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The Thorough Authority of Paul Avis

The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology
Edited by Paul Avis
Oxford University Press. Pp. 672. $125

Review by Richard J. Mammana

Ecclesiology is the study of “the Church’s manifold self-understanding in relation to a number of areas: the origins, structures, authority, doctrine, ministry, sacraments, unity, diversity, and mission of the Church, including its relation to the state and to society and culture.”

It is also an area of major divergence and convergence in relations among constituent parts of the Church: where does it begin and end? How do we identify the Church on Earth in daily experience, given differences of culture and language, historical origin, and the realities of latitude in human personality and psychology? What persons have the ability to recognize one another as Christians in the most authentic expression of what we receive as “the faith once delivered to all the saints”?

There is no better guide to a truly global exploration of these issues and questions than Paul Avis, editor in chief of the field’s major English periodical, Ecclesiology, and a professor in the theology departments at both the University of Durham and the University of Exeter.

Avis was Dame Mary Tanner’s successor as general secretary of the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity from 1998 to 2011, and has served the Anglican Communion Office in London in various capacities since that time. He is a member of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission for Unity, Faith, and Order. His academic and practical experience in ordering Christian community is a resource for worldwide Anglicanism, but also for all Anglophone Christians.

As is standard for the immense (and very expensive) Oxford Handbooks, Avis is joined by an impressive group of 25 other contributors who offer 28 essays unpacking an almost dizzying variety of topics. This Oxford Handbook is divided into four parts: Biblical Foundations, Resources from the Tradition, Major Modern Ecclesiologists, and Contemporary Movements in Ecclesiology.

Some of the richest material is in the first section, in which R.W.L. Moberly studies “The Ecclesiology of Israel’s Scriptures.” Working from Genesis through the Prophets, he probes the covenantal tradition to look at “vocation and assurance, warning and challenge, failure and hope” in the ancient relations of God with the Jewish people. Four further chapters cover the Church in the Gospels and Acts, the epistles, and a particularly readable look at “The Johannine Vision of the Church” by Andrew Lincoln of the University of Gloucestershire.

The next essays chronicle the insights from history that inform today’s ecclesiological investigations: Mark Edwards on ecclesiology in the West, Andrew Louth on Eastern Orthodoxy, Norman Tanner, SJ, on the medieval period, Dorothea Wendebourg on the magisterial reformers, Ormond Rush on Trent to Vatican II, Paul Fiddes on Baptist concepts of the Church, David Chapman on Methodism, and Amos Yong on Pentecostal ecclesiology. Each chapter is by an expert in the subject, and the authors write from within their believing traditions.

The third section looks at eight major modern ecclesiologists: Karl Barth, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Karl Rahner, Joseph Ratzinger, Rowan Williams, and John Zizioulas. Paul McPartland’s 20 pages on the sometimes-dense Zizioulas are especially strong.

A still-longer book might have included Mary Tanner, Veli‐Matti Kärkkäinen, Pope John Paul II, Hans Küng, Georges Florovsky, and Jaroslav Pelikan as individuals who have made important recent contributions in the field. It is regrettable that no women are included in this group of eight modern figures.

The book closes with five chapters on contemporary movements. There are feminist, social, and ideological critiques in two of the more rarefied chapters, as well as attention to liberation theology in Latin America, and two excursions into Asian and African ecclesiological trends.

Avis’s accomplishment in assembling this volume will be a lasting one, and it could easily be a foundational text for seminaries and other institutions of theological learning. It joins three other recent Oxford Handbooks (on Anglican Studies, Johannine Studies, and the amusingly titled Oxford Handbook of the Oxford Movement) as a monument on its topic. They serve simultaneously as introductions and deep-dive seams of engagement, and should become standard reference works.

Richard J. Mammana serves as staff for the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue Consultation in the United States and for the Episcopal Church’s full communion coordinating committees.


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