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Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ecumenical Quest

This book aims to show how and why for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from the conclusion of his student years in Berlin to his death on the Nazi gallows at Flossenbürg, the ecumenical movement was central to his concerns. Of course, during these years he fulfilled several distinct roles: academic theologian and teacher, leading protagonist for the Confessing Church, pastor, seminary director and—most dramatically and controversially—willing participant in the German resistance and the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. But it is his commitment to and active involvement in the ecumenical movement that form the most continuous thread of his life and activity, and links all his various engagements. Equally, the challenge that he laid down to that movement in his time remains a legacy which has still to be fully claimed by the ecumenical world today. This book therefore has two potential readerships particularly in view: enthusiastic admirers of Bonhoeffer who need convincing of the significance of ecumenism for him; and ecumenists who, content to leave Bonhoeffer in effigy safely in the martyr’s niche, have yet to consider what so invigoratingly he has to say—or, rather, what he has to question—about their contemporary concerns.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ecumenical Quest

Keith Clements

Bonhoeffer and what it means to be the church-

Bonhoeffer brought his own theology into the movement, worked out in his doctoral thesis Sanctorum Communio with its fundamental concept of the church, “Christ existing as community.” Bonhoeffer believed the church is a relational body of persons gathered under the word of Christ –Christ as known in his work of “vicarious representative action” –  and whose members are in turn bound to each other in that same relationship. Bonhoeffer had no “ecumenical theology” other than this understanding of what it means to be church, writ large on the widest scale, indeed global.

Hence ecumenism for Bonhoeffer was inherently also the call to proclaim and embody peace in the world. Thus we see him at the Fanø ecumenical conference in 1934 in Denmark issuing his striking appeal for the churches of the world, as the great “ecumenical council” in session, to issue a call for the nations to lay down their arms.

The Rev. Dr Keith Clements is a former general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, and the author of a number of books and articles on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ecumenical Quest, published by WCC Publications in 2015. This article is based on an address given at the launch of the book at the Ecumenical Centre on 4 March 2015, and subsequently published in The Ecumenical Review, July 2015.