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Ecumenism: A guide for the perplexed, by R. David Nelson and Charles Raith II

14 September 2018

Christopher Hill reads an introduction to the world of ecumenism

ECUMENISM was written by and for North American Evangelicals; a European or UK edition could have made it more relevant here. Nevertheless, it is a book of relevance for those who instinctively equate ecumenism with liberal relativism, and also for those who yearn to move beyond a self-contained orthodoxy.

Ecumenism is in two parts. After defining terms, Part One offers a concise and lucid history of the modern ecumenical movement. The fact of Evangelical commitment through the imperative of global mission is properly emphasised (the Edinburgh Conference of 1910); after this, the coming together of the Life and Work Movement with Faith and Order and the eventual World Council of Churches (WCC, 1948). But alongside this the authors also trace the story of the International Missionary Council (1921), continuing the trajectory of Edinburgh, and its eventual absorption by the WCC.

The Second Vatican Council is given due emphasis, especially the decrees Unitatis Redintegratio (on ecumenism) and Lumen Gentium (on the Church). Proper space is given to the ecumenical dialogues, especially Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry of the WCC (1982). Roman Catholic dialogues with Protestant and Orthodox Churches are outlined (the date of the origin of dialogue with the Anglican Communion should be 1967, not 1970). The RC-Lutheran dialogue on Justification is rightly given prominence, including its claimed “differentiated agreement”.

What follows is less well known outside Evangelical circles because the trajectories of modern Evangelical ecumenism are complex, hence the sub-title of the book. The eirenic work of John Stott, against the “separatism” of Martin Lloyd-Jones, is duly recorded, as also the growing suspicions of Evangelicals in relation to the WCC (evangelism or social liberation). The Lausanne Movement (1974) is seen as also a true successor to Edinburgh.

Part Two changes into systematic mode and has important explorations of “basic difference”. I disagree with the authors that the filioque clause (the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son) in the creed, added by the Western Church, is actually a good example of fundamental difference, but their subsequent discussion is good. Such differences do include the extent to which the Church is instrumental in the economy of salvation; the relation of the developing tradition of the Church to scripture; sacramentality; and the Barthian critique of analogy and any natural theology.

The most important of these, the authors believe (rightly, I think), is the question of the relation between ecclesiology and soteriology. André Birmelé is quoted on the apparent impasse of the place of the Church in the mediation of salvation. Daphne Hampson’s affirmation of a fundamental disagreement between Catholicism and Lutheranism is also recorded, as is Robert Jenson on the problem of the theism of Greek philosophy inherited by the Early Church.

There is an excellent introduction to the dynamics of the reception of ecumenical texts (following William Rusch). This includes useful discussion of negative or only partial reception as part of the reception process. There are also some telling words on intra-confessional family feuds’ obstructing reception — Church of England, please note.

The interesting conclusion leans on a critique by Michael Kinnamon (Faith and Order Secretary in 1980-83, and then working in US ecumenism). Unity is a gift, not an achievement. Mere co-operation maintains the status quo. Autonomous diversity contributes to relativism. Repentance remains a necessity.

An Epilogue reiterates the ecumenical imperative. This book takes that scriptural imperative seriously, and does what it says on the label.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is a former Bishop of Guildford and President of the Conference of European Churches.

Ecumenism: A guide for the perplexed
R. David Nelson and Charles Raith II
Bloomsbury T & T Clark £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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