Hope and Fear in Ecumenical Union

by John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University.

This article is adapted from the address he delivered at the inauguration service of interim shared eucharistic fellowship between Lutherans and Episcopalians in New Jersey, held October 31, 1982. This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 8-15, 1983, pp. 579-581. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The ecumenical movement calls us not so much to find a common denominator as it does to join hands and to pledge ourselves to walk side by side, to enrich one another by all that can be brought out of our separate pasts, and to ask forgiveness for the blindness that for so long has kept us divided.

Every ecumenical venture carries with it two experiences. One is unique and particular, shaped by the character of the Christian traditions that are coming together. It is rational and quite conscious. The other experience is a vague, distant, almost unconscious discomfort that lurks beneath the surface and raises fears and insecurities in the hearts of believers. The inauguration of Lutheran-Episcopal eucharistic accord can serve as an illustration in exploring both of these realities.

There is a special joy that marks the occasion every time two Christian groups come together. Hope expands when obvious divisions are submerged by a more obvious unity. The historic differences that have divided Lutherans and Anglicans are easy to articulate. In the establishment of a shared eucharistic fellowship, a Christian union in the New World of German and Scandinavian Christians with English Christians is being achieved and celebrated. Both groups have unique identities which have been forged by their unique national origins.

Martin Luther, on seeing corruption he could not ignore at the heart of the church, moved to challenge that which he felt distorted the gospel. He sought to confront the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy with Holy Scripture and in this manner to recall the church to the purity of his perception of the New Testament vision. Luther wanted to purge his beloved church of superstition, clerical manipulation and false doctrine. His was a crusade which began in a sincere religious conviction.

The English Reformation, on the other hand, began in nothing quite so noble. The spark which ignited the reform movement in England was a political conflict between King Henry VIII and Pope Clement VII in 1529. It had to do with the king’s requested marriage annulment, which, if granted by the pope, would have been an affront to the Catholic royal family of Spain and thus the source of immense political problems for the papacy. This conflict was symbolic of the growing power of the nation-states and of the breakdown of the hegemony known as the Holy Roman Empire, in which the church was clearly the most powerful element.

Luther’s religious challenge to the papacy was embraced by the nationalistic power yearnings of the German princes in their quest for national autonomy. Lutheranism in this manner became immediately both a political and a theological movement. As soon as the King of England effectively challenged the papacy politically, the long-simmering passion for ecclesiastical reform in England also surfaced and carried the Reformation into theological and spiritual directions. Thus, Anglicanism similarly became immediately both a political and a theological movement. In many ways the political divisions, far more than the theological divisions, have kept the two groups separate until this day.

One reason the move toward ecumenical union seems easier today is that national differences are not as important in the modern, interdependent world as they once seemed to be. Like all religious movements, the teachings of Luther were inevitably nationalized, and that nationalism was a factor in the disunity of the Christian church over the centuries. Luther’s writings even fed the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust in German history and for a period of time separated Germany from the world. Today the political and economic competition between England and Germany that resulted in two wars in the 20th century has faded into partnership in the European Common Market.

The national character of the Anglican Communion was no less tribal in its identity. When the English crown established the Church of England as the official religion of the realm, the activity of worship was married to the emotion of patriotism. Historic patriotic anger combined with religious convictions is a powerful force. Once that force is loosed in mortal conflict, it is like a malevolent genie that never quite returns to dwell within its magic lamp.

The destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was widely interpreted in England as a visitation upon the Roman Catholics by the true God of the Reformation. At that point in English history, simply to be a Roman Catholic in England was enough to arouse suspicion of treason. The echo of this bitterness was still present in 1982 in the Falkland Islands war between Protestant Britain and Catholic Argentina. It still exceeds the flash point of rationality in Ireland. Yet economic interdependence and instant communications have punctured the power of these patterns of the past, and people are beginning to see beyond the tribal mentality to that Christian heritage in which unity can be achieved.

Both Lutherans and Anglicans trace their roots to the same Lord. Both are communities of belief in continuity with the faith of the apostles. Both share the theological framework called the creeds. Both claim identity with heroes of the Christian past. Luther adopted Augustine, the great bishop of Hippo, as his teacher and Paul as his primary New Testament guide. The leading English divines have similarly rooted their theological life in the gigantic figures of early church history. Once our eyes look beyond nationalistic tendencies, the step into unity can not only be achieved, but the slowness with which Christians have approached this step In the past can even be ridiculed.

But there is also a note of fear that is largely unconscious about the ecumenical movement. In a deep sense ecumenicity cuts at the lifeline of power within Christianity. This fear is seldom articulated, but it is ever present. It is located in the realization that if Christian unity is to be achieved, Christian pluralism will have to be affirmed and the relativity of all Christian truth will have to be established. This reality makes us aware that every narrow definition of Christian doctrinal certainty will finally have to be abandoned; every claim by any branch of the Christian church to be the true church or the only church will ultimately have to be sacrificed; every doctrine of infallibility -- whether of the papacy, or of the Scriptures, or of any sacred tradition, or of any individual experience -- will inevitably have to be forgotten.

If certainty of form cannot be claimed in Christianity, then the Christian church will experience an immediate loss of power -- and that frightens us. For Christians to embrace pluralism in their approach to God or relativity in the seeking of God’s truth cuts across the traditional institutional lifeline. Such an admission will heighten insecurity and make Christians vulnerable for the first time in history to a radical dialogue with all contemporary branches of knowledge. They will enter that dialogue devoid of any claim to possessing a superior source of truth, which has been the historic Christian stance. They will stand only as equal seekers after truth, vulnerable and afraid, with ancient triumphalism a pale historic memory.

Hiding behind claims of revealed truth that were not allowed to be questioned and of infallible authority that could not be challenged, Christians have condemned Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, Freud and many other great breakthrough thinkers in the various fields of an exploding human knowledge. Seeking to protect power and authority, Christians have had to be literally dragged by the knowledge revolution into the 20th century.

When Martin Luther countered the authority of the infallible pope, he did so in the name of his new authority, the infallible Scriptures. This point of view was generally embraced by all of the Reformation churches. The Bible thus became the paper pope of Protestantism. Protestants historically have matched every extravagant papal claim with an equally extravagant biblical claim.

However, history has not been kind to either authority system. Even Luther at length entertained doubts about the efficacy of his infallible Bible. On one occasion he worked out the exact measurements of Noah’s ark, and then counted the different species of animals. "If it weren’t in the Bible, I wouldn’t believe it," he said, revealing himself to be trapped between his authority system and his mind. At least he could rejoice that he had not been with Noah, since, he observed, the odor must have been terrific.

Luther’s elementary sense of biology made him wonder how Jonah could have survived in the innards of the great fish. He even wanted to remove the Epistle of James from the Bible, calling it "an epistle of straw." And he had little patience for the Book of Revelation with all of its confused symbols and cryptic words. "A revelation ought to reveal something," he thundered.

Luther in these instances was anticipating our contemporary biblical scholarship, which was a later German gift to the Christian world through the Graf Welhausen School in the 19th century and through the work of Rudolf Bultmann in the 20th. Among modern scholars the Bible as Protestantism’s ultimate authority has been relativized just as surely as the infallibility claims of the papacy have been discredited by historians. Christianity for the first time in its 2,000-year history is floating free in a sea of relativity, unable to maintain any of its traditional authority claims.

The church of the future will have to learn to embrace relativity as a virtue and to dismiss certainty as a vice. Christian survival may well require that our clergy, our laity and our theologians be encouraged to walk out onto the edges of faith, to explore terrain on which the Christians of the past have seemed loath to walk. Radical challenges to our traditional approaches will force open a theology that has bound us to literal creeds, literal Bibles, and infallible understandings of God. This generation of Christians is being asked to cease judging one another, to accept the fact that all of us are pilgrims on a journey into the pluralism of truth, and none of us has the final answer. That is the fear implicit in the ecumenical movement -- and that fear, when it becomes conscious, can be paralyzing.

Lutherans have a truth, a heritage, a tradition. Anglicans have a truth, a heritage, a tradition. The ecumenical movement, however, finally announces loudly that no one has the truth, the heritage, the tradition. Christian eyes must be enabled to see beyond the petty claims of the past. Christian lives need to be emboldened to walk into the unknown arenas of uncertainty and relativity that constitute the future. The ecumenical movement calls us not so much to find a common denominator as it does to join hands and to pledge ourselves to walk side by side, to enrich one another by all that can be brought out of our separate pasts, and to ask forgiveness for the blindness that for so long has kept us divided.

The ecumenical journey will carry modern Christians to a fearful, anxious future, where all will be forced to lay down narrow claims and to embrace the openness of this new day. When the Christians of the world can do this, then perhaps in that larger community of faith, worshipers and believers will include the Jews, the Muslims, the Buddhists, the Hindus. They will come, I trust, with equal claims to being children of the one God equally created in that God’s image, equally loved and sought in that God’s plan for salvation. That is a brilliant, fearful, universal hope.

This is the vision to which the ecumenical movement ultimately points the church. The church is today taking only tiny, tentative steps in this direction, no matter how historic or dramatic we think those steps might be. When the ultimate vision is perceived, Christians may well fall back in fear. Finally, however, there will be only one alternative, and that will be for us to stand up and to walk forward.