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Reflections on the newly-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC)

June 26, 2010

For the last week or so my friend and fellow blogger, Jason Goroncy, and I have been in Grand Rapids, Michigan representing the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand at the inaugural gathering (United General Council) of the newly formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). The cumulative effect of this trip has meant, for the purposes of this post, considerable reflection both on the nature of the Reformed tradition and on the meaning of ‘communion’. This was, after all, the merging of two bodies, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC), for the explicit purpose of being more than an expanded alliance and expressing Christian unity as a communion. For me, ecumenically naïve and inexperienced as I am, this has been a mind-blowing experience of catholicity in great richness.

However, a couple of events and debates gave me cause to question whether or not the ideas and hopes expressed in the term ‘communion’ are not in danger of being undermined by the current state of reformed theology and practice, if not by more deeply rooted aspects of the tradition.

The first place where the thinness of our conception of communion was tested was in a very brief discussion of a clause in the new constitution which reads:

Membership in the WCRC does not limit the autonomy of any member church or restrict its relationships with other churches or with other ecumenical organizations.

The question I asked the gathering was whether we can still call ourselves a Communion if the autonomy of participants is not limited. Surely it is of the nature of communion that participants limit one another’s autonomy! From what I could make of the responses to my question, the word ‘communion’ was intended merely to denote closer relationships than had previously existed. This lack of reflection on the nature of communion may be also reflected in the preamble to the constitution which clearly affirms that Jesus Christ calls us together as church, but not HOW he does this. Clearly certain assumptions on how this happens will render very different ecclesiologies of communion.

The second incident, which moved me profoundly and highlighted elements of the reformed tradition, arose when Jason proposed to the section on Reformed Identity and Theology that (and I abbreviate) one implication of our communion is that … ‘We will not kill one another’. His proposal was that the Communion formally commit itself to this implication. Although this apparently minimal but powerful implication was clearly presented it received little support from the gathered reformed theologians and Jason and I were left to ponder why. Regardless of whether the fault might have lain with injustices in the processes of the group, or with the theologians gathered that day, the fact remains that few were prepared to make such a commitment. Naturally we contemplated alternative proposals which might be more reformed (like ‘we will not kill one another unless it’s necessary’) but time did not permit us to present them. Fascinating conversations over the meal tables, however, helped us put some flesh on this issue. We talked to delegates of one country who were quite clear that they were first of all citizens of their country and secondly Christians and that if our two countries were at war and we met in the jungle they would shoot us. In contrast to this we met Rwandan and Croatian Christian who were enormously encouraged by the proposal.

On reflection it seems to me that two elements of our Reformed tradition feed into this failure. Firstly, there is a strongly bipolar rhetoric in the older WARC and the new WCRC. The literature constantly deals with two concepts – communion on the one hand and justice on the other. Although it is often claimed that the two are inseparable it is also not often clear exactly how they are related. Moreover in practice, as the organization divides into sections, the work of justice is often treated in abstraction from our communal identity in Christ and the latter is not clearly related to its practical implications for our historical embodiment of the justice of God.

Secondly, and possibly more profoundly, I suspect this tendency to abstraction is rooted soteriologically and may even be traced to Calvin himself. If the history of Jesus Christ, in its concrete cruciformity culminating in his self-donation to the place of a victim of state, religion and mob, is not itself of crucial soteriological significance, then his refusal to respond in violence will fail to have the clear moral authority it ought to have. To put it another way, if it is merely the fact of Christ’s life (conceived as a transaction in a transhistorical dimension) that is salvific, rather than the concrete historical mode of his life and death, then the mode of our own conformity to his life will lose its cruciform focus. If this is the case, then these soteriological assumptions are open to constantinian possibilities. Thus although Calvin certainly did not want to subordinate the Church to the state and its military as a kind of supporting chaplain, he also was not prepared to challenge its modes of operation (by use and threat of lethal force) on the basis of the Christian life in the mode of the world-to-come (i.e. cruciformity).

Clearly then, even in a church which is increasingly marginalized from the centre of power (and in that sense post-constantinian), the reformed tradition still retains deep links to constantinianism. On the other hand I observed, on the justice wing of the new WCRC, emerging thoughts which do not sit comfortably with our constantinianism. This too is worthy of reflection. The previous gathering of WARC, 7 years ago at Accra, had begun to rediscover the language of ‘empire’, issuing (in the resultant discussions) a powerful challenge of the ‘lordless powers’ in the barthian tradition of Barmen and Belhar. The challenge of this current gathering has been to translate this ‘prophetic’ voice into concrete action. There are some signs of this in a proposal (approved today) for a conference with a range of experts from within the Communion and beyond to flesh out the architecture of a new model of a sustainable economic system. Time will tell how and whether our baptism into the communion of the Triune God and the history of Jesus Christ will shape our engagement with the powers, or whether constantinian realism will continue to hold our imaginations captive.

Postscript: In a late addition to the policy group report Jason managed to gain the approval of the whole plenary for a small phrase which made it explicit that an implication of Communion is a refusal to participate in violence against one another (I cannot recall the precise wording).

7 Comments leave one →
  1. past JCNY model permalink
    June 26, 2010 4:32 am

    Oh and by the way how was the weather? 🙂

  2. john Flett permalink
    June 26, 2010 3:20 pm

    Hi Bruce
    You state: “Thus although Calvin certainly did not want to subordinate the Church to the state and its military as a kind of supporting chaplain, he also was not prepared to challenge its modes of operation”

    I was wondering if you could refer me to primary/secondary material which deal with this issue?


    • bruce permalink
      June 28, 2010 3:47 am

      Hi John, I’m no expert on Calvin and this is really an argument from silence. But his natural theology with respect to the state is clear in the Institutes Chap 20 sections 11 and 12.
      By the way I’m halfway through your book and enjoying it. Proud that NZ is producing great theologians for the world – if that is permitted for one so critical of nationalism and its idolotries.

      • john Flett permalink
        June 28, 2010 11:34 am

        Thanks Bruce
        Good to hear you are enjoying the book – I look forward to your critical interactions.

        Re the Calvin material, I am currently working on the issue of ‘apostolicity’ and the formation of christian communities. You position strikes me as correct (for Luther too), but it is precisely from silence, i.e., I think that the Reformers could assume a certain relationship of church/state as normative and so left this question to the side. This makes it difficult to diagnose these latter problems you identify with questions of ‘communion’, and thus to engage in a constructive revision.

  3. July 13, 2010 6:19 pm

    You’re right about the autonomy business; although the truth of course is that if it is truly Spirit-led community, then it gives us ourselves most completely. Still, if living in community doesn’t in some way constrain the way I’d live my life if I were alone, then it really isn’t community after all.

    Also, it’s bewildering to me how we as followers of Jesus continually fail to see how killing one another in the name of this or that nation-state might conflict with our vocation!

    Thanks for sharing this…


  1. The World Communion of Reformed Churches: A Wee Reflection « P e r ∙ C r u c e m ∙ a d ∙ L u c e m
  2. Some notes + natural law redux : Theopolitical

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