Christian unity: major obstacles still remain

Christian unity: major obstacles still remain

David Schutz

In a report in the 'AD2000' Christmas edition (page 10), a prominent US Catholic academic, Robert George responded to Methodist theologian Thomas Oden's paper "The new ecumenism and Christian witness to society" at a gathering of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, DC, saying: "As a Catholic panelist, I suppose that I am expected to say something critical, [but] I'm afraid I must disappoint this expectation."

Perhaps this is because Dr Oden's paper included so much good sense, that most people, on reading it for the first time, would react positively.

However, David Schutz, Executive Officer, Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, considers that, given time for further reflection, faithful ecumenically-minded Catholics would have questions to raise about Oden's vision of the "new ecumenism".

The Church Times recently reported that the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, told conservative evangelicals in London": "Evangelicals must stand shoulder to shoulder, doing evangelism with those churches and denominations with whom they could co-operate 'in gospel unity'." This definition, said Dr Jensen, excluded, for him personally, the Roman Catholics. He had "serious misgivings about what sacramentalist ministry does for the clarity of the gospel."

Dr Jensen is not alone in this opinion. Evangelicals have not, on the whole, been well represented in ecumenical circles. Like Pentecostals, they have maintained their distance. But Dr Thomas Oden identifies liberal Protestantism, not Catholicism, as the real ecumenical enemy. He sets himself apart from those evangelicals who would see any close co-operation with Catholics and Orthodox as an impossibility.

Many evangelicals (even Dr Jensen!) are discovering common ground with Catholic and Orthodox Christians in the area of morality and ethics. Groups such as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together", in which Richard John Neuhaus is a leading Catholic participant, are also discovering a shared interest in issues such as the authority of Scripture, the historical veracity of the virgin birth and the resurrection, and the orthodox Trinitarian and Christological doctrines.

Oden believes that the "substance of historic Christian orthodoxy" can be found in the common patristic heritage of the first millennium which is shared by Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Catholics and Orthodox alike. As one reviewer expressed it, he believes in "a core, unchanging tradition that the worldwide Church had consensus on, especially in the doctrine-delimiting creeds and councils."

Oden calls the movement toward unity that conservative Christians are experiencing on the basis of this ancient agreement the "new ecumenism". In his original paper Oden illustrated the opposing approaches to the ecumenical endeavour in a series of contrasting positions.

"Old" ecumenism "accommodates modernity uncritically", is "oriented mainly to enlightenment assumptions and the Reformation's left wing", is "chronically activist", and ultimately "politically driven." "New" ecumenism, on the other hand, is "critical of failed modern ideas", "oriented mainly to classic Christianity", "patient amid historical turbulence", and "spirit-led".

Some of Oden's new ecumenism emphasis is clearly in line with Catholic teaching, but other emphases require further examination.

For instance, Catholics affirm that the Church's hierarchical structure is essential to its nature. Oden rejects what he calls "top heavy administration". He opposes bureaucracy and hierarchy in favour of a more democratic web-networking approach - a "world-wide-web" model of church co-operation. Oden sees hope neither in the bureaucratic hierarchy embodied in the Geneva-based "conciliar model" of ecumenism, nor in the hierarchical college of bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome.

But for Catholics, the latter remains essential. As the encyclical Ut unum sint makes clear, even if the role of the pope were to be rethought, the Catholic ecumenical vision will always include the papacy.

Institutional unity

We see the same suspicion of institutional unity when Oden contrasts a unity negotiated between institutions ("old ecumenism") with a unity based on classic Christian truth ("new ecumenism"). The "new ecumenism", he says later in his paper, is not about "an organisational expression of institutional union".

In fact, the new ecumenism hasn't clearly decided what form the unity of the Church should take in the new post-World Council of Churches ecumenism, or whether to not focus on the institutional manifestation of organic unity in any way at all.

Such a vagueness with regard to visible unity is possible for Oden because, as an evangelical Protestant, he defines the Church as an invisible entity "constituted by all who repent and believe, whose lives are shaped by their participation in the living Christ, all who live in this real but imperfect communion."

Like many Catholics, Evangelicals are not generally in favour of the "unity in diversity model" of ecumenism. They believe that a high degree of doctrinal conformity is necessary for church communion. However, unlike Catholics, Evangelicals generally believe that this doctrinal conformity creates unity. If party A teaches the same as party B, Evangelicals would regard them as "one" even if there is no institutional expression of that relationship (such as the mutual submission of both parties to a common pastor or college of pastors).

Catholics cannot settle for anything less than the visible unity of the Body of Christ as their ecumenical goal. John Paul II has written: "The greater mutual understanding and the doctrinal convergences already achieved between us, which have resulted in an affective and effective growth of communion, cannot suffice for the conscience of Christians who profess that the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. The ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement is to re-establish full visible unity among all the baptised" (Ut unum sint, no. 77).

The Holy Father's reference to baptism here as the basis of unity is a reminder that Catholics envisage church unity as a sacramental unity, that is, a unity based in a common baptism, sharing common sacraments, ministered to by a common priesthood.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to see the basis of unity in the Word of God, correctly preached and taught. Hence, the classic antithesis characteristic of the two types of Western Christianity - Catholic and Protestant - are here expressed also in the ecumenical hopes of both groups.

There is, certainly, and happily, some convergence on both sides. Catholics have learned to appreciate the importance of a theology of the Word in ecclesiology, and Protestants have shown a greater appreciation for sacramental and liturgical theology - but this later development has not been so well marked in evangelical Protestants as amongst their more liberal counterparts.

Hence the continued downplaying of sacramental unity in the evangelical vision of church unity. Dr Jensen's words cited above serve as a reminder of this.

It is worth pausing for a moment and asking how Evangelicals define themselves. What separates them from their brothers and sisters in Protestantism?

In one of the earliest examinations of the question of the ecumenical relationship between Catholics and Evangelicals, J.W. Montgomery, an American evangelical Lutheran, defined evangelicalism as characterised by the following traits:

* Conviction that the Bible alone is God's objectively inerrant revelation to man.

* Subscription to the Ecumenical Creeds as expressing the Trinitarian heart of biblical religion.

* Belief that the Reformation confessions adequately convey the soteriological essence of the scriptural message, namely, salvation by grace alone through faith in the atoning death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ.

* Stress upon personal, dynamic, living commitment to Christ and resultant prophetic witness for him to the unbelieving world.

* A strong eschatological perspective.

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