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"Christian World Communions" (CWCs) is the term commonly used to describe the globally organized churches or groupings (families) of churches with common theological and historical roots, confessions, or structure. This definition itself demonstrates the fact that there are different kinds of Christian world communions. The term came into common use only around 1979. Other terms used in the past to name these groupings were even less adequate in describing the families of church groupings. They include "world confessional church groups", "world confessional groups", "world confessional bodies" and "world confessional families".
Each Christian world communion consists of churches belonging to the same tradition and held together by a common heritage; they are conscious of living in the same universal fellowship and give to this consciousness at least some structured visible expression. They may or may not be tied to particular creeds or confessions. The forms of "structured visible expressions" of confessional organizations vary greatly. One Christian world communion has many employees and a large annual budget. Several have small staffs and moderate budgets. Some have origins which precede the modern ecumenical movement by several decades. Others were formed or assumed their present level of activities since the World Council of Churches was officially founded in 1948. Their fields of interest can be quite varied. However, they form linkages that strengthen the common witness in their churches in areas such as mission and evangelism, justice and service and promoting Christian unity.
Since 1957, with a few exceptions (1960, 1961, and 1975), the conference of secretaries of Christian world communions has met annually. It usually gathers the general secretaries of these bodies for fellowship and comparing notes together. In some years, they have also been able to discuss various mutual concerns including bilateral dialogues, the relationships between Bible societies and the CWCs, religious liberty and human rights, and the CWCs' commitment to the future of the ecumenical movement.
The annual meetings usually gather representatives of the following: The Anglican Communion, Baptist World Alliance, Disciples Ecumenical Consultative Council, The Ecumenical Patriarchate (Eastern Orthodox), General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, International Old Catholic Bishops' Conference, Lutheran World Federation, Mennonite World Conference, Moravian Church Worldwide Unity Board, The Moscow Patriarchate (Eastern Orthodox), Pentecostals, The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (Catholic Church), Reformed Ecumenical Council, The Salvation Army, Friends World Committee for Consultation, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, World Convention of Churches of Christ, World Evangelical Fellowship, and the World Methodist Council. The World Council of Churches is usually represented at the meetings.
Even in their totality, the Christian world communions do not represent all branches of Christianity. At least three groups of churches in particular exist outside a worldwide Christian world communions framework: the Oriental Orthodox churches, the independent or indigenous churches, especially in Africa, the united and uniting churches which came into existence from the 1920s onwards.
Varied as they are in their structure and purpose, the Christian world communions are very much alive and must be seen in their relationship with the ecumenical movement. In their beginnings they were in fact the principal existing forms of the ecumenical movement, giving the members of their churches a new consciousness of universality through an understanding of the worldwide dimensions of their own fellowships. Many of their leaders participated in the formation of the World Council of Churches and from 1948 until today have held positions of leadership in it.
In the past, in some quarters, Christian world communions have been viewed as antithetical to ecumenical engagement. Often this has been done by labelling Christian world communions as promoting confessionalism or denominationalism at the expense of promoting Christian unity. This is rather shortsighted. In fact, many Christian world communions are key ecumenical organs and have supported the World Council of Churches in its role as the privileged ecumenical organization. This was recognized as early as the second assembly of WCC in 1954 where, in a report to the assembly in Evanston, Illinois, USA, the then central committee stated: "It may be noted with satisfaction that almost all world confessional associations have gone on record wishing to support the ecumenical movement, and it is suggested that the General Secretary shall arrange for informal consultations from time to time with three or four representatives from each association, to discuss the implementation of that desire and other common problems."1
Almost thirty years later, the sixth assembly of the WCC (Vancouver, 1983) recognized the ecumenical importance of the CWCs and of the conference of secretaries of CWCs as partners in the quest for the full visible unity of the church, and encouraged the development of closer collaboration between the WCC and the CWCs. It recommended that both should pursue the task of seeking clarity as to the goal of the unity which Christians seek within the one ecumenical movement, and in identifying steps and possibilities in achieving that goal. It also expressed the hope that a new series of ad hoc meetings of the Forum on Bilateral Conversations would be held, and made the specific request that attention be given to the reception of the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry text and to its relations to the bilateral dialogues among CWCs. The question of the relationship between the three concepts of unity - "organic unity", "conciliar fellowship" and "reconciled diversity" - remains crucial.
These 1983 affirmations built upon earlier efforts to address some questions which were beginning to emerge vis-à-vis the relationship between the WCC and Christian world communions as well as questions related to how younger churches in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific could move beyond denominationalism to ecumenical engagement. The Nairobi WCC assembly (1975), for example, made a number of proposals aimed at both the WCC and CWCs finding "a constructive and complementary way of contributing to the advance of the ecumenical movement". 2
A major contribution of Christian world communions to Christian unity has been the theological bilateral dialogues. Several CWCs have come to some significant agreed statements that have removed some historical suspicions and condemnations. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches for example has developed close relations with Lutherans and Disciples of Christ, and come to some significant agreed positions with Roman Catholics and Anabaptists as a result of these dialogues. The Joint Declaration on Justification signed by Lutherans and Roman Catholics is a major result of such bilateral dialogues.
In 1974, the Christian world communions conference of secretaries welcomed an initiative of the WCC Faith and Order commission to hold forums to reflect on the dialogues. This was confirmed by the 1975 WCC assembly in Nairobi. Eight such forums were held between 1978 and 2001 with the participation of representatives of Christian world communions. Such forums have provided space for reflection on results and reception of the dialogues at national, regional and global levels and helped to assess their impact on the quest for Christian unity.
As the ecumenical family searches for new models of ecumenical engagement and inter-church collaboration, Christian world communions have often worked within different processes to further this cause. Since 1997, they have been actively engaged in the global Christian forum process. In recent years CWCs have also discussed among themselves and participated in processes related to the call for a reconfiguration of the ecumenical movement.
1 The Evanston Report, 1954, pp. 184-85.
2 Breaking Barriers: Nairobi 1975. Geneva, WCC, pp. 196-98.