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Membership - a discussion paper

01 September 2000

This paper was orginally prepared for the Executive Committee at its meeting in September 2000. The paper was shared with the Special Commission at its second plenary in Cairo, October 2000.

1. The present model of membership

In his book "The Genesis and Formation of the World Council of Churches", Dr W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft explains how the model of membership on which the WCC is based since its inception in 1948 came into being. The initial proposal (1936) was a system of regional representation of the churches in which North America, the United Kingdom and the European Continent were the main ‘regions', while places were reserved for the Orthodox churches and for areas not otherwise represented (e.g. South Africa, Australasia); representatives of the ‘younger churches' would be appointed on the advice of the International Missionary Council. This regional approach was criticized by the advocates of the confessional principle who proposed (in 1945) a representation based on the confessional belonging of the churches. The debate on the pros and cons of the two models led to an agreement to take both the regional (or territorial) and confessional factors into consideration, i.e. a model in which the member churches would be the basic units. The defenders of this solution argued that the exclusive implementation of the regional principle would have resulted in a World Council of national or regional councils, and the confessional approach would have led to a World Council of confessional families or communions. What appeared to be a compromise was in fact a deliberate choice: the member churches would send their delegates to the Assembly (according to the allocation of seats established by the Central Committee) and the Assembly would elect the Central Committee from among the delegates. The provisional committee which decided in 1947 to submit this proposal to the founding Assembly in 1948 (where it was adopted) also established the main requirements for membership as reflected until today in the Constitution and Rules.

Note: The regional concept as it was current in those days may look very odd now. One should bear in mind however that it was largely the basis for the early ecumenical bodies such as the IMC and Life and Work, the forerunners of the WCC.

2. Previous reflection on membership

At the Consultation in Sofia in 1981 on Orthodox Involvement in the WCC it was recommended that a reference to Baptism should be included in the Basis of the Council or at least in the criteria for the admission of new members. On the recommendation of the Executive Committee the Central Committee referred this issue to Faith and Order (in 1981). The study and survey done by Faith and Order resulted in a number of considerations which all suggested that it would not be wise to pursue the proposal. Some of the main arguments were that the Basis is not meant to be a creed or confession of faith, that the Council should not assume sacramental marks, and that examining the baptismal teaching of new member churches would, in effect, lead to judging matters concerning ecclesiological self-understanding, which would be in contradiction with the Toronto Statement.

3. The context of a renewed reflection

The need to review the issue of membership in the present stage of the Council's life has emerged from several processes which are all inter-related:

  1. The review of the criteria for membership which was conducted in 1994-95 and led to some changes in the Rules, which were subsequently approved by the Eighth Assembly. In the course of this review, a paper on the Meaning of Membership was presented to the Central Committee, which recommended that its contents be incorporated into the CUV document (paragraphs 3.7.1 to 3.7.9 of the Policy Statement on CUV).
  2. The CUV process which has brought fundamental issues of WCC membership to the fore.
  3. The discussion on Orthodox participation and the work of the Special Commission.
  4. The discussion with the Christian World Communions, in particular with the Lutheran World Federation.
  5. The matter of membership contributions and financial responsibilities related to membership.

4. Some of the issues which have arisen

4.1. The CUV raises the basic question of the distinction between an organization (or institution) and a fellowship. The relationship between an organization and its constituency is usually defined in terms of membership, with established criteria, requirements and responsibilities. In the case of the WCC, these are spelled out in Art. II of the Constitution and Art. I and II of the Rules. Within a fellowship, relationships are shaped and determined by concepts such as belonging, participation and accountability. The CUV document says: The WCC has a structure and organization -- it is (or is meant to be) a fellowship. This would seem to suggest that in order to belong to the fellowship, a church must be in formal membership with the organization. The question that follows is whether this inter-relatedness of membership and belonging can be articulated in a different, new manner. In other words: are there other ways to belong to/ participate in the fellowship than formal membership in the organization?

4.2. CUV also raises the question of the Roman Catholic Church and Evangelical and Pentecostal churches which are not members of the Council. There is a recognition that the fellowship is not complete without their presence. The WCC is investing considerable time, energy and resources in nurturing, deepening and expanding the relationships with these churches, with the aim of widening the fellowship. The Council is cautious not to seek to draw them into membership, knowing that they have reservations regarding the present criteria and requirements. This begs the question how these churches can more fully belong to /participate in the fellowship without formal membership in the organization. Or is the latter in the final analysis the only possible way? To what extent is the present understanding of membership an obstacle to widening the fellowship?

4.3. In the discussion on Orthodox participation, one of the issues regarding membership is the steadily growing number of WCC member churches, especially from the Protestant tradition. Several Protestant churches of the same denominational or confessional family may co-exist in a country and hold (or apply for) individual membership in the WCC. The growth in numbers has aggravated the Orthodox minority position and will continue to do so in the present structure, hence the search for new manners of representation and decision-making, and for alternative models and structures which are on the agenda of the Special Commission. More fundamentally, the question at stake here is ecclesiological and concerns the Council's constituency as a whole. It is interesting to note in this regard the understanding between the WCC and the Anglican Communion. The number of Anglican member churches can only increase through the creation of new Provinces, which requires the agreement of the Communion. A similar ‘safeguard' exists with the Old Catholic churches (the Union of Utrecht). Even churches that have broken with Rome stand little chance to become members of the WCC, because of the understanding with the Roman Catholic Church (what is meant here are more recent breakaways, not the churches of the Reformation).

In its discussion on the membership issue, Sub-Committee I of the Special Commission has come to the conclusion that the churches should continue to hold their membership in the WCC as per the current Rules, retaining their identity and independence, but that they should belong to "family/affinity/groups" that will bring common concerns to the Council and work together to achieve joint representation in the governing bodies. Sub-Committee IV, on the other hand, has stated that the WCC cannot for very much longer continue to maintain a model based solely upon individual member churches each in its own right.

4.4. In the dialogue with some of the Christian World Communions (e.g. LWF, WARC) three questions related to membership have been identified: a) simultaneous membership, i.e. the overlap in the constituency between the WCC and CWCs, b) the participation of small churches which are members of the CWCs but do not qualify for WCC because of their size, and c) whether CWCs should encourage those of their member churches which do qualify but are not yet members, to join the WCC.

4.5. The current efforts regarding membership contributions have also contributed to bringing out more sharply the difference between an institutional obligation (i.e. paying its fees) and the sign of commitment to a fellowship. It would seem that only a church which perceives the meaning of it being a member of the institution as belonging to the fellowship would look at the financial needs of that fellowship in the same terms as its own needs.

5. A growing contradiction

Beyond the above-mentioned aspects and questions is a yet more fundamental issue. The principle of membership based on individual, autonomous churches which was most probably the appropriate choice at the time of the formation of the WCC (see point 1), would now seem to begin contradicting the very purpose of the Council which is the search for visible unity and common witness. Membership is being increasingly perceived as a legitimization of the status of a member church as an independent body or denomination. Looked at it from that perspective, the Council would appear to be promoting fragmentation rather than unity.

6. Possible ways forward to explore

6.1. More study and reflection is needed on the inter-relationship between organization (institution) and fellowship, and related to this, the inter-relationship between membership and belonging/participation. This raises the issue of the nature and understanding of the fellowship as a question prior to the meaning of membership. In much of the thinking so far the approach has been to try to spell out what it means to be a member church of the WCC, taking for granted a certain vision of the fellowship (e.g. the 1995 paper on the Meaning of Membership). It may well be that it has to be the other way around: to derive a new understanding of membership from a better perception of the nature of the fellowship.

6.2. Subsequently, the criteria and requirements for membership could be reviewed once more, with a view to including ecclesial criteria related to the concept of fellowship rather than to organizational or institutional considerations. This would raise the question how such new criteria would affect existing membership. 6.3. Churches of the same denomination or confession in a country or region could be encouraged to adhere to the Council together, in the form of an association or federation (Art. II of the Constitution allows for this). Current examples of this model are for instance the Evangelical Church in Germany, the Swiss Protestant Federation, and the United Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India. A question which would need to be considered is whether this could be made a requirement for new applications and what this would imply for existing members. An objection that has already been heard is the danger of a diminishing commitment of churches as a consequence of such an ‘indirect' representation.

6.4. The implications for WCC membership of bilateral agreements such as Leuenberg, Porvoo, the Concordat between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church in the USA, COCU etc. would deserve to be explored more intentionally.

6.5. The discussion with the CWCs on the issues of membership should be continued, as well as the reflection with the REOs on a possible new configuration of regional and global conciliar structures.

6.6. A prospective search might be initiated looking for alternative models of membership and participation and new ways of "being churches belonging together" other than the existing models of ecumenical organizations. Such a process should solicit the fullest participation of non-member churches, in particular (but not only) Pentecostals, and should be conducted free from any vested institutional interest.

7. The Special Commission

Any reflection on membership should be informed by the work of the Special Commission on this issue, which is one of its main agenda items. Inversely, the Special Commission may benefit from the ongoing discussion at the level of staff and governing bodies, of which this paper is a part.