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Conceptions of Unity in Recent Ecumenical Discussion. A Philosophical Analysis.
Oxford-Bern-Berlin-Bruxelles-Frankfurt/M.-New York-Wien: Lang 2000. 282 S. 8 = Religions and Discourse, 7. Kart. ¬ 43,50. ISBN 3-906758-51-6.
It would interest me to know whether people involved in the churches would find this book useful in ways that I have not quite comprehended. Harrison essentially, throughout his book, lists different ways in which unity has been understood within the ecumenical movement. There is little commentary or discussion and no conclusion is reached - other than that the term unity is no simple one. The book proclaims itself a 'philosophical' analysis, though I could not quite see what was philosophical about it other than that it advocates a clarity in the use of language and conceptual terms. (One must however wonder whether, in expressing themselves, ecumenists have intentionally used terms with quite the precision which would alone make sense of Harrison's analysis?)
I found myself sceptical on two counts. In the first place I think I disagree, quite fundamentally, that it is possible somehow to take theological statements 'at face value', without reference to the particular theological context in which they arose. Harrison speaks of his "rejecting 'denominational association' as the best means of classifying conceptions" (248). But if one does not know within which theological structure they are placed, how can one know what connotations one should be giving terms? Theological terminology bears the stamp of its origin, expressing a particular theological structure. When I read "the unity of the Church was, is and remains primarily an eschatological property, to be enjoyed only as a gift, never as an assured possession" I think to myself 'oh - a Lutheran author!' even before I look to the footnote. One cannot simply abstract statements from the framework which alone gives them meaning.
Secondly (and I suppose this is a related point) I do not think one can understand the ecumenical movement, in its different phases, apart from the historical context in which it has been situated. Thus the discussion of the 'given unity' of the church, which came to the fore in the late 1930s in the work, among others, of J. H. Oldham (so largely responsible for the Oxford conference) and William Temple (to be the first President of the World Council of Churches in Process of Formation) was a direct response to political circumstances. Europe was falling apart and the Germans (including those involved in the ecumenical movement) dared not be associated with anything which sounded like the League of Nations. Hence the unity of the church was proclaimed to be already given by God and not an internationalism devised by man. A knowledge of the circumstances gives meaning to the term. So, again, I do not see that a study based simply on the words employed can really plumb the depths in the way which is surely necessary for understanding to advance.
Reading a book like this, one wonders whether countless men and women - over generations now - have not valiantly tried to realise the unity which they believe implicit in their faith to not much avail. There have been some (note for example Gerhard Forde's remarks on the atmosphere pertaining in American Lutheran/Catholic discussions which surrounded the 'Joint Declaration on Justification') who have despaired of the constant attempt to find a (superficial) consensus while difficulties are seemingly ignored. My own earlier experience of a WCC consultation was likewise that it was inadvisable to express oneself too outspokenly! In view of the fact that Christians do, evidently, share a common allegiance (and can do so much of a practical nature together) it seems unnecessarily provocative to raise fundamental differences which divide.
My question, then, is how such a study can take Christians forward? Harrison distinguishes between what he calls 'referential' use of the word unity (roughly, more theological in nature) and a wider non-conceptual use. But even this basic distinction seems arbitrary. The book certainly makes evident that Christians have conceived of unity in a diversity of ways. If the recognition of this alone will help to clarify ecumenical discussion then the book may have served its purpose. More, perhaps, it does not claim.