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The Church as Moral Community: Ecclesiology and Ethics in Ecumenical Debate

By Lewis S. Mudge

Continuum. 1998. 176 pp. $19.95
ISBN 0-8264-1048-0

Reviewed by Clifton Kirkpatrick


Lewis Mudge, professor of systematic theology at San Francisco Seminary, is one of the greatest gifts the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shares with the ecumenical movement. His vision and insights, matched by his gracious and generous spirit, have decisively shaped all of the major ecumenical movements in which our church has been engaged for more than a generation.

In his latest book, The Church as Moral Community, Mudge shares the fruits of recent ecumenical dialogue and offers a fresh vision for the renewal of the church as spiritual-moral communities and of the ecumenical movement as their home.

In The Church as Moral Community, Mudge rightly points out that we are at the end of an era which began with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. That agreement, which ended the wars of religion, granted freedom of religion and social support for the churches on the precondition that churches were to be concerned with the private rather than the public sphere of life. Mudge rightly points out that the church in our time has already lost its “monopoly” on the private sphere and that the public sphere is in deep need of a moral vision. This is a kairos movement for a fresh renewal of the church to renew a world that has lost its moral grounding.

Mudge calls for churches to be communities of practices based on the Christian story leading to moral formation, agents of public advocacy for moral values, and centers of hospitality for those in secular society dealing with moral issues. In the midst of various proposals for the church to seek renewal with an inward focus, Mudge rightly reminds us that the world is the arena of God’s action and the focus of the church’s ministry.

Mudge further reminds us that the church cannot provide this moral leadership if it remains divided. He calls on the churches not just to reclaim their identity as spiritual-moral communities in their separate congregations. He also calls on the churches to build a global network of spiritual-moral communities that share a common moral framework, which finds diverse expressions in the many different contexts of the Christian community around the globe. He sees the World Council of Churches as the best instrument for building this global communion and points to recent affirmations developed by the churches through the WCC, which point toward the shared moral framework.

The Church as Moral Community offers us a fresh set of categories, which are both biblical and contemporary, for the renewal and unity of the church. It reminds us of the urgent calling of the church to be a moral community for the renewal of the world. While the language is a bit heavy with “ecumenical jargon” and the arguments often complex, the vision which Mudge presents with such passion is filled with hope for congregations, for the ecumenical movement and for a world in moral chaos.