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Some hard ecumenical questions

It is unlikely that Geoffrey Wainwright’s Faith, Hope, and Love: The Ecumenical Trio of Virtues found its way into many stockings or under a lot of Christmas trees this year. Nevertheless, the eminent Methodist theologian’s slim volume is worth reading, because it forces difficult questions on the reader. And what better Christmas gift is there than the opportunity for rigorous thought?

Wainwright connects the three theological virtues that make up his title to three rites or practices: Baptism, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Lord’s Supper. I’ll draw four questions from his collection of lectures.

First, Wainwright notes that the World Council of Churches’ Lima text, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) states that “baptism upon personal profession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament.” Wainwright himself “made sure that that point was included.” So, baptism really is, in St. Augustine’s words, the sacramentum fidei, the “sacrament of faith.”

There is no baptism without faith. The Lima text notes that, in “believer baptism,” “a personal confession of faith will be an integral part of the baptismal service.” In “infant baptism,” “the personal response will be offered at a later moment in life.” In summarizing the churches’ responses to the Lima text, Wainwright and a Baptist colleague wrote that, even if the “different elements” occur over different periods of time, Christian initiation remains a “unitary and comprehensive process” which “vividly embodies the coherence of God’s gracious initiative.” And God’s initiative is meant to elicit “our faith.”

Here’s the question: Have we, Baptists and Anglicans and Catholics and all, reached an ecumenical point at which our theologies of baptism are similar even though our practices of baptism still look very different? And how much should this matter?

Second, Wainwright notes that the faith to be confessed at baptism should not be an arbitrary collection of personal opinions (sadly, wedding vows are not covered in this book.) But, while some Christians will insist that this faith be expressed in ancient and classical creeds, other Christians see confessing creeds as a form of Spirit-quenching coercion. Wainwright disagrees that reciting a creed is necessarily impersonal or some sort of submission to harsh ecclesial control. He recounts a story from a World Council of Churches meeting in the early 1980s:

A Jamaican Baptist, with perhaps confessional reservations in face of a text “imposed by imperial authority,” and geographical or cultural doubts about the creed’s “Greek metaphysics,” was won over when he noticed that those who most opposed the use of the Nicene Creed were Western liberals, while its employment was advocated by other members of the Commission whose faith in the deity and redemptive work of Christ he shared.

This sort of thing raises the possibility of Baptists voluntarily reciting the Apostles’ Creed as “a simple acknowledgment of where we stand and what we believe” (to borrow the words of Alexander Maclaren, the first president of the Baptist World Alliance).

So, then, here’s the question: Is the practice of reciting a creed as an “acknowledgement,” a form of indebtedness to the gifts of catholicity, different from reciting a creed as a necessary act of discipline?

Third, Wainwright, following his late colleague, Raymond Brown, interprets the Lord’s Prayer as an eschatological prayer, centered on the petition, “Thy kingdom come.” The ultimate form of hope, Wainwright says, is martyrdom. John Paul II, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, wrote that all Christian communities “have martyrs for the Christian faith” who showed “an attachment to Christ and to the Father so radical and absolute as to lead even to the shedding of blood.” These martyrs are already in full communion with one another, having received, through their sacrifices, “the truest communion possible with Christ who shed his Blood.”

Recent theological discussions have seemed to focus on the act of martyrdom, as opposed to the specific theology or confessional commitment of the martyr. After all, many twentieth-century martyrs have not been killed explicity for their faith. As a Sicilian theologian wrote after the assassination of a priest who’d been critical of the Mafia, present-day martyrs often do not die in odium fidei (out of hatred for the faith) but rather in odium caritatis (out of hatred for love). Furthermore, some martyrs have not wanted their deaths to draw attention to religious divisions. Dom Christian de Chergé, who was beheaded by a Muslim fundamentalist in Algeria in 1996, addressed his killer in a last testament, not with bitter condemnation but with hope that they, “two good thieves,” would meet again before the God worshipped by both Christians and Muslims (see this helpful article from Lawrence Cunningham).

Our question here: When we speak of the communion of martyrs beyond our present divisions, what (if any) theological boundaries are still relevant?

Fourth, Wainwright notes that the Second Vatican Council called the Eucharist the sacramentum caritatis, the “sacrament of love.” But he also notes that celebrations of the Lord’s Supper have been sites of angry dispute and bitter division. There is the difficult issue of discerning who can share communion. Wainwright says that “it is generally agreed that there must be at least a reasonable measure of agreement as to what is taking place around the Lord’s table.” Nevertheless, there are different views about the possibility of intercommunion.

For example, while there are pastoral provisions for non-Catholics to receive the Catholic Eucharist, there is a general prohibition of “concelebration” and “intercommunion” before “the visible bonds of ecclesial communion are fully re-established,” as John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia de Eucharistia. The late Pope warned that premature actions could even prevent “the attainment of full communion,” because “the path toward full unity can only be undertaken in truth.”

On the other hand, the Eucharist is not merely the sign of an already visible ecclesiastical unity. The late Pope, in the same encyclical, wrote that “The Eucharist creates communion and fosters communion” (emphasis added). Here, Wainwright quotes the Scottish theologian Thomas F. Torrance’s claim that the Eucharist is the sacrament of unity because it is the “medicine for our divisions.”

The last question is asked by Wainwright himself: “How far do we have to be advanced in the unity which the celebration of the Eucharist ‘signifies’ before we can draw on the sacramental grace to ‘effect’ the fullness of that unity?”

I trust that anyone with answers to these four questions will kindly let me know.


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