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Communion Ecclesiologies as Contextual Theologies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 July 2013

Brian P. Flanagan*
Marymount University


This article argues that the predominance of communion language in ecclesiology in the past fifty years frequently functions as another instance of the universalization of a theological position rooted in a particular, dominant context—the fragmented, post-traditional world of the late twentieth-century West. First, it briefly discusses the concept of a contextual theology. It then traces three of the major contexts in which communion ecclesiology developed: the ecumenical movement and its desire for a new language of Christian unity, the Roman Catholic community's desire for language pointing to the spiritual/theological reality of the Christian church, and the broader cultural context of fragmentation and real or perceived disintegration of community found in late-modern Western societies. Finally, the article looks at some examples of ecclesiological reflection occurring outside of the dominant consensus of communion ecclesiology: the work of José Comblin in Latin America, and that of Elochukwu Uzukwu and other theologians of the church in African contexts.

Copyright © College Theology Society 2013 

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1 Uzukwu, Elochukwu, A Listening Church: Autonomy and Communion in African Churches (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996)Google Scholar.

2 See Pilgram, Friedrich, Physiologie der Kirche (Berlin, 1860)Google Scholar, cited in Congar, Yves, “Peut-on définir l'Église?,” in Jacques Leclercq: L'homme, son œuvre et ses amis (Tournai: Casterman, 1961), 248–50Google Scholar.

3 Bevans, Stephen B., Models of Contextual Theology, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 7Google Scholar.

4 Cf. Doyle, Dennis M., Communion Ecclesiology: Visions and Versions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000)Google Scholar.

5 Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, 1.

6 Ibid., 5.

7 Pears, Angie, Doing Contextual Theology (London: Routledge, 2010), 78Google Scholar.

8 See, for example, Leonardo Boff's social trinitarian communion ecclesiology in Trinity and Society (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988)Google ScholarPubMed and Holy Trinity, Perfect Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000)Google Scholar.

9 See Gadamer, Hans Georg, Truth and Method, 2nd rev.ed., trans. and rev. Weinsheimer, Joel and Marshall, Donald G. (New York: Continuum, 1993), 302–7Google Scholar.

10 See Flanagan, Brian P., Communion, Diversity, and Salvation, Ecclesiological Investigations 12 (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 2443Google Scholar.

11 Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, The Nature and Purpose of the Church, Faith and Order Paper 181 (Geneva: W.C.C., 1998)Google ScholarPubMed; Faith and Order Commission, The Nature and Mission of the Church, Faith and Order Paper 198 (Geneva: W.C.C., 2005)Google ScholarPubMed. See also Collins, Paul M. and Fahey, Michael A., eds., Receiving “The Nature and Mission of the Church,” Ecclesiological Investigations 1 (London: T&T Clark, 2008)Google Scholar.

12 Faith and Order Commission, The Nature and Mission of the Church, §§ 10, 11, 12, 13, 24–33, 34, 42, 49, 55, 57–58, 60–63, 64–66, 74, 79, 97, 99, 111, 116, 117.

13 Elaine Catherine MacMillan, “Conciliarity in an Ecclesiology of Communion: The Contributions of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission's ‘Final Report.’” (PhD diss., University of St. Michael's College, Toronto, 2000).

14 Fuchs, Lorelei F., SA, Koinonia and the Quest for an Ecumenical Ecclesiology: From Foundations through Dialogue to Symbolic Competence for Communionality (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008)Google Scholar.

15 Sagovsky, Nicholas, Ecumenism, Christian Origins, and the Practice of Communion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1841CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Kinnamon, Michael, The Vision of the Ecumenical Movement and How It Has Been Impoverished by Its Friends (St. Louis: Chalice, 2003)Google Scholar.

17 Flanagan, Communion, Diversity, and Salvation, 32–43.

18 Hahnenberg, Edward P., “The Mystical Body of Christ and Communion Ecclesiology: Historical Parallels,” Irish Theological Quarterly 70 (2005): 1630CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 MacDonald, Timothy I., The Ecclesiology of Yves Congar: Foundational Themes (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), 207–10Google Scholar.

20 Congar, Yves, Vraie et fausse réforme dans l'église (Paris: Cerf, 1950)Google Scholar, 7 n. 1, cited in MacDonald, The Ecclesiology of Yves Congar, 208. Newly translated by Paul Philibert: Congar, Yves, True and False Reform in the Church (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011)Google Scholar.

21 Rose Beal, “In Pursuit of a ‘Total Ecclesiology’: Yves Congar's ‘De Ecclesia’, 1931–1954” (PhD diss., The Catholic University of America, 2009).

22 See Beal, “In Pursuit of a ‘Total Ecclesiology,’” 233–34.

23 See, for instance, Melloni, Alberto, “The System and the Truth in the Diaries of Yves Congar,” in Yves Congar: Theologian of the Church, ed. Flynn, Gabriel (Leuven: Peeters, 2005), 277302Google Scholar.

24 Mannion, Gerard, Ecclesiology and Postmodernity (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 44Google Scholar.

25 Some of the major collections of ecclesiological essays available in English are Ratzinger, Joseph, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1996)Google Scholar; Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics: New Essays in Ecclesiology (New York: Crossroad, 1988)Google Scholar; Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005)Google Scholar. The most important doctrinal statement is Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Some Aspects of the Church Understood as a Communion (Communionis notio),” Origins 22 (25 June 1992): 108–12Google Scholar. A fuller summary of Ratzinger's ecclesiological thought, with substantive excerpts, can be found in Mannion, Gerard, “Understanding the Church: Fundamental Ecclesiology,” in The Ratzinger Reader, ed. Boeve, Lieven and Mannion, Gerard (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 81118Google Scholar.

26 Mannion, Ecclesiology and Postmodernity, 60.

27 Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

28 Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Comblin, José, People of God, trans. Berryman, Phillip (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004)Google Scholar; Comblin, Povo de Deus (São Paulo: Paulus Editora, 2002)Google Scholar.

30 Extraordinary Synod of 1985, A Message to the People of God and the Final Report,” Origins 15 (19 December 1985): 441, 443–50Google Scholar.

31 Comblin, People of God, 55.

32 Ibid., 59.

33 Available, along with many of the preparatory and subsequent documents, at

34 Bujo, Bénézet, African Theology in Its Social Context, trans. O'Donoghue, John (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992), 92114Google Scholar.

35 Orobator, Agbonkhianmeghe, Theology Brewed in an African Pot (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008), 8193Google Scholar.

36 Uzukwu, A Listening Church, 66–103.

37 See Uzukwu, Elochukwu, Worship as Body Language. Introduction to Christian Worship: An African Orientation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997)Google Scholar.

38 Ibid., 1.

39 Healey, Joseph and Sybertz, Donald, Towards an African Narrative Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 128–33Google Scholar.

40 This paper was first given at the Fifth Annual Ecclesiological Investigations Conference at the University of Dayton in May 2011. I am grateful to the organizers of that conference, to the participants who first responded to these thoughts, and to the Horizons reviewers whose critiques improved the final product.

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