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Posted on Fri 16 September 2022

The Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies

   This Handbook of Ecumenical Studies is comprehensive in scope and covers a vast range of material from the history to the doctrine and the methodologies of the Ecumenical movement. OUP has managed to bring together a good cross section of scholars from a variety of disciplines and such an achievement deserves to be acknowledged. It is somewhat surprising, however, with the strong growth of the churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America, that the contributors should be mainly from the countries of the North Atlantic. Even the regional contributions have largely been written by Europeans, North Americans or Western expatriates. This is very reminiscent of Edinburgh 1910! How far have mindsets changed in the last hundred years or more?

   In fact, many of the contributions begin with Edinburgh 1910, though some acknowledge a hinterland in mission, prayer for unity and ecclesiology to the landmark gathering. It remains the case, however, that the bishops of the Anglican Communion had already agreed the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral in 1888 as a basis for negotiations on Christian unity and, as some of the few Orthodox contributors note, the Ecumenical Patriarch had already issued an encyclical letter in 1902 laying out approaches that the Orthodox churches could take in relations with other Christian bodies. This earlier letter was, of course, reinforced by the better known one of 1920. Edinburgh, the Lambeth Conference’s Appeal to All Christian People and the Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarch all led, in various ways, to the emergence of the first ecumenical instruments such as the Life and Work or the Faith and Order conferences and the International Missionary Council which, in turn, brought about the establishing of the World Council of Churches in the years immediately following the Second World War.

   The WCC embodied many of the hopes of the Ecumenical Movement and can claim to have achieved not only the participation of the Chalcedonian and Pre-Chalcedonian Orthodox churches but also the close cooperation of the Roman Catholic Church, once it had entered the ecumenical arena, especially in the area of Faith and Order. Its very size and sheer diversity, however, have also given rise to serious problems. In its initial ways of working it relied very much on deriving Middle Axioms from general Principles which could then be used to guide the churches in their engagement with wider society and in their spiritual or social action. From the 1970s, however, activists, of various kinds, began to demand ‘direct’ social or political action by the WCC itself rather than just contenting itself with ‘forming the Christian or ecclesial mind’. This led to programmes like the Programme to Combat Racism, which sought to assist freedom movements in Southern Africa fighting for an end to Apartheid and other kinds of white supremacy. Although, the grants were only for the non-violent aspects of the work of these movements, they attracted much criticism because they seemed to be supporting the struggle for change through the use of armed force. The tendency in interfaith dialogue to minimise the uniqueness of Christ and to promote such dialogue in ways that gave rise to suspicions of syncretism also created problems for the world body, as did attempts to align inter-Christian dialogue with interfaith dialogue.

   The Orthodox became increasingly concerned in the 1980s and ‘90s about an ecclesiological drift towards indifferentism which reflected the ecclesiologies of dominant liberal Protestant members, generally from the Northern Hemisphere. Such concerns have led to the withdrawal of some Orthodox churches from membership of the WCC. Some of the same concerns have prevented a number of evangelical and Pentecostal churches from joining. In this context, the WCC’s willingness to work with the Catholic Church and with the World Evangelical Alliance in producing a joint report on Christian witness in a plural world may have allayed some worries about the soft pedalling of the continuing missionary task of the Church. In the past, however, calls for a mission moratorium, an uncritical identification of mission with imperialism and colonialism and syncretistic tendencies have made for a loss of confidence in the WCC among the mission minded.

   At the same time, Raymond Fung’s work at the Evangelism Desk in Geneva and successive conferences on mission and evangelism have kept mission to the fore among those ecumenically involved, as have papal encyclicals such as Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi and John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio. 

  The WCC has produced landmark statements on the ecumenical quest. The early Toronto statement (1950) of its Central Committee concentrates on what the WCC is not: it is not a super church, it has no ecclesiology of its own and it has no blueprint of Christian unity. Such an understanding of the WCC’s nature was confirmed by its New Delhi Assembly of 1961 but which went on to expand, nevertheless, the Basis for Membership to include a reference to the Scriptures and to the Trinity. It also, of course, made its well known statement about local and global unity, declaring that it is God’s will that ‘all in each place’ be united in faith, witness and sacramental life and that they should also be united with all in every place and every age.

   The Faith and Order process, which produced the widely acclaimed Lima document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, was also the result of a multi-lateral approach. The WCC sponsored the dialogue on Christology between the Chalcedonian and Pre-Chalcedonian churches, sometimes referred to as ‘Eastern Orthodox’ and ‘Oriental Orthodox’ respectively. This led to a substantive agreement on the nature of the incarnate Christ and to the mutual removal of anathemas against one another. In some cases, it has led to local Eucharistic hospitality but, surprisingly, has not led to the wider restoration of communion between the two families of churches. 

   The liturgical movement has roots going back into the nineteenth century and has included both Catholic and Post-Reformation traditions even before the dramatic entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the Ecumenical Movement from the time of the Second Vatican Council. It has run in parallel with the development of the ecumenical instruments, with each influencing the other. The pervasive influence of the Church of South India’s Book of Common Worship, which draws on the ancient oriental rites as well as on modern Western scholarship, can be seen in much contemporary liturgical revision.

   The entry of the Catholic Church, because of its very nature, heralded a move away from multi-lateral and regional or national dialogues and to the proliferation of international bilateral dialogues with world confessional families. The Handbook, whilst it recognises the existence of the Eastern Catholic Churches, sometimes treats the Catholic Church as simply a ‘Western Church’. 

   Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has engaged in dialogue with many denominational families and, even in the face of fresh difficulties in moral and ministerial matters, has reaffirmed its commitment to these dialogues. This is very laudable but, at the same time, there are significant elements within the liberal Protestant and Anglican traditions which share many aspects of faith and moral teaching with the Catholic Church.

    It is urgent that the Catholic Church should seek to develop ‘distinctive dialogue’ with such elements, partly to provide them with the fellowship they are unable to find within their own denominations and partly to encourage further visible unity with them, especially at a time when such unity seems to have receded with the ‘mainline’ Protestant and Anglican bodies. The Orthodox churches may need to consider similar approaches to ecumenism in the present situation. While fresh difficulties are sometimes acknowledged by the contributors, alternative models of dialogue rarely are. One such which is considered is the emergence of the Global Christian Forum. 

   This has emerged because of considerable dissatisfaction with the WCC, its methods of working, its doctrinal and ethical orientation and the dominance of ‘liberals’ in its staff and its decision making processes. The GCF gathers the widest range of Christian families from the Catholic and Orthodox to the Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Its way of working is through testimony, discussion, consensus and affirmation rather than through Parliamentary procedures.

   As the Forum develops, an uncomfortable question for the WCC is whether it should continue to exist or to give way to newer ways of fostering the ecumenical vision. Here it may be fruitful to draw on the experienceof national and regional councils which have also had to reinvent themselves to allow the full participation of the Catholic family of churches, as well as of Pentecostals and Evangelicals which have, hitherto, eschewed belonging to ecumenical instruments.

  In the face of new and seemingly intractable obstacles in the ecumenical path, one way of continuing dialogue has been the discovery of what is sometimes called ‘receptive ecumenism’. This is understood as a willingness to learn from and receive the genuine gifts that another tradition may bring to our dialogue with them, prescinding from church dividing issues, whether old or new.

  The way in which different traditions have revised their liturgical provisions, taking account of gifts from other traditions, is obviously one example of receptive ecumenism. For the Catholic Church, the erection of the Ordinariates, where the Catholic Church has committed itself to receiving from Anglican liturgical, pastoral and theological tradition, is another example which could have been but isn’t mentioned in the Handbook.

  The question of a universal primacy at the service of the Church’s unity in faith, sacramental life and mission is, from time to time, mentioned in the work but there is no systematic treatment of it. In a work of this magnitude, such a treatment of a central issue in every bilateral or multilateral dialogue where the Catholic Church is a partner would have been most desirable. Both Anglican-Catholic and Lutheran-Catholic dialogue could have provided some of the resources needed for such treatment. 

  The Handbook considers different models of Church Union whether of regional unions in South Asia, of reconciled diversity as in some Protestant unions in Europe or of the organic model of full communion which is made visible by a universally recognisedministry, common participation in the sacraments and acknowledged structures of authority. Whatever the models of such unity, they should not be confused with the need for national or regional unity as, for example, in the European Union. ‘Differentiated consensus’ may be such that it is no longer Church dividing but, on the other hand, it could be of a kind that it is not enough to restore communion between divided communities As Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the PCPCU, tells us in his article, there are different dimensions of unity such as the ecclesial, the credal and the Eucharistic. These are intertwined and must be held together if communion is to have the ‘thickness’ that true unity needs. The world should be able to see such unity and yet it is also a unity which is an icon of the Trinity, i.e. aunity in diversity.

  Paul Murray reminds us that the different traditions may retain aspects of common belief and that there is the possibility of complementarity in the ways in which such belief is expressed. Cardinal Kasper, former President of the PCPCU, has also reminded us that just as we find vestigia ecclesiae beyond the visible limits of the Catholic Church so we may find vestigia successionis et ministerii beyond succession in itsvisible and verifiable form. He writes that Vatican II speaks only of a ‘defect’ in the orders of the Churches of the Reformation, i.e. a lack but not an absence. This means, according to him, that a certain recognition has been conceded. As Pope Benedict is said to have remarked to an Anglican bishop, “It is never nothing”. 

  In an important chapter, William J Abraham criticises both the normativeness of Scripture and the importance of teaching authority, as they have emerged in ecumenical discussion. He tells us that biblical criticism has shown that there is no agreed ecclesiology in the New Testament and that the Catholic claim to ministerial authority cannot be sustained. 

  I found his argument hard to follow: surely, even if there is a multiplicity of ecclesiologies in the New Testament (and we may add in the sub-apostolic period), that does not mean they cannot be complementary or that there has not been a faithful and Spirit-led development during the course of history. Similarly, Vatican II teaches quite clearly that the Magisterium does not exercise its teaching office arbitrarily but takes full account of biblical and other scholarship, as well as of the sensus fidelium, before it makes a definitive pronouncement on some aspect of the Church’s belief or practice.

  Abraham proposes instead a Spirit-led ecclesiology, where the Church is instantiated not by fidelity to Scripture or to apostolic succession, but by the Spirit bringing churches into being that are in authentic spiritual succession to the apostolic Church. This may be, but we should not forget the Holy Spirit is the one who inspires the Scriptures, brings to our remembrance all that Jesus has taught and bears witness to Jesus (John 14:26, John 15:26, 2bTim  3:16 etc).

  The formation of the Canon, however primitive, is a recognition of the inspiration of the sacred books not the conferring of authority on them by the Church. The same Spirit has been breathed onto the apostolic band so they may proclaim the Gospel and maintain the Church in fidelity to it (John 20:22, Acts 1:8, 2:4, 4:8). It is this Spirit who vivifies the Church, brings the Bible alive to it and maintains it in faithfulness to those the apostles chose as their successors in such ministry.

  This is not to say that the Spirit is not bringing communities into being through the proclamation of the Gospel, as I think Abraham is suggesting, with regard to the explosive growth of Pentecostalism throughout the world. This is undeniable. The question how these communities are then to be led by the Spirit in appropriating all the riches the Lord of the Church has given his people throughout the course of sacred history.

  He speaks of the Council of Jerusalem as validating the work of the Spirit among the gentiles in bringing them to faith and in the emergence of communities of believers among them. This is undoubtedly true but, after all, the Council of Jerusalem was a council of theChurch, led by the apostles and presbyters whose decisions were then owned and conveyed by the whole Church to those who needed to hear them (Acts15:6- 11, 16-21, 22).

  Just as there are few contributors from the Majority world, so there is little consideration of the churches there, including, of course, the ancient oriental churches of Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, India etc. In the case of Asia, there is little about the hugemissionary enterprise of the Assyrian Church of the East in Central Asia, India and China.

  There is no discussion of the ‘rites’ controversies in the Catholic Church in China and India and its implications for inculturation today. Some discussion of the worship, liturgy, inculturation and renewal of churches in the two thirds world and their significance for ecumenism, would have been very helpful. Church Union in South Asia is discussed and we are told that the negotiations ‘dragged on’ but not told the reasons for it. An insider’s account could have cast some light on this fact.  

  This is a valuable resource for all those who are teaching or studying the remarkable story of ecumenism in our day and, to some extent, in history. What is needed now is something which is representative of the global Church and the different ways in which the quest for unity is being expressed in different parts of the world under-represented in this study. Oxford University Press, with its global reach, is well equipped to commission and publish such work.

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