The achievements of bilateral dialogues
Below is the text of the Unity Lecture delivered by Mary Tanner to Greater Manchester Churches Together in 2008...
We celebrate this week the 100th Anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. There is something very appropriate in linking our celebration of prayer for unity with that stream of the one ecumenical movement that is devoted to dialogue, for theological conversation always takes place in the context of prayer.  What we do around the table of conversation is all of a piece with what we do on our knees.
I’m going to divide what I want to say into three parts: first some reflections in defence of dialogue; then some assessment of the achievement of doctrinal convergence in ecumenical conversations; and finally some reflections on the impact and potential of dialogue on the movement to Christian unity.
I. In defence of dialogue
Archbishop Rowan writing in The Tablet for the celebration of this 100 Anniversary Week of Prayer, with his characteristic perceptiveness asks: ‘All this prayer for 100 years and where are we?’ Alright we are closer to each other and we co-operate in service, when it suites us, but what are we praying for year by year? That’s the sharp question. What are you and I praying for ? It’s been the question that I’ve asked myself over and over again. I’ve been faced with the question in the World Council of Churches in the struggle between those on the one hand who see the ecumenical agenda as primarily about co-operation in projects for justice, peace, the integrity of creation, and mission - and how important all of that is in a hurting and war torn world. And those on the other hand - a dwindling few of us- who cling stubbornly to the vision that motivated the early ecumenical movement and which is embedded in the Constitution of the World Council of Churches – ‘to call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith, one Eucharistic fellowship in service and mission so that the world may believe’. But even some of the once most fervent believers in this goal seem to have given up on it – it’s a ‘will of the wisp’ as one of them wrote, unrealistic, unattainable. I’ve no doubt that it is indeed unattainable apart from the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. But aren’t we called to believe that with God all things are possible?
So, why is it that those of us who remain committed to that goal don’t seem to be clever enough or poetic enough to convey what we mean when we speak of visible unity? I tried often enough in the past to give an apologia for visible unity, only to find people accusing me of trying to knock together Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans in some sort of arid ecumenical joinery. I seemed to be heard of espousing a view of monolithic unity that stifles diversity, is structural with authority dripping down from the top of a pyramid. I used to think if only I were a poet and not an ecumenist and could convey something of the loveliness of unity like the Psalmist:
Behold how good and pleasant it is
When brothers and sisters dwell in unity.
It is like the precious oil upon the head
Running down the beard…
It is like the dew of Hermon
running down upon the hills of Zion.
For there the Lord has promised his blessing:
Even life for evermore.
The psalmist who wrote this knew that unity is first about relationships – brothers and sisters living in unity blessed within the life of God forever. That’s what the ecumenical theologians, I think, around their tables of conversation have seen as they have tried to make us look first at koinonia , communion, that giving and receiving life and love of God the Holy Trinity into which we are drawn together through baptism– a life that has to be maintained, nurtured and lived out in and for the world. The relational is always prior to the structural but the structural life of the Church is there to support and maintain that fundamental, pleasant unity in the life and love of God. Archbishop Rowan talks of it as ‘a sort of mutual creation … where we constitute one another’. He relates it to the central act of the eucharist where we are ‘fed by a reality wholly other to us yet made wholly accessible to us: fed so that we can feed one another’ - and the world.
So, what has all of this to do with dialogue and theological conversation? It has everything to do with it. The production of ecumenical reports isn’t about filling library shelves. Dialogue reports are to help us recognise in ourselves that faithful, abundant life of Christ and to call us to repentance and renewal of life where we fail. And dialogue texts are to help us recognise that same abundant life in others, with particular gifts that we need to receive together. Dialogue texts are to help us recognise Church in others so that we can move on to receive one another in a common life in Christ - in which we celebrate the one baptism, eat and drink around the one table, are served by a single ministry and can converse together, discern together, take decisions together, not giving up on one another again, and go out in service and mission together. Theological dialogue is all about helping churches to recognise faithful Christian life in ones-self and in the other, of being renewed and re-formed together, and then receiving one another in the one body of Christ living together its abundant life, so that the world might believe..
Archbishop Rowan laments in his article the loss of vigour around ecumenical conversations, recalling the time in the 1980’s when things were very different, when many of us and our churches were eagerly responding to the most important theological documents of the ecumenical century – Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry , ARCIC I. Rowan says we are now in danger of loosing that common conversation about the essential tools of recognition of what faithfulness is that can lead us on to receive one another. If only we could understand dialogue texts as instruments of recognition and reconciliation, that would surely banish the fear that dialogue is somehow about absorption theories or the imposition of megalithic structures that stifle diversity, creativity, and abundant life. So much for my defence of dialogue.
Now to my second part on the achievement of convergence in theological dialogues of the last 80 years.
II. The Achievements of theological dialogue
An ever expanding corpus
I find it useful to remind myself that the modern ecumenical conversations go back to the missionary conference in Edinburgh in 1910 when an American Episcopalian, Bishop Brent, drew attention to the necessity for a theological dialogue to explore issues of faith and order that were causes of church divisions. A multilateral conversation between some Orthodox churches, Anglicans, Lutherans and Protestant churches – no Roman Catholics then- began in the first World Conference on Faith and Order in 1927. The conference was largely responsible for defining the agenda that still engages ecumenical conversation: the Church, the sacraments, the ministry and authority. The multilateral theological conversation continued in the work of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. It was the entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement after Vatican II that led to the dramatic increase in the number of bilateral dialogues. Every church, it seems, today is in conversation with every other church in a complex, almost incestuous, network of conversations, with some very unlikely partnerships.
The Roman Catholic-Evangelical and the Roman Catholic –Pentecostal conversations, though hardly known, have produced some of the most interesting and serious theological reports. The sheer number of reports from the conversations is staggering. They have been collected together in:
Confessions in Dialogue, ed Nils Ehrenstrom and Gunther Gassmann, 1975, pages 265
Growth in Agreement I, ed Harding Meyer and Lukas Vischer 1984, pages 504
Growth in Agreement II, ed Geoffrey Gros, Harding Meyer, William Rusch, 2000, pages 939
And, just published, Growth in Agreement III with over 600 pages.
And there are more texts not yet incorporated into volume III. Some very important texts like the latest report from the Anglican- Orthodox dialogue on the Church, The Church of the Triune God and the multilateral report that builds on BEM, The Nature and Mission of the Church. Can there be any more to be said?
These collections contain some of the best theology written in these last decades. The reports differ. Some are discursive others tight agreed statements on controversial issues The aim of some is simply getting to know one another better while others aim at organic union.
Two particular issues
There are two issues that link many of the dialogues. First, the use of a particular ecumenical method, an ecumenical way of doing theology. The method is based on the breakthrough arrived at in the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order in Montreal, 1963. The discernment of a common understanding of the relation between Scripture and Tradition and the traditions of each church made possible the development of an ecumenical method, which does not set the witness of Scripture and Tradition over against one another, but seeks rather to go back to Scripture and the early Tradition, looks at the traditions of the divided churches and then re-states afresh the faith of the Church through the ages, in language that is not identical with that of either partner around the table. There is a definite move away from a strict form of ‘sola scriptura’, which bases an understanding of the church on Scripture alone,and a willingness now on the part of many churches to assess Tradition in the light of Scripture. In some dialogues this opens up the way for a rapprochement on some of the most polarised of issues of the past. A good illustration of this is the treatment of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome in the Methodist-Roman Catholic conversation:
…the primacy of the bishop of Rome is not established from scriptures in isolation from the living tradition. When an institution cannot be established from scripture alone, Methodists, in common with other churches which stem from the Reformation, consider it on its intrinsic merits, as indeed do Roman Catholics; but Methodists give less doctrinal weight than do Roman Catholics to long widespread tradition. 
This leads to the bold statement that ‘a universal primacy might well serve as a focus of and ministry for the unity of the whole church’.
While in many dialogues the old polarisation between Scripture and Tradition has given way to an emerging common understanding of the relation of the two, not all conversations agree. The Baptist-Roman Catholic dialogue records different views on theological method. ‘Baptists rely on scriptures alone, as interpreted under guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Reformation principle...Roman Catholics move from the scriptures interpreted in the light of the Tradition under the leadership of the magisterium, in a communal process guided by the Holy Spirit.’  But even here there is an acknowledgement that difference is not extreme. Baptists do in fact invoke Baptist heritage in the same way as Roman Catholics invoke Tradition. Disagreement in this area is more strongly identified in the Pentecostal-Roman Catholic dialogue. Both agree that the Church is always subject to Scripture but there is considerable disagreement on the role of Tradition. While Pentecostals say that anyone under the guidance of the Holy Spirit can interpret scripture, Roman Catholics allow that interpretation is by the people discerned by the teaching office of the Church under the power of the Holy Spirit.
So, while a great number of churches can claim an emerging common view on the relation of Scripture and Tradition which allows convergence, and even consensus, to be discovered on divisive issues of faith, sacraments and ministry, that were the cause of division, not all churches in dialogue are in agreement. There is more conversation to be had.
A second breakthrough shared by many dialogues is the affirmation of the concept of koinonia. Many reports recognise koinonia as the fundamental reality of the Church. Koinonia refers to the divine relation of the persons of the Holy Trinity into which, through faith and baptism, Christians are drawn and thus participate in that divine life and are brought thereby into a relationship with one another in that divine life – a relation of communion.
The emphasis on koinonia opens up a number of fruitful avenues. First, it enables divided churches to recognise that they are already, through baptism, bound together in the communion of God’s own life and love. So, Anglicans and Roman Catholics affirm that they are already in a ‘real though imperfect communion’, they can recognise ‘the profound measure of communion’ that exists both within and between them.’  Methodists and Roman Catholics say that they already enjoy a ‘certain measure of ecclesial communion’. And Pentecostals and Roman Catholics recognise ‘a certain, though imperfect communion’  that already binds them to one another making a degree of common mission a possibility. This recognition of what already exists does go some way, though not all the way, to overcoming fears that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches understand the Church as coterminous with their own boundaries. But, of course, this is beginning to look somewhat different to some in the light of some recent Vatican documents which, although they may be intended as internal documents, are understandably seen as effecting ecumenical partners. It remains for churches in the future to take up the conversation of who is Church and how far separated churches can recognise in one another the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Elements of visible unity
While the theme of koinonia is the one that is common to almost all of the reports, there are marked differences in what is said about the characteristics or elements that would constitute a fully visible, ecclesial communion. These differences appear to be more than a matter of emphasis and constitute what may be more a major fault line.
The Anglican-Roman Catholic statement on the Church, Church as Communion, 1982 offers a picture of what it calls the constitutive elements of visible communion. These include: the common confession of the apostolic faith, revealed in Scripture and set forth in the Catholic Creeds, with the acceptance of the same moral values, the same vision of humanity and hope in the final consummation of all things, a common baptism, celebration of one eucharist, the leadership by the apostolic ministry with oversight entrusted to the episcopate, which holds the local church in communion with all the local churches, a ministry of oversight having collegial and primatial expressions open to the community’s participation in discovering God’s will, and the ministry of a universal primate as a visible focus of the unity. These are not separable items but an inter-related package belonging to a fully visible ecclesial communion.
Conversations, particularly where Orthodox or Roman Catholics are a partner, emphasise the interlocking package of elements that belong to a fully, visible ecclesial life. This view differs from the emphasis in, for example, the Reformed-Lutheran report, Towards Church Fellowship, whichstates, ‘… as Lutheran and Reformed churches we affirm that full agreement in the right teaching/preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments is necessary and sufficient for the true unity of the church.’ However, the report does move on to consider the question of ministry. While there is a distinction between the ‘church-constituting elements’, of word and sacraments, on the one hand and ministry and structure which are not described as ‘church-constituting elements’ on the other, the report holds that there should be no ‘false separation’ between them. Although it is agreed that vigilance is required concerning ministerial structure and church organisation, there is no suggestion that a single ministry, apostolic succession, or collegial and primatial characteristics are constitutive of ‘full communion.’ However, there is an expressed desire for new structures to be discovered to serve the different levels of the churches’ life in order to strengthen common witness. But this is still a long way from a quasi-sacramental view of the ministry and structure that is found in those conversations in which the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches are partners.
So, there is more work to be done in all of these conversations on how the partners view the shape, or goal, of fully, visible, ecclesial communion. The discussions between the Disciples of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church were well aware of the significance of portraying together a shared vision of visible unity.
…We should attain greater clarity and agreement on our conception of the kind of unity we are seeking.
It is of utmost importance for ecumenical motivation whether the ecumenical aim is swathed in a nebulous general desire for unity or whether it is clearly defined at least in basic outline.
This relates to Archbishop Rowan’s question – what are we praying for this Week of Prayer?
Agreement in faith
While there does appear to be a major difference in understanding about what would constitute visible unity, there are, nevertheless, many remarkable advances in understanding the individual elements of visible unity. In the area of communion in faith there is the very significant agreement between the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox churches on Christology
. The Orthodox contribution in many of the conversations has helped to form a common understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity
, bringing the Trinity back into the centre of religious thought and life. Another major breakthrough towards an affirmation of a common faith comes in the statements on the doctrine of justification
in number of dialogues. The most remarkable is from the Lutheran-Roman Catholic conversations which have resulted in a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
In which the partners agree that:
We are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.
Baptism and eucharist
Perhaps the greatest achievement across the conversations is the remarkable convergence in the areas of baptism and eucharist, achieved, in part, through the document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.
However, there are remaining differences between some churches. For example, Baptists and Roman Catholics identify the difference between Baptists who baptise on personal testimony of faith and Roman Catholics (and others) who practice both adult and infant baptism. But even here the positions are not static and the report recognises the need to reflect further together on whether faith is solely an individual response.
And on the understanding of the eucharist, Disciples of Christ and Roman Catholics believe ‘on the whole’ they have great agreement on the understanding of the , but that they still need to discuss in more depth the nature of the presence of Christ in the eucharist and the question of episcopacy as the institution necessary for an authentic celebration.
But, not surprisingly, there remain more questions in the area of ministry. Episcopacy is still an issue between those churches which have bishops and those which do not. But here again the focus of the discussion has helpfully shifted, suggesting that in time this may lead to greater agreement. There is a positive recognition that the ministry of episcope is exercised in different ‘modes’ - personal, collegial and communal. Different churches emphasise one of these dimensions of oversight others another aspect. The question for every church is how a right balance between the three dimensions can be restored so that the personal, collegialandcommunal forms ofoversightcan best serve the unity of the Church. This, I think is one of the most fruitful lines of exploration for the future. I wish we could get on with it.
Another sharp issue remains that of the relation of episcopacy to the apostolicity and succession
of the Church. There is a difference between those churches, Orthodox and Roman Catholic in particular , who hold that bishops are a sine qua non
for visible unity, who describe bishops as the successors of the apostles and the ‘guarantors’ of the catholicity and apostolicity of the Church. We need to clarify together what is meant when the word ‘guarantor’ is used in the Roman Catholic- Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox reports. The Anglican-Roman Catholic report, Church as Communion,
has a different emphasis. It holds to the necessity of bishops in succession but eschews the use of the language of guarantee or guarantor, preferring instead to suggest that succession in episcopal ministry is intended to assure
the community that its faith is indeed the apostolic faith, received and transmitted from apostolic times.  It is a sign not of our fidelity but the unfailing fidelity of God to the Church. The treatment of apsotolicity and succession in the Orthodox-Roman Catholic reports helpfully moves away from a theory of apostolic succession as tactile succession. Apostolic succession is described rather as being transmitted through local churches, not through an isolated individual, ordained bishop.  The refusal to separate the bishop from the community of faith in this understanding of apostolic succession may open the way for a fruitful discussion between churches that have bishops in the historic succession and those who do not.
Just as there are some hopeful signs that future conversation on apostolicity and succession may prove fruitful, so too there are similar signs of hope that progress may be possible on the understanding of a ministry of universal primacy
. Methodists, Anglicans, Orthodox, Old Catholics, Disciples and Lutherans are among those who can acknowledge the importance of the ministry of a person who can focus the unity of the Church at the world level. What is unacceptable is any right to intervene arbitrarily in affairs of a diocese, or any claim to universal jurisdiction, or any exercise of primacy apart from collegiality, or any claim to infallibility. ‘This is a term applicable unconditionally only to God…and to use it of a human being, even in highly restricted circumstances, can produce many misunderstandings’, as the Anglican -Orthodox dialogue suggests. 
The report makes the point that there is no guarantee of the infallibility of a statement, either of a bishop or a college of bishops, since the truth of a statement is only manifest ‘through the acceptance by the body of the Church.’  In view of so much support for a ministry of primacy as a focus of unity it would be helpful to have a conversation between those churches that have expressed themselves hospitable to the ministry of primacy, in order to test out whether there is any agreement on how such a ministry should be exercised in the service of the unity of all the churches.
One of the most intractable obstacles between Roman Catholics, Orthodox and other churches remains the question of the ordination of women
. The Common Declaration between John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie in 1989 was clear that the different practices over the ordination of women ‘prevents reconciliation even where there is otherwise progress towards agreement in faith’.
But, Roman Catholics and Methodists strike a hopeful note when they suggest that further thought will benefit both churches.  This is a serious matter if it is to remain an obstacle to greater unity, and particularly so, if the Roman Catholic Church will not allow the question to be explored in its conversations with churches who do ordain women.
Two recent reports, one from the Anglican-Roman Catholic conversation and the other from the Joint Working Group’s, have moved into the area of morals.
Anglicans and Roman Catholics agree that they share the same fundamental moral values (a necessary mark of visible communion), though there are particular disagreements on marriage of divorced persons; methods controlling conception; abortion and homosexual relations. But these are not seen as at the level of fundamental moral values, but rather an interpretation of practical judgements.
But exploration of moral issues only sends the dialogue partners back to questions of sources and structures of authority. ARCIC suggests that the problem of diverse witness is largely due to the fact that since the sixteenth century paths have diverged with separate structures of discernment and authority leading to the formation of different moral judgements. The importance of the so called authority agenda – structures, sources and processes of decision making and teaching with authority - must become a more and more central part of the ecumenical conversations in the years ahead. As the Evangelicals agree with the Roman Catholics, it is one thing to have a set of principles another to know how to apply them and who is responsible for applying them.  If churches are to live in visible communion and that communion to be maintained, then there will need to be agreement on how they decide together in the areas of faith, order as well as moral life.
III. The impact and potential of dialogue
We have travelled a long way in this review of the fruits of ecumenical dialogues in terms of the convergences in bilateral dialogues. I have tried to show both advances and places where obstacles remain and also to suggest that these may not be as intractable as sometimes we fear especially if we come at them with ecumenical method and in the perspective of koinonia. But now to my short last section - where we come to the sharp question: put crudely - so what? What is the point of all this table talk? Is the conversation making any practical difference? Is it bearing fruit in changed lives? Are members of the different churches being influenced by these agreements? Or are the theological dialogues in fact becoming simply delaying tactics for those who don’t want to loose their own identity and are happy to pile up more and more topics for discussion?
Thankfully, there is evidence, more than we often acknowledge, or are even aware of that the results of theological dialogues are doors which open up new possibilities. They are instruments for renewal in our own lives and instruments to draw churches into new relations of closer communion on the way to visible unity.
The ecumenical theological convergence is woven in the fabric of our lives even when we are unaware. For example, the recognition of baptism is signified in the acceptance of a common baptismal certificate; the revised eucharistic prayers in the Church of England were sent back for further revision when a lay member of Synod protested that theology of the proposed text of the eucharistic prayer was not consistent with what the Church of England had agreed in its response to BEM about the meaning of the eucharist. The prayer was revised in line with the ecumenical convergence. The ecumenical canons of the Church of England, which govern ecumenical living generally and formal Ecumenical Partnerships, were only possible because they were based on the firm theological foundation of BEM. The Roman Catholic Bishops’ document, One Bread One Body, explicates an understanding of the eucharist for Roman Catholics using not Vatican statements but the ecumenical documents of BEM and ARCIC. National agreements of closer fellowship and shared mission between the Moravians and the Church of England and the more recent Covenant with the Methodists are built upon the fruits of bilateral and multilateral documents rather than on confessional statements of particular churches, often forged in times of division. European agreements like Leuenberg between Reformed, Lutherans and now Methodists, the Meissen Agreement, between Anglican churches of Britain and Ireland and the Lutheran and Reformed churches of Germany, or the agreement of communion between the Nordic and Baltic Churches and the Anglican churches of Britain and Ireland which has led to a close relation of life and mission in Europe would not have been possible without the fruits of ecumenical conversation. By claiming the agreements in faith churches have been given confidence to formally recognise in each other a shared faith, authentic sacraments and fruitful ministry and forms of oversight opening the way for an exchange of gifts and providing a firm foundation for sharing in ministry and mission. They have helped us to recognise Church, the Body of Christ in one another. The convergences of the theological dialogues have led to convergence in life.
This way of using the ecumenical convergence in faith to and support developments in relationships between churches continues. Most recently an international commission of Anglican-Roman Catholic bishops got together to study the ARCIC documents. They were struck by how much these agreed statements proved we hold in common – far more than divides. They have written to all RC and Anglican bishops around the world urging them, with their clergy and laity, to let the theological agreements of ARCIC blossom in new forms of shared prayer, joint study, shared theological education, shared approach to new issues, and shared ministry and mission locally and nationally.
These are just a few examples of the power of theological conversation to change our lives and relationships. I suspect that the fruits of these conversations are woven into our lives and relationships more than we know. The warnings from some very influential Church leaders that the way of ecumenical conversations has done as much as it can do, I think is wrong. The way of dialogue has much still to offer.
I began with Archbishop Rowan. Let me end with Archbishop Rowan. In a plea to intensify the way of mutual recognition of one another in the Body of Christ, Rowan says:
In our current rather bemused or becalmed ecumenical environment, we could do worse than re-visit Lima and ARCIC texts on ministry and Church as Communion and re-acquaint ourselves with the questions that we all have to confront about how we can see this or that ecclesial body as authentically more than just local and contingent.
One way of doing just this would be to use the Faith and Order’s latest report on the nature and mission of the Church to stimulate a conversation at local and national levels with the sort of intensity, excitement and commitment that we had in the eighties around BEM and which did lead to deeper understanding, renewed lives and changed relationships on the way to visible unity.
This would be a way of re-capturing that conversation about the essential tools of recognition of what faithfulness is, that can lead us to recognise Church in one another and receive one another in the one body of Christ, so that the world might believe.
Dame Mary Elizabeth Tanner, DBE is an academic specialising in the Old Testament. She was European President of the World Council of Churches (WCC) from 2006 to 2013 and has been a member of the WCC Faith and Order Commission since 1974, serving as its moderator from 1991 to 1998.
 This talk is based on a review article published in 2006 in Ecclesiology
 A Treasure in Earthen Vessels, An Instrument for an Ecumenical Reflection on Hermeneutics. Faith and Order Paper 182 (WCC, 1998).
 Growth in Agreement I, p.8.
 The Nature and Mission of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement, Faith and Order Paper, 198, World Council of Churches, Geneva, 2005.