 

The desire to heal or prevent Christian division is as old as Christian division itself, which, as the New Testament testifies, dates to the very origins of Christianity. Yet in the modern ecumenical movement of the past century, the attempts to heal have quite broadly taken two complementary forms, which might be characterized as "discussing together" and "doing together." In any human division, whether on the level of a family, a friendship or an institution, reunion needs to be a combination of discussing -- what happened to bring about the division, what is it that really divides us, what can be done to bring us together, and doing -- beginning already to act in some way together and build, or rebuild, some kind of common life. 

The movements which arose at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, movements which spawned the modern ecumenical movement, reflected these forms. The doing was represented by the Life and Work Movement, while the discussing was the task of the Faith and Order Movement. One needs to emphasize once again that these two areas of activity and their concerns were always seen as complementary: the discussing is about what Christians do and what they are, and the doing involves a great deal of cooperative discussion! 

Today, the Life and Work Movement is represented in the World Council of Churches in those activity areas where the Christian churches act cooperatively: e.g., in education, humanitarian response, and programmes aimed against injustice and the abuse of people and the environment.

The Faith and Order movement today

The Faith and Order movement is integral to the World Council of Churches. The aim of the Faith and Order movement has always been, and still is, "to proclaim the oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ and to call the churches to the goal of visible unity". The chief means of achieving this goal is through study programmes dealing with theological questions that divide the churches. Below are just some of the main issues being explored today:

Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry

Today's main issues in the discussion were also the main issues at the beginning of the Faith and Order movement in 1927, e.g.,

    • Baptism: In some cases baptism is not accepted if performed in a church other than one's own.
    • Eucharist: What makes our divisions most visible is our separation at the Lord's table.
    • Ministry: When we ask why not all Christians can share Holy Communion (the Lord's Supper, or the Eucharist) it is clear that the main problem is that churches often have a different understanding of the ordained ministry and its role in the celebration of the Eucharist.


The discussion on these fundamental issues found its first clear results in 1982, in the widespread Faith and Order text, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM). BEM tried to express the convergences that had been found over the years. This document was sent to all member churches, together with questions and the request to study it carefully. Six volumes of responses were compiled and testify to a broad process of reception and critical reflection on the convergence of BEM. The BEM document continues to be received widely and as a result some churches have changed their liturgical practices, and some have entered into discussions which in turn led to further agreements and steps towards unity.

The church

It also became apparent that the main question behind divisions which still exist between Christians is our different understanding of what it means to be a church, or the Church. Therefore Faith and Order is at present engaged in a major study on ecclesiology concerning precisely these questions. This area of study involves the question of how the Church relates to the world, and will attempt to show the close relationship between faith and ethical questions. Also connected to this is an effort to find common ground among the various ways of intepreting the Bible and other sources of our faith.

The faith

Another related issue is the question of how we can express together the faith that we do have in common. A study project has been looking into how the churches might understand together the Nicene Creed, which is one of the oldest and still most universal expressions of the Christian faith. This project includes a Study Guide: Towards Sharing the One Faith which is intended for use in parish groups around the world.

Worship and spirituality

Doctrinal questions are closely related to issues of worship and spirituality. Therefore Faith and Order also deals with the question of how worship can foster the search for Christian unity. A significant project in this area is the annual preparation, in cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church, of the material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Ecclesiology and ethics

What the church is and believes is intimately related to what the church does - to its prophetic witness and its service to those in need. Therefore Faith and Order works to understand the nature of the Church in relation to its life in and for the world. A collaborative programme with the World Council's Justice, Peace and Creation team (reflecting the tradition of the Life and Work Movement) is asking such questions as:

    • How can the search for unity be a source of renewal for both the Church and the world?
    • What does our increasing cooperation on issues of justice, peace and the creation teach us about the nature of the Church?
    • What is the relationship between ethnicity, nationalism and church unity?

Other ongoing work

Faith and Order also facilitates the coordination of results from international bilateral dialogues (the Bilateral Forum), as well as the movements towards local church unions (United and Uniting Churches).

The structure and method of Faith and Order work

The Faith and Order Commission has 120 members. These are men and women from around the world -- pastors, laypersons, academics, church leaders -- each nominated by his or her church. (Faith and Order enjoys the full membership and participation of several other churches who are not members of the World Council of Churches, among them the Roman Catholic Church.) Thirty members of this Commission constitute the Faith and Order Standing Commission, who meet at least every 18 months and guide the study programmes of Faith and Order.

Related News

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The World Council of Churches (WCC) Faith and Order Commission, through its three study groups, is proposing a world conference as it continues to map common ground among churches worldwide. The work of the commission is carried on through three study groups focusing on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, ecclesiology, and moral discernment. All three study groups recently met at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute.

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WCC assembly preparation on agenda for Conference of European Churches

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The upcoming World Council of Churches (WCC) assembly in Karlsruhe, Germany, was on the agenda of a recent meeting of the Conference of European Churches in Finland. Dr Marc Witzenbacher, the local WCC assembly coordinator, talked about the organizational process of the gathering, and also invited European churches to have significant participation in the assembly.