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On Grace

By: Norman Shanks Church of Scotland, moderator of the assembly planning committee

Early on, we were informed that the Latin American Theological Commission, a broadly based consortium of organizations, had initiated a process of theological reflection "on the central theme of the grace of God, which is of increasing concern to the churches"; it was suggested that a similar focus might open promising perspectives for our own deliberations.

We began by looking at the meaning of previous WCC assembly themes . Next, we discussed the considerations, concerns and criteria that needed to be taken into account in determining the theme, and talked about the possible style and shape of the assembly. But for much of the time, in both the smaller groupings and the core group as a whole, we grappled with ideas on the theme. It was an arduous but creative process, and in our time together - in our worship, discussions and our growth as a group - we were blessed by a sense of God's grace working among us.

Not all of us were persuaded that "grace" was the right focus for the assembly theme. Some felt that the different understandings of grace would be divisive; others saw this as an opportunity for bridge-building and helpful dialogue. Some considered the concept too difficult and abstract; others thought it would offer a basis for constructive sharing of insights and experience. Eventually, we were able to reach a kind of consensus, on which we reported to the central committee in August 2003.

We identified a number of criteria which we felt the theme must satisfy. For example, we said that the theme must be relevant - globally and locally - to the present situation in both church and world and to contemporary concerns and issues, particularly in Latin America. It should be challenging, and prophetic, hopeful, future-oriented and energizing towards action. It must have both Biblical and theological significance and resonance but also be understandable outside the church. It must be readily intelligible, communicable and translatable into each of the WCC's "working languages". It must be capable of being linked with and expressed through prayer, worship and Bible study. It must be inclusive - not divisive between North and South, East and West, nor among the various church traditions. It must reflect an understanding of the nature and purpose of God, the challenge to human response and responsibility, a fundamental respect for human dignity. And it must express an ecumenical vision that is broad and open, and relate to WCC priorities, programmes and projects. This constituted an impressive, perhaps admirably comprehensive catalogue of aspirations, which, with hindsight, seems unrealistic and over-ambitious, even pretentious; however, it is interesting to reflect on the extent to which God, in your grace transform the world

  • Norman Shanks, Church of Scotland, chair of core group that defined the assembly theme