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The march in God begun

08 March 2013

Paul Avis sees how the quest for unity stands

Unity in Process: Reflections on ecumenism
Clive Barrett, editor
DLT £18.99 (978-0-232-52943-2)
Church Times Bookshop £17.10 (Use voucher code CT852)

THIS is probably the most helpful introductory book on Christian unity to have appeared for years. It is informative, wide-ranging, fresh, and practical. But what is the current ecumenical situation into which it speaks?

The biblical imperative of visible unity for Christ's Church is widely acknowledged; even cynics about the ecumenical movement pay lip service to it. The main Churches are all ecumenically engaged and active.

First, there is local unity, unity at the grass roots. As Clive Barrett puts it in this collection of essays, the volume of local unity activity is staggering, and all the best mission and outreach is ecumenical. Local unity does not thrive by multiplying meetings, but by acting together in community initiatives that bear witness. But what of the international dialogues, which provide the theological underpinning for all ecumenical activity?

Here, the scale of doctrinal convergence is striking. Cardinal Kasper, in his legacy report Harvesting the Fruits, charted remarkable progress in dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Anglican (especially, thanks to ARCIC), Lutheran, Reformed, and Methodist communions. The World Council of Churches' Faith and Order Commission (which represents all the great Christian traditions) has recently published the convergence text The Church, the fruit of many years' work.

The veteran American ecumenist Michael Kinnamon, in his article "What can the Churches say together about the Church?", in Ecclesiology, has identified 12 fundamental theses on which the Churches agree. And, to come close to home, the growing together of the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain under the Covenant is premissed on comprehensive official doctrinal agreement, even on episcopacy.

So why is there a general feeling that the ecumenical movement has lost momentum? Why is ecumenism now such hard work? This book does not set out to diagnose our situation - its message is much more upbeat - but the question needs to be addressed. My own view is that the slow-down is due to reluctance to take to heart what the Churches have said to each other, a failure to implement what has been gained in dialogue, owing to institutional inertia. And that indicates a loss of theological vision.

The Churches are institutions, and institutions exist to perpetuate themselves. But the Church is also the body of Christ and the sacrament of salvation. There is one body and (as Martin Luther said long ago) ultimately one sacrament, Jesus Christ himself. The Church is only the Church to the extent that it is unified.

This book is an excellent antidote to the ecumenical doldrums. Topped and tailed by powerfully evocative pieces by Alison Tomlin and Mary Tanner, it contains compact authoritative overviews of international and national ecumenism by scholars (Neil Richardson, Kirsteen Kim, Paul D. Murray, Stephen Platten, David Cornick), and spiritual insights about effective local ecumenism by practitioners, in-cluding Vincent Nichols and Barbara Glasson.

The book is clear, accessible, and imaginative. It could prove useful in lay training; local ecumenical officers would find it a tonic, and ecumenical groups could use chapters as discussion starters.

The Revd Professor Paul Avis is a former general secretary of the C of E's Council for Christian Unity, Canon Theologian of Exeter Cathedral, and editor-in-chief of  Ecclesiology.

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