Earlier this year I had occasion to call at the United States Treasury Department in Washington. Doubtless fraught with terrible significance, the precise purpose of my visit now eludes me; but I did carry away an employee suggestion blank, to my soul’s enrichment. A projected scheme’s chance of acceptance would be enhanced, it was made clear, if various steps were followed. One of these was, “Turn loose the imagination”—a magnificent Goethe-like utterance well worthy of the italics given it by a discriminating Uncle Sam. C. S. Lewis somewhere points out that the devil’s most effective work is done, not (as is commonly assumed) by putting thoughts into men’s heads, but by keeping them out. What a splendid sermon could be based on the perils of a free-ranging imagination!

The latter led me into a frightening experience recently at the British Faith and Order Conference. We were singing “For All the Saints Who from Their Labours Rest,” when suddenly the words came alive for me. Lifting my eyes to the spacious upper reaches of Nottingham University’s Great Hall, I imagined them crammed with the celestial company looking down on us and perhaps wondering how much we meant it. I am no mystic (my colleagues will readily confirm this), but the exhilarating vision persisted until rude recollection came that heaven, alas, was no longer “up there.” (I’ll never forgive the Bishop of Woolwich for that.)

Scope for the imagination was abundantly found at the conference. “We dare to hope,” said a resolution setting a target for church union, “that this date should be not later than Easter Day 1980.” Only 15 per cent of the delegates voted against this plan, which was rightly called a “splendidly irrational symbol.” And this in an assembly representative of all Britain’s major denominations.

There is about the whole conception a breathtaking quality we must admire, an echo of the same “tendency toward the colossal” that (according to an engaging guidebook I found in Rhodes last month) characterized the ancient workers in bronze. Church merger proposals are peculiarly vulnerable things. If I may repeat myself in these pages, it is notable that whenever striking and imaginative variations are played around a familiar theme, the strident cry of heresy is heard in the land, and dark allusions are made about building new boats to founder on old rocks.

But the Nottingham conference has confirmed the conviction held by some British evangelicals that their attitude toward the ecumenical movement demands reappraisal and elucidation, if only to refute the accusation of Pharisaism.

O God-like isolation which art mine,

I can but count thee perfect gain,

What time I watch the darkening droves of swine

That range on yonder plain.

Laurence Housman once advised that staunch individualist Dick Sheppard to “remain explosively within the church.”

Similarly, because we think that evangelicals should in some sense be involved in contemporary discussions, seven of us in Britain have prepared a paperback, Evangelicals and Unity (Marcham Manor Press, Abingdon, Berkshire, six shillings). In this little volume which (commercial) I have edited, the writers look at the current ecumenical scene, evaluate it in the light of evangelical principles, and express some of their hopes and fears.

Dr. Philip E. Hughes, for example, thus sounds a warning note against one of the tendencies of our times: “Rome has always shown herself accommodating to paganism, whether noble or ignoble. She has developed over the centuries a hieromantic system which is highly adaptable to the most widely differing cults and cultures. Thus she has found a prominent place for the Queen of Heaven in her celestial realm; she has canonized Aristotle among the theological elite; and her missionaries have manifested a remarkable readiness to baptize the ancestral rituals and superstition of heathendom into the worship of the local congregation. The adjustments she is now busy making at the Vatican Council are of a kind that would ease the way for Protestants who are not punctilious over matters of doctrine and worship to return to the papal fold.” Dr. Hughes makes a point of stressing that he is speaking about a system and its officialdom, not about individuals.

All the paperback’s contributors have freely expressed their viewpoint. Four of them are actively involved in official ecumenical dialogue. The book suggests various topics for a future ecumenical agenda, including: the work of the Spirit in relation to Scripture; the relation between the doctrine of the Church and the Gospel of justification by faith alone; the relevance of justification by faith alone in the field of sacramental theology; whether biblically based creeds and confessions are necessary to safeguard against error; and whether the historic episcopate is essential to a true notion of the continuity and catholicity of the visible church.

One of the triumphs of the Nottingham gathering was the presence of a number of conservative evangelicals; one of the mysteries was that a major address should have been devoted to telling them what a prickly lot they were. In what he called a “frank airing of difficulties,” the Rev. John Huxtable made an appeal to them to reconsider some questions. He put it thus (I quote in full): “Is your expression of the Christian Faith so complete and perfect that you can afford to be suspicious of those who do not and cannot share it? Is the Gospel so inevitably related to that form of expressing it that you really endanger it by cooperating with other Christians? Are you sure that your understanding of Christian unity is truly scriptural? Is it not altogether likely that, if we all submitted to the bond of love and service as well as truth, we should all sooner grow up into Christ who is our Head?” This distinctively ecumenical brand of word-formation would have become more meaningful had Mr. Huxtable’s questions been addressed equally to the Vatican Council, for which the Nottingham conference assiduously prayed twice daily.

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Lest the lesson had not been sufficiently conveyed, one of the conference officials took it upon himself at the closing session to express grave misgivings about the projected Graham crusade in London, because he questioned the evangelist’s “presentation and understanding of the Gospel” and his method of reaching the unchurched. If the speaker had found a better method he did not share it with us. Three cheers for Rome! Down with Minneapolis, Minnesota! With that single proviso, on to 1980.

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