Jenson on ecumenism’s strange future

Robert Jenson concludes this reflection on his involvement in the ecumenical movement with these speculations:

‘The ecumenical movement centered on “the dialogues” was carried by these now distracted and enfeebled bodies [i.e., Anglicans and Lutherans] and the Roman Catholic Church. And there is no one to pick up the burden on the Protestant side. Evangelicals are rarely bothered by questions of eucharistic fellowship — or by sacramental matters generally — and when they do think about such fellowship they assume that they are all in it anyway. In the dialogue days, when a meeting included evangelicals they would regularly demand moving from worries about sacramental fellowship to more interesting matters.

So what do we do now? I think the first thing is to remember that we pray for something we will not do: “thy Kingdom come.” God will take care of that, and when he does he will sort out his Church in ways that will surely surprise us. It may happen any minute, so let us keep on praying for the unity of the Church.

If there is to be a long meantime, perhaps we may suppose that God will be up to something in it. Perhaps he is indeed winding down the Protestant experiment, as has been suggested. If things go on as they are, he will carry on the ecumene with the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern churches, and Pentecostal groups. (We will not reckon with an “emerging church,” whatever may be brewing in the religious murk. Church — ekklesia — does not emerge; it is summoned.) We relics of an earlier providence — and there doubtless will be some — may be permitted to contribute by raising voices from antiquity.

Or perhaps God has something more drastic in mind. When Joseph Ratzinger was a cardinal he used to say that further progress toward overcoming the major divisions of the Church would require a great and unpredictable intervention of the Spirit. (I know he really said this because one time it was to me.)

Or perhaps the Spirit will act yet more eschatologically than the cardinal was contemplating. Perhaps an unimaginable rehearsal of final judgment will upset the entire ecclesial fruit basket, so that God may sort the kinds as he chooses.

These speculative scenarios are of things only God can do. If nothing so theodramatic comes to pass and we simply face more of the same for an indefinite future, what do we — who are not Roman Catholic or Eastern — do? There is no going back.

There will be faithful congregations, some in and some out of the mummies of the mainline. There will surely be surviving faithful churchly institutions, broke but struggling on. There already are societies of clergy and laity, formed for survival in spiritual hard times. There will be desperate persons and families, holding faith in unfriendly seas. There are Pentecostal groups with high understandings of Eucharist and its fellowship. There are theologians who write for the Church of the creed. Let all these come together, catch as catch can. Let them cling to baptism, and after that not be too precise about further conditions of fellowship.

And let all of this be a waiting on the Lord. We do not need to know what for, short of the Kingdom’.

Communion: On Being the Church – the Lutheran–Reformed Joint Commission

Lutheran-Reformed dialogue - Communion. On Being the Church_Page_01The latest report of the Lutheran–Reformed Joint Commission between the Lutheran World  Federation and the World Communion of Reformed Churches is now available. Its title is Communion: On Being the Church. To read and/or download the report, click on the pretty picture.

Dialogue of Love: Breaking the Silence of Centuries: a review

John Chryssavgis (ed., with contributions by Brian Daley and George Florovsky), Dialogue of Love: Breaking the Silence of Centuries (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014). 96pp. ISBN: 9780823264001.

A guest review by Graeme Ferguson

Dialogue of Love was prepared to coincide with the meeting between Pope Francis and Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople, on 25 May this year in Bethlehem. Dr Chryssavgis – who has edited three volumes of the writings of Patriarch Bartholomew, along with his own writings on ecology, on the theology of the Desert Fathers, and on spirituality – is one of Australia’s leading theologians with wide ecumenical experience. He is ideally suited to edit this celebratory gift to the Church both East and West. (He has recently been elevated to the post of Ecumenical Archdeacon of the Throne by the Patriarch.)

Although the meeting between the leaders of the Churches of the East and of the West was overshadowed in the secular news by other significant gestures by Pope Francis during his weekend visit to Jordan and Israel, it marked fifty years of changing relations between the Churches since the day when Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI first greeted each other in Jerusalem in May 1964. When Athenagoras was asked by reporters what he would say to the Pope, he replied: ‘I came here to say “good morning” to my beloved brother, the Pope. You must remember that it has been five hundred and twenty five years since we have spoken to one another!’ This breach was the ‘great silence’ that had marred any communication between East and West.

Dr Chryssavgis details the steps in the ‘pilgrimage towards unity’ with loving regard and a fine attention to the momentous nature of the changes first raised in the Second Vatican Council. This chapter gives an insightful overview of the steps that have been taken. Relations between East and West have become cordial and mutually gracious.

Fr. Daley has been closely associated with the theological conversations between the Churches in North America. He deals with the theological questions that have needed to be considered in ecumenical conversations. His chapter is a fine reminder of the way ecumenical courtesies are fostered and developed as people work together to overcome the breaches of past centuries.

The third contribution is a previously-unpublished paper giving Fr George Florovsky’s evaluation of the 1964 meeting where he dealt with the questions that gave rise to the breach and the style of dialogue needed to move once more towards unity. He writes of the hope that lies beyond the contradictions in the self-understanding of the Church of Rome, as the watchman watches for the morning to break (Isa 22.11). Florovsky taught in Edinburgh as well as Princeton, and helped both catholic and protestant theologians to act with respect and grace towards each other.

Together, these articles focus well the grace and courage with which the leaders of the Churches bring to their meetings with each other. They are theologically perceptive, written by people who engage in the dialogue as it continues, and convey a sense of joyous hope as people begin to discern the outlines of a restored and reconciled Church. Dr Chryssavgis has prepared a gift which warms the heart as it stimulates the mind. It is an encouragement to continue the pilgrimage further.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Graeme Ferguson is the former Principal of United Theological College, Sydney.

Two poems

Two of my favourite places in Dunedin are the aviaries at the Dunedin Botanical Gardens and the Presbyterian Church’s Archives Research Centre. Weird birds seem to dominate both places. Yesterday, I visited the latter, a place from which it seems I rarely depart empty handed. I left with the following two poems. They were amusing enough to share:

‘The Ecumenicist’, by James Forrest

I caught an Ecumenicist
And kept him in a yard.
I fed him up on sugar-beet
With olive oil and lard.
I kept him effervescent
With the aid of sherbert-fizzers,
And snipped his budding principles
With ecumeniscissors.

In ecumenisentiments
His training was intense;
With ecumeniscience
And ecumenisense;
As he greedily devoured
All the Acts of Convocation
To stimulate the art
Of ecumeniquivocation.

I loved my Ecumenicist
And firmly hoped that he
Would one day ecumenicise
My darling C of E;
But every time I turned, occurred
Another cataclysm –
My Ecumenicist had bred
An ecumeniSCHISM!

Discouraged by experience
I felt it rather vain
An ecumenisysphus
For ever to remain;
My fervant ecumenical
Experiments had failed
And ecumenicynicism
Finally prevailed.

‘Little John Robinson’

Little boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on his little hands little gold head.
Hush, hush, whisper who dares –
Little John Robinson’s saying his prayers.

“God bless Daddy – I hope that’s right.
Hadn’t we fun with his book tonight?
The words are long, and the theme’s so odd,
But the title’s lovely – Honest to God!

If I open the pages a little bit more
I can see Alec Vidler just round the door.
He’s a beautiful beard, but I doubt if he should …
Oh, God bless Tillich and make him good.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer just writes in red
That the notion of ‘God out there’ is dead.
And John Wren Lewis finds God in all
Though Bultmann doubts if that’s true at all.

They’re so clever, and I’m just me;
And what it’s about I can’t quite see.
I said, ‘Bless Daddy, and Tillich and …’ oh!
While I remember, the Publishers too!”

Little boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on his little hands little gold head.
Hush, hush, whisper who dares –
Honest to God, he’s just saying his prayers!

(‘Little John Robinson’ appeared in The British Weekly, June, 1963)

Church Unity as a Living Concord

One of the books that I currently have on the go is Reinhard Hütter’s Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism. So far, there’s much to commend it. But rather than write a review, time permits me only to share some challenging words from the book that I’ve been reflecting on, and which recall some Hunsingeresque themes:

‘Would the Roman Catholic communion be prepared, in the framework of a Vatican III, to nuance or delimit its insistence upon the jurisdictional and doctrinal primacy of the bishop of Rome as a condition for mutual recognition and communion in faith and confession? And on the other hand, would the churches of the Reformation be prepared to recognize an ecumenical primacy of the bishop of Rome that stood under the authority of the Scriptures, was post-confessional, and operated iure humano in service to the visible unity of all Christians? We would do well to remember Melanchthon, who in his postscript to the Smalcald Articles of 1537 sent a signal that is decidedly both evangelical and ecumenical: “However, concerning the pope I maintain that if he would allow the gospel, we, too, may (for the sake of peace and general unity among those Christians who are now under him and might be in the future) grant to him his superiority over the bishops which he has ‘by human right.”‘ Melanchthon’s postscript must be understood as an entirely proper use of Reformation ecclesiology. Precisely because the church stands or falls on the truth of the justification of sinners, she is free to recognize historically evolved structures and traditions and to affirm them as gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. This recognition and affirmation is valid as long as these structures and traditions serve the proclamation of the gospel. Thus the church is free also to recognize and affirm an office of ministry understood as constituted by human right that both presides over and is in collegiality with the bishops and that serves the unity of the whole church. Were the churches to pass this test case, it would leave open the possibility for a communio-ecclesiology perspective in which unity did not necessarily flow out of an abstract reunification of the churches under the umbrella of a Tridentine-Vatican-ordered primacy. On the contrary, it would then be possible for Christian unity to be understood as a concord of faith and confession in the Holy Spirit that would reconcile the multiplicity of churches and whose visible manifestation would be the common celebration of the Lord’s Supper, at which the bishop of Rome could preside as sign of unity. However, the head and center of this unity of concord would remain Christ alone, who is present in the word of promise and forgiveness and in the elements of the Supper. For only on the basis of this Center can the nature of the ordained office of word and sacrament manifest itself as an office of ministry to the proclamation of the gospel and, further, to the living concord of Christians in the local parish, as well as on the regional and indeed the universal level of the church. According to Luther’s ecclesiology, the test case of the papal office can hinge solely on whether the ordained ministry to the gospel also includes – and indeed, where possible, requires – a ministry of unity to all of Christendom. If the papal office permitted itself to be understood as a ministry under the gospel, serving as a transforming – even re-forming – catalyst for the unity of the church, it would open the door to an ecumenically promising and, from the perspective of the Lutheran Reformation, permissible approach to the thorniest of all ecumenical dilemmas. After all, Luther himself asserted in 1531 that he “could kiss the pope’s feet if he would permit the gospel”’.

– Reinhard Hütter, Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 192–3.

Hauerwas on Christian identity, and on being sent into the world

‘”We’re all congregationalists now.” I don’t particularly like it, but we are. How to ensure given that reality that Eucharistic assemblies are not separate from each other is one of the great challenges before us. The role of the bishop is very important to make sure that Eucharistic assemblies are not isolated from one another. There are also other ways to do it. Certainly sending people from one congregation to another helps. But how we recover Christian unity in the world in which we find ourselves is a deep challenge. By “unity,” I don’t mean just agreement about ecclesial organization; I mean the refusal of Christians to kill one other. I think that the division of the church that has let nationalism define Christian identity is one of the great judgments against the Reformation in particular’.

‘Christians have to engage the world in which we find ourselves. We’re in love with the world because God is in love with the world. Therefore, we want the world to know what God has given us. Of course, I’ve never asked Christians to refrain from being politically engaged. I just want them to be there as Christians. What it means to be there as Christians is to be shaped by the body and blood of Christ, which has been done for the world. The closing prayer after our Eucharist celebration includes: Send us now into the world in peace and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart through Christ our Lord, Amen. How could that be a retreat? I can’t imagine how the Eucharist can be self-containing if you’re sent out from it’.

– Stanley Hauerwas & Andy Rowell, ‘The Gospel Makes the Everyday Possible’.

Around: ‘Love seeketh not itself to please’

‘The Clod and the Pebble’

‘Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.’

So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

‘Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.’

‘Ecumenical and Eclectic’: A Review

Anna M. Robbins (ed.), Ecumenical and Eclectic: The Unity of the Church in the Contemporary World: Essays in Honour of Alan P. F. Sell (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007). xiv + 313 pages. ISBN: 978 1 84227 432 3. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

Anna M. Robbins is a lecturer in Theology and Contemporary Culture at the London School of Theology. She completed her doctoral work under the supervision of Professor Alan Sell, and has continued to benefit from his work and friendship. Thus it is entirely appropriate that she gather together this volume of fifteen essays dedicated to honouring the ministry of Professor Sell. And it is entirely appropriate that this volume be published in this series of Studies in Christian History and Thought, a series to which Sell has been a contributor and of which he is one of the editors. My appreciation for both Professor Sell’s work and for the series in which this particular book belongs has already been noted here and here.

The diversity of essays – their themes and countries of origin – is itself a significant reminder of the testimony to the influence and interests that Alan Sell has so faithfully dedicated his energies towards: Reformed theology, ecumenism, philosophy, nonconformity, church history, mission, ethics and apologetics among them. As the introduction to this volume notes, ‘Throughout [Sell’s] work, he has sought to expose unsatisfactory divisions amongst the people of Christ, to pose necessary challenges to those who hold sectarian attitudes, and offer constructive proposals for ongoing dialogue and other expressions of unity’ (p. 1).

The essays in this volume are organised in three movements. The first, ‘Ecumenical & Eclectic: Roots’, includes essays by Donald McKim, D. O. Thomas, Martin Fitzpatrick and Andrew MacRae. McKim begins his essay as many of the contributors do, by acknowledging his appreciation for Sell’s work and friendship. He writes of Sell, ‘There is no one I respect more as a theologian and whose work I appreciate more as a Reformed theologian’ (p. 7). High praise indeed. The essay proceeds to consider how some Reformed foundations serve the unity of the Church. Specifically, that the unity of the Church is Christ and is from God, that it is a unity of faith, that it is unity that acknowledges diversity, and that it is a unity that is both given and sought as divine gift. Unsurprisingly, and appropriately, McKim draws heavily from Calvin. Thomas’ essay examines the nature of the distinction between abstract and practical virtue in the thinking of Richard Price, again with an eye on the question of Church unity in the context of dissent and divine authority. Fitzpatrick too proffers a number of philosophical reflections on unity and dissent. Surveying the thought of the unitarian Joseph Priestley, and the eighteenth-century Rational Dissenters, Fitzpatrick argues how dissent may actually contribute to the unity of the Church. The final piece in this section is entitles ‘The Power of Christian Unity’. Here, Andrew MacRae, with an eye on both Scripture and more recent ecumenical developments, proposes a theological exposition on the power of Christian unity. His argument is that there can be multiple brands of ecumenical movements, all of which may contribute to the unity of the Church without being intrinsically divisive.

The second section is entitled ‘Ecumenical and Eclectic: Reflections’. With this group of six essays the focus shifts more to analyses historical, biblical and sociological. Clyde Binfield opens the section with one of the densest and heavily-researched pieces of writing on church history that I’ve ever read in a collection of this sort. He examines the sermons of William Page Roberts in order to demonstrate the relationship between change and continuity in the life of the Church. I thoroughly enjoyed this essay, but be warned, it really is one that you need to read when you are completely awake. David Peel invites us to reflect both appreciatively and critically on the legacy of Lesslie Newbigin, and David Cornick considers some of the ecumenical reflections of Olive Wyon. As one who has always wondered who this woman who translated Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics was, I was especially excited to be introduced to her through this essay. Indeed, Brunner once confessed that his theology was better in her English than his German. Cornick writes:

[Wyon] travelled the world, but Geneva made a great impression on her. She was particularly influenced by her contact with the Community of Grandchamp, founded by a group of Reformed women in 1931 as a centre for prayer, silence and meditation, but which developed into a Women’s Religious Order that worshipped according to the Taizé Office. That experience convinced her of the value of Christian community where ‘… men and women find each other in Christ and begin to pray and work as never before for the extension of the spirit of unity.’ She valued her Reformed roots deeply, but they rooted her in Scripture and therefore in the experience of all Christians, and she drank deeply and with delight from other wells. It is that combination of roots and generous openness that make her still a compelling guide to the spiritual life. (p. 150)

Cornick’s essay proceeds to explore her contributions to prayer (principally through her 1943 book, The School of Prayer), vocation and ecumenism. He notes that Wyon begins her exploration of the relationship between prayer and Scripture with the Barmen Declaration: ‘The Bible deals with God, and with nothing apart from God. Whoever seeks God in the Bible will find God there; for God comes to seek and find us in His Word…’. This, Wyon argued, is the core of the relationship between Scripture and prayer. Cornick comments on Wyon’s urging: ‘Being alone with Scripture and taking it seriously is a dangerous business, for we meet with Christ there. In his light we find ourselves judged and can “suddenly … find that Christ steps out of the pages and confronts us with an absolute demand”. Being alone with the Bible means risking a revolution in one’s life. That sounds austere and frightening, but judgement is merely the obverse of salvation; so Scripture also leads us to a knowledge of the trustworthiness of God, of forgiveness and mercy and “infinite support”‘. Citing Wyon, Scripture is the ‘springboard from which we may dive into the fathomless ocean of the love of God’ (p. 151).

The General Secretary of the United Reformed Church then proceeds to note Wyon’s ‘profound sense of the vocation of the church’ (p. 153). He cites Wyon: ‘The world is waiting for a “revelation” of God in community. The church is called to be this living community, in which all barriers between man and man, class and class, race and race, are down for ever’ (pp. 153-4). This is not something that the Church can achieve but is the work of God. Cornick then introduces us to Wyon’s book, The Altar Fire: Reflections on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, wherein she describes Reformed worship thus:

… the service begins with the revealed Word. That is: the first note struck in this rite is not the need of the worshippers, but the fact of revelation. From the very first the Christian Church realised that all worship must begin with God Transcendent. It is from such a God that we receive the revelation of His Being and His purpose. We begin with God, the high and Holy One, ‘who inhabiteth eternity’. We listen, first of all, to His Word (p. 154)

Cornick notes that Wyon was an exceptionally well-read theologian, who gently corrected the tendency towards individualism which is so characteristic of Western Protestantism by stressing the way in which the New Testament always speaks of the priestly activity of the whole church. ‘It is the whole church which is intended in the good purposes of God to bring God to humanity and humanity to God’ (p. 156).

The next essay is from the pen of John Tudno Williams who considers two Welsh New Testament scholars – namely C.H. Dodd and W.D. Davies – and their contribution to thinking on the nature and unity of the Church. Peter Ball, Chair of New Testament Studies at Károli Gáspár Reformed University in Budapest, contributes a paper on whether it is parents or Christ who have the foremost authority in the family and what it means for how children should honour their parents. He asks ‘Did the first Christians fulfil the expectation to honour their parents?’ (p. 175). The final contribution in this second section comes from lrving Hexham, who considers the work of Weber and Troeltsch with respect to the development of the grammar of ‘sect’ and ‘cult’. He concludes that such language is sectarian and ideologically loaded, and so ultimately unhelpful.

The final section is headed ‘Ecumenical and Eclectic: Resonances’ and invites reflection on the future of ecumenism and the practices of church life. It consists of essays by Keith Clements, Alan Falconer, Botond Gaál, Anna Robbins and Gabriel Fackre. Clements reflects on where two decades of intentional ecumenism in Europe has led us, highlighting its future uncertainty. Falconer, Gaál and Robbins also explore this theme in terms of ecumenical dialogue, the latter in light of how the church’s fragmentation weakens its voice to speak on issues that affect the whole world and about which the world is concerned. In the concluding essay, Gabriel Fackre takes on board some of Sell’s own apologetic methodology and explores the question of divine impassibility by reflecting on Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. He argues that ‘the film can be an occasion for confessing and commending the faith if treated as a Reformation-like “teaching moment”, the interpretive Word conjoined to the visible Word’ (p. 270). Fackre proceeds to use the film to talk about ‘the very heart of God’ in the cross. In an interesting turn, Fackre seeks to resurrect the ancient fishhook-bait analogy of the early Fathers. Commenting on the cry from the cross, ‘My Lord’, Fackre writes:

… it means that the knowledge that the effects of our sin reach into the very heart of God overwhelms us. Is that what prompts the tears of worshippers in the theatre pews when they view this film? How else do we know ourselves to be the sinners that we really are unless we see our hand in the very crucifixion of God? And hear from the Victim’s lips, ‘Father, forgive …’? No power in this world can so drive us to our knees. Only this Power of the divine powerlessness, the Christ who reigns from the cross. The fishhook-bait analogy has yet another meaning. The Devilfish did get caught. The power of God in the powerlessness of Jesus accomplished its purpose. So Aulén, interpreting Irenaeus, says: ‘The redemptive work is accomplished by the Logos through the Manhood of His instrument, for it could be accomplished by no power than by God Himself.’ Can we put it this way? God stoops to conquer. God comes into our midst in human form in Galilee and on the road to Calvary in order there to expose us for who we are. We see first-hand One who is as we should be and strike out at this embarrassing Presence. Yet it is, paradoxically, only through our lacerating and crucifying ways that God can disclose as well as expose, disclose the suffering Love that makes reconciliation possible. The proper emphasis on the suffering of Jesus when it excludes the suffering of God constitutes the discontinuity Aulén rightly criticizes. Without making the mistake of this discontinuity, we can yet affirm the concern to preserve the role of the humanity of Christ in the Work of salvation, while knowing that it was the God who was ‘in Christ’ who evokes our repentance and brings forgiveness to the sinner. (pp. 280-1).

He concludes by asserting that defenders of divine impassibility are ‘right in what they affirm – the tearless power of God at the beginning and end of the cosmic drama, and wrong in what they deny – the God who weeps in and for Jesus at the centre of the Story’ (p. 282)

Like most edited volumes, Ecumenical and Eclectic is not immune from its weaker contributions. However, every essay bears witness to something of the work of the one to whom it is meant to honour, and has something important to donate in its particular area of concern. Unfortunately, there is no essay devoted to theological education, an area which Sell has contributed not a little. That said, those interested in many themes that so interest Alan Sell will not be disappointed with many of the papers in this book. It also includes a comprehensive 27-page bibliography of Alan Sell’s work.

Dulles on ‘Saving Ecumenism from Itself’

The December issue of First Things is now out and includes an good reflection by Avery Cardinal Dulles entitled Saving Ecumenism from Itself’ in which he reports that ‘the principal instrument of ecumenism over the past half century has been a series of theological conversations between separated churches. Proceeding on the basis of what they held in common, the partners tried to show that their shared patrimony contained the seeds of much closer agreement than had yet been recognized. Rereading their confessional documents in light of Scripture and early creeds as shared authorities, they produced remarkable convergence statements on traditionally divisive subjects such as justification, Mariology, Scripture and tradition, the Eucharist, and the ordained ministry’. And yet, valuable though it was, the convergence method was not without limitations, not least, he suggests, because all parties do not accept the historical-critical method. He observes:

Many of the twentieth-century dialogues have opted to take Scripture, interpreted by the historical-critical method, as their primary norm. This method has worked reasonably well for mainline Protestant churches and for the Catholic Church since Vatican II. But many Christians do not rely on the critical approach to Scripture as normative. Catholics themselves, without rejecting the historical-critical method, profess many doctrines that enjoy little support from Scripture, interpreted in this manner. They draw on allegorical or spiritual exegesis, authenticated by the sense of the faithful and long-standing theological tradition. As a consequence, certain Catholic doctrines, such as papal primacy, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and purgatory, have been banished to the sidelines. Unable to cope with doctrines such as these, the dialogues have treated them as an ecumenical embarrassment.

Also, he contends, that as valuable and as principled as the convergence method of dialogue between various denominations has been over the past half century, it has not been without limitations: ‘Each new round of dialogue raised expectations for the future. The next dialogue, at the price of failure, was under pressure to come up with new agreements. The process would at some point reach a stage at which it had delivered about as much as it could. It would eventually run up against hard differences that resisted elimination by this method of convergence. When the dialogues attempted to go beyond convergence and achieve full reconciliation on divisive issues, they sometimes overreached themselves’.

Finally, he concludes his essay by asking ‘How then can Christian unity be envisaged?’. His response:

The first condition, I believe, is that the various Christian communities be ready to speak and listen to one another. Some will perhaps receive the grace to accept what they hear credibly attested as an insight from other communities. The witnesses and their hearers need not insist on rigorous proof, because very little of our faith can be demonstrated by deductive methods. Testimony operates by a different logic. We speak of what has been ­graciously manifested to us and what we have found to be of value for our relationship with God. If others accept what we proclaim, it is because our words evoke an echo in them and carry the hallmark of truth.

The process of growth through mutual attestation will probably never reach its final consummation within historical time, but it can bring palpable results. It can lead the churches to emerge progressively from their present isolation into something more like a harmonious chorus. Enriched by the gifts of others, they can hope to raise their voices together in a single hymn to the glory of the triune God. The result to be sought is unity in diversity.

True progress in ecumenism requires obedience to the Holy Spirit. Vatican II rightly identified spiritual ecumenism as the soul of the ecumenical movement. It defined spiritual ecumenism as a change of heart and holiness of life, together with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians. We must pray to God to overcome our deafness and open our ears to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, including our own. No mutual rapprochement can be of any value unless it is also a closer approach to Christ the Lord of the Church. We must ask for the grace to say only what the Spirit bids us say and to hear all that he is telling us through the other.

Then we may hope that, by accommodating what other communities are trying to tell us, we may be enriched with new and precious gifts. By accepting the full riches of Christ we lose nothing except our errors and defects. What we gain is the greatest gift of all: a deeper share in the truth of Christ, who said of himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

The entire essay can be read here.

Essay Competition

‘Students of theology and young theologians are being invited by the World Council of Churches (WCC) to bring new perspectives and contributions to the debate about the future of the ecumenical movement by participating in an essay competition to mark the Council’s 60th anniversary’. More information here