Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Ten propositions on ecumenism

by Kim Fabricius

1. To adapt a famous saying of Emil Brunner, the church exists by ecumenism as fire exists by burning. Church unity is not an optional extra, or AOB on the parish or presbytery agenda, or a responsibility that can be delegated to the ecumaniacs, it is integral to MOAB, the ministry of all believers. Ecumenism is not an ecclesial suggestion, it is a dominical command.

2. In the Farewell Discourse in John, Jesus asks the Father to sanctify his disciples in the truth as he sends them into the world. Then he prays: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may be one. As you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world will believe that you have sent me (John 17:20-21). The ecumenical imperative is inherent in the missionary imperative. How can the church, with integrity, proclaim shalom to the world when we are not a truly catholic koinonia? And our catholicity must be recognisably visible; a merely “spiritual” unity is a form of ecclesial docetism.

3. And speaking of koinonia and shalom: consider the cases of Martin Niemöller and John Howard Yoder. Niemöller said, “Because I was an ecumenist, I became a pacifist,” while Yoder observed that the ecumenical movement has its roots not only in the mission field but also in the peace movement. However my intention is not only to draw attention to the connection between unity and non-violence, my more general point is this: orthopraxy should be as integral to the ecumenical project as orthodoxy. After all, in the New Testament unity in ethics is no less central than unity in doctrine. Faith and Order Departments are not the only bureaus in our ecumenical instruments.

4. Nor can faith and order issues be reduced to a checklist where churches tick the boxes. Which leads to the question: Do you think of Christian unity primarily in terms of consensus to be reached, or koinonia to be received and witness to be shared? If the former, it would not be surprising if you were indifferent to ecumenism – indeed you would be right to be so: unity-as-consensus is always but a hair’s breadth from a kind of works righteousness. We are called not to agree with each other but to love one another.

5. We are called to be one because God is one. But the one God is Trinity: that is why unity cannot mean uniformity. The watchword of ecclesial diversity can sometimes give the impression that it is simply a tactical ploy to appease Christians who value freedom of conscience and fear centralised authority. On the contrary, it issues from the very nature of God. And scholars as denominationally diverse as Ernst Käsemann, James Dunn, and Raymond Brown confirm that “there is not just a narrow stream of faith in Jesus in the New Testament, but a great wide river of many currents” (Jean Mayland). There are, of course, limits to acceptable diversity, but I would suggest that they lie within the parameters of: (a) a common baptism, (b) a Trinitarian confession of faith, and (c) a belief in Christ crucified and risen as Lord and Saviour. All else, I suggest, is adiaphora – particularly matters of polity. Moreover, it would be unreasonable to expect more agreement between our churches than we accept within our churches.

6. And episcopacy? There is no question about espicopé (oversight) as such. The question is mono-episcopacy. The question is complicated by what John Webster rightly calls “naïve” accounts of apostolic succession – “their incapacity to envisage the history of episcopacy as political and ideological.” And non-episcopal churches, of course, cannot accept that mono-episcopacy is the esse of the church – the ascended, ruling Christ alone, the one high priest (Hebrews) and έπίσκοπος of our souls (I Peter 2:25), is the esse of the church. But that does not prevent us from being open to mono-episcopacy as the practical, rather than constitutive, bene esse of the church, along the lines of what Calvin called “convenience”, and what we might call “practical reason”. The crucial question is: does mono-episcopacy best witness to the ministry of Christ in his church, and best serve the apostolic project of missio Spiritus? Anglicans and Lutherans – as well as non-episcopal churches! – have recently shown some movement on questions concerning the nature of episcopacy and the reconstruction of the episcopate. Of course if Rome pursues the Frank Sinatra school of ecumenism – “I did it my way” – the future is bleak. But you know the old saying: At the next Vatican council the bishops will bring their wives – and at the one after that they will bring their husbands!

7. An even more promising suggestion that relativises the issue of mono-episcopacy comes from the 19th century Wesleyan ecclesiologist Benjamin Gregory. Commenting on the visit of Peter and John to new Christian communities in Samaria (Acts 8), Gregory observed that “whenever they found the work of the Spirit, the apostles lost no time in recognising, receiving, and connecting that which had been established independently of their own initiative.” Which insight leads Gregory to what the Methodist theologian David Carter calls a doctrine of apostolic recognition: namely, that “it should be the duty of the leaders of any church that claims ... a genuine apostolic continuity to recognise the preservation ... of Christianity under whatever forms and structures it may find.” And a doctrine of apostolic recognition, it seems to me, entails, at least, a generous approach to eucharistic hospitality. As Paul tells the divided church at Corinth, it is not because there is one body that there is one loaf, just the reverse: because there is one loaf, there is one body. The fraction prohibits faction. Ultimately, apostolic recognition rests on the acknowledgement that our unity is in Christ alone.

8. Of course it is not only conservative Catholics who can frustrate ecumenical initiatives, conservative evangelicals can be equally obstructive. The card they usually play is that truth trumps unity, and they are fond of citing Ephesians 4:15ff. George Caird, however, comments on “speaking the truth in love”: “Paul is not recommending frankness of speech tempered by consideration, nor is he suggesting that the claims of truth and love must be held in some sort of tension. There is no Christian truth which is not ‘rooted and grounded in love’, and love is the only legitimate test of men’s adherence to the truth of the gospel.... Those who perpetuate the divisions of Christendom on the grounds of their loyalty to truth can draw no support from this epistle.” Or as I once heard a Catholic theologian expound I Corinthians 13: unity of charity trumps unity of faith.

9. In my view, perhaps the greatest obstacle to an ecumenical future is the refusal to acknowledge our anti-ecumenical pasts. Catholics have killed Protestants, and Protestants have killed Catholics – indeed Protestants have killed other Protestants. I submit that progress in unity will be a pseudo-progress, a movement in historical denial, unless we engage in specific, collective, and mutual acts of penitence, forgiveness, and pledges of “Never again!” Only with the healing of memories can the church proceed in a pilgrimage of hope and promise. And, of course, repentance, recognition, and reconciliation are only staging posts on the ecumenical journey: there is an elephant in the caravan and its name is Israel. And journey’s end is the whole οίκουμένη.

10. Finally, a confession: I am part of the ecumenical problem, not its solution. The fact of the matter is that ecumenical work always seems to depend on church leaders, the men at the top – and they usually are men – working at the national or international level, while Christians at the grassroots are marginalised and patronised. Moreover, our discussions tend to focus on deracinated ideas, divorced from their social location and unrelated to questions of ideology and power. They are also often off the pace of hermeneutical developments – and, crucially, contemporary biblical theology. The recent Common Statement by Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the doctrine of justification, for example, “ecumenical breakthrough” though it may be, takes little account of the “new perspective on Paul” that has been reconfiguring New Testament studies since the 1970s. Dogmatic theologians are now rightly expected to be fluent exegetes; we should expect no less from ecumenical theologians. With regular, informed, and prayerful meeting around the Word in local communities, dry bones may yet be knit together and live.

Postscript: A Joke
The Trinity were discussing their upcoming holidays. The Father said, “I think I’ll go somewhere in Africa this year: they’re still so patriarchal there.” The Son said, “I’m going to Jerusalem again: they seem to like me there, and I get such good service.” “What about you?” the Father and Son asked the Spirit. The Spirit replied: “Rome: I’ve never been there before.” [For Rome, feel free to substitute Geneva, Wittenberg, Canterbury, Constantinople, etc.]

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