Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Healing Broken Bodies: The Missional Ecclesiology Behind J. H. Oldham's Middle Axioms

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Healing Broken Bodies: The Missional Ecclesiology Behind J. H. Oldham's Middle Axioms

Article excerpt

This essay explores J. H. Oldham's development of the middle axiom approach, in particular the missioned ecclesiology that framed it, found in the publications he developed for the Oxford Conference in 1937 on "Church, Community, and State." With this framing ecclesiology established, it becomes clear that Oldham's approach better accommodates criticisms of middle axioms that have arisen in ecumenical and Anglican social ethics. Further, it becomes possible to distinguish Oldham's middle axiom approach from that of later practitioners, in particular William Temple and Ronald Preston. Finally, the modifications required for a retrieval of Oldham's approach in contemporary social ethics are considered.

"Life becomes real when we face our own responsibilities."

-_J.H. Oldham]

When discussing middle axioms, it has become commonplace to cite J. H. Oldham s early definition in Tlie Church and Its Function in Society (1937) before turning to other expositors, such as William Temple or Ronald Preston.2 This is reasonable, given the pivotal role later proponents played in shaping the middle axiom tradition in Anglican and ecumenical ethics,5 However, this practice obscures Oldham's distinctive understanding of middle axioms, which this essay seeks to retrieve. For Oldham, the middle axiom approach not only provided a pragmatic strategy for mediating between Christian ideals and particular social policies, as they are often understood,4 but they expressed a way of being the church in the world. Oldham therefore formulated his middle axioms within an ecclesiology that is crucial for understanding how he believed they properly operated.

Specifically, Oldham believed that middle axioms derived from a missional ecclesiology that shaped the political activity of the church in the public sphere. Accordingly, Oldham viewed middle axioms as a way of creatively practicing the politics of the kingdom in an increasingly secular world. The middle axiom approach enabled the church to engage in wider consultation, deliberation, and action that worked in ad hoc ways to effect social transformation. The church that practiced middle axioms was not an established church or an ideal society (polis) that could simply dictate the values that the state or die wider culture should promote, although Oldham did believe that die church's political life should model right social relations. Nor was the church that practiced middle axioms merely responsible for speaking narrowly to those issues connected to its immediate witness, leaving die maintenance of social structures largely to the state. Fundamentally, die church for Oldham was a gathered community (ekklesia) that embodied through its worship and work the kingdom of God, and middle axioms provided the venue through which this Lordship was pursued in every social structure.

Oldham's middle axiom approach, then, was less about specific strategies and programs than it was about die creation of discursive communities that invited laypersons to join theologians and clerics in deliberating about the ecumenical church's mission in the world. Fundamentally, Oldham's middle axiom approach represented the decision to cultivate inclusive communities of reflection, collaboration, interest, and action so that the church remained faithful to its fundamental identity and witness as a community created by God's selfsending (missio Dei). As will become clear, this ecclesiological basis for Oldham's middle axioms makes them integral to the church's ethos, or vision and way of life, which helps them avoid criticisms that have arisen from the perspective of bodi ecumenical and Anglican social ethics. Oldham's middle axiom approach also offers the possibility of developing a contemporary vision for social ethics that operates within a missional ecclesiology to promote justice, healing, and peace in a secular, pluralized, and globalized world.

Oldham's Middle Axioms

Oldham introduced middle axioms in The Church and Its Function in Society ( 1937), a preparatory volume for the 1937 Oxford Conference on "Church, Community, and State" sponsored by the Life and Work movement. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.