DIFFERING conceptions of church unity were on show at the Lambeth Conference on Thursday morning, as the Anglican bishops listened to a panel of speakers from other traditions.
The session was chaired by the Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, the Most Revd Ian Ernest, a former Primate of the Indian Ocean.
The first speaker, the Revd Anthony Currer, representing the Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Koch, is well used to interpreting the Roman Catholic approach to ecumenism to Anglicans. He quoted from former ecumenical statements to show that, although all were agreed on the necessity of unity, there had always been differences about what kind of unity was desirable.
In recent years, the Churches had embraced the possibility of horizontal unity as well as vertical, structural unity. Their discussions, however, ought now to be seen in the light of the new post-modern thinking, which saw a benefit in pluralism. Many now saw the existence of multiple Churches as a positive thing. The phrase “reconciled diversity” was used with approval.
In the light of this, it was all the more necessary for Christians to ask themselves: “How much unity is necessary? How much diversity is possible?” There needed to be a middle way between dictatorship and anarchy, he suggested.
The General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, the Revd Anne Burghardt, also recalled ecumenical history. Anglicans and Lutherans had been able to journey together for many decades, she said. But it was necessary for each of the world’s Christian communions to ask afresh how unity might be defined. Were they prepared to change, she asked. “Or do we simply fall back, and expect the other to look like us?”
The object was not necessarily structural unity. She quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The future of the Church is in prayer and action.” There was now a library of joint work and statements by Anglicans, Lutherans, and others which ought to inform prayer and action together. The theological work that the two Churches had done was valuable, she said. Using the old terms: how might faith and order, and life and work, mesh together, she asked.
Unlike Fr Currer, however, she said that she was not afraid of pluralism or post-Modernism. The post-modern world had much to share: it helped Christians to engage in a critique of all systems that regarded themselves as self-contained. The process of deconstruction should be welcomed by Churches as well as other political and secular structures.
Other speakers affirmed the value of ecumenical work. The Bishop of the Amazon, the Rt Revd Marinez Bassotto spoke of the ecumenical caravan that brought material help and political and spiritual support to indigenous people in Brazil, caught up in conflict over their ancestral lands. The unity of the Church was relevant and necessary, she said.
The Revd Dr David Wells, from the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, spoke of avoiding the limitations on faith that came from knowing only the history and practices of one’s own community. That way arrogance could arise. Openness to the Spirit carried with it openness to brothers and sisters in other traditions.
In this spirit, Archbishop Nikitas of Thyateira & Great Britain brought greetings from the Orthodox community. The session ended with the communal singing of the chorus “Bind us together, Lord”.