Volume 10 - Issue 1

The ecumenical quest for agreement in faith

By Roger Beckwith

The ecumenical movement (however one assesses it) has certainly been one of the outstanding phenomena of twentieth-century Christianity, and evangelicals (however much they may now protest) played a large part in bringing it into being. The example of international, interdenominational activity by evangelicals, particularly the founding of the Evangelical Alliance in 1846, provided an object-lesson of what was possible; and various other international and interdenominational societies, which were originally evangelical but afterwards became non-evangelical (such as the YMCA and YWCA) or anti-evangelical (such as the SCM), were more directly influential. John R. Mott, an evangelical who played a leading role both in the YMCA and in the SCM, and who was devoted to the cause of Christian missions, was mainly responsible for convening the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910, and it was from this that the modern ecumenical movement sprang.

The World Missionary Conference was only consultative in its agenda, but it aimed to be comprehensive in its membership. Its successor-bodies have followed the same policy. These were the International Missionary Council, the Faith and Order Movement and the Life and Work Movement, effectively formed at conferences in 1921, 1927 and 1925 respectively, after the delay caused by the First World War. The comprehensive aim (though never fully achieved owing to the refusal of the Church of Rome to send more than observers, and its later determination to have its own ecumenical movement) meant that the leadership was always likely to be taken out of evangelical hands. The fact that two of the three successor-bodies were unconcerned with missions, and that one of them was concerned with the weakest point of evangelicals, namely theology, made this likelihood a certainty. In 1948, after the interruption of the Second World War, the Movements of Faith and Order and of Life and Work combined in the World Council of Churches, and in 1961 the new body was able to swallow up the International Missionary Council and to conform it to its own pattern of thinking.

The consultative character of the ecumenical bodies proved in the event to be less significant than their comprehensiveness. Consultation is never satisfying (especially to non-theologians) if it does not issue in action. The activism of the ecumenical movement has become increasingly prominent in the years since the war, partly in promoting unions between different denominations (the most successful example being the Church of South India, formed in 1947), partly in relief work (organised by the department of Inter-Church Aid), and partly in more questionable political and social enterprises, such as the encouragement of rebellion against reactionary or racialist governments, and the promotion of feminism. In this flurry of fervent activity, all concern for faith and order (let alone for evangelical faith or order) seemed to be left far behind, and when it did surface it usually showed itself in secularist or syncretistic forms. The last World Conference on Faith and Order (the fourth), which like its predecessors followed a more conventional pattern, took place at Montreal as long ago as 1963.

There are those, however, who have been working within the World Council of Churches to bring questions of faith and order back into prominence on its agenda. Notable among these are the Eastern Orthodox, who are always rather out on a limb in the WCC because they make the same sort of exclusive ecclesiastical claims as the Church of Rome, but who have to be kept within it if there is to be any hope that Rome will one day join. Rome and the Orthodox both attribute ultimate significance to the outward denominational unity which they each already enjoy, and they are both therefore deeply concerned for outward unity with the rest of Christendom. Moreover, following the patristic conception of church unity, they rightly maintain that unity must be on a basis of agreement in doctrine. The Orthodox, therefore, from within the WCC have been advocating these aims, and Rome from outside has (since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which launched its own ecumenical movement) been doing the same. Rome has been appointing commissions to engage in doctrinal dialogue with particular denominations (such as the Orthodox themselves and the Anglicans) and the Orthodox have both been doing this and have been engaging as well in multi-denominational discussion of doctrine within the WCC. The Orthodox have also commenced a dialogue with the Lutherans, and Rome has been having discussions with Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists, but (at least on an international front) these other discussions are less advanced than those with Anglicans.

Three reports

Some results of the more advanced dialogues have now been published, notably Anglican-Orthodox dialogue: the Moscow Agreed Statement (London: SPCK, 1977), Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission: the Final Report (London: CTS & SPCK, 1982) and Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (Faith & Order Paper III, Geneva: WCC, 1982). The first two of these, as their titles indicate, are the result of bi-lateral discussions between denominations, while the third is the result of multi-lateral discussions within the WCC. The Anglican-Orthodox report is the first of at least two such, and so is the Anglican-Roman Catholic report, despite its unfortunate use of the word ‘final’. It was only final in so far as the commission that produced it was concerned, but the report received a very rude rebuff from the Holy Office at Rome for not keeping more closely to the teaching of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I; and a second Anglican-Roman Catholic commission has in any case been appointed, to continue the work of the first and to deal with further issues. The WCC report (sometimes known as the Lima report, because of the place where the present text of it was produced) has a relative finality, in that it has been submitted in this form to the churches belonging to the WCC to see if they can agree to it; but if they suggest alterations, as some of them are likely to do, it will no doubt be revised again.

Each of these reports consists of brief theses, and relatively few of them. The Moscow Agreed Statement (to take the most extreme example), consists of 32 theses, occupying 10 small pages: the other 89 pages in the volume are introduction and appendices, to which the members of the commission are not committed. Brief theses are not in themselves objectionable, of course: the Chalcedonian Definition is brief, and so is the Nicene Creed. But what made it possible for the Fathers to express themselves adequately in such short compass was the fact that there was an agreed basis of authority for their statements. They were attempting to express the traditional teaching of the church, in a manner which fully accorded with the New Testament—the New Testament itself being understood as a reliable and harmonious body of inspired teaching. This approach to the New Testament is still accepted by most Orthodox, some Roman Catholics and a minority of Anglicans; but even those Orthodox and Roman Catholics who accept it usually relate the New Testament, in a different way than the Fathers did, to the traditional teaching of the church, by ascribing to the latter an authority of its own. Thus, not only when teaching conforms to the New Testament, but also when it diverges from the New Testament, it is reckoned authoritative, and is normally described as an ‘interpretation’ of the New Testament (the only true interpretation), and never as a contradiction of it. Of course, some Roman Catholics and many Anglicans do not regard the New Testament as reliable, harmonious or inspired, and in their case there is an even more complete departure from the basis of authority recognized by the Fathers.

This being so, it is very difficult for Orthodox and Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Anglicans, or Orthodox and others in the WCC, to affirm very much in common. It is no wonder that their agreed theses are few, and big questions arise about what some of their theses mean. When one probes beneath the surface, one is sometimes confronted with the uncertainties of post-Enlightenment liberalism, at other times with the false certainties of post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism, and at still other times with the peculiar thought-forms of Orthodoxy, developed in their long isolation from the western church since the schism of the eleventh century. The divergent traditions of thought stemming from that schism, or from the Reformation schism of the sixteenth century, are not something that can be quickly or easily overcome. An effort of understanding, a willingness to learn, and a readiness to admit that one may sometimes be wrong, are all involved for all parties, and on top of these long patience and persevering prayer.

Two factors increase the problem. One is that the subjects on which agreed statements are being atttempted are not those on which there is thought to be agreement but those on which there is known to be disagreement. If the problems of disunity are to be overcome, this is where attention is inevitably centred. The other factor is that the divided bodies are not the same today as they were when the divisions took place. Sometimes this is a help: the friendlier relations fostered by the ecumenical movement predispose those discussing to think as favourably as possible of their opposite-numbers and their views, not as unfavourably as possible; and developments like the recent attention to the Bible in the Church of Rome tend to extend the area of common ground with the churches of the Reformation. On the other hand, the definition of new dogmas by the Church of Rome in 1854, 1870 and 1950, and the growth of doubt, since the Enlightenment, in the churches of the Reformation especially, on fundamental truths of the faith which all churches formerly held in common, have created large new obstacles in the way of any future agreement.

The subjects with which the recent reports concern themselves are, in the case of the Anglican-Roman Catholic report, Authority, Eucharist and Ministry; and in the case of the WCC’s Lima report, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. Two topics are therefore common to the two reports, Eucharist and Ministry. The Lima report adds Baptism, because the WCC includes Baptists, while the Anglican-RC report adds Authority, partly because the doctrine of papal infallibility adds a new dimension to this question, and partly because the Anglican-RC commission began its work at a time when realism was beginning to force this question to the fore. The subjects of the Anglican-Orthodox report are more miscellaneous: the Knowledge of God, the Inspiration and Authority of Holy Scripture, Scripture and Tradition, the Authority of the Councils, the Filioque Clause, the Church as the Eucharistic Community, and the Invocation of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist. This is doubtless because the Anglican-Orthodox commission was more conscious that it was beginning its work from scratch. Nevertheless, it will be noted that here also two of the topics relate to the eucharist (or Lord’s supper) and others to authority.


A comparison of the treatment of Ministry in the two reports where it figures does not reveal many points of similarity. In the Anglican-RC report, the statement on Ministry is its vaguest and weakest part, and the following ‘Elucidation’ does little to clarify it. Two commentaries on the Ministry statement which were published at its separate first appearance by members of the commission responsible (Bishop Alan Clark and the Rev. Julian Charley, from the Roman Catholic and Anglican side respectively) were widely considered to give mutually exclusive interpretations. In the Lima report, on the other hand, the statement on the Ministry is its clearest and most biblical part, commendable both for what it says and for what it refrains from saying. It first emphasises that all Christians have divine gifts and a ministry, not just the ordained (p. 20, paras. 1–6). There has, however, always been an institutional ministry as well, though the apostles, as Christ’s eyewitnesses, had a ‘unique and unrepeatable’ role within it (p. 21, esp. para. 10). The ordained have authority, but are not to lord it over the flock (pp. 22–23, paras. 15–16), and any priesthood that they have is related to the priesthood of the church (p. 23, para. 17). Women have a place in the ministry of the church, but not necessarily in the ordained ministry (p. 24, para. 18). The threefold ministry is not held to be an apostolic requirement (p. 24, para. 19), and the ‘apostolic succession’ is seen primarily in terms of orderly transmission (p. 29, para. 35), but the relationship of bishop to presbyter is left as an open question (p. 25, para. 24). Finally, there is a rather inconclusive discussion of mutual recognition of ministries, raising the question whether non-episcopal churches ought not to adopt episcopacy, but denying that differences of practice on the ordination of women is an obstacle (p. 32, esp. paras. 53, 54).


The treatment of the eucharist in the three reports does have certain significant points of contact. The statement in the Anglican-RC report is this time the clearest (though not the most acceptable) account, and insists that Christ’s body and blood are present at holy communion not just in the reception of the sacrament but from the consecration of the elements onwards. There is a real presence of his body and blood in the consecrated elements, though faith is necessary if this presence is to benefit those who receive the elements (pp. 15f., 21). In the Lima report, a real presence in the elements is hinted at rather than asserted, but it is taken for granted that Christ’s words ‘This is my body … this is my blood’ are to be understood literally (and not, as the Reformers held, in the sense ‘This represents …’); and ‘What Christ declared is true’ (p. 12, para. 13). It is the Anglican-Orthodox report which seems to come nearest to a Reformed understanding of this question, stating that ‘the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of the glorified Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit in such a way that the faithful people of God receiving Christ may feed upon him in sacrament’ (p. 89, para. 25, italics added).

Another point on which the Anglican-RC and Lima statements on the Eucharist agree is in their insistence on the word anamnesis as some sort of breakthrough in the problems of eucharistic theology. The Lima statement uses it at least ten times, translating it ‘memorial’ and telling us that ‘the biblical idea of memorial’ is ‘the present efficacy of God’s work when it is celebrated by God’s people in liturgy’ and that ‘Christ himself with all that he has accomplished for us and for all creation (in his incarnation, servanthood, ministry, teaching, suffering, sacrifice, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Spirit) is present in this anamnesis’ (p. 11, paras. 5–6). The New Testament emphasis that the sacramental commemoration ‘proclaims Christ’s death’ (1 Cor. 11:26) is here quite lost to view. Elsewhere we are once told that Christ’s sacrifice was ‘accomplished once for all on the cross’ (p. 11, para. 5), but this is the only place where the cross is given any special emphasis.

The word anamnesis is derived from Luke 22:19 (longer text) and 1 Corinthians 11:24, 25, and is part of Christ’s command at the last supper ‘Do this in remembrance of me’, or, more literally, ‘Do this in commemoration of me’, i.e. to cause me to be remembered; and hence Paul’s explanation of the phrase, after he has twice quoted it, ‘you proclaim (katangello) the Lord’s death’ (1 Cor. 11:26), i.e. to your fellow-Christians. There used to be much discussion whether it is man who is being reminded at the holy communion, or God—a question which is really settled by Paul’s explanation, and by the passover background of the last supper; for at the passover the main emphasis is certainly on a remembering of the exodus by Israel (Ex. 13:3, 9; Dt. 16:3). More recently, however, owing ultimately to speculation about the relationship between Christianity and the mystery religions by Dom Odo Casel, popularized in the English-speaking world by Dom Gregory Dix (in his Shape of the Liturgy) and by other liturgiologists and theologians, the theory has become widespread that anamnesis has really nothing to do with memory but is concerned with making the past present again. This pagan Greek notion has, quite incongruously, been read into the Jewish passover; but even in its original Greek context it is unconnected with the word anamnesis. The theory could never have become popular except by wishful thinking on the part of those who wanted to overcome the great theological and ecumenical problems caused by the notions of the bodily presence and the mass-sacrifice, conflicting as they do with the once-for-all finality of Calvary, as asserted by the New Testament (Acts 13:34; Rom. 6:9; Heb. 9:25–28; 10:1–4, 8–18; Rev. 1:18).

Interestingly enough, there is a discussion of the meaning of the word anamnesis in a Jewish work written in Greek in the first century ad. This is never referred to in the literature, but is of course of the first importance. It comes in Philo, De Congressu 39–44, and puts beyond any question the fact that, far from having nothing to do with memory, anamnesis has everything to do with it: ‘Reminding (anamnesis) takes the second place to memory, and so with the reminded and the rememberer. The conditions of those two correspond to constant health and recovery from disease, for forgetting is a disease of memory …’ and so on. This entirely accords with the occasional use of anamnesis elsewhere in biblical Greek, but completely excludes the modern interpretation.

Apart from its great (and misguided) play with the word anamnesis, the Lima statement on the eucharist is a very confused and confusing text. Like the Lima statement on baptism, it was originally brought together by the extraordinary method of collecting anything that the four World Conferences on Faith and Order and the first four General Assemblies of the WCC had said which related to the subject, and trying to arrange these scattered utterances in some sort of order. This was done at Louvain in 1971 (see Faith and Order: Louvain 1971, Faith & Order Paper 59, pp. 49–53, 71–77). The texts before us have been repeatedly revised, but originated in this unpromising way. The reason why the Lima Statement on the ministry is so much better is that it originated differently; but the statement on baptism is also somewhat better than that on the eucharist, because its source-material was better.


The difficulty mentioned earlier, of finding an agreed basis of authority for doctrinal statements, is naturally very apparent when the Anglican-RC report addresses itself to the topic of ‘Authority’ and the Anglican-Orthodox report to the topics of ‘The Inspiration and Authority of Holy Scripture’, ‘Scripture and Tradition’ and ‘The Authority of Councils’. On the infallibility of the pope and the other new Roman dogmas, the Anglicans and RCs agree to differ (Final Report, pp. 94–96). It is not far different with the Anglicans and Orthodox, when they deal with the authority of councils (Moscow Statement, pp. 85–87). As regards Scripture and traditional church teaching, both reports are reluctant to make them separate sources of doctrine, but neither is content to subject tradition unequivocally to Scripture (Final Report, p. 70f; Moscow Statement, pp. 83–85).

Practical consequences

To examine all the material in the reports, even where they do not overlap, would require a very long article indeed, but it is hoped that some flavour of them has been given in what it has been possible to include. It has already been indicated that Rome and the Orthodox are aiming at a union of the denominations of Christendom, so this is the practical outcome that they envisage for discussions with the Anglicans and others. Whether the doctrinal problems under discussion, with a view to this outcome, will ever be satisfactorily overcome, is another matter; and so is the question whether the sort of union which Rome and the Orthodox would favour (a virtual absorption) could ever be accepted by those with whom they are in dialogue.

The WCC was at one time similarly bent on unions of denominations, but after scores of local schemes fell to the ground they became somewhat disillusioned with the idea. The Lima report asks the churches to consider not only whether they can accept the report, but also how acceptance of it would affect their relations with other churches (p. x): this is a modest enquiry. It seems likely that acceptance of the Baptism statement might affect interdenominational relations most, since it asks Baptists to renounce the rebaptism of those baptised as infants, and paedo-baptists to renounce indiscriminate baptism (p. 4, para. 13; p. 6, para. 16). Reaction to this proposal will be interesting.

For further reading

There is a commendation of the Anglican-RC report by Julian Charley (a commission-member) and a discussion of the Lima report by Colin Buchanan, both published by Grove Books of Bramcote, Nottingham. More critical is the CEEC response to the Anglican-RC report (distributed by Grove Books), a study guide on it by the author of this article, and a study entitled Sacraments and Ministry in Ecumenical Perspective by G. L. Bray, which touches on the Lima report as well. The last two items are published by Latimer House (131 Banbury Road, Oxford).

Roger Beckwith