I left for Faverges, a charming alpine village in the north-east of France, on the opening day of the FIFA World Cup. Flying first to London, I saw glimpses of the opening ceremony could be seen at Singapore airport. A friend and I stood in a pub near Soho on a balmy – and, indeed, ‘barmy’ – London Saturday afternoon to witness England sneak home against a valiant Paraguay.
The newly appointed Standing Commission of Faith and Order was to gather in Geneva a few days later at the Ecumenical Centre of the World Council of Churches. Arriving slightly ahead of time in this great centre of the Reformation in continental Europe, my catholic sensibilities tingled at contact with their ‘other’ in the new museum dedicated to the same, and in the church in which Calvin preached for some eight years.
The United Nations precinct, dreamy Lake Geneva with its jet d’eau, and local shrines to Genevan-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau stirred the Romantic humanist within, such that come Monday afternoon, having found a quiet café with a plasma screen wherein to enjoy the fact that I wouldn’t have to sit up until the small hours on a ‘school night’ in order to watch the Socceroos first match, I didn’t really mind which team won – at least not until the 84th, 89th, and 92nd minutes! Tuesday evening afforded a more contextual television viewing experience as Switzerland and France played out an all-French-speaking draw.
The next day we were bussed across the border between these two nations and began the business of our meeting: establishing an agenda for the next seven years of this longstanding multi-lateral ecumenical dialogue (Faith and Order preceded the formation of the World Council by some twenty years, established in nearby Lausanne in 1927) – one that is privileged by the full participation of the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox family of churches. According to its By-laws, 'The aim of Faith and Order is to proclaim the oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ and to call the churches to visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship... in order that the world may believe.' Within that broad objective, the specific task of the Standing Commission is 'to study such questions of faith, order and worship as bear on this aim and to examine such social, cultural, political, racial and other factors as affect the unity of the Church.'
That this mandate can be interpreted to include deep theological reflection on major international sporting events was agreed by unspoken consensus. Our opening worship after dinner that first evening concluded just in time to allow many of the thirty Commissioners – plus WCC staff, and other consultants present – to watch the start of the ‘late game’ between host nation, Germany, and Poland. The salt and vinegar chips were passed to me by a Presbyterian Commissioner from Cameroon, and on in turn to an Argentinian Methodist, while a German Lutheran scouted around for some wine. The General Secretary of the WCC, a Kenyan, who had come to help open the meeting, and delegates from Malaysia, India, and elsewhere, looked on with amused and luxuriant disinterest at the proceedings, and the Brazilian WCC staff member bore patiently the awed anticipatory taunts of all those from merely mortal football-playing nations.
Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: ‘I know of no other method of dealing with great tasks but play.’ The FIFA World Cup is an intrusion of the carnivalesque into ‘realpolitik’ – a moment every four years when the nations devote themselves quite deliberately to the serious business of being playful. The rules of the game become the grammar of discourse; whilst boundaries are not erased, they are experienced differently, tested, and sometimes redrawn; and there is a certain suspension of disbelief that things could ever actually be this way for more than ninety minutes at a time.
Ecumenical dialogue – an ecclesial carnival rather than a contest – might usefully see itself as making just such a contribution to the great task of proclaiming the theologically essential, if historically incomplete, oneness of the Church of Jesus Christ that the world may believe. Not so much, I would venture, that the world may believe in Jesus Christ, as would believe that the churches can model more creative ways of living with difference than they, or ‘it’ have managed to date.
Subject to the WCC’s approval of its proposed study agenda, in the years ahead Faith and Order will address potentially church-dividing issues relating to biblical interpretation, theological anthropology (including human sexuality), religious pluralism, mutual recognition of baptism, and other aspects of ecclesiology. Weighty matters, all. Yet if the playfulness Nietzsche commends attends our work during this period, we might just achieve that necessary suspension of disbelief whereby the shape and form of a more visible unity and eucharistic fellowship can at least be safely imagined.