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.

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