Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > JWG > | CONT. > Patterns of Relationship

- Preface
- Introduction
I - The World Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Movement
- II - What Form Should Closer Relationships Take?
- III - Membership of the Roman Catholic Church in the World Council of Churches
- Conclusions


The World Council of Churches,
the Roman Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Movement

    What is the nature of the Council, how does it carry on its work, how does it seek to achieve the goals it has set for itself? On the other hand, what principles inspire the ecumenical activity of the Roman Catholic Church, especially as these have been enunciated in the Second Vatican Council and subsequently?

A. What is the World Council of Churches?

1. Nature of the World Council of Churches

    The World Council of Churches is an attempt to bring together the now divided churches into a provisional fellowship in which they can meet one another. The World Council of Churches makes it possible for churches differing in tradition, form and size to search for fuller unity in the context of a fellowship which they already experience. In it the special character of each individual church is safeguarded and no church is required to compromise its convictions about doctrine or about the nature of the Church. Through the Council, however, it becomes possible for the churches, within the limits imposed by their separation, even now to share their life, to bear joint witness to the Gospel and to strive together to serve the whole of mankind through the promotion of justice and peace.

2. Basis

    The fellowship of the World Council of Churches rests on the following basis: ‘The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.' The wording of the basis makes it clear that the fellowship is based on Christ and that the unity which is sought is that willed by Him for His Church. This basis is the common point of reference for the member churches. It is not strictly a confession of faith. The word ‘confess' is used in it with reference to the individual churches. It is not the World Council of Churches which confesses but the member churches ‘which confess. . .'. The basis is not interpreted in the same way by all the churches. The acceptance of the basis by the member churches does not imply theological uniformity about e.g. trinitarian theology or the authority of the Holy Scripture. It points, however, unambiguously to the source of the Council's coherence and indicates the ground and the common calling on which fellowship is to be realized.

3. A ‘Fellowship' of ‘Churches'

    The Basis uses these two terms to describe the World Council of Churches. How are they to be interpreted? They are both biblical concepts, but are they used here in their biblical sense? Does ‘fellowship' correspond to the biblical koinonia and ‘church' to tile biblical ekklesia? It is obvious that this is strictly speaking not the case. The World Council of Churches is a provisional fellowship in which churches are still divided and are therefore not bound together by koinonia in the New Testament sense of the word; it is a structural form expressing a communion already existing and is intended to lead to a more perfect communion.
    The word ‘church' is used descriptively. In practice it refers to autonomous ecclesial communities which fulfil certain criteria of stability and size and are able to subscribe to the contents of the Basis. These communities are frequently, though not always, organized on the basis of a particular geographical area and belong to a particular confessional tradition. The use of the word ‘church' does not imply that the individual churches recognize each other in the full ecclesiological sense of the word.

4. Concept of Unity

    The World Council of Churches is committed to work for the unity of the Church, but it does not hold one specific doctrine concerning the nature of this unity. No one of the various conceptions of unity has been adopted by the World Council of Churches as its official conception. The World Council of Churches provides the opportunity for these conceptions to enter into dynamic relation with each other
2. The Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches made an attempt to describe together in a preliminary way the goal of unity which the member churches are seeking to attain. It adopted the following statement which found wide acceptance among the member churches:
    We believe that the unity which is both God's will and his gift to his Church is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people
    This text with its insistence on unity ‘in each place' was supplemented by the Fourth Assembly in the following way:

So to the emphasis on "all in each place" we would now add a fresh understanding of the unity of all Christians in all places. This calls the churches in all places to realize that they belong together and are called to act together. In a time when human interdependence is so evident, it is the imperative to make visible the bonds which unite Christians in universal fellowship4.

    In addition, the Fourth Assembly recommended continued research into the nature of the Church's unity. It approved the Report of the Assembly Committee on Faith and Order which stated:

We are in agreement with the decision of the Faith and Order Commission at its Bristol meeting to pursue its study programme on the unity of the Church in the wider context of the study of the unity of mankind and of creation. We welcome at the same time the statement of the Faith and Order Commission that its task remains ‘to proclaim the oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ' and to keep before the Council and the churches ‘the obligation to manifest that unity for the sake of their Lord and for the better accomplishment of his mission in the world'. However, it may be asked whether the problem of unity can be reduced simply to the increase in ‘manifestation', or whether there is an internal break of unity which needs to be recovered. The restoration and fulfilment of the unity of the churches is the most urgent task to which Faith and Order has to call them. This calls for a renewal of the spiritual life of the churches 5.

5. The Ecclesiological Significance of the World Council of Churches

    The World Council of Churches does not claim any specific understanding of its own ecclesiological significance. It explicitly disavows the idea of itself as a ‘superchurch' (cf. the so-called Toronto statement on the Church, the churches and the World Council of Churches, 1950). Yet it is inevitable that the question be discussed what significance the fellowship of the churches in the World Council of Churches may have. A certain dilemma is apparent: an instrument created by the churches cannot be without any ecclesiological significance. The Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order in Montreal (1963) spoke of a ‘new dimension' received in the sustained fellowship of the World Council of Churches. On the other hand, it is also clear that the ecclesiological terms used by the individual churches cannot properly be used to describe the character of the World Council of Churches.
    The member churches tend to interpret the significance of the World Council of Churches in accordance with their own doctrinal convictions and historical assumptions. Some are inclined to see it as a foreshadowing of the coming unity, others regard it simply as a passing instrument. Only the officially formulated conception of the World Council is common to all the churches. Any reflections on the ecclesiological significance may be put forward by individual churches but have no binding character. The issue must be discussed within the World Council of Churches; and it must also be noted that the presuppositions of this discussion have constantly changed with the admission of new member churches; closer relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches undoubtedly would change them still further.

6. Quest for Renewal

    The World Council of Churches aims at being an instrument of renewal. Its member churches share the conviction that unity can only grow as they themselves manifest and attest more clearly the presence of Christ. Fellowship in the World Council of Churches gives them an opportunity to share more easily their gifts, to witness together to the Gospel, to ask themselves the questions which need answering today, and to respond together to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in their efforts at resolving these questions. Membership in the World Council of Churches, therefore, cannot be considered an end in itself. Rather, it should manifest an additional commitment to the call for renewal which the Spirit is making to the churches.

7. Council Decisions
    By their very nature the statements and actions of the World Council of Churches are different from those of the individual churches. These statements are attempts to express God's will in a fellowship of churches which are still separated from each other. They have no constitutional authority nor juridically binding character. The individual member churches may endorse them; they remain free, however, to reject them or to propose a different line. The present Constitution and Rules describe the authority of the World Council of Churches in the following way:
    The World Council shall offer counsel and provide opportunity of united action in matters of common interest.
    It may take action on behalf of constituent churches in such matters as one or more of them may commit to it.
    It shall have authority to call regional and world conferences on specific subjects its occasion may require.
    The World Council shall not legislate for the churches; nor shall it act for them in any manner except as indicated (Constitution, IV).

    1) In the performance of its functions, the Council through its Assembly or through its Central Committee may publish statements upon any situation or issue with which the Council or its constituent churches may be confronted.
    2) While such statements may have great significance and influence as the expression of the judgment or concern of so widely representative a Christian body, yet their authority will consist only in the weight which they carry by their own truth and wisdom and the publishing of such statements shall not be held to imply that the World Council as such has, or can have, any constitutional authority over the constituent churches or right to speak for them.
    3) The Executive Committee or any commission of the Council may recommend statements to the Assembly or to the Central Committee for its consideration and action.
    4) No committee or commission of the Council other than the Central Committee shall publish any statement (i.e. in the name of the World Council of Churches), until it has been approved by the Assembly, except that in circumstances of immediate urgency statements may be published by any commission of the Council on matters within its own field of concern and action, if approved by the Chairman of the Central Committee and the General Secretary, and in these cases the committee or commission shall make it clear that the World Council of Churches is not committed by any statement set forth in this matter.
    5) In cases of exceptional emergency, statements may be issued by the Chairman of the Central Committee oil his own authority after consultation with the Vice-Chairman of the Central Committee and the General Secretary provided that such statements are not contrary to tile established policy of tile Council (Rules X).
    Member churches will, of course, pay serious attention to decisions made by the World Council of Churches because these decisions may represent the shared conviction of divided Christians. But membership does not mean that a church must adopt certain views on the basis of majority decisions. Nor is the World Council of Churches to be regarded as a court of appeal above the churches.

8. A Growing Fellowship

    It is impossible to describe the World Council of Churches purely in terms of Constitution. Its history must also be taken into account. One attempt to describe this history was made by the Montreal Faith and Order Conference 1963; it listed the following ‘important new developments in the life of the Council:
(a)     Much increased membership and greater variety of churches;
(b)    integration of the International Missionary Council and the World Council of Churches;
(c)     the New Delhi Statement on Church Unity;
(d)    revision and expansion of the Basis of the Council 1961;
(e)     new avenues of cooperation in inter-church aid;
(f)     consideration of the problem of joint action for mission;
(g)     relaxation of certain psychological barriers due to better acquaintance and understanding;
(h)     reflection on the nature of the Council in the member churches and in our common meetings.'

    The conference went on to acknowledge gratefully that ‘in sustained fellowship it (the WCC) has received something new, namely an enrichment of our Christian existence and a new vision of our common Christian task in the world. The manifestations of this new experience are seen in several ways: a common allegiance to the one Lord; an increasing progress towards a common life of prayer, praise and proclamation: the sharing of burdens, difficulties and pains; and increasing doctrinal consensus without compromise (for example, with regard to the meaning of Baptism); intensified Bible Study; the tendencies towards mutual recognition of members among some of the member churches'
    This history may be plotted also in other ways. For example, whereas in 1948 membership of the World Council was around 140, it has risen today to around 240. The development may also be studied in the series of statements issued on particular issues and endorsed by member churches: for example, the statement on religious liberty, and various statements on the race question. This ‘tradition', although an essential feature of the World Council of Churches, cannot of course be regarded as irreformable. In the course of years, findings which seemed assured have in fact been challenged as a result of the admission of new member churches to the World Council; and the discussion resumed with fresh assumptions.
    The Uppsala Assembly recognized that this process of development must continue and instructed the Structure Committee ‘to consider what it means for the World Council as an expression of the common life of the churches that it has moved away from the limitations of the North Atlantic that gave it birth, towards the third world; that the Orthodox Churches play a decisively larger role in its life; and that after Vatican II it is in a steadily ramifying partnership with the Roman Catholic and other non-member churches'
    A two-fold process is thus discernible. On the one hand, the mutual probing has deepened and the fellowship grown; on the other hand, membership has gained in variety and become more representative of Christendom as a whole. It is recognized that this process still demands considerable development. In many ways the realization of this fellowship must take deeper roots in the consciousness of the member churches and their communicants. The extent of commitment to the fellowship and to its ongoing growth varies widely and requires frequent reexamination by the World Council of Churches and its member churches.

9. Provisional Character

    The World Council of Churches is not a Church. It is a fellowship of churches which are committed to a common search for unity. The fellowship realized within it Is provisional in character. It is not an end in itself. The World Council of Churches seeks to prepare the way for a unity which transcends itself. It will itself change and perhaps even become redundant as this unity grows.

10. Relation to the Ecumenical Movement

    The Second Report of the Joint Working Group describes the World Council of Churches as a unique instrument in the service of the ecumenical movement. This phrase needs clarification. Participation in the ecumenical movement does not take place exclusively through the World Council of Churches, nor does the World Council consider itself coterminous with the movement. This distinction between Council and movement has frequently been stressed in World Council documents, with particular emphasis at the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order in Montreal (1963): ‘The ecumenical movement is clearly larger than the Council. The World Council of Churches is one of the manifestations of that movement, but there are many other ways through which the churches are growing together'
8. There is a communion among Christians and their churches which transcends the World Council of Churches and relates all the Christian churches to one another. This communion is founded in varying ways on a certain community of faith, of sacramental life, of interior and exterior gifts of the Holy Spirit, of shared history and traditions. The World Council of Churches is a unique instrument of the ecumenical movement to express and to deepen an as yet incomplete fellowship among the churches. It is not the only expression of the ecumenical movement.

11. Worship

    The role of worship in the one ecumenical movement is acknowledged as pivotal by the World Council of Churches. Questions related to worship and the spiritual life are studied within the Council, affording to the member churches an exchange of insights and mutual enrichment. This concern includes the liturgical renewal proceeding within the churches. Thus prayer does not remain at the academic level. The unity in Christ already experienced by the member churches finds expression in common prayer, and this prayer is considered a means to that fuller unity willed by Christ for His Church.
    The World Council of Churches has no forms of worship of its own, however. As in all other matters, so here each individual church and its special characteristics are respected. At ecumenical conferences worship services are customarily entrusted to the various confessions. This is always the case when there is a eucharistic celebration at one of its meetings, since the World Council of Churches, not being a church, cannot celebrate the Eucharist under its authority. The discipline of the member churches concerning worship, and, more particularly, eucharistic sharing is respected by the World Council of Churches and no pressure for compromise or violation of such discipline is exerted.

B. The Roman Catholic Understanding of the Ecumenical Movement

    Is a closer relationship with, perhaps even membership in, the World Council of Churches compatible with the Roman Catholic Church's understanding of the Ecumenical Movement? In the early period of the ecumenical movement, the Roman Catholic Church declined invitations to participate in the movements which led later to the formation of the World Council. In 1928, Pope Pius XI wrote: ‘It is clear that the Apostolic See can by no means take part in these assemblies, nor is it in any way lawful for Catholics to give to such enterprises their encouragement and support.' This negative attitude was based on the fear that the ecumenical movement would lead to indifferentism towards the religion revealed by God. Were its efforts not based on the assumption that all religions were more or less good and praiseworthy inasmuch as all give expression, under various forms, to that innate sense which leads men to God and to the obedient acknowledgment of His rule? This conception seemed to require from the Roman Catholic Church that she abandon certain of her doctrines and her understanding of herself.
    As the ecumenical movement developed and the World Council of Churches was formed it became clearer to Roman Catholics that the unity which was being sought was a unity based on truth and that firmness in holding doctrinal positions was not being compromised. Even though the Instruction of the Holy Office of 1949 still expressed itself cautiously, it attributed the growing desire for the reunion of all who believe in Christ, and the change in outlooks, to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; it authorized participation in certain meetings under episcopal direction.
    Increasing contacts between Christian theologians and the development of studies within the Roman Catholic Church led to the Second Vatican Council's laying a solid basis for Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement by recognizing the significance for Catholics of the faith and religious life of Christians of other traditions. In this connection, the following points may be important.

  1. The Second Vatican Council, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, affirmed that Catholic Christians are bound to Christians of other communions by baptism, by a common faith in Christ, by the Scriptures, by prayer and by the operative presence of the Holy Spirit. (See also the Decree on Ecumenism § 3).

  2. The Roman Catholic Church believes that in her subsists the unique Church of Jesus Christ. It recognizes, however, that the Churches and ecclesial communities separated from itself ‘have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation' (Decree on Ecumenism § 3).

  3. Although the Roman Catholic Church believes that in her subsists the unique Church of Jesus Christ, it recognizes that the one ecumenical movement embraces all Christian communities which respond to the call to unity. The Decree on Ecumenism made this clear by speaking of ‘those who invoke the triune God and confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour. They join in not merely as individuals but also as members of the corporate groups in which they have heard the Gospel and which each regards as his, and indeed, God's church. And yet, almost every one, though in different ways, longs that there may be one visible Church of God, a Church truly universal and sent forth to the whole world that the world may be converted to the Gospel and so be saved, to the glory of God' (Decree on Ecumenism § 1).

  4. The Decree on Ecumenism (§ 3) affirms that a certain though yet imperfect communion exists between men who believe in Christ and are properly baptized. It seems theologically appropriate that this communion should receive some visible expression. There may be divergent views on the form of this expression, but there should be a true sign of the real, though partial, unity which already exists among Christians in tile present situation of divided Christendom. Refusal to search for the appropriate expression of this communion might be a false sign, since it might seem to imply non-recognition of the Christian reality of the other groups.

  5. The Decree on Ecumenism stresses the need for dialogue in which ‘each explains the teaching of his Communion in greater depth and brings out clearly its distinctive features. Through such dialogue, every one gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both Communions' (§ 4). ‘Thus the way will be opened for this kind of fraternal rivalry to incite all to a deeper realization and a clearer expression of the unfathomable riches of Christ' (§ 11).

  6. The Roman Catholic Church considers that she has a divinely given mission to discharge, a mission of giving witness to Christ. It may well be that in some circumstances this mission could be carried out more effectively in collaboration with other churches and communities. The Decree on Ecumenism expressly recommends cooperation of this type. ‘Before the whole world, let all Christians profess their faith in God, one and three, in the incarnate Son of God, our Redeemer and Lord. United in their efforts and with mutual respect let them bear witness to our common hope which does not play us false. Since in our times cooperation in social matters is very widely practiced, all men without exception are summoned to united effort. Those who believe in God have a stronger summons but the strongest claims are laid on Christians, since they have been sealed with the name of Christ' (§ 12). A similar call for ‘common profession of faith in God and in Jesus Christ' was issued in the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church (§ 15).

  7. With regard to the mission of service, by which the Church ministers to the needs of the world in the human and social area, the Decree on Ecumenism clearly calls for cooperation: ‘Cooperation among all Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant. Such cooperation, which has already begun in many countries, should be ever increasingly developed, particularly in regions where a social and technical evolution is taking place... Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth' (§ 12).

    The Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church speaks in similar terms: ‘. . . without any appearance of indifference or of unwanted intermingling on the one band, or of unhealthy rivalry on the other, Catholics can collaborate in a brotherly spirit with their separated brethren... They can collaborate in social and in technical projects as well as in cultural and religious ones. Let them work together especially for the sake of Christ, their common Lord. Let his name be the bond that unites them! This cooperation should be undertaken not only among private persons but also, according to the judgement of the local Ordinary, among Churches or ecclesial communities and their enterprises' (§ 15).

  8. Participation in the ecumenical movement pertains to the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone, according to the potential of each (cf. Decree on Ecumenism § 5). It is significant that precisely in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity one finds the statement: ‘The common heritage of the Gospel and the common duty of Christian witness resulting from it recommend and frequently require the cooperation of Catholics with other Christians, a cooperation exercised on the part of individuals and communities within the Church, either in activities or in associations, and on the national and international level' (§ 27).

  9. The Roman Catholic Church also considers that by participation in the ecumenical movement, ‘all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ's will for the Church, and, wherever necessary, to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform' (Decree on Ecumenism § 4).

  10. Developments within the Roman Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council also have a bearing on determining ways of participating more fruitfully in the ecumenical movement. Many contacts with other churches and ecclesial communities have been initiated and joint witness and collaboration are progressing in many fields. These developments invite the Roman Catholic Church to examine what are the next steps. In doing so it will naturally make use of the opportunities offered by the existence of the episcopal conferences and by the more direct responsibilities entrusted to the bishops as much at the local as at the universal level.

    The elements mentioned above indicate clearly that there has been a significant growth in the Roman Catholic Church's appreciation of the ecumenical movement and the role she should play in it. They also show that her participation can take place in a visible organized form. In determining the appropriate form of participation it cannot be overlooked that close relationships of the Roman Catholic Church with the World Council of Churches raises questions in certain circles.

  1. Some feel that an organizational link with the World Council of Churches may require, or be taken to signify, a renunciation of the distinctively Catholic doctrine of the Church, and would be a false sign of the relationships which exist, theologically speaking, between Roman Catholicism and other Christian Churches and communities. Even if official statements of the World Council of Churches make it clear that no church entering into the Council need renounce its own ecclesiology, is this principle sufficiently apparent in the practical activities of the World Council of Churches?

  2. They also raise the question of the authority of the Pope. Would not closer relations with the World Council of Churches compromise it as it is understood and exercised within the Roman Catholic Church? Though the questions can be satisfactorily answered on the level of principle, there remains, they feel, a pastoral problem which must be faced. Members of the Roman Catholic Church and others may be led to believe that practically speaking the Pope's authority would be compromised.

  3. Others are concerned about the distinctive witness of the Roman Catholic Church. Is there not the danger of it being obscured if solidarity with other Christian Churches is encouraged? Would the Roman Catholic Church not be confused in the popular mind with other Christian communities and made responsible for certain statements and programmes which, from a Catholic point of view, could not be fully endorsed? Of course, member churches of the Council are free to dissociate themselves from statements of the Council, but the very fact of membership nevertheless involves a member church to some extent in the activities and messages emanating from the organization. Would this result in a muting of distinctively Catholic concerns in witness, in apostolic action, in education, in moral teaching and the like?

  4. On the other hand, in some parts of the constituency of the World Council of Churches there may be the feeling that the freedom and the authority of non-Roman churches may be harmed by closer ties with the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church is numerically by far the largest Christian Church. It has a certain inner cohesion which does not exist among most other churches and communities. Is there not the danger that the voices of the other churches be stifled? Would statements emanating from the World Council have less authority than now if the Roman Catholic Church disavowed certain of its statements?

  5. There are fears on both sides that the collaboration of two large and complicated structures might smother the spiritual character of the ecumenical movement.

    The Joint Working Group does not suggest that these questions are insoluble. It is of the opinion, however, that they cannot be ignored as the possibility of closer relationships is being considered. They have been kept in mind as this report has been worked out. More specific aspects will be dealt with in later sections.


  1. WCC, The Church, the Churches and the World Council of Churches: The Ecclesiological Significance of the World Council of Churches; A Statement to the Churches for Study and Comment by the Central Committee of the Council. Meeting at Toronto, Ontario, July, 1950 (NY: WCC, 1950) § III, 5.

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  2. WCC, "Reports of the Sections: Unity," §2 in The New Delhi Report: The Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches, 1961 (London: SCM Press, 1962) 116.

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  3. WCC, "Section I: The Holy Spirit and the Catholicity of the Church," §18 in N. GOODALL, ed., The Uppsala Report 1968..., op. cit., 17.

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  4. WCC, "Report of the Assembly Committee on Faith and Order," §A in N. GOODALL, ed., The Uppsala Report 1968..., op. cit., 223-224.

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  5. WCC, "Section Reports: Section I, The Church in the Purpose of God,"§32 in P. C. RODGER and L. VISCHER, eds., The Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order, Montreal, 1963, Faith and Order Paper, 42 (NY: Association Press, 1963) 48-49.

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  6. WCC, "Appendix X: Report on the Re-examination of the Structure of the World Council of Churches from the Central Committee to the Fourth Assembly," §59 in N. GOODALL, ed., The Uppsala Report 1968..., op. cit., 376.

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  7. WCC, "Section Reports: Section I, The Church in the Purpose of God,"§32 in P. C. RODGER and L. VISCHER, eds., The Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order..., op. cit., 48.

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