Last month, Rome was the venue of the 50-year anniversary of the Joint Working Group (JWG) of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Established in 1965, as a consequence of the pro-ecumenical Second Vatican Council, the JWG met in the Italian capital June 22-24 to begin its 10th round of ecumenical conversations.
Expressing gratitude for the “new momentum in collective efforts to manifest our common faith in God, the creator, and our commitment to common service,” WCC general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit addressed RCC leaders at a June 23 ceremony in the ecumenical Centro Pro Unione.
His remarks were summarized in a WCC media release. “The unity agenda remains at the heart of all our efforts for common witness and contributions to ensure more justice and peace for people and creation,” said Tveit. “We are grateful and even proud of 50 years as a working group between these great major ecumenical instruments in the world, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches.”
The Anglican Communion sent one representative, the Rev. Canon Olivia Nassaka Banja, from the Church of the Province of Uganda.
In a message sent to Tveit, Pope Francis said participants should be encouraged by the half-century collaboration in ecumenical issues as well as in interreligious dialogue, peace and social justice, charity and humanitarian aid. “I encourage the Joint Working Group to further its discussion on crucial ecumenical issues and, at the same time, to promote ways for Christians to testify together to the real, though imperfect, communion shared by all the baptized,” the Pope said.
The pontiff also gave thanks to God for “the meaningful ecumenical relationship which we enjoy today” inspired by the desire for unity of the Church of Christ and by “the scandal of division between Christians.”
Tveit, a theologian and pastor in the Lutheran Church of Norway, acknowledged the Pope’s environmental papal encyclical Laudato Si, released June 18. “This is why we care for earth as our common home, as Pope Francis calls us to do, with his encyclical, affirming what we have done in our respective churches, and in WCC initiatives over many years,” he said. Likening the work of the JWG to city maintenance, Tveit stressed that it needs upkeep and must deal with issues relating to community, co-operation, common interests and shared concerns, as well as controversy or conflict.
Turning to areas in need of more work on Christian unity—for instance, shared eucharist—Tveit said, “Looking at the present state of the ecumenical landscape and the world at large, we have to confess that divisions among Christians are there, that we are not sharing the gifts of the triune God and the fruits of the works of our hands through the holy eucharistic fellowship.”
He said there needs to be a new awareness “of this deeper theological reading of our context” in a new phase of co-operation. “What we cannot have is business as usual.”
In a written comment to the Anglican Journal, Nassaka Banja said the JWG identified issues of migration, pilgrimage of faith, peace and justice, and ecumenical education/formation as “crucial areas for consideration” in its new mandate.
“All in all, as an Anglican Communion representative I see the work of the JWG as a response to our Lord Jesus Christ’s prayer for His followers to be one (John 17:21),” said Nassaka Banja. “Therefore I call upon the Anglican Communion to pray with us so that God may continue envisioning and directing the work of the JWG towards promotion of visible unity among all Christians. “
From 1968 to 1983, the WCC and RCC experimented with common social policies and service ministries within a commission on society, development and peace (SODEPAX). In 2011, the WCC, the Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue and the World Evangelical Alliance jointly published landmark recommendations for the writing of church guidelines on mission and evangelization: Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World.
The JWG is currently co-moderated by Metropolitan and Archbishop Nifon of Targoviste from the Romanian Orthodox Church, who is also a member of the WCC’s central and executive committees, and by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of the RCC. Nifon emphasized the importance of continuing the dialogue and working with actual and diaconal challenges in the JWG.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a comment from the Anglican Communion representative, the Rev. Canon Olivia Nassaka Banja, from the Church of the Province of Uganda.