Has the Ecumenical Movement a Future? Rev Prof John Thompson Booklet Still Relevant for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, traditionally celebrated during the octave of St Peter and St Paul (18-25 January), is underway. The theme for 2017 is “Crossing Barriers,” and the materials were prepared by the churches in Germany.

Using 2 Corinthians 5:14-20 as a reference point, Germany’s Christians chose to focus on dividing “walls” as a symbol of sin, evil and division. They explicitly refer to the Berlin Wall from their own context, and invoke the power of prayer to bring down walls. It’s an especially relevant theme in a Belfast where so many “peace walls” remain.

I recently was made aware that a booklet, If Winter’s Here, Can Spring Be Far Behind? Has the Ecumenical Movement a Future?, by the late Rev Prof John Thompson of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), has become available from the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland for just £2.

Delivered as the Robert Allen Memorial Lecture in Union Theological College in 2000, and published by the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland in 2001, there is much that is still relevant for Christians in Ireland today – particularly during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The booklet can be ordered on the Presbyterian Historical Society website.

Thompson died in 2010, and I never knew him. He was professor of historical and systematic theology at Queens University in Belfast and moderator of PCI in 1986. I found this tribute to him by one of his former PhD students, Bryan Burton:

I thank God for Dr. Thompson for his deep influence on my life and ministry as a Christian, a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the Presbyterian Church and as an academic deeply influenced by the theology and witness of Karl Barth. Dr. Thompson studied with Karl Barth and was considered one of Barth’s best interpreters in the English speaking world. He authored several works of significance, many of which center on Karl Barth’s work. …

I find it somewhat unfortunate that Dr. Thompson was never fully appreciated in Ireland as he should have been. He was such a creative and Godly man of God with great intelligence that has often been appreciated outside of his Northern Ireland context.

Burton’s judgement that Thompson was more appreciated outside of Ireland than within it probably says something quite profound about the Irish churches in general, and PCI and particular.

But  If Winter’s Here, Can Spring Be Far Behind? could give Irish Christians a second chance to become acquainted with Thompson’s thinking.

The title of the booklet plays on that of an earlier book by the late Fr Michael Hurley SJ, founder of the Irish School of Ecumenics: Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Second Spring?

In 2011, I wrote this in a review of Hurley’s book:

Although published more than a decade ago, the concern that motivated Hurley to write the book is strikingly contemporary – the sense that the ecumenical movement is in the doldrums.

The words Hurley writes in the introduction (p. 1) could have been written today:

‘But despite some remarkable success … ecumenical efforts have not only failed to achieve their goal but the whole movement has, it would seem, failed to maintain its momentum. It has lost its drive, its nerve, its sense of direction. It is now like a ship becalmed needing the mighty wind of the Spirit to get under way again.’

Thompson shared Hurley’s concerns. The first part of his booklet outlines some of the early achievements and then challenges to ecumenism, as manifested in the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Second Vatican Council.

Thompson then evaluates how Irish Presbyterianism has reacted to those challenges.

Of course, PCI could be considered the least ecumenically-inclined of the four largest Irish churches, given its tumultuous history of involvement (or lack thereof) with ecumenical initiatives. In 1980 it opted out of the WCC and in 1989 it did not ‘opt in’ to the Council of Churches in Britain and Ireland.

Thompson sets these decisions in a wider context, examining:

  • what he sees as Irish Presbyterian misconceptions of the WCC (‘it’s not a super-church’, he insists);
  • the view of some Irish Presbyterians that the Roman Catholic Church is not a church at all (he points out that even Luther and Calvin ‘never completely unchurched’ the Catholic Church);
  • the Irish Presbyterian tendency to equate the Westminster Confession’s anti-Christ with the Pope;
  • Irish Presbyterian suspicions about the WCC’s Programme to Combat Racism, which many equated with paramilitary violence; and
  • the hardening of Irish Presbyterian attitudes during the Troubles

This is a very useful analysis for those trying to understand Presbyterian concerns about ecumenism. Thompson concluded (p. 10):

Those who oppose and have voted against the World Council of Churches and ecumenical relationships generally in Ireland do so out of strong convictions but I do think that they are, as I have shown, in most cases, misled. The idea that once [PCI] came out of the World Council of Churches evangelism would flourish has failed to materialise and we are now facing a society where people, Catholic and Protestant, alike, especially the young, are simply turning their back on the church and our unhappy divisions. I would not see that as the only or even main reason for our sad decline in numbers but it is most probably one. The way forward should be to seek as far as possible to work together for the cause of Christ and for the common good both here and elsewhere.

In conclusion, Thompson insists that working for the common good – or ‘crossing barriers’, if we wish to emphasise this year’s theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – does not mean giving up one’s firmly held beliefs.

People who disagree can cross barriers and work together – and sometimes they can accomplish more than they ever dreamed of.

This was Thompson’s final sentence (p. 12):

‘This is the hope and prayer we have not only for the political scene but for the churches in this and every land, that we truly become the one Church of Jesus Christ acting together in his service.’

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