Part 1: A critique of George Hunsinger
I recently finished reading George Hunsinger’s book, Eucharist and Ministry: Let Us Keep the Feast, as part of a discussion group of Lutheran and Orthodox clergy, pre-clergy, and post-clergy folk (the last category being me, of course). Hunsinger brings a handful of specific proposals to the discussion table; proposals that he believes will help further the goal of mutual recognition of various Christian communions (which is tantamount to unity in his view).
First, a word about the book: There’s nothing groundbreaking in it. His “new proposals” are common knowledge that have been bandied about ever since the late 80s. (The reason for the date is a long story that will become clearer later in the essay.) In that sense, the book is more a compendium of old ideas than it is a breakthrough proposal that will further ecumenism.
Second, great theologians who come up with groundbreaking ideas are poets at heart. Poets have the ability to see beyond, to see through, to see into, existence as it is now, and in that process, they are able to distinguish “what is” both from “what can be” and what ought to be” (ie, the telos – the goal, completion, or perfection – as well as the interim steps to reach that goal). Hunsinger is no poet. He’s mostly a technician, taking data points, deftly arranging them in a manageable order, and presenting this new outline in a lucid manner.
Arguably, Hunsinger has done ecumenism more harm than good by ordering, clarifying, and managing all these data points in such a marvelously technical manner. Without the poet’s imagination he has inadvertently transformed difficult ecclesial realities that are deliciously gray into black and white choices that could divide rather than unite.
In spite of the shortcomings of the book, his proposals are spot on (they’re just not new) as long as you accept his very Protestant assumptions. The key assumption is that the way we achieve the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” as an earthly reality is for each communion to move forward and align itself with an ideal. When each communion has reached that ideal, then all communions can fully and unreservedly accept each other’s sacraments and ministry and full communion will have been achieved.
This assumption as to what the goal ought to be seems utterly obvious to Hunsinger. The problem is that his assumption is based on a world view that is utterly foreign to classic Orthodox thinking. (It is also foreign to the Roman Catholic ethos, but not being RC, I will not pursue that here.)
The Ecumenical Movement has had a handful of key moments which help define the movement as a whole. Many of those have involved the “Faith and Order Commission” (F&O) of the World Council of Churches. The F&O meetings in Lausanne (1927) and Edinburgh (1937) set forth the imperative and direction of ecumenism for the next several decades. At Lima, Peru, in 1982, with the publication of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, ecumenism was fundamentally re-envisioned. (This new vision of ecumenism is what Hunsinger is trying to quantify in his book.)
But ecumenism has always been a Western effort. At the F&O meeting in Oberlin, Ohio (1957), the Greek Orthodox representatives released an authoritative paper explaining how the Eastern Orthodox sense of unity is fundamentally different than the one defined at Lausanne and Edinburgh. According the preamble:
All Christians should seek Unity. On the other hand, we feel that the whole program of the forthcoming discussion has been framed from a point of view which we cannot conscientiously admit. “The Unity we seek” is for us [Eastern Orthodox] a given Unity which has never been lost, and, as a Divine gift and an essential mark of Christian existence, could not have been lost.
In other words, for the Orthodox there’s no moving forward together into unity. Unity is already here. And needless to say (these are Eastern Orthodox theologians writing, after all), the Unity is not in the Orthodox Church, it is the Orthodox Church, which is in Christ. Let me put it in their own words:
We begin with a clear conception of the Church’s Unity, which we believe has been embodied and realized in the age-long history of the Orthodox Church, without any change or break since the times when the visible Unity of Christendom was an obvious fact and was attested and witnessed to by an ecumenical unanimity, in the age of the Ecumenical Councils.
The Russian Orthodox still sit at the F&O table and provide their valuable input. But the Orthodox (all Orthodox) weren’t in the mood to give any ground in 1957. They still aren’t, and this document has remained the last and most definitive word on the subject ever since. (It should be noted that the Ecumenical Patriarch has recently said things that could be perceived as contrary to this document, but in so doing has caused scandal among the rest of the Orthodox, who increasingly suspect he has been seduced by Western sensibilities of centralization and the resulting increase in power that would come his way. But that’s another debate of which I am aware, but which I do not fully understand.)
So in the end, from the Orthodox perspective, the telos of the Ecumenical Program would be that each communion would grow into the church that they were supposed to be. Having achieved that status, they would realize that “one thing remained” (as Jesus told the rich young rule): The obvious next step would be to convert to Orthodoxy, and having envisioned the truth, they would convert. Problem solved.
As the Borg say so poetically in Star Trek, TNG, “We are Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”
And let’s face it. From a Protestant perspective, this is precisely how the Orthodox sensibility is perceived. But if the Orthodox are correct (and they are, I assure you), one begins to realize that the Orthodox statement is the result of great humility before the amazing reality of the Body of Christ, not a hubris based on the confidence in one’s own institution.
And this is precisely the point for many of us converts. We were deeply committed to the F&O vision of ecumenism (that is, returning to Nicene Christianity by going forward). As we steadily groped out of the fragmented Church, putting together our little shards of light so that we could see just a bit farther through the thick darkness despair, we dimly glimpsed a great light, went toward it, and discovered that what we were trying to recreate had been there all along. But because of the thickness of the veil of human brokenness we had failed to see it. (And let’s be honest about the other side of the coin. Ethnic Orthodoxy goes to great lengths to keep itself hidden behind a shroud, as well. The problem is doubled: a veil of ignorance on the Protestant side and a shroud of fear – or sometimes superiority – on the Orthodox side.)
But conversion is antithetical to the Ecumenical vision; it’s choosing a particular communion at the expense of the many. From a Protestant perspective, we converts have simply drunk the Kool Aid™. But from an Orthodox perspective we have “partaken of the holy, divine, immortal, and life-giving mysteries.”
Or, as the choir sings after the people are finished communing: “We have seen the true light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity: for he hath saved us.”
Wow! That’s some Kool Aid™.