Reshaping Ecumenical Theology: The Church Made Whole?

Reshaping Ecumenical Theology: The Church Made Whole?
Author: Paul Avis
ISBN: 978-0-567-19443-5
Date: 2010
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Publisher: T&T Clark, London

This author has just completed his term as General Secretary of the Church of England?s Council for Christian Unity. The post has given him a distinctive and perhaps unique vantage-point in the mainstream ecumenical movement. In these chapters he offers wide-ranging, accurate and balanced reflections on the achievements, aspirations and frustrations of the movement thus far. The book?s title invites us to proceed further.

This book is haunted by the question of when multiplicity becomes fragmentation. It is claimed that there are at present 34,000 Christian denominations, and that the continuing proliferation of these is out of control. This last is a revealing phrase, for whose control do these proliferating bodies escape? Is it perhaps the ecumenical movement itself, in Avis? understanding of it? I am reminded of the anxious concern of Pope John Paul II over the rising tide of Pentecostal Christianity in South and Central America which was recruiting Roman Catholics on a considerable scale.

All Christian groupings presumably think their particular set-up is at least minimally faithful in essentials to the originating spirit, otherwise they would not exist. How all these seemingly competing perspectives are to converge is the pre-occupation of the ecumenical movement. What this book provokes for me are questions about the continuing acceptability or otherwise of the pre-suppositions of the movement. One such is the assumption that in the beginning there was a unity which has been lost, and must be recovered. The statutory quotation is from Jesus? prayer at the Supper in the Johannine narrative that his immediate followers may remain united. But Avis also mentions that scholars are virtually unanimous that Jesus did not foresee anything remotely like the Church as we know it. Indeed, he did not expect his case to be carried forward through history in institutional form. Furthermore, ?the eschatological framework of Jesus? ministry is a standing challenge to the over-institutionalisation of the Church?. (p14)

Given all this, are these words of Jesus relevant to the modern form of the pre-occupation with unity? Could it not equally be argued that what Avis fears as fragmentation is in fact a sign of life? It is certainly remarkable that Christianity continues to generate new movements. Now that we recognise one another?s baptisms it could in any case be claimed that the Church is one, though beset by family quarrels.

Closely linked to the question of the kind of unity we might think desirable or attainable is the question of certainty in matters of belief. Here the book makes some forthright and seemingly contradictory claims. Avis holds that ?basic agreement in the fundamental faith of the creeds is not particularly difficult to achieve? (p11), but later insists that ?once we acknowledge diversity, we remove the possibility of demonstrable certainty in the area of belief. No absolute, objective certainty can be predicated of any set of beliefs? (p31). One fact not acknowledged here is that these ancient creeds never secured the allegiance of all Church leaders and members. That they did so is one of those self-serving church myths used to buttress the Nicene/Chalcedonian formularies in the interest of a desired unity which was never accomplished. Nowadays the point can be made differently by mentioning those committed Christians of many denominations who do not accept the virgin birth or the resurrection of the body. Perhaps Paul Avis has been put off the scent here by the ecumenical context in which he habitually operates, where no church leader or ecumenical representative would dream of admitting that he or she did not believe these things. In any case, credal statements cannot escape interpretation. Professional ecumenists sometimes need to get out more, to avoid this kind of unreality.

Avis quotes Newman approvingly: ?You cannot have Christianity and not have differences?. (p16) At the same time he is most insistent that disunity is a theological contradiction, insisting that ?Jesus is the definitive revelation of the truth of God?. (p29) This assertion begs questions. Which Jesus? Whose Jesus? Can we continue to maintain this imperialistic stance now that our churches recognise the need to relate positively to those of other faiths and

none? Difference and diversification are inescapably facts of human life. It is therefore questionable whether what this author understands by loyalty to ?apostolic faith and order as grounded in the New Testament and interpreted by the ecumenical creeds? can be of help here. (p32) Perhaps official ecumenism is bedevilled by an over-systematic view of Christian doctrine: Avis writes of ?the given substance of Christian doctrine according to its own distinctive inherent nature and structure?. (p41) The danger is that living questions will be excluded as incompatible with such a structure. There are forms of unity for which the price to be paid is too high. If it is true that unity is promise, obligation and mystery we need to find ways of living with questions rather than seeking to impose premature answers. For Paul Avis the sin of sins is to do anything which breaches unity, but he is at times insufficiently alert to this danger of premature exclusion. Elsewhere, and contradictorily, he seems to endorse the opinion of Nicholas Sagovsky, whom he quotes: ?It is not the presence of conflict that is unhealthy for communal life, but the premature suppression of conflict in the interests of an inauthentic unity?. (p95)

Two further more specific points seem worth making. This author is very Anglican in his strong preference for episcopal ministry, coming very near to saying it is of the essence of the Church: ?? the ministry of the bishop stands for the full integrity of the body of Christ as no other ministry can?. ?Episcopacy is enclosed in a virtuous circle, centred on the gospel itself?. (p139) There is a strange similarity here with ARCIC?s conclusion that there is a case for the universal primacy of a single individual, and that the papacy is the only candidate. It is as if a similar a priori obtains with Avis and episcopacy: there must be a form of ministry which bears decisive witness to the claims of the Church, and episcopacy is the only convincing candidate. Claims of this kind are reminiscent of Newman?s view that God must have equipped the Church with a reliable means of avoiding error. As against all such a priori considerations, how about humans being trusted to learn from their own mistakes and so grow together in a wisdom which is not pre-ordained?

The unresolved tension here comes out most strongly under the heading of ethics, my second specific point. The author sees ethical disagreements as ?the new ecumenical frontier?. (Chapter 9) Ethical questions clearly divide Christians, sometimes very fiercely. But the lines of division, despite some appearances, are not so much between churches as within each church. Mainstream ecumenism tends to lose touch with this messy and seemingly intractable reality. The continuing attempt by the highest authority in the Roman Catholic Church to suppress internal disagreement seriously distorts the ecumenical picture in this respect. The direct threat posed by ethical disagreements to hopes of unity emerges most obviously in the Anglican communion, but it is fanciful to suppose that the Catholic Church has no comparable difficulty. This book seems to take it as read that to be truly Christian we must agree about ethics. Given that if looked at historically Christians have never agreed I find this puzzling. The pressing question seems rather to be how we are to live creatively with and through our disagreements, but mainstream ecumenism appears to resist this approach.

Nicholas Peter Harvey, Bungay, Suffolk