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Forging greater Christian unity through Church law

Our Canon Law research has influenced church leaders, changed longstanding attitudes and enhanced approaches in ecumenical practice in the UK and Europe.

The ecumenical movement promotes unity among the 2 billion Christians worldwide. Led by the World Council of Churches (WCC), ecumenism has traditionally focussed on seeking theological rather than legal common ground. This is due to perceived differences between church legal systems. In 2013, research by Professor Norman Doe, from Cardiff University’s School of Law and Politics, overturned this perspective.
His first-of-its-kind study examined the regulatory instruments of 100 churches globally and across 10 traditions.
He found profound similarities between them. From these similarities, Professor Doe proposed 250 common principles of Christian law, including:
  • ‘All the faithful are equal in dignity. The basis of their equality is their creation in the image of God’
  • ‘A church should serve, in appropriate ways, all who seek its ministry regardless of membership’
  • ‘There should be a basic institutional separation between a church and the State but a church should co-operate with the State in matters of common concern’

These principles demonstrated how laws link Christians.

Moreover, Professor Doe argued that they also provide a practical route toward mutual understanding and overcome theological divides.

Despite the findings, a report produced by the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission in the same year neglected to consider the role that Christian law could play in ecumenism.

Professor Doe, it seemed, was a lone voice arguing that the untapped unifying potential of church law should be fed into the work of the WCC.

Responding to the WCC’s report

In late 2013, practising barrister Mark Hill QC convened the Christian Law Panel of Experts.

The Panel was the first formal collaboration of churches worldwide to consider the potential of Christian law as an ecumenical focus since the 1970s.

Professor Doe’s critical insight as a member of the Panel proved vital in helping the broad range of representatives recognise how the common principles identified in his research could contribute creatively to ecumenism.

His research underpinned the Panel’s 2014 response to the WCC, which emphasised how law can be used as a practical tool for advancing global ecumenism.

Momentum continued to build in 2015 and 2016 when the Panel of Experts tested Professor Doe’s 250 principles of Christian law against the laws of each of their own churches.

Accepting 230 of the principles as consistent across all, they were subsequently published as a Statement of Principles of Christian Law - the first ecumenical achievement of its type addressing legal principles.

As one who leads a national ecumenical body, as well as a participant in the formulation of the Principles of Christian Law, I am certain that this whole new dimension of ecumenical working has become a vital new means of enabling churches to respond together to the challenges that they face in serving the wider world.
Paul Goodliff General Secretary, Churches Together in England

Professor Doe and Mr Hill QC have presented the Statement variously to Pope Francis and His All Holiness Bartholomew.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, citing Doe’s work, spoke of this “important Statement, which is a means of unity and collaboration between Christians of different traditions designed to fill the historical juridical deficit in the ecumenical enterprise.”

Pope Francis stated that “canon law is not only an aid to ecumenical dialogue, but also an essential dimension”.

Events in Uppsala, Cardiff, Amsterdam, Sydney, Melbourne, Rome and London have also events brought ecumenical groupings together to discuss how the principles identified in Professor Doe’s research can bring unity within and between churches.

The Statement is to be discussed in a workshop at the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches to be held in Germany in the summer of 2022.

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