Mission and the Unity of the Church

Mission and the Unity of the Church


The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.


“Mission” is often proposed as a source of unity for our divided church. I put “mission” in quotation marks because it is a word that is used as though everyone knows what it means. In the vernacular of The Episcopal Church, mission, with very rare exceptions, means something the church does in the community to address problems of human need. A soup kitchen is mission. A homeless shelter is mission. Advocacy on behalf of migrant workers is mission. The millennium development goals adopted by the United Nations are put forward as banners of mission around which the church can unite both in the United States and across the Anglican Communion.


There is a tremendous amount of theology that is being finessed here and the use of the term “mission” by leaders in The Episcopal Church in this way is equivocal at best and its use with traditional Christians who are likely to understand mission in terms of bringing people to saving faith in Jesus Christ appears at times willfully misleading. It is quite correct that the church is called to serve the world and especially the needs of the poor, the sick and the oppressed. A church which never backed up its proclamation with practical acts of love would be a contradiction and a countersign to the Gospel. (“Gospel” is another word that is used with great finesse and equivocation as though everyone knows what it means.) But our good works, no matter how noble and how helpful, can never be the center of unity in the church and they can never be the center of unity for a badly divided human race. New divisions are bound to come about the right objectives and the right means, about who distributes the goods and who is entitled to receive them, about which missions are the most important ones, about who is shouldering their fair share in the work of mission and who is riding on the shoulders of others. For the entirety of my more than thirty years of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church “mission” in this sense of good works, and with the subtext of “deeds not creeds,” has been the central organizing principle and it has ushered in a period of deep division and a diminishing ability to come together to address a needy world. This center has not held, and will not hold.


The human race is rent with division. As we enter the 21st century the divisions of race and clan and tribe are more murderous and threatening than ever before. These divisions are entirely capable of defeating any effort at development that the concerted effort of the nations of the world might make, not to mention the efforts of a mainline American church which has been in a decades-long decline.


The human race is divided because of sin, an enthrallment to evil, a fundamental break with God made from the human side which cannot be repaired from the human side. Unity and reconciliation are not something that can be produced by any human program of development. Unity and reconciliation are created by the costly and sacrificial work of God. The break between God and the human race must be solved from God’s side and this is what he has done in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Proclaiming and witnessing the new life with God and the new life with each other that is possible in Jesus Christ is the mission of the church. Of course it includes acts of love but it is not a program of development. It is an invitation to come to the one place of possible unity for both the church and the world, the level ground at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ where faith grasps the costly mercy of God and the new light of the resurrection begins to dawn and true charity begins to flow. To try to speak of “mission” and “reconciliation” apart from God’s saving deed in the cross of Christ is to sever the consequences from the cause and to vainly fabricate a source of unity apart from the one God has actually provided. So much popular preaching and teaching in the Episcopal Church now emphasizes the ministry of Galilee at the expense of the teaching of the cross and the resurrection. You cannot have the inclusive table fellowship of Galilee without embracing the sacrifice on Calvary. A church that cannot confidently call its own, no less the unbelieving world, to rally to the One who is the way, the truth and the life, is doomed to fruitless divisions and has no hope, no new reality to offer a world that is perishing from division.


To proclaim Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth and the life,” does not mean that there is no truth or beauty in the world’s great religions and philosophies. It does not mean that we can confidently assign all believers in other creeds to certain damnation, though we can offer them no assurance of salvation apart from the One to whom we have been elected witnesses. It does mean that the church proclaims to the world, in word and deed, and by a life in which men and women of different tribes and races are actually reconciled with each other because they are reconciled with God by the sacrifice of the saviour, that there is an actual dependable point of reconciliation, with God and each other, made not by our hands but by the outstretched hands of the saviour upon the cross. The unity and future of the church and the human race, here and hereafter is vouchsafed in this one saving deed of God. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.” John 12:32.

Mary and Christmas

Fourth Sunday of Advent
A Sermon preached at Trinity Cathedral, Pittsburgh PA Dec. 18, 2011
by the Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding

It is the tradition of the Church on the last Sunday of Advent to focus on the figure of Mary, and upon the annunciation by the angel Gabriel to her that she would bear the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. “Hail, Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee; the Holy Spirit shall overshadow thee and thou wilt conceive a child and call his name Jesus, which means God saves, and He will save His people.” Ultimately He will spread out His arms on the hard wood of the Cross so that the whole world will come within the reach of His saving embrace.
Most churches have a stained glass window of the Annunciation — here at the Cathedral, there is one in the Lady Chapel and also in the main sanctuary.

The life of Jesus is bracketed by two miracles. The first is the miracle of the incarnation, the miracle of the Virgin birth, whereby the eternal Word of God’s love, the only begotten Son of the Father takes human flesh from the Virgin Mary His mother and becomes man. In the paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Peterson called The Message, “The Word took on flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” At the beginning of His life on earth is the incarnation and at the end of His earthly life is the Resurrection. The Father raises the Son from death and gives us the hope and promise that we might be raised as well — to a new life which begins now and which he grave cannot hold.

The New Testament forthrightly puts before us a God of miracles and bids us to hope in a miraculous salvation. A miracle is a demonstration of the power of God that is recognized as such in faith. Where there is no faith, there can be no miracle seen, only something appearing astonishing or inexplicable. Both the deed of power and the faith to recognize it are the gift of God. He gives the faith that recognizes the deed and performs the deed that elicits and strengthens the faith.

So the angel comes to announce the meaning of the deed, and because the author of the miracle is the God of Love, the mighty deed is done with the character of love and for the purpose of Love.

Our era is a strange mixture of skepticism and superstition. On the one hand, there is the militant skepticism and scientism of the new atheists who think of any kind of religious belief as a kind of virus. On the other hand, alongside this atheism, there are literally millions of sons and daughters of the civilization the Bible built who are numb to the claims of their ancestral faith but are mesmerized by all kinds of fantasmagoric spirituality and religiosity. There is oddly more interest in Gabriel and in angels than in the message of the angel and the miraculous birth he comes to announce.

Hard skepticism and credulous superstition — they have in common an allergy to the God who intervenes, who breaks into human life and by so doing creates a crisis of decision, a moment which is full of both judgment and salvation. In our age, an aspect of human life which has always been there has gained the upper hand, has become dominant. It is a deep fear of anything which might interfere with our personal freedom, or at least the way we think about our freedom. We think that the more choices we have, the more free we are. The God who intervenes decisively in human life suddenly reduces the choices to two: reception or rejection.

So properly scientific theories are over-inflated into psuedo-philosophical world views, the purpose of which is to keep our riot of self-will safe from the intervention of a God who cares and cares to act decisively for our salvation. The death of Christopher Hitchens is in the news. He is an interesting figure. One of doctoral students at the seminary debated him and they became friends. They shared a long car ride. Hitchens wanted to discuss the Gospel of John. But this famous proponent of the New Atheism wrote in one of his books that he found the idea of a God who knows everything about us and who interferes in human events, oppressive.

But suppose that the miraculous God, the interventionist God, when he intervenes, when he acts for our salvation, acts not only out of love and towards the end of love but lovingly :
Here we see in the Annunciation the character of God’s intervention, the character of God’s miracle — It does not overwhelm but invites. The miraculous God always makes room for the free response. Love in action lovingly makes room for a free and loving response. Mary’s heart is prepared. In art and stained glass, the Annunciation is often depicted with a book on the floor at Mary’s feet — she has been reading Isaiah. So the salvation of the world depends on Mary’s fiat. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy will.” In surrender Mary finds a human dignity and freedom she could never have otherwise, and so by invitation and free response, God comes savingly among us.

Mary is the figure, the pattern, for both the individual Christian and for the Church. God desires that both as individuals and as the Church, we should be overshadowed by the Spirit and bring forth into the world the new life of Jesus Christ and the eternal Word of seeking, searching, and sacrificing love — the Word which at great cost brings peace with God and goodwill among men. Our purpose as Christians, as the Church of Jesus Christ, is to be bearers of this love. This is our hope. This is our salvation.

It is necessary for us as Christians and for the Church, if we are to fulfill our calling to love each other and the world with the love wherewith we have been loved by God, to closely imitate Mary and like her to say to God “Be it unto me according to your will.” “Lord, come into our lives and make us what you would have us be.” This requires humility, it requires a casting of ourselves upon God in spite of fears and doubts (The doubts and fears of all the years are met in Him on Christmas night).

It requires everything that is the opposite of the cool, detached, ironic, stance that is the ethos of our time. It does not require a sacrifice of the intellect but it requires a humility of the intellect and a docility before the witness of the scripture and the great teaching tradition of the church. It requires a willingness to trade the false freedom of an infinity of meaningless choices for the real freedom which comes from saying, “Behold I am the servant of the Lord. Be it unto me according to Thy will.” And “not my will but Thine be done.”

Let us pray. Father, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Saviour, make us, each one of us and our Church, more like Mary. Give us hearts like hers, surrendered to your will, and bring forth in us, in each heart here and in the heart of your Church, the life and love of your Son who is the peace and joy of the world. Amen.

My 9/11 Memories

My 9/11 Memories

I was the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Stamford, Connecticut when the planes slammed into the towers in New York City on September 11, 2001. It was an extraordinary day, blue sky, bright sun, perfect Fall weather. I was chairing an early morning board meeting for the local pastoral counseling center. I didn’t have a cell phone but some of the other clergy on the board did. When the first call came in we thought it was a light plane that had crashed into the first tower and it wasn’t clear that it was an attack. As the calls kept coming the horror became clear.

I returned to the church which was normally kept open during daylight hours and sat in the sanctuary and prayed. At one point a woman pastor associated with the local council of churches came in and asked if I would go with a group of clergy to the Swiss Bank. The Swiss Bank had at that time the largest trading floor in the world located in Stamford and they were sending out a call for help from the local clergy because they had lost so many colleagues in the World Trade Center. I decided that I needed to stay at the church at least until our scheduled noonday prayers. We did have a larger than normal attendance for noon prayers, perhaps ten people mostly from the parish. I read the Great Litany. Later in the day when my associate was available to be present in the church, I did go down to Swiss Bank and was given an office where I saw people who wanted to speak with a counselor.

On the Friday after 9/11 President Bush put out a request that people attend church at noon on that day. Our staff quickly put together a service. There was standing room only. Most of the people were from surrounding office buildings. We had never seen them before, and saw only a few of them after. Great Litany again, hymns including America the Beautiful and the National Anthem. I gave a very brief homily on the way in which the events of 9/11 had revealed both the evil and the goodness of which the human heart is capable and of the way in which God’s strategy for dealing with hatred and evil is the love of Jesus on the cross.

It seems to me that only shortly after 9/11 I responded to a call from Episcopal Church headquarters for volunteer chaplains for Ground Zero. In the course of the anniversary celebrations I checked my calendar and it was October 9, almost a month after. I reported to 815 2nd Ave in the city at 12:30 pm to the office of the Suffragan for the Armed Forces and received a very simple badge as a credential. I still have it. It has no picture or even my name but says simply that the bearer is on the staff of the Episcopal Church Center and gives a telephone number to call to verify the identity of the bearer. After receiving my credential I reported to St. Paul’s Chapel and was paired with another priest and was told to simply walk around the site and offer encouragement to the police, fireman and rescue workers. There were several security checks on the way into the site. At one point after we were inside the perimeter of the site we were stopped by a National Guard Air Force colonel. He looked at our badges and said come with me. I thought he was going to throw us out but he took us to a plywood shack. After disappearing into a back room he came out with two hard hats and two respirators and said, “God Bless you for being here, be safe.”

The pile was still smoking and we were told that there were fires burning deep underground. It was absolute devastation and destruction. They had been working on the site for a month and you couldn’t tell it by looking. The eerie white dust still covered everything and there was an unforgettable smell which was clearly a mix of burning plastic and human flesh. Wherever I go as a priest in clericals there are always some people who are glad to see you and some who are diffident and cool. I met no one at ground zero who was not visibly relieved to see the clergy. You could tell the Roman Catholics, they asked for a blessing. Virtually everyone wanted to talk and many asked for prayer. Often the talk was just chit chat, just a craving for a reassuring conversation and human contact. At other times people asked the big questions, “What did it all mean?”

I was surprised by what I didn’t meet. I didn’t meet a lot of anger. The overwhelming mood was sober and somber. To be there was to be stunned into near speechlessness by the enormity of what human beings are capable of both for good and ill.

I remember one very burly and muscular construction worker who was sitting on a five gallon bucket waiting for the huge front end loaders that were working to come and be greased. As we came into sight he looked up at us with a look that simply broke my heart. I can only describe it as an agony of soul that was completely visible in his visage. We stopped and prayed.

The protocol was that if human remains were found a chaplain would be requested to come up on the pile and pray and stand vigil while the body parts were being recovered. Twice in that shift we were waved up on the pile only to be waved off because it was a false alarm. I did see one body bag draped in a flag being removed from another part of the pile. At one point I was waiting with a group of New York City policemen while it was being determined if I should go up on the pile. One of the young policemen, a man with a stutter, turned to me and stuttered out, “You are a man of God, is this, is this, is this, the end of the world?” I said that the Bible word for the end of the world is apocalypse and that I didn’t think this was the apocalypse. I explained that apocalypse means the curtain goes up and you see who is who and what is what. This I did not think was the apocalypse, the final end but I did think it was an apocalyptic moment, a moment when we see how things really are, a moment when good is revealed as good and evil as evil and when it is clear that we cannot stand against evil either in hearts or the world around us without the saviour.

It took about two hours to walk around the perimeter of the site and at the end of a round we would go back to the chapel. The chapel was full of rescue workers taking a break. Most of the pews had people sleeping on them. There were pews roped off where massage therapists or crisis counselors or podiatrists or first aid workers were helping the exhausted volunteer fire and rescue and construction workers get ready to go back to their work. There was an appropriate hush in the chapel and there would be regular services of prayer at the altar. The majority of the chaplains at that time were Episcopal priests. It was the Episcopal Church’s finest hour in many ways, and I was proud of my church and felt privileged to have been there and been a witness for a brief moment.

Nearly a month later I led a clergy retreat for the Diocese of Albany. I remember getting ready to start my talk and looking down at my feet. Though I had cleaned my shoes when I came back from Ground Zero there was still some of that eerie white dust clinging to them.

There is a great deal of evil in the world. Many events in even contemporary history are more horrific than what happened in New York on September 11, 2001. But this was the closest I had gotten to the black nothingness of evil. This was where it touched me in an unforgettable way. I arrived at Ground Zero already convinced that the cross of Jesus Christ was the hope of the world and left, how to say it, taken beyond conviction, to a place where any thought that there was any other possible antidote to the venom of the serpent that had bitten us than the crucified and risen Lord breathing his life into us, was made impossible.

Leander S. Harding, 9/12/2011

Anchored in Hope

Anchored in Hope

A Sermon Preached in Trinity Chapel, Kennebunk Beach, Maine, on July 17, 2011

By The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding


I was sitting in the chapel this week saying my prayers and working on my sermon when counselors and children from the program at the Kennebunk Beach Improvement Association across the street came by to see the flowers and plants in the memorial garden. I invited them into the church and they had many questions. I was asked to explain some of the things we have here. Two things I explained were the anchor emblazoned on the front of the altar and the Christus Rex above the altar—the crucified and risen Lord, our high priest and king who reigns over the world he has saved.


    The anchor is a symbol of one of the three supernatural Christian virtues, faith, hope and love. Typically the cross is the symbol for faith; a heart, sometimes on fire, is the symbol for love; and the anchor is the symbol of hope. Amidst the storms of life, we do not lose hope. Our hope is anchored in the Lord both here and hereafter.


    Hope requires belief in promises and belief in promises requires belief in a story that is true. For the promise is that the story will end well and the Christian conviction is that we know the end of the story and at the end His Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. Sin and evil and death have their time, appear at times to have the upper hand, but they are doomed. We are living in the middle of the story, in the middle of the suffering that St. Paul talks about in today’s reading from Romans. It is a suffering that comes not only from living in a world where we must deal with the consequences of sin, not only the sin and wickedness of other people, but our own sin and wickedness, and also the mystery of evil which is super-personal, that which the Bible calls the evil one and the enemy of our souls. We suffer from the consequences of evil but we also suffer from our longing for what should be and what we know on the basis of our Bible- formed hope will be.


    The promise of the Bible is that both we and the heavens and the earth will be made new. Death, both physical death and the spiritual death which is our alienation and our hostility with God and with each other and with God’s good creations will be overcome. Death will have no more dominion over us. It will be a new humanity in a new heaven and new earth. Like the saviour and through Him by His living in us and our living in Him we will have resurrection bodies—a mystery which St. Paul talks about in the First Letter to the Corinthians. It means at least this, bodies able to perfectly express love for God and for each other and all that God has made. The earth as beautiful as it is will be new. Death and violence and cancer will no longer be natural. It will be a new Eden and we will be at home and caught up in wonder, love and praise.


    In the Gospel today there is a parable of the final judgment. It is part of the Christian story and part of the good news of the Gospel that there is a final judgment. There is evil in the world and evil in us — we are living in the time of redemption — the time for God’s saving and sacrificial love to do its work. Evil will not be tolerated forever. It will be finally and completely rooted out in the final judgment.


    The good news is that, to borrow a phrase from another parable, the judge is our friend and has given Himself to be judged in our place. He is not only the judge, he is also our mediator and advocate. As St. John says, “If any man sin we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous and He is the satisfaction for our sins and not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world.” It is our advocate, mediator and friend who is the unseen Lord of all and who comes to establish His rule on earth as in heaven.


    This is in very brief outline is the Christian Story—the true story of the world—the true story of God’s dealings with his creatures. It is a story full of promises and hope. It is promised that sins will be forgiven, that evil will be conquered, that hearts and minds and wills and relationships will be remade. It is even promised that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, a new creation, and creation itself longs for this day.


    We believe the story and the promises because they have been revealed to us. The author of the play Himself has appeared on stage to tell us the true meaning of the drama in which we find ourselves. We believe the promises and therefore live in hope also because we have received what St. Paul calls in Greek, an arabon. It is a commercial term and it means earnest money, a down payment, a first installment of the promises of God.


    This down payment is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Last week I talked about how in the New Testament it is not body and spirit that are opposites but flesh and spirit. Flesh is the entire human person, body and spirit, in rebellion, turned away from God. Spirit is the entire human person turned toward God in repentance, worship and obedience by the sacrificial love of the saviour. When we turn to Christ and lay hold by faith of the costly love and mercy that He extends to us, He gives us His Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a spirit of freedom, a spirit to assist us to overcome the sin which pulls us down. The Holy Spirit is not a spirit of fear but of adoption, a spirit that lets us join with Jesus in His prayer and say, “Our Father.” The Holy Spirit bears witness that we are children of God and heirs with Jesus Christ of all the promises of God. In this world where the wheat and weeds grow together we have the first fruits of the life of the world to come—God’s down payment testimony of the things to come.


    There is a pre-eminent place where we experience the first fruits of the Spirit who brings in God’s future and that is in the Holy Eucharist. Here we meet the crucified and risen Lord who reigns over us as our King and welcomes us to the one and same feast of the Kingdom which is coming, who pronounces our sins forgiven, who shows us His hands and His side and breathes into us His peace and His life, as He did to the Apostles in that upper room after the resurrection. Here bread and wine and the things of this world are transfigured in the light of the world to come. Here at least for a moment at peace with God and each other, worshiping God in the beauty of holiness, lost in wonder, awe and praise, things are very nearly as they should and will be. It is the currency of heaven, the true tender and a real installment if not the final settling of accounts. We can come away with faith renewed in the promises of God anchored in the hope of the Gospel.


    Now to bet on this story—to live on it and into it as the one thing needful in life is very counter-cultural. To borrow a phrase from the theologian Robert Jenson, we live in a world that has lost its story. For a long time our culture has attempted to have a story without an author. Having lost the author you finally lose the story and without the possibility of a true story, a plot that gives meaning to life, promises become impossible and so we should not be surprised at the trust that is broken on every side.


    The hopelessness and despair into which our culture has fallen as it has become overwhelmed by skepticism and disbelief is brilliantly captured in the play by Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot.” The play consists of the dialogue between two characters. The whole point of the play is that nothing happens, there is no story and no plot and therefore no hope. There are just pitiful, absurd characters who mistakenly think that anything could actually happen.


    Dear brothers and sisters, let us not live as though we were characters in a play without a plot. We know better than this. For to us has been revealed the story of God’s dealing with His creatures and to us has been revealed the promises of God and to us has been given the first fruits of the Spirit. Let us not live according to the flesh, turned away from God, but according to the spirit which has been given to us at such great price. Let us live as children of the victorious King who has conquered on our behalf, who reigns in love, whose promises are true and who will come to judge the living and the dead, and of His Kingdom there will be no end. Amen.



Lesslie Newbigin and the Amnesia of the Mainline Churches

This is an article that I published in the recent Trinity Journal devoted to the work of Lesslie Newbigin. This copy of the journal has three previously unpublished lectures by Newbigin. Copies of the Trinity Journal and subscriptions can be had by contacting the Trinity School for Ministry Bookstore.


Lesslie Newbigin and the Amnesia of the Mainline Churches

By Leander S. Harding



Lesslie Newbigin is one of the great theological minds of the twentieth century. Newbigin is well known and highly regarded for his analysis of pluralism and secularism and for his creative representation of the Gospel in the face of the challenge of modernity and post-modernity. He is less well known today for his missionary and ecumenical writing. He was especially passionate about the cause of church unity as would befit the Reformed pastor who goes on to be one of the organizers and first bishops of the united Church of South India.

For Newbigin church unity and mission were simply two sides of the same coin. Christ had come to reconcile human beings to each other by reconciling them to the Father. This the savior has done at the cost of the cross. The death and resurrection of the Lord were for Newbigin the unique and actual place where true reconciliation was to be found. The church was to be a community of reconciliation, a place where people heretofore estranged by race, clan, caste and class could actually experience the new way of human being won by the cross of Christ, a place where the Spirit of the risen Lord was triumphant over the divisions of sin. For Newbigin a divided church was a countersign of the Gospel, especially in those missionary contexts like India where Christians were a tiny minority. There is therefore as Newbigin said repeatedly, the closest possible connection between the unity of the church and the mission of the church. In his exquisite and compact ecclesiology, The Household of God, he said that our contentment with the divisions of the church was due to the simple fact that we did not believe that the church of God was what the New Testament taught that it was: the indivisible body of Christ.

Newbigin was one of the original figures in the World Council of Churches and labored for many years in both the missionary and faith and order departments and was personally responsible for integrating the International Missionary Council into the World Council of Churches. Sadly, he lived to see the missionary emphasis of the Council diluted to the vanishing point in the work of the WCC.

A decisive turning point in the history of the WCC was the election of Konrad Raiser to the post of General Secretary in 1992. The original vision of the WCC was the visible unity of the churches for the sake of unified mission. The strategy was a balanced emphasis on faith and order leading to the visible unity of the churches and a life and work emphasis leading to a common witness of the churches in the social realm. Raiser led a shift in the emphasis of the WCC from an ecumenism of visible unity to an ecumenism of dialogue as an end in itself. The point of dialogue was no longer unity in the body of Christ but solidarity in the project of transforming society for justice and peace. This has been a disastrous turn for the WCC that has led to the organization’s growing and now almost complete irrelevance to the life of the churches, especially in the global South.

Raiser wrote an apologia for his vision, Ecumenism in Transition: A Paradigm Shift for the Ecumenical Movement?. Newbigin wrote a trenchant review with the title, “Ecumenical Amnesia” published in the January edition of The International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 1994. The review can be easily accessed at Newbigin.net. Reading the review seventeen years on is an eerie experience in prophecy come true. In this short article, Newbigin brings a lifetime of ecumenical thinking and leadership to bear on what is clearly to him a very misguided vision that will squander decades of ecumenical advance and missionary fruitfulness. Since Raiser’s vision is fundamentally the vision which has become dominant in the mainline churches such as The Episcopal Church and since the decline and fracturing of these churches parallels the story of the decline and fracturing of the World Council of Churches, it is well worth rereading Newbigin’s lucid commentary. I will give a few highlights here in the hope that readers will be drawn to the original article.

Raiser critiqued what he called the “Christocentric universalism” of the founding vision of the WCC. Willem Vister’t Hooft, one of the early leaders of the WCC, wrote a work with the title, The Lordship of Christ over the Church and the World.” The title symbolized for Raiser everything that was wrong with the old ecumenical paradigm. For Newbigin the title symbolized everything that was necessary. As a replacement for Christocentric universalism Raiser proposed an approach which he called “Trinitarian Conciliarity.” Raiser’s emphasis was on God’s will of justice and peace for the human race and the movement of the Spirit in the human struggle for liberation and freedom. The Spirit was also manifest in the sharing of life and experience in the quest for justice. Though called a Trinitarian approach Raiser’s new ecumenical theology in practice prioritized the first and third persons of the Trinity at the expense of the second. It was a move away from a Christocentric theology toward a more theocentric and to coin a word pnuemacentric theology. The emphasis on a generic theism that is Deism revisited with a theology of the Spirit that is hard to distinguish from the Zeitgeist is sadly familiar to those of us who have lived through the theological fads in the mainline churches at the tail end of the twentieth century.

Newbigin had himself asked for a more robust Trinitarian theology of mission. But in opposition to Raiser he cautioned, “But a Trinitarian perspective can be only an enlargement and development of a Christo-centric one and not an alternative set over against it, for the doctrine of the Trinity is the theological articulation of what it means to say that Jesus is the unique Word of God incarnate in world history.”

Another Raiser theme that is familiar to veterans of theological conflict in the mainline churches is the double move of an emphasis on the centrality of the Eucharist that is oddly paired with a de-emphasis on the centrality of Christ in the doctrine of salvation. Of this move in Raiser Newbigin says:

At the heart of the church’s life is the Eucharist, as Raiser constantly and rightly insists. But what does it mean to share in the Eucharist? It is the memorial of Christ’s passion and his action in making me a participant in that passion so that I may be a participant in his victory? Surely the heart and mind of the one who receives the body and blood of Christ is overwhelmed by the sense of absolute obligation to Jesus. “I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live; yet not I but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) That overwhelming obligation to the one who gave himself for the sin of the world is surely at the heart of the being of the church. Raiser speaks often of the incarnation but not about the atonement. I miss this deep sense of that absolute sovereignty over my heart that Jesus has won, which makes it intolerable that I should be unable to share the Eucharist with everyone for whom Christ died. That is how I understand “Christo-centric universalism.”


Newbigin affirmed the need for a fully Trinitarian theology and agreed with Raiser that the Spirit that Jesus promised to his church is not the private property of the church and is sovereign to “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. . . there 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.”

For Raiser the WCC assembly in Uppsala in 1968 was a positive turning point in the life of the WCC which signaled “the expansion of the ecumenical perspective universally to all humanity.” Included in this turn was a turn away from faith and order work toward inter-religious dialogue understood according to pluralist and relativist principles and toward a prioritizing of the themes of social justice understood along Neo-Marxist lines at the expense of evangelization. Faith and order and life and work, the missions of evangelism and development become decoupled at Uppsala under the pressure of an ascendant secularism. Newbigin remembers the assembly with sadness, “the most painful experience of that assembly was the struggle of the section on mission to overcome the almost implacable resistance of the drafting group to include any reference whatever to the duty of the church to bring the Gospel to those who had not heard it.” This is the place where Newbigin identifies the ecumenical amnesia of Raiser’s approach. Newbigin recounts the history of the ecumenical movement as in the first place a movement for global evangelization. The watchword of 1910 Edinburgh conference that started it all was, “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” It was Newbigin says, “a vision for all of humanity, or it was nothing. But this vital formative factor in the birth and rise of the ecumenical movement is wholly absent from Raiser’s vision.”

Instead of a vision of the world coming under the Lordship of Christ through the mission of the church Raiser held out a vision of solidarity with “men and women struggling to become what they were intended to be in the purpose of God.” Newbigin was critical of the substitution of solidarity for love. ” ‘Solidarity’ suggests a too naïve acceptance of all human struggle as being directed toward the will of God.” This romanticizing of all human struggle is a familiar theme in the pet projects of the mainline churches. One remembers the special fund of the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in the late 1960s, some of which found its way into the coffers of the Black Panthers. Of all this Newbigin says:

But this whole vision is too much shaped by the ideology of 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.

For Newbigin only a Christ-centered universalism that insisted on the Lordship of Christ over both the church and the world could challenge and reveal the unfaithfulness of all denominational divisions and at the same time the accommodation of the churches to the political status quo. In Raiser’s vision the evangelistic calling of the church had dropped out of sight, crowded off the agenda by an emphasis on dialogue as a way of life rather than as a path to truth and the conversion of the churches to visible unity, and by an emphasis on development conceived along almost exclusively secular lines. This Newbigin called an act of ecumenical amnesia that revealed, “the thoroughly Eurocentric character of the book.” For, “No one shaped by the experience of Asian and African religions could have written this.” And “the profound experience of the missionary movement over the past two or three centuries is ignored.”

Newbigin closes his review by noting that there are elements of truth in the vision of the 1960s that need to be captured and that he is not content with everything done under the name of evangelical. Nevertheless, “it is a very important fact that these bodies are the ones that are growing and showing increasing breadth of vision in their approach to the whole range of contemporary human problems, while the bodies that hold the doctrinal position represented in this book are largely in decline.” Then comes the final prophetic word in the piece. “A body that ceases to be concerned about communicating its faith to others is on the way to death. It would be heart-breaking if the WCC should in truth become, what some already claim to see in it, only the organ of those parts of the Christian church that are in decline.” And it is heart-breaking indeed.

The theology that became dominant in the WCC under Raiser’s leadership was a theology that was overawed by secular pluralism and relativism and embarrassed by the scandal of the Christian claim that world’s reconciliation is in Jesus Christ, the Lord. It was a theology that moved away from the centrality of Christ and toward deistic notions of God and toward a theology of the Spirit that described the Spirit leading people into new political movements and inter-religious spiritualities. The Spirit has a large job description in this theology. The only role the Spirit appears not to have is the role of leading people to confess Christ as Lord of both the church and the world. As this theology gained power over the imagination of the leaders of the WCC the organization became less and less credible as a place of actual reconciliation and ironically one of the least imaginative and effective agents of human development.

The lesson seems clear to me. If we cherish the unity of the church and the reconciliation of the human race, if we genuinely cherish the peace and justice of the world, we must put the cross of Christ and the mission of evangelization back at the center of the church’s faith and order and life and work.







Why Dialogue Is So Difficult

Some years ago I posted the article “Why Is Dialogue So Difficult?” Below is a quote from the article. The article is listed on the right in two parts. As I have traveled around the church several people have brought the article to my attention. It is still I think an accurate description of the difficulties that any church dialogue faces.

Here is a quote from the second part of the article

We have at best the touching tangents of circles. The historic Christian faith seen from within paradigm of epistemological pessimism is a very different thing from the historic faith seen as the basis for a hope to truly know the really real. It may help to know that the call issued to our opponents, to listen to reason cannot be answered by them without abandoning everything that our opponents have hitherto thought reasonable. The call to listen to reason cannot be answered without a paradigm shift and the reason with which our opponents reason cannot bring them to that shift. We are confused and confounded by applying a model of ecumenical dialogue to the present dispute within the churches. The right model is really inter-faith dialogue. Rather than assuming that we speak with a common language about common points of reference we need to understand that we speak across a logical gap to those with a different worldview and a different rationality.

Here is the link to the first part of the article