By Leander Harding

For decades as a parish priest I nodded reverently in the direction of ecumenism but was too preoccupied with the business of finding the next Senior Warden or Sunday School teacher to do very much about it. The actual instruments of ecumenical activity locally available had ceased to focus on unity in the body of Christ and had shifted to more interfaith work. I remember the meeting of the local council of churches in which we became a council of churches and synagogues, and then the later meeting in which we became an interfaith council. At the time I made an argument that we needed an interfaith council but also a council of churches dedicated to promoting unity in the body of Christ for the sake of mission. By mission I meant something which many of my colleagues in the ministry of the mainline churches found embarrassing, that is, that Jesus Christ should be presented to the world in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that men and women everywhere should confess him as Lord and Savior, and the whole world should come under his most gracious rule.

I found it ironic that our local well-funded council of churches should be carried away with an ecstasy for interfaith work, until the interfaith council completely replaced the council of churches, while ignoring the dozens of storefront Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in our community with their mostly African-American and Latino congregations. The organization did good works and promoted mutual understanding, but local common witness to Christ across denominational lines just didn’t exist. In fact, praying in the name of Christ was explicitly forbidden in the meetings of the interfaith group. While in a sense the goal of the council was to be more inclusive, in reality it was not.

When I left parish ministry to become a seminary teacher I was given a chance to teach a course on Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin was a pastor of the Church of Scotland who went out to India as a missionary and then became one of the first bishops of the Church of South India. He then went on to become one of the founding leaders of the World Council of Churches. He was initially very enthusiastic about the work of the World Council because of his commitment to mission. As a missionary in India, Newbigin perceived that the denominational divisions of the church were counter-evangelical in a true missionary situation.


Phrases from Newbigin went into my heart like arrows. He said that one of the great questions of the human heart is, Can there indeed be one human family? The answer of the gospel is yes. The Lord has come that there might be one flock and one Shepherd. The witness of the divided churches is a counter-gospel. The proclamation and witness of the church is contradicted by its bitter divisions. Newbigin also said that when we proclaim to people who they are in Jesus Christ, and when we tell them that this identity is the most basic, the most constitutive, we tell them this from a divided platform. Newbigin was convinced that the West could not be brought back to Christ by an unreconciled denominationalism, because this kind of fractured church was the form of church that had completely accommodated itself to consumerism. A church that presents itself under such a form lacks the authority to call people away from the idol of the autonomous self.

Newbigin lived long enough to become deeply disillusioned by the World Council of Churches. For him a decisive turn was taken by the election of Konrad Raiser as General Secretary in 1993. Raiser was elected on the strength of his book, Ecumenism in Transition: A Paradigm Shift for the Ecumenical Movement. Raiser advocated a turn away from what he criticized as a Christocentric universalism represented by the motto of the World Missionary Conference of 1910, “The World for Christ in this generation.” Instead, he called for a turn toward what he called Trinitarian Conciliarity.

This was in fact an emphasis on the first and third persons of the Trinity at the expense of the second. The mission of God was no longer bringing the nations to unity in Jesus Christ. The mission of God was to identify what the Spirit was doing in the world to advance God’s will for justice. The confession of Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of the world was likewise an embarrassment and impediment to mission thus conceived.

When the local council of churches in the town where I was a parish priest gave up its specifically Christian witness, it was ratifying a program that had been in play in North Atlantic Protestant leadership for a generation.

Newbigin criticized this in a review of Raiser’s book, Ecumenical Amnesia. Newbigin agreed with Raiser that the Spirit can

…range far beyond what the church knows and does — yet always proving to be the Spirit of the Father by leading men and women to acknowledge the Son. … [T]here can be no true understanding of Christian unity that fails to have at its center the mercy seat, that place where — at inconceivable cost — our sins have been forgiven and we are able to meet one another as forgiven sinners who must embrace one another because we have been embraced by the divine compassion in Jesus Christ.

Throughout his ministry Newbigin insisted on the practical responsibility of the church for the communities it served and particularly for the poor and marginalized in those communities. In India he was a real advocate and champion of the poor. Nevertheless, he critiqued Raiser’s vision:

But this whole vision is too much shaped by the ideology of the 1960s with its faith in the secular, and in human power to solve problems. The thesis is heavily marked by a model not explicitly referred to but tending to dominate the WCC from Uppsala onward, a model that interprets all situations in terms of the oppressor and the oppressed and that tends to interpret the struggles of the oppressed as the instrument of redemption. This model owed not a little to Marxist thought, and the collapse of Marxism as a world power has created a new situation with which the WCC has to come to terms.

It is one of the most pressing tasks for the immediate future to rediscover a doctrine of redemption that sees the cross not as the banner of the oppressed against the oppressor but as the action of God that brings both judgment and redemption for all who will accept it, yet does not subvert the proper struggle for the measure of justice that is possible in a world of sinful human beings.

The program outlined by Konrad Raiser for the World Council of Churches in 1993 has become the dominant soteriology and missiology in the old mainline churches, including the Episcopal Church, with the same negative effect on both the unity and the evangelical mission of these churches. This is the result of the substitution of a humanly contrived principle of unity for the cross of the savior as the divinely appointed principle of unity.

The ecumenical challenge today does not run between denominations but within denominations. It is very likely that two congregations of different denominations will have more in common with each other than they will with their neighboring congregation of the same denomination. The challenge to the unity of the church is intramural. It is even intra-congregational. The damage of the ersatz soteriology and missiology represented by Raiser to the unity and evangelistic mission and ministry of the church is incalculable. The only way that further destructive division can be avoided, and the existing damage reversed, is by waking from the ecumenical amnesia that has entranced our churches and rediscovering the center of our unity and mission in the mercy seat of Jesus Christ.

The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding is dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany.

About The Author

The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, is entering his fourth decade as a priest of the Episcopal Church.

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Paul Zahl
3 years ago

Marvelous, needed contribution!!

[…] conclusion, by sharing what he thinks this might look like moving forward. It’s worth a read:  Read More >>> PrevPreviousWorship: Week of March […]

Michael Tessman
3 years ago

Always good to have Newbiggin’s work cited up front, as Leander does so well, and uses extremely well in making this vital argument. I’m always concerned though, that we missiological ecumenists forget a major tenet of organizational systems: that they exist to self-perpetuate, irregardless of foundational beliefs and shared values. The denominations (and still, more of them appear, even under the Anglican umbrella) give exceptional lip-service to their convictions re: John 17:21, whilst striving to maintain institutional entities, ancient and modern. At some point in time, this must be challenged, as well as the theology and Christology. We need a… Read more »