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Reconciling Theology by Paul Avis

24 June 2022

Christopher Hill reviews a case for ecumenism as a gospel priority

PAUL AVIS, in Reconciling Theology, gives us Volume I of a two-part work on the necessity of ecumenical reconciliation — necessary, that is, if the Christian Church is to be a credible sign of reconciliation in a world torn apart by conflict. Avis acknowledges both his debt to T. F. Torrance and his ecumenical service to the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Several chapters are extensively re-worked versions of earlier publications. Their themes, nevertheless, cohere in a step-by-step process of expounding his basic theme.

Avis begins with a head-on attack on the view that ecumenism is both unrealistic and unnecessary, indeed that divisions are providential. All we need is to proclaim the gospel. Avis is clear that diversity is not opposed to unity, but insists that the absence of visible unity is a denial of the Body of Christ. Complacent acquiescence in disunity is a sin, because it obscures the essential gospel message of reconciliation.

After a justifiable tilt at denominationalism, there follows a more contextual chapter on a particular controversy within rather than between Churches: the contested legacy of the Second Vatican Council. This is a valuable case study, because the interpretation of Vatican II has large implications for any Church in dialogue with Rome, not least the Anglican Communion. Avis carefully analyses the arguments that ask whether Vatican II was a council of “change” or “continuity”. The current Roman Catholic opposition to the synodal path opened up by Pope Francis, especially in North America and even in the Vatican, shows that the historiography of Vatican II remains a live issue not only for RCs.

While Jesus did not initiate a “polity” or organisational pattern for the Church, polities inevitably arose, but have hardly caught up with contemporary biblical scholarship. There is no blueprint for ecclesial governance in the New Testament. Nevertheless, we can discern a hierarchy of scripture, ecclesiology, polity (church governance), and (canon) law. The Church has always borrowed from the methodology of secular politics. Avis embraces a conciliarism (about which he has written before) that existed before modern democracy.

We then return to the main argument of the book: an unreconciled Church is actually a counter-sign of the Kingdom. The relation between the Kingdom and the Church is explored. Avis champions the accepted ecumenical argument that the Church is a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the Kingdom. But then he writes that this “immediately raises a horrendous problem for theology”. This is because the Church as we know it in reality is a sign of division, not reconciliation: a counter-sign. He examines the question of sin and sanctity in the Church in relation to abuse, which brings us down to earth very sharply. The Church as an institution, as well as in its members, can (and does) sin.

After this, Avis turns to the question of ethics as divisive: a relatively new wound to the unity of the Church. Disagreement within the Anglican Communion is explored, and the possibility of good disagreement. Following Von Hügel, Miroslav Volf is quoted on the Spirit both unifying and differentiating. Here I missed some exposition of Volf’s important book Exclusion and Embrace, but I strongly suspect that this will be a significant part of Volume 2. Recognition of the other as “gift” is carefully explored including an excursus on biblical recognition.

The last chapter explores what it is to be a reconciled and reconciling community. There is an extensive and convincing treatment of the heart of the gospel as reconciliation, both in the New Testament and among modern theologians. Avis critiques Barth, using Pannenberg, for not linking Christ’s reconciliation to the ministry of the Church and sacraments. He concludes with a reiteration of the ecumenical imperative to be reconciled with fellow Christians.

Reconciling Theology should be an essential primer for anyone engaged in ecumenism and a rejoinder for those who think that ecumenism is neither necessary nor desirable. I look forward to Volume 2.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is a former Bishop of Guildford.


Reconciling Theology
Paul Avis
SCM Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £24

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