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The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology, edited by Paul Avis

16 November 2018

Nicholas Sagovsky on study of paradigms of the Church’s identity

FROM the beginning, the life and worship of the Church has generated the raw material for what we now call ecclesiology. The Church has defined its identity over against other religious groups. It has developed its self-understanding as it faced new challenges in mission and inculturation. Implicit in this collection of 28 essays is an understanding of the Church’s history as one of perennial conflict, within which a stable identity can, nevertheless, be discerned. Paul Avis, doyen of contemporary Anglican ecclesiologists, defines ecclesiology as “the comparative, critical, and constructive study of the dominant paradigms of the Church’s identity”.

What this book does, it does very well, having drawn in some of the best contributors in the field. Avis contributes a fine introductory overview. Five essays lay out the biblical foundations for ecclesiology. Nine explore resources from the tradition, taking the development of ecclesiological traditions up to the present day. A third section explores 20th-century ecclesiology through the lens of great theologians: Barth, Congar, de Lubac, Rahner, Ratzinger, Zizioulas, Pannenberg, and Rowan Williams. A final section covers feminist critiques, social-scientific critiques, and liberation, Asian, and African ecclesiologies.

Highlights for me included the strong biblical section; Dorothea Wendebourg’s account of “The Church in the Magisterial Reformers” (Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin); David M. Chapman’s crisp and witty essay on “Methodism and the Church”; an overview of Congar’s life and work by Gabriel Flynn; an essay by Theodore Dieter, Director of the (Lutheran) Institute for Ecumenical Research, on Joseph Ratzinger; and Paul McPartlan’s presentation of the visionary and influential ecclesiology of Zizioulas.

After Avis’s introduction, for a magisterial account of what this book is all about, a good place to start would be Mike Higton’s discussion of the ecclesiology of Rowan Williams. And then go where you will: all of the essays would repay careful study.

As with all such encyclopaedic volumes, when you stand back and look at it overall, questions arise.

dominicanfriars.orgEcclesiologist: Yves Congar OP

The first, for me, is about the content of ecclesiology. To what extent are the study of liturgy, including baptism, eucharist, and ministry, sub-fields of the discipline of ecclesiology (Avis says in his introduction that ecclesiology “finds in liturgy its true matrix”)? Some of the essays here seem to me more history of the doctrine of the Church than strictly ecclesiology. An essay by a liturgical ecclesiologist would have been a valuable addition, as would one by an expert on canon law, a discipline that clearly must go hand in hand with ecclesiology (I was delighted to find this point in the essay on Barth).

The switch into “great men” from the 20th century highlights the perceived absence of “great women” ecclesiologists until very recently: Elaine Graham’s challenging essay on feminist critiques of the Church focuses entirely on contemporary writers. Much remains unsaid about “great men” and about “great women” from earlier centuries — notably St Augustine and Aquinas, both proto-ecclesiologists, as, in a different way, were St Catherine of Siena and St Teresa of Ávila.

With the focus on individual theologians, little attention is devoted to ecumenical ecclesiology: there is no chapter on the groundbreaking work of the World Council of Churches, with its focus on the goal of “visible unity”. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) and The Church: Towards a common vision (2013), two key ecumenical statements, pop up briefly in the essay on Pannenberg.

Some essays adopt a deliberately limited perspective. One on Asian ecclesiologies takes a robustly Protestant line, with a glancing reference to India, but none to the ecclesiologically innovative Church of South India; one on African ecclesiologies focuses almost entirely on Roman Catholicism, with the briefest of references to the Ethiopian and Egyptian Orthodox Churches — an opportunity to discuss the ecclesiologies of the oldest Churches in Africa, which remain almost unknown among Western theologians, sadly missed.

Having said all this, The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology will be a useful addition to any theological library. The writing throughout is approachable. The bibliographical resources are excellent. Students who dip in in haste will find here every encouragement to explore more widely.

Canon Nicholas Sagovsky is a Visiting Professor at King’s College, London

The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology
Paul Avis, editor
OUP £95
Church Times Bookshop £85.50

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