Is full visible unity a viable ecumenical objective?
– a pentecostal perspective –
Nineteen years ago I left the safety of the familiar world of my denominational jobs as pastor and regional bishop to enter a strange profession, akin to herding cats some might say, known as ecumenism. On the way I have been introduced to grandiose terms like oikoumene, organic unity, unity in diversity, unity in reconciled diversity, unity in unstructured diversity, conciliar fellowship, and capping them all, full visible unity. This family of terminologies represents the church’s differing responses to the prayer of Jesus recorded in John 10, ‘that they may be one as we are one, that the world may believe'.
Speaking as a pentecostal, with a small p, from a relatively small international denomination, most of these ecumenical philosophical approaches sit quite comfortably with my understanding of the church catholic. However, 'full visible unity' continues to be challenging. Two secular vignettes point to why this may be so. First, the pig and the chicken discussing breakfast for their owner in which the pig says it's alright for you dear chicken all you have to do is lay an egg, but to give my master bacon for breakfast will cost me my life. Second, is the saying that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. Laying aside Pentecostal paranoia about being gobbled up, I believe there remains the question of the veracity and reasonableness of ‘full visible unity’ as a viable ecumenical objective.
Michael Root in an anthology in honour of Dame Mary Tanner, a former European President of the World Council of Churches, quotes her from an essay she wrote in 1988 titled ‘The Goal of Unity in Theological Dialogues Involving Anglicans’. In it Dame Tanner surveyed the understandings of the ecumenical goal found in the various bilateral dialogues being pursued by Anglicans at the international level. While she found a common commitment to ‘visible unity’ in all the dialogues, she was worried about tendencies in the dialogue with Lutherans (and, to a lesser degree, with Catholics) toward an understanding of the ecumenical goal that would permit the ongoing existence of distinct churches or denominations in the same locality.
Dame Mary called attention to the statement by the international Lutheran-Anglican ‘Cold Ash Report’ that ‘by full communion we here understand a relationship between two distinct churches or communions. Each maintains its own autonomy and recognises the catholicity and apostolicity of the other, and each believes the other to hold the essentials of the Christian faith.’ ‘Hallelujah to that’, says the Pentecostal; but Dame Tanner commented: ‘the affirmation of continuing parallel structures and each denomination retaining autonomy, though living interdependently, does seem to rule out the development of a single Christian Church in one locality under single ministry. Is the vision of parallel structures here a vision for a stage on the way? If not, can we consider this a convincing picture of the unity we seek?’ (Michael Root in Colin Padmore, 1998, p237).
Contrast that perspective with this one from Dr Conrad Raiser who in an address he gave in 1991, discussed the etymology of ‘Full Visible Unity’. Raiser located the term in ‘Christocentric universalism’ on a par with similar universal ideas such as the United Nations. Furthermore, he argued that the concept of global unity had lost its appeal leaving a hollow centre in what, notwithstanding, had become the raison deter of the WCC. It is surprising…given its ‘questionable ancestry’ Raiser said, ‘that, to my knowledge, very little research has been done to clarify the ‘archaeology’ of this central element of the ecumenical vision and its suitability as a concept.’
‘We should have discovered long ago,’ he said, ‘that the biblical tradition does not share our approach to the issue of ‘unity’; indeed the term is hardly used as a concept in biblical writings. What we find instead is the concern for building and maintaining communion between people and communities who remain different. Unity in biblical terms is not something empirically given, but rather a continuous, living process which presupposes existing diversities. The image of the body and its members come to mind immediately to exemplify this relational understanding of unity over against the hierarchical tendencies of the dominant pattern’ (The Ecumenical Movement, Kinnamon ed., p74-75).
For full visible unity to lose its fear and dread for Pentecostals, it will be necessary to view it through the prism of an already existent church ‘catholic’; sharing a God-given heterogeneous oneness in Christ; like that of a Triune God, and in the spirit of Psalm 133.1 ‘How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.’ This is not unity seeking oneness, but a oneness seeking, commanding unity. My ecumenical task then becomes encouraging the coherence of diversity ever more fully; and in a deepening koinonia helping spiritual siblings build better quality relationships; leading to more effective engagement in God’s mission in the world. The unique nature of our oneness as Christ’s body demands that even as we disagree about these matters, we journey on to that eschatological place in God’s oikoumene where all is fulfilled in God. Amen.
Joe Aldred is a member of staff at Churches Together in England
Text edited from a speech given to the Nikæan Club in July 2015