Representatives on the governing body of the 349 member World Council of Churches, which brings together Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican Christians and cooperates with the Roman Catholic Church, have been exploring a wider grouping.
Meeting last week, they asked question such as: How elastic can a WCC Assembly be? Can it expand enough from its traditional form to draw others into its circle without breaking, or stretching out of shape?
Central Committee member Ms Christina Biere of Germany used a different metaphor, that of an "ecumenical river". A broader WCC Assembly, she said, will be envisioned by those who are "not going to hold the ecumenical river between walls, but let it expand and flow".
Biere was one of three main speakers who presented dreams and rationale for an "expanded space" at the next WCC Assembly during a plenary session on the topic Thursday. The vision calls for a model that brings more ecumenical partners and other voices into one event or a series of events, for a more cohesive ecumenical voice.
It answers a call that came after the Porto Alegre Assembly in 2006 for a "new style of WCC-led assembly that will gather churches and ecumenical partners to celebrate fellowship in Jesus Christ, to address common challenges facing the churches, to shape a more coherent ecumenical movement and to fulfil the required institutional business of the WCC".
Another of the speakers, the Rev John Thomas of the United Church of Christ in the United States, said his hope was that such an assembly "could move us back to a more holistic understanding of the ecumenical movement" rather than one bound up in confessionalism. "There is a great deal we could do together and should do together" with other ecumenical bodies, he declared.
A listening process has brought forth proposals and ideas for such an event, though Doug Chial -WCC Programme Executive for the coordination of Church and Ecumenical Relations- said that none of the suggestions so far meet all the needs for the envisioned assembly.
There is, however, a "convergence of opinion that the best model will be the one that promotes the churches' ownership of their ecumenical commitments and engages the widest platform of recognized ecumenical partners".
The WCC Executive Committee has now recommended to Central Committee that an Assembly Discernment Committee be formed to move the conversation and thinking forward. The Discernment Committee would report at the next Central Committee meeting, in September 2009. The recommendation calls for a 28-member committee composed of 14 WCC member church representatives, two each from the Roman Catholic Church and from non-WCC member Pentecostal churches, and 10 from other ecumenical organizations.
Most of the speakers at the microphones following the main presentations offered cautious affirmation of the proposed direction, wanting the ecumenical cause to move forward but not wanting to see a loss of past achievements or of WCC identity and methodology.
"This is a very serious subject", said His Holiness Abune Paulos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, one of the WCC presidents. "I think we need more time to study it". Chial said that plenty of time remains, as the next assembly is not scheduled until 2013. "It's not yet time to plan", he said. "There is still time to discern". He noted that the WCC currently represents just over 25 percent of the world's Christians. "One of the issues at stake is Christian unity", he said.
The outcome of the previous WCC General Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, is outlined here: http://www.oikoumene.org/?id=1993