Whither ecumenism?

For sixteen years I was involved in the ecumenical work of the Church of England, first as a member of what was then the Church of England’s Faith and Order Advisory Group, and subsequently as the Theological Secretary of the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity. During this time, I took part in numerous ecumenical conversations on behalf of the Church of England and was responsible for helping to draw up a number of ecumenical agreements between the Church of England and other churches. Since ceasing to work for the Council for Christian Unity in 2013 I have kept an interest in how the ecumenical scene has developed.

This article draws on this experience of ecumenism to try to answer the question ‘whither ecumenism?’ or in other words, what is the future for the ecumenical movement?

The theological basis for ecumenical activity.

Ecumenical activity is activity undertaken by Christians which seeks to make manifest the unity between them that is a result of the saving work of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is often said that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church.  It is true that Pentecost was the occasion when the Church received the power of the Holy Spirit to enable it to begin to witness to Jesus Christ in ‘Jerusalem and in all Judaea and Samaria and to the end of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).  However, according to the New Testament Pentecost was not the birthday of the Church in the sense that it was occasion on which the Church was created.

What the New Testament tells us is that the birthday of the Church was Easter when the Church was formed through Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul tells us this in Ephesians chapter 2.

In verses 1-10 of this chapter Paul reminds the Ephesians how they were spiritually dead because of their sin and their subjection to the world, the flesh, and the devil, but how God in his grace rescued them through Christ’s resurrection and enabled them to share in Christ’s heavenly rule:

‘And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’

In verses 11-22 Paul then goes on to declare that those who have been saved by God through Christ’s resurrection have also been formed through Christ’s death into a new and united community – a community in which the division between Jews and Gentiles has been overcome and in which all human beings can be citizens of God’s kingdom, members of God’s family, and the holy temple in which God dwells through his Spirit:

‘Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; or through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So, then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.’

In Ephesians chapter 4 Paul further emphasises the unity of the community that has been created in this way. He tells the Ephesians that they should be ‘eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (4:3) and that the reason this is the case is because:

‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.’ (4:4-6)

As John Stott writes in his commentary on Ephesians, what these verses tell us is that:

‘…there can only be one Christian family, only one Christian faith, hope and baptism, and only one Christian body, because there is only one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You can no more multiply churches than you can multiply Gods. Is there only one God? Then he has only one church. Is the unity of God inviolable? Then so is the unity of the church. The unity of the church is as indestructible as the unity of God himself. It is no more possible to split the church than it is possible to split the Godhead.’ [1]

If the unity of the Church is as inviolable as the unity of God himself this raises the obvious question as to why Paul thinks it necessary to urge the Ephesians to be eager maintain this unity. The answer to this question is that he is calling them to make visible in their relationships with each other the unity which has been created by God through the work of Christ.

It is also important at this point to note that there is no place in Pauline thought for trading unity and holiness off against each other. According to Ephesians 4:24, those who have been made members of the one Church of Jesus Christ are not only to strive for visible unity but are also to ‘put on the new nature, created in the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.’  This means that Christians are not at liberty to choose between unity and holiness. They are called to be both a united people and a holy people at one and the same time.

Ecumenical thinking about the Church’s unity.

All this being the case, the question arises as to what making visible the unity of the Church should mean in practice. What should visible unity look like? During the twentieth century those involved in the ecumenical movement thought hard about this question and they produced what has come to be regarded as a classic answer to it in the World Council of Churches’ ‘New Delhi Statement on Unity’ which was issued in 1963.

This statement declares:

‘We believe that the unity which is both God’s will and his gift to his Church is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Saviour are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all, and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls his people.’ [2]

During the twentieth century those involved in ecumenism expended enormous amounts of time, energy and prayer in trying to make this vision of unity a reality, and their efforts were not in vain. As Paul Avis notes in his book Reshaping Ecumenical Theology, as a result of their efforts ‘the churches are closer to one another now in both faith and order than they have been for centuries.’[3]

The vision of full visible unity set out in the New Delhi statement was never fully implemented. It remained (and remains) a work in progress, but as a result of the efforts of those involved in the ecumenical movement the New Delhi vision of unity came to be widely accepted and serious steps were made towards trying to implement it.

The current challenge to ecumenism.

If the twentieth century saw significant ecumenical progress, what we have seen in the twenty first century is this progress stall and then begin to go backwards.

In Reshaping Ecumenical Theology Avis asks whether the ecumenical progress made over matters of faith and order during the course of the twentieth century can be expected to continue into the future. His response is a warning:

‘One factor that could place a roadblock in the way is ethical disagreement, disagreement on what moral life is required by the churches of their members, and in particular, far more so than any other area, disagreement over questions of human sexuality. Where faith and order might make a high degree of communion of communion possible, ethics might hold the churches apart.’ [4]

Avis’s warning is correct, but it does not go far enough. It is not only that disagreement over the ethics of human sexuality might hold the churches apart in the future, but that it is causing division between and within churches in the present. All Christian traditions have been and are being divided over ethical issues to do with human sexuality to the point where entirely new churches are now being formed as a result. At the moment visible unity is actually heading backwards, just as it did when the Western Church divided at the time of the Reformation.

If we ask what the current disagreement is about, the answer is that it is has two parts. It is a disagreement about whether it is right for people to have sexual relations with, or marry, people of their own sex and it is a disagreement about whether it is right for people to adopt a transgender identity as male, female, or non-binary, that does not correspond to their actual biological sex.

This disagreement is highlighted by two statements produced in 2017 by groups of Christians from across the churches who have opposite views on these matters.  On the one side there is the statement Christians United in support of LGBT+ inclusion in the Church which declares that it is right for people to do both these things and imperative for Christians to support those who do. [5] On the other side there is the Nashville Statement that declares that not only are such things wrong, but that support for them is itself sinful.[6]

In the face of the disagreement reflected in these statements we cannot say everything is ok in the sphere of ecumenism because of the ecumenical progress made in the past. We are, as Avis says, on a new ecumenical frontier,[7] and we need to find a way forward in the face of the current divisions in the Church that will lead to peace on this frontier.

What is the way forward for ecumenism today?

So, what would be the right way forward? There are three possibilities.

  1. The churches could accept that it is right for people to have sexual relations with, or marry, people of their own sex, and affirm it is right for people to adopt a transgender identity as male, female, or non-binary, that does not correspond to their actual biological sex.
  2. The churches could decide that such acceptance is contrary to the apostolic faith and should therefore be rejected.
  3. The churches could decide that this is a matter on which different churches and Christians within churches should be free to differ.

Three is, however, actually a variant of one. It implies that acceptance falls within the spectrum of legitimate Christian belief and practice. 

We therefore really have to choose between one and two. The correct basis for this choice was laid down by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a sermon at an ecumenical service in Westminster Abbey in October 2017.  He reminded the congregation of the foundational Christian belief highlighted afresh at the Reformation ‘that the scriptures witness reliably to the word God has spoken, and that when liberated and trusted they bring human flourishing.’

In the light of this belief the churches need to go down route two. The reason for this is because of six key elements of the biblical witness that are highlighted in the Nashville Statement mentioned above.  These six elements are:

  • ‘that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church; ’[8]
  • ‘that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelitywithin marriage;’ [9]
  • ‘that sin distorts sexual desires by directing them away from the marriage covenanand toward sexual immorality— a distortion that includes both heterosexual and homosexual immorality;’ [10]
  • ‘that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing;’[11] 
  • ‘that the differences between male and female reproductive structures are integral to God’s design for self-conception as male or female;’[12]
  • ‘that physical anomalies or psychological conditions [do not] nullify the God-appointed linkbetween biological sex and self-conception as male or female;’ [13]

If we are to continue to move forward towards the formation of a Church that is united in its adherence to the ‘one apostolic faith’ of the New Delhi statement (the ‘one faith’ of Ephesians 4:5) we have to affirm the truths contained in these six points just as much as we have to for example affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, or the doctrine of justification by faith. The apostolic faith is that which is taught to us in the prophetic and apostolic witness of the Old and New Testaments and these six elements summarise that witness in relation to the matters currently under dispute.

Furthermore, it is not enough for churches to affirm these points theoretically. The churches’ practice has to correspond to them as well. As we have seen, according to the New Testament unity and holiness must go together, and holy churches are churches which do not permit practices that are contrary to the elements of the biblical witness listed above, such as, for example, same-sex blessings, same-sex marriages, or the liturgical affirmation of transgender identities.

What are faithful Christians called to do in the present ecumenical situation?

There are four key things that faithful Christians are called to do.

First, they must accept and teach the six key elements of the biblical witness highlighted in the Nashville statement.

Secondly, they should seek to prevent the churches to which they belong from either affirming same-sex sexual relationships or transgender identities theologically, or developing forms of practice that reflect such affirmation.  

Thirdly, if, in spite of their efforts, their churches do move to affirming same-sex sexual relationships or transgender identities theologically, or in terms of their practice, they must be prepared to publicly distance themselves from such a move and continue to uphold the relevant elements of the biblical witness in their own teaching and practice. This may involve acting as dissident members of their existing churches or joining (or forming) new churches that remain faithful to the biblical witness.

Fourthly, they must do all they can through prayer and other practical means to support other Christians either in their own churches, or in other churches, who are seeking to stand firm for God in this way. To enable this to happen channels of communication will need to be created or maintained so that information about the needs of other Christians can be disseminated.

In God’s good time the cultural pressures in Western society that are resulting in the current divisions within the Church over human sexuality will pass. The job of faithful Christians is to uphold biblical teaching themselves and to pass it on to subsequent generations, and to help others to do the same,  so that when the current situation changes there will be a clear witness to biblical truth still existing that can be the foundation for the renewal of the Church and for the future development of that visible and godly unity that is God’s gift and calling to his people.

[1] John Stott, The Message of Ephesians (Leicester and Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), p. 151.

[2] World Council of Churches, ‘New Delhi Statement on Unity,’ 1963, at

https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/assembly/1961-new-delhi/new-delhi-statement-on – unity.

[3] Paul Avis, Reshaping Ecumenical Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2010), p.163.

[4] Avis, pp.165-166.

[5] Text at http://www.christiansunitedstatement.org/

[6] Text at https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement

[7] Avis, p.158.

[8] Nashville Statement, Article 1.

[9] Ibid, Article 2.

[10] Ibid, Article 9.

[11] Ibis, Article 4.

[12] Ibid, Article 5.

[13] Ibid, Article 5.

Why inclusivity rules out same-sex marriage.

According to a recent report from the BBC, the new Archbishop of Wales, Andrew John, has said that same-sex weddings could take place in churches of the Church in Wales in five years’ time. The report went on to say that the new Archbishops had said that  ‘the church should be inclusive’ and ‘welcome people, where they are, who they are.’ [1]

In this paper I want to argue that a proper Christian understanding of inclusivity rules out the proposal that either the Church in Wales, or any other church, should permit the holding of same-sex weddings.

In order to understand why this is the case, we need first of all to understand that the reason why the Christian Church should be inclusive in the sense of being open to  everyone regardless of their sex, race, class, or sexual inclination, is because everyone is subject to the power of sin and in Jesus Christ God has acted to provide a universal remedy for this situation.

Paul sets out this truth in Romans 5:12-21 where he contrasts the result of the sin of Adam which means that all human beings are subject to sin and therefore to death, and the result of the saving work of Jesus Christ which makes it possible for all human beings to receive righteousness and life:

‘Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned— sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

It is because all human beings need to be saved from sin and death and Jesus has made it possible for all human beings to be saved from sin and death that the Church must be a body that welcomes everybody. This is because it is through the ministry of the Church that the saving work of Jesus Christ, undertaken for the whole human race, become effective in the life of particular individuals.

The way that an individual becomes a beneficiary of the saving work of Christ is by believing and being baptised, and the Church’s ministry makes both possible. The Church helps people to believe by instructing them on why they need to believe and what belief involves, and the Church also baptises people in accordance with the mandate given to it by Jesus to baptise people from all nations ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19).  

What is important to note however, is that those who believe and are baptised are then called to reflect what Jesus has done for them by living lives in which sin is no longer dominant. Paul makes this clear in the passage which follows on immediately after Roman 5:12-21. In Romans 6:1-14 Paul reminds his readers that baptised believers have died and risen with Jesus to a new life free from the power of sin and that therefore they must no longer go on sinning:

‘What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.’

To put the same point another way, what Paul is saying is that the inclusivity of grace is matched by the inclusivity of the requirement that all those who have received grace must live lives in which sin is repudiated.

The problem with the proposal to allow same-sex marriages to be celebrated in churches is that it goes against this inclusive requirement to repudiate sin.

To sin means to live in a way which is contrary to the way in which God has created his human creatures to live. The testimony of the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 and the study of human biology tells us that God has created human beings as male and female and designed them to have sexual intercourse with members of the opposite sex. Furthermore Genesis 2:22-24 tells us that God has established marriage between one and one woman as the context in which sexual intercourse should take place.

It follows then that both same-sex sexual relationships in general and also same-sex marriages are forms of sin in that they are forms of behaviour that go against the way in God has created his human creatures to live.[2] They are a choice by human beings to live their way rather than God’s way.

Making this choice is a very serious matter because it brings with it the inescapable risk of eternal separation from God. As C S Lewis writes in his book The Great Divorce there is an inescapable binary choice facing all human beings. ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’[3]

Lewis’ point is that God has given human beings freedom to shape their own destinies. We can choose to say to God ‘thy will be done’ and be happy with God for ever in the world to come, or we can choose to turn our back on God. If we do this God will respect our decision, but the inevitable consequence will be that in the world to come we will be cut off from God and all good for ever.

It is to avoid this happening that people need to avail themselves of the inclusive grace that God offers to them in Jesus Christ. Though this grace human beings can become people who increasingly say to God ‘thy will be done’ and can be happy with God for ever, but this does not happen automatically. People have to choose to say, ‘thy will be done’ and to act accordingly by rejecting sin as contrary to the new life that God has given them.

Churches that allow same-sex marriages in church are implicitly saying to the people involved that they do not need to repudiate sin. They will not say this explicitly, but the reality is that they are telling people that God is OK with people entering into a form of relationship  that is contrary to his will. God may have created marriage to be between one man and one woman, but he is OK with people entering into an alternative form of marriage that humans have created for themselves.

This is a terrible lie which undercuts the truth that the Church is called to proclaim, that there is an all-inclusive requirement for human beings to respond to God’s all-inclusive grace by turning away from sin. It is a lie which neither the Church in Wales nor any other church should perpetuate.

[1] BBC News ‘Same-sex Church in Wales marriage hope within five years.’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-61275578 .

[2] That is what Paul means in Romans 1:26-27 when he describes same-sex sexual activity as ‘unnatural.’

[3] C S Lewis, The Great Divorce (Glasgow: Fontana, 1972), pp. 66-67.