"What Geoffrey Wainwright Taught Me About Ecumenism"
19 March 2020
Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, a leading Methodist ecumenical theologian, died earlier this week. A Methodist minister and theologian of worship and church life, Wainwright was influential on global conversations on church unity and ecumenical struggle, especially in the years after Vatican II, a period in the 1970s-1990s in which Roman Catholicism entered into ecumencial dialogue with key Protestant and Orthodox denominations.
I was privileged to know Wainwright while I was a graduate student at Duke Divinity School. Wainwright and I could not have been in more different places in life when we first met. I was young-- very young--, and just starting my theological education. He was nearing the final years of his career at Duke where he had taught theology since 1983, and I was fresh off my first masters, on what I hoped would be a fast track to a doctoral program in theology.
I registered for a course with Wainwright my first semester at Duke. All the graduate students were scrambling to get into this course, Systems of Theology. Wainwright’s seminars were becoming fewer and farther between, and I was lucky to get a seat. I walked into the seminar room on the first day overlooking the yard outside Duke Chapel, having been up late the night before reading as much of the first volume of German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg’s systematic theology as I could before dozing off in the library.* Professor Wainwright sat down grumpily, called our names off his sheet from the registrar, and then started asking questions in his bright British accent.
About three questions in, he asked me, “What impact do you believe Hegel’s philosophical system had on Pannenberg’s view of theological method?” I did what most aspiring doctoral students do and made something up. I used a lot of big words (most of them incorrectly) and managed to sputter out a half-decent answer, to which Wainwright nodded approvingly. He paused, took a breath, and in a kind but also knowing tone, said: “You did well. Err, well, you did the best you could. You are just starting out on this, mind you….”
Geoffrey Wainwright was a giant amongst Wesleyan theologians of the late twentieth century, writing on issues of ecumenical unity, worship and theology, and liturgical practice. His most influential work, Doxology, was informed both by the practical concerns of ecumenical worship and his direct experience as an itinerant minister in Methodist parishes in the UK and West Africa. Wainwright struggled to hold together the desire for Christian unity with the distinctive preferences of his British Wesleyan tradition, and so worked tirelessly “at-the-hyphens” of diverse and divergent ways of thinking about God, self, and the other. In his courses, both in seminar sections and lectures, Wainwright would remind us that he preferred to be called an evangelical-orthodox-catholic theologian because the unique distinctives of each of those differing traditions formed the core part of parallelist approach to Christian unity that refused the binary choices of exclusivity and inclusivity. One must not cease to be who one is in order to be in communion with the other. Identity need not crowd out difference.
Wainwright’s ecumenical generosity was very influential on my own theological thinking—and my work at United. When I talk to prospective students about United’s theological aspiration to be a radically inclusive community, I am reminded of Wainwright’s insistence that what makes Christian theology “Christian” is its commitment to solidarity: radical accompaniment with that which is not itself. United’s commitments to engage the other in interreligious friendship and ecumencial curiosity are grounded in its Christian roots. Its language, its liturgies, its music, its daily patterns and rhythms of life should reflect that. I believe that Wainwright would be pleased with the work United has done throughout its history to embody those values. And yet, Wainwright was always the first to admit that imperfection, indeed, failure was essential to growth, key to struggling for Christian unity in a context of triumphalism.
My last year at Duke, Wainwright taught a seminar on “eschatology,” where we explored major ideas about the “last things”: death, dying, and the end of time. I wrote a seminar paper on—you guessed it—Pannenberg’s concept of God as the end of history, and tried feebly to incorporate Wainwright’s own work on theologies of funeral rites into the paper’s thesis. At the end of the seminar, I sat in his office and fidgeted uncomfortably as we reviewed my work together, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, citation by citation. At some point in the discussion, Wainwright stopped, took his glasses off wearily, and said with a sly, but satisfied, smile, “You did well. Not as good as I had hoped, but well.”
Wainwright was nothing if not a gracious and generous pastor, a theologian of great accomplishment who dedicated his life and work to teaching faith and spiritual leaders about the moral and social impact of curiosity and openness to difference. I believe that work continues in what I do here at United; inviting prospective students into an intellectual community, struggling and striving as it always does, that aspires to live up to the values set forth by the very ideas Wainwright worked to advance in his writings and his work with students. Perhaps we don’t always do as well as we hope, but Wainwright always saw the bright side of ecumencial struggle. The unity on the other side of difference. This, he said, is where the Spirit of God is given voice in the songs and bodies of God’s people.
* Wolfhart Pannenberg (1929-2014) was a German Lutheran theologian in the late twentieth century.