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Look Back in Hope: An ecumenical life by Keith Clements

12 January 2018

John Arnold reads the memoirs of a committed and skilled ecumenist

KEITH CLEMENTS is an ecumenist’s ecumenist. He even tried to understand the concerns of the Serbian Orthodox Church at a time in the early 1990s when most Western commentators simply swallowed the more easily assimilable Croatian line, instead of wrestling with complexities and thinking for themselves.

Going against the stream requires courage and character, as well as commitment to justice, mercy, and truth. Not surprisingly, his own discipleship has been accompanied throughout by the study of the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and of the ecumenical pioneer J. H. Oldham.

If he privileged the prophetic, it is not that he neglected the pastoral, homiletic, and educational aspects of ministry. Born in China in 1943 to missionary parents, he read Natural Sciences and Theology at King’s College, Cambridge, (where he acquired a lifelong love of choral evensong), and nurtured local Baptist congregations for ten years, before teaching at Bristol Baptist College and moving into full-time ecumenical work, first in the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland (CCBI) from 1990 and then in the all-round job of a lifetime as General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) in 1997.

Here, at last, he could trade with all his talents, gifts, and graces, and draw on the store of practical experience and diligent scholarship which he had acquired as he became increasingly drawn into the search for unity at local, national, and international levels.

The CEC years, 1997-2005, form the core of the book. It was a time when Europe was in turmoil. The driving out of the spirit of Marxist-Leninism in 1989-90 had not led to the expected golden age of ecumenism; seven more wicked spirits, including the lethal combination of religion and nationalism, had rushed in. The speed with which the Roman Catholic Church moved to establish or re-establish itself in Eastern Europe alarmed Protestants and infuriated the Orthodox.

Europe is the only continent where Orthodoxy is present not in a small diaspora, but bulks large in church life. Its Churches felt at home in the CEC in a way that it was more difficult in other places and in the World Council of Churches. Clements was at the heart of the strains and joys of keeping them in fellowship, while also co-operating fully with the Council of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences in Europe. This Baptist pastor won the trust, affection, and respect of the Orthodox hierarchs and, indeed, all with whom he served.

In the event, the centripetal force of the gospel prevailed, just, over the centrifugal forces pulling the Churches apart. He played a key part in the Millennium celebrations and the production of the Carta Oecumenica at the Ecumenical Encounter in Strasbourg 2001. He writes of the “adrenaline of crises (notably in former Yugoslavia) and the dull slog of routine”. He excelled at both.

Weakened but undaunted by cancer, he returned to England in 2005 to be appalled by the enfeeblement of ecumenical structures and commitment in Britain meanwhile, and to take up scholarly pursuits, re-engage with South Africa, travel to China, the land of his birth, and produce this admirable autobiographical chronicle of the sub-apostolic age of the ecumenical movement.


The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is Anglican Co-President of the Anglican-Lutheran Society.


Look Back in Hope: An ecumenical life
Keith Clements
Resource Publications £38

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