Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts reflecting (1) on Covenant’s recent seminar in Rome on Catholic ecclesiology and ecumenism, and (2) on fresh approaches to, and promises of, Christian unity in our own time.

The first two are Shaun Blanchard, “A Catholic observer in Rome?” and Calvin Lane, “A postcard from Rome: Stewarding the confession.” See also Christopher Wells, “With all the saints in every place: Ineluctable ecumenism.” Further posts are under the ecumenism tag.


Lately I’ve been dipping into James Pike’s edited volume from 1956, Modern Canterbury Pilgrims: And Why They Chose the Episcopal Church. It’s the ideal book for the nightstand: Each essay can be read easily in one sitting, and none are so intellectually demanding as to impede falling asleep afterwards. If C.S. Lewis suggested that the ideal nightstand volume is “a gossipy, formless book that can be opened anywhere,” this book isn’t quite that ideal, but it is its ecclesial cousin.


One of the most memorable pieces in this collection is by the great poet W.H. Auden. It includes tantalizing bits of autobiography and not a little substantive theology. (Often, I find, it is poets and historians and novelists who have a better grasp of the import of certain doctrines than the professional theologians.) I recommend reading the whole essay. But for now, I just want to quibble with where Auden ends his reflections. In his concluding paragraph, he writes this:

Into the question of why I should have returned to Canterbury instead of proceeding to Rome, I have no wish to go in print. The scandal of Christian disunity is too serious.

The second sentence here, the reader infers, is the basis for the first. Auden wants not to discuss his choice of Anglicanism over Roman Catholicism because to do so would simply heap coals on the scandalous blaze of Christian division. But, I wonder, is that the right way to look at the matter?

On the one hand, I certainly share Auden’s dismay at triumphalist celebration of one’s own Christian tradition at the expense of others. Especially in this time of Christianity’s gradual diminishment in the West, we all ought to be eschewing what Pope St. John Paul II called “an unevangelical insistence on condemning the ‘other side’” (Ut Unum Sint). And we ought instead to be, as Alan Jacobs cried recently in response to a particular case of Reformed triumphalism,

look[ing] earnestly for every possible way to draw together, to make common cause, to pray together, to build one another up, and especially, if possible, to share the Eucharist.

Insofar as Auden is promoting this ecumenical vision, I’m with him.

And yet, on the other hand, I find myself pondering what it means that the path to the “Coming Great Church” (as Theodore Wedel calls it in Modern Canterbury Pilgrims) lies through acknowledging our differences and exploring how those differences might, after all, not keep us from proclaiming the Word and sharing the Eucharist together.

This point has, of course, long been discussed in ecumenical meetings and documents: The way to Christian unity, as George Hunsinger has written, most likely lies in “pushing forward to more complex and multidimensional soteriologies (and ecclesiologies) that can critically appropriate what is valid in opposing views.” In other words, not all talk of our differences boils down to triumphalism, and not all differences must be totally removed before sharing Communion becomes possible. And so I think about what it would look like for an Auden — or for me, or any other modern-day Anglican — to a tell a “Canterbury trail” story in such a way that the scandal of Christian disunity wasn’t deepened but rather, somehow, acknowledged and, if not transcended, then at least put into a hope-giving perspective.

How might I have written, then, if I’d been a contributor to Modern Canterbury Pilgrims? For starters, I might have emphasized how my journey into the Anglican fold was, in part, a move toward Rome (as well as toward Constantinople), at least in a certain sense. Having grown up Baptist, I came in time to agree with Robert McAfee Brown that any future reunited church will patently include episcopacy, and thus it was important to me to take a step toward that future catholicity by joining a communion in which the threefold order of ministry had been preserved.

But I would also have wanted to say something about the English Reformation and my understanding of its place in the life of Anglicanism today. Although it is still unclear whether the Reformation’s way of stating the doctrine of justification by faith must continue to be church-dividing, it does seem clear, to this Anglican, at least, that it is a crucial way of preserving the gospel’s sharpest edge. To quote Hunsinger again,

The entire gospel, as understood by the Reformation, depends on the affirmation that Christ’s righteousness and life become ours as a gift that is received not by works but by faith alone. Because salvation is not properly a process but a once-for-all event that comes to us whole and entire, as a sheer gift, which is Christ himself, salvation is the stable basis and not the uncertain goal of the Christian life.

Part of my reason for being an Anglican rather than a Roman Catholic, then, is that I persist in believing, with Hunsinger, that Rome ought to eliminate

the misplaced concreteness that it has traditionally set on salvation as an existential or ecclesial “process” [and pursue instead] a richer, more complex, and more truly Christocentric soteriology.

I view my Anglican confession of justification by faith as, in this sense, a gift to the Church Catholic. I want, precisely as an Anglican, to continue to hold it before Rome and the East and to commend it as the clearest way I know of articulating the singularity and finality of Christ’s person and work. I want it to affect future ecumenical discussion, and I want it to be included, in whatever transformed way, into the confessional bedrock of a future reunited church. To adapt some words from Kevin Vanhoozer,

It is possible passionately to subscribe to [Reformational, Anglican] theology … because one is convinced that the voice of this tradition needs to be heard and says something of distinct importance for the catholic church, yet at the same time to acknowledge that one’s [Reformational, Anglican] theology is a confession, not a possession, of the truth of Jesus Christ.

Much more, of course, begs to be said, but my bottom line is a rather simple one. In contrast to Auden, I’d want to write my tale of modern Canterbury pilgrimage in such a way that my distance from Rome could be seen — precisely so that I might speak a Reformational word that I hope can benefit the cause of a future visible union with Rome. Talking about what makes Anglicanism distinctive, such as I understand it, can be an ecumenical gift rather than an impediment, if done in a spirit of charity and of hope.

About The Author

Wesley Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan and an assisting priest at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Tim O'Malley
6 years ago

I found the piece to be remarkably interesting and a much needed contribution. There is no point in conducting an ecumenism where we leave the difficult points unaddressed. They won’t disappear by ignoring them. For this reason, I’m grateful for Wesley for bring this to our attention. But, as a RC, I’d quibble with Hunsinger’s account of Roman Catholic soteriology. For a Catholic, it’s not that there is a Church separate from Christ (such that we can think about an existential-ecclesial account of soteriology separate from a Christological account of soteriology). Rather, it’s that the Church herself become Christ’s Bride… Read more »

[…] This question is the result of something Wesley Hill wrote in this article, […]

Bruce Atkinson
3 years ago

Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked. (Proverbs 25:26, ESV). And as Amos asks, can two walk together if they do not agree on the direction?