Friday, February 16, 2007

Ecumenical Dialogue: An Older Paradigm?

This first appeared in Church History 74:2 (June 2005): 427.

Review: Thomas E. Fitzgerald, The Ecumenical Movement: An Introductory History (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004)

Comprehensive discussions of the ecumenical movement are few and far between, and Thomas Fitzgerald has helped to fill an important niche. Dr. Fitzgerald is well suited to comment on the phenomenon, as an Orthodox priest, church history professor, and former officer of the World Council of Churches. The ecumenical movement, as he defines it, is the "quest of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Old Catholic, and most Protestant churches for reconciliation, and the restoration of their visible unity in faith, sacramental life, and witness in the world" (1). The search for this visible unity reflects an essential yearning for the undivided church. Ecumenism is distinct from interdenominational and interconfessional activity because it represents a higher end: the practical achievement of the unity that must describe the gathering of God’s faithful people, since nothing that is fully derived from God may be divided.

Fitzgerald first surveys the early church, with its message of universal salvation, and the Pauline assumption that truth and unity must go hand in hand. He notes the importance that the church fathers ascribed to visible unity and stresses that by the fourth century the patriarchates, while united in essence, diverged in language, theological emphasis, and liturgical custom. In analyzing the separation of the Oriental Orthodox churches, the division of Roman Catholicism from Orthodoxy, and the emergence of the Protestant churches during the sixteenth century, Fitzgerald emphasizes that all these separations occurred over an extended period of time and involved unhappy conjunctions of theological controversy and social and political discord. While acknowledging that these separations left lasting wounds, he maintains that division was by no means an inevitable result.

Fitzgerald then examines transnational ecumenism from the early nineteenth century to the present. The earliest ecumenical dialogue was embodied in such nondenominational groups as the Evangelical Alliance and the World Student Christian Federation. This was followed by interdenominational interaction, and the role of the Orthodox Church, particularly its dialogues with Anglican theologians, receives good treatment here. The early twentieth century witnessed the rise of the "Life and Work" and "Faith and Order" movements, devoted to the removal of obstacles that stood in the way of unity in the life of the church, but also recognizing the attachment of believers to the historic churches. The story concludes with an account of the establishment of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1948, incorporating a new focus on the role of the laity and a Christocentric theology. In the wake of the 1968 WCC meeting at Uppsala, marked by the first attendance of Roman Catholic observers, social justice issues came to the fore in ecumenical discourse. Fitzgerald then turns his narrative to an exploration of ecumenical perspectives within the three largest Christian blocs--Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant--and concludes with an examination of the various bilateral and multilateral theological discussions that have taken place in recent years and a case study of ecumenism in the United States since the 1950s.

Fitzgerald’s study provides a very readable account of ecumenical developments over the past two hundred years, one that will undoubtedly provide the stimulus for greater research on more specialized topics. Of particular value to the Western reader is his consideration of the role of the Orthodox churches, a very necessary corrective to any model that divides ecumenical dialogue into a largely intra-Protestant conversation prior to 1962 and a call to dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. He also has an extensive bibliography that will be of use to any scholar or student new to the topic, although it is regrettable that the combination of a lack of bibliographical subject categories and comparatively sparse footnotes makes it hard to determine which books may be most relevant.
Somewhat lacking from his account, however, is discussion of the First World/Third World ecumenical dichotomy discussed in Yacob Tesfai’s Liberation and Orthodoxy: The Promise and Failures of Interconfessional Dialogue (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), and Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Both note the shift of Christendom’s center of gravity from the Global North to the Global South, but while Tesfai stresses Third World detachment from the "doctrinal" ecumenical movement in favor of "justice" for the downtrodden, Jenkins reminds us that the tendency of African and Asian Christians to ignore denominational lines in their daily lives should not be confused with liberal positions on sexual morality or even the role of women in the church. Their "ecumenism" is hardly consonant with many of the positions advanced by First World advocates of liberation theology. In this context, Fitzgerald might profitably have addressed the contribution to ecumenism of the independent Bible and charismatic churches that dominate much of the Third World.

Fitzgerald might also have devoted greater attention to criticisms of the World Council of Churches (Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., In One Body through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 24-25). While he acknowledges that tensions have always existed and continue to do so, his discussion is comparatively brief (119-21). Such matters as sexual morality (the solidarity manifested between evangelicals and Roman Catholics in opposing abortion is cited by the Princeton Proposal as a significant ecumenical achievement) and dialogue with non-Christian faiths would be appropriate topics. Questions might profitably be asked about the contribution of WCC administrators to the ecumenical debate. If bureaucrats can structure political discussions at the United Nations to advance their own agenda, it seems reasonable to assume that they exercise a similar influence over theological discussions at the WCC. Finally, greater attention might have been paid to the process of "reception" by individual churches of ecumenical documents like Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, as Gillian Evans does in Method in Ecumenical Theology: The Lessons So Far (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 182-218. Although Fitzgerald addresses contemporary ecumenical initiatives (193-219), even a reader new to the topic could benefit from greater theological specificity.

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