The Gospel and the Catholic Church by Michael Ramsey is an early 20th century ecumenical essay written by an Anglican bishop who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. The author’s thesis is that the Catholic Church (the universal church, not necessarily the Roman Catholic Church) is the Body of Christ not because Christians are united over this or that issue but because the Church is united in the death and resurrection of Christ.
“For the Church exists for something deeper than philanthropy and reform, namely to teach men to die to self and to trust in a resurrection to a new life that, because it spans both this world and another world, can never be wholly understood here, and must always puzzle the world’s idealists.”
It is in this context that Ramsey attempts to analyze the ecclesial structures and theologies of the major Christian traditions. He argues for a Church model that is structured with presbyters and bishops but does not view the organization of the Church as an end in itself. Rather, all ecclesial functions are centered in Christ. To follow Christ is to die to self. This applies to the Church as well. “The death to the self qua self, first in Christ and then in the disciples, is the ground and essence of the Church.” Tradition and the apostles play an important role in the Church.
I think that this work is a great early contribution to the ecumenical movement. In particular, I am glad that the author does not trivialize the divisions in Christianity; he doesn’t argue that Christians can be united through social justice or love. The divisions are taken seriously. I am also glad that the author does not ignore Eastern Christianity. He engages with all the major Christian traditions. However, as a Roman Catholic, I felt that at times he misunderstood my tradition. He cannot see beyond the legalism of the Church, and thinks falsely that the Catholic view of the Eucharist separates the sacrament from the passion of Christ. Catholic teaching is that the Eucharist celebrated at Mass is one and the same Eucharist shared in the Upper Room. The Eucharist, being the mystical body and blood of Christ, is a sharing in the one death and resurrection of Christ. Basically, the fruits of the Passion of Christ are not limited to the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.
Being Anglican, the author naturally thinks that the Anglican model has the most potential. Being Catholic, I think the Roman Catholic model has the most potential. In other words, his argument for the Anglican Church weakens somewhat the thesis of his essay. While the Roman Catholic Church has had a rocky history, the Anglican Church, started by King Henry VIII, has not always been a beacon of unity either. Still, I feel that the overarching theme of the book is one that can help redirect the ecumenical movement. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Christian ecumenism.