Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The Goal of Visible Unity: Reaffirming Our Commitment

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The Goal of Visible Unity: Reaffirming Our Commitment

Article excerpt

This paper should not be read as an attempt to present proper ecumenical research. Its aim is rather to offer a--somewhat personally coloured --reflection based on my experiences from three years of service as a research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg. My primary emphasis will be on the goal of visible unity as this goal has been developed within the ecumenical movement. However, I do not wish to repeat the debates on the "models of unity" from the 1970s and 1980s. For even if these concepts may have been helpful in providing us with a certain sense of direction, I strongly doubt that unity can be appropriately accounted for by using more or less abstract "models". This is largely affirmed by the fact that recent dialogue texts, such as the Anglican-Lutheran Porvoo Common Statement (1992) and the Episcopal-Lutheran Called to Common Mission (1999), clearly transcend the traditional "models". As I see it, what we need here is an approach which is able to reflect the reality of the church, or of the churches, in a more comprehensive and palpable way--for instance along the lines of the ecclesiology of communio. And above all, we need concepts that can help us to transform achieved doctrinal consensus into living fellowship.

In the following, a central component will be something that I--in the absence of a more precise expression--label as "German Continental Protestantism" (GCP). While playing a very modest role in some parts of the world, especially in Africa and Asia, this current represents a strong influence on the contemporary European ecclesial and theological scene. It is not exclusively German, but has German Protestantism as its main "ideologist". Its historical roots can be traced partly in pietism, or rather in a more "secularized" version of this stream of Christian thought and practice, but primarily in the so-called "liberal theology" of the late 19th and early 20th century. Thus, GCP comes through as a somewhat peculiar "liberal-pietistic" mixture--actually showing how closely related pietism and liberalism are when they are seen in an ecclesiological perspective. GCP is further strongly marked by the theology and religious sensitivity of the 1970s. Here the point is not so much the--at least partly justified--axiom of the 1960s that "the world provides the church's agenda", but rather an almost self-destructive ecclesiology in which the identity, as well as the counter-cultural potential, of the church is being concealed. Today, the most important institutional expressions of GCP can be found, in my opinion, in the Evangelical Church in Germany and in the Leuenberg fellowship of churches. But it also exercises a growing influence in many Lutheran churches elsewhere.

I have already indicated that the main emphasis of this contribution will be the classic goal of the ecumenical movement: namely, visible unity. As I see it, however, there is much evidence that particularly the last decade has been characterized by a decline in our commitment to this goal. The results of this development can even be traced in some parts of the work of the World Council of Churches (WCC). For as compared with the uncompromising unity formula of the WCC assembly in New Delhi in 1961--with its forceful focus on an organic fellowship between "truly united" local churches--the deliberations on this topic occasioned by the Harare assembly in 1998 turn out, at their best, to be more vague, often describing the WCC as a rather loose "forum of churches" which is based on a "new ecumenical paradigm". The recent renaissance of the Toronto statement of 1950 and its (in practice understandable, but theologically most peculiar) idea of an "ecclesiological neutrality" points in the same direction. Yet the strongest influence or pressure for a decline of the classical ecumenical goal of unity comes from GCP, apparently with "pluralism" as its key dogma. …

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