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Christian unity reconsidered

17 January 2014

John Nurser assesses the argument of a seasoned ecumenist

Ecumenical Dynamic: Living in  more than one place at once
Keith Clements
WCC Publications £12
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UNTIL the late 1960s, it was frequently asserted in Britain that "the ecumenical movement" was the most important new element in Christian history. A part to play in its organisation (whether at Geneva or in London) was a stepping stone in many church careers. This is no longer the case. The recent WCC Assembly in South Korea was scarcely noticed, even in church papers.

An element in this decline of British interest is that ecumenism has been understood as directed to forging organic unity between Christian denominations. Initially this was seen (at Edinburgh in 1910) in the context of "overseas mission". Keith Clements claims that this reading of true ecumenism is a mistake. He argues that the modern ecumenical movement's point of origin was in 1908, when war-talk was common in Britain and in Germany, and large public resources were being devoted to bigger battleships.

An Anglo-Canadian Quaker, J. Allen Baker, together with a German layman, Baron Eduard de Neufville, worked together to organize a visit of 131 Anglican and Free Church leaders to Germany, and, the following year, a visit of 109 German church leaders to Britain. That theme of "peace" (and by 1920 "global" and "shame") was picked up by Archbishop Soederstrom, George Bell, and others, after the apocalypse. The thread of reconciliation goes through subsequent stands of the WCC against apartheid and oppression of the Latin American poor. Most re-cently, this has extended to reconciling lifestyles in the West with the sustainability of creation.

Clements is one of the few English now qualified to give an overview of ecumenism. He is a Baptist minister whose last post was in Geneva as General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches. He has mastered thevery large archives of Joe Oldham's work to publish his biography anda study of the think-tank ("The Moot") that he convened over the war years.

His conclusion, repeated as chapters focus on successive episodes after 1908, through the German "Confessing Church",the Oxford Conference and its decision to set up a World Council, and the back-ground to the European Churches' Charta Oecumenica (2001), requires a serious shift in how we understand the central dynamic of ecumenism. In a life lived today, all of us "live in more than one place at once".

Canon John Nurser was the founding director of the ecumenical group Christianity and the Future of Europe (CAFE).

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