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Adrian Hastings, Oliver Tomkins: the Ecumenical Enterprise, 1908-92.

London, SPCK, 2001, 184pp., hardbound 50.00 [pounds sterling].

"A man wholly consecrated to unity ..." In these words of St Ignatius, Willem A. Visser't Hooft characterized the life, work and demeanour of Oliver Tomkins. This biography by the late Adrian Hastings is an eloquent testimony to that characterization.

In undertaking this important biography, Hastings sought to provide us with both the story of a life and a religious and social history of the period. In a sense this volume becomes a kind of group biography of the central figures who led the ecumenical movement until the WCC's Uppsala assembly of 1968--without, however, losing its central focus on the life and ministry of Oliver Tomkins.

Born of missionary parents in Hangchow, China, in 1908, Oliver returned to England in 1911 when the imperial government collapsed. Of non-conformist stock, Oliver's family became members of the Church of England in the aftermath of the second world war. While at Cambridge university, Oliver fell under the influence of the evangelical thinker, Edward Woods--one of the few Anglican bishops really committed to the work of the Faith and Order movement. During his studies, the Student Christian Movement played a significant part in his development. At Cambridge some 650 students were members of SCM, including Kathleen Bliss and Lesslie Newbigin. Oliver became president of the Cambridge SCM. He saw himself not so much as a theological debater, but a poet, a crafter of words. It was while studying at Westcott that he came to appreciate "Catholicism", largely because of his encounter with the writings of Baron von Hugel. It is clear that those impulses were formative for Oliver, giving him a wide theological perspective and generating an ecumenical commitment which was strengthened through continuing dialogue with Robert Mackie, Eric Fenn, Kathleen Bliss and Lesslie Newbigin. On leaving university, Oliver joined the staff of SCM as secretary of the theological college department. In this he proved to be a good listener and a hard worker, and exhibited clarity of judgment. During this period he also became involved in the wider ecumenical movement. He attended the Edinburgh Faith and Order conference in 1937, and became associated with the leaders of the ecumenical movement--Visser't Hooft, Leo Zander, Philippe Maury, Nicolas Zernov and Reinhold von Thadden. Oliver Tomkins's ecumenical skills were acknowledged and tested when he was invited to participate in a first meeting of Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians (including Yves Congar) at Brieres, near Paris, in 1937. The world ecumenical movement shaped Oliver's life and work after Edinburgh and Oxford 1937 where he came under the influence of William Temple.

After his work with the SCM Oliver Tomkins was invited to serve in a church in Sheffield, where he found himself working with the local Methodist community. During this period his wider ecumenical interests were maintained to the extent that he was eventually invited to work with the new World Council of Churches, and to have particular responsibility for Faith and Order. He was to collaborate with Leonard Hodgson and Newton Flew in organizing the study work of Faith and Order. In 1952 he was called by his church to be principal of Lincoln theological college, and then to be bishop of Bristol. While in Bristol he pioneered a number of ecumenical initiatives both in the diocese and nationally. Indeed he was instrumental in bringing into being the first (and only) British Faith and Order conference, in Nottingham in 1964, which, on the basis of the New Delhi assembly of the WCC in 1961, sought to initiate processes towards united churches in the four nations by Easter day 1980.

This bald outline of the career of Oliver Tomkins is well elucidated in this biography by Adrian Hastings. The Oliver Tomkins as he appears to his friends leaps recognizably from the pages. His tendency to self-doubt at every stage of his career is evident. His concentration on his work, sometimes to the neglect of his family, is not brushed over. His dedication to the cause of unity is clearly illuminated.

Hastings correctly identifies the specific contribution of Oliver Tomkins to the ecumenical movement. First of all he emphazises the importance of SCM for the development of ecumenical leadership, and the formative role which Oliver played in what undoubtedly is the period of its greatest creativity and influence. At that time, some 15 percent of all British university students--to take only one Context--belonged to the SCM. The members, while far from united, were a group of highly committed "radicals" who felt the winds of Barth, Niebuhr and Maritain and who were conscious of the worsening political situation in Europe. Many SCM members were critical of the churches yet remained firmly committed to them. Those who were involved in the SCM played a central role in the development of the ecumenical movement and the World Council of Churches; indeed, the demise of the SCM has left a serious deficit for contemporary ecumenism. Hastings rightly assesses the impact of the SCM on Oliver's life and work and of Oliver's work on the SCM.

Secondly, Adrian Hastings performs a very valuable service in tracing the early and complex discussions between those involved in the nascent World Council of Churches and ecumenically committed Roman Catholic theologians. He carefully traces these meetings and notes their influence on the Toronto statement, which defines the ecclesiological significance of the WCC. In this the influence of Oliver Tomkins was decisive, and can undoubtedly be seen as a result of his Cambridge exposure to von Hugel's work. Too often in ecumenical histories, the account of Roman Catholic involvement is traced to the establishment of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, and German and Dutch conferences during the 1950s. This scholarly account of the impact of French Roman Catholics, and the determination of the WCC staff to encourage positive relations with the Roman Catholic Church, is thus very welcome.

In the life and work of Faith and Order, Oliver Tomkins' contribution is particularly important in connection with the Lund Faith and Order world conference. Adrian Hastings highlights the fact that the "Lund principle" which appears in the message of the conference is taken from the address given by Oliver Tomkins. This principle--that the churches should ask themselves whether they can act together in all things except those areas where differences of deep convictions compel them to act separately--still remains a vision placed before the churches. Surprisingly, however, Hastings does not emphasize the other two major and lasting contributions made by Tomkins at Lund. In his address, Tomkins also wondered whether the comparative methodology then evident in Faith and Order should not give way to an approach focused on unity in Christ. This suggestion transformed the methodology of Faith and Order, and has led to its impressive convergence texts. The Lund conference was also significant for its emphasis on the "non theological factors of church disunity", a topic associated with C.H. Dodd but which Oliver Tomkins was instrumental in having placed on the WCC and Faith and Order agenda.

In his volume Adrian Hastings gives a full account of the ecumenical work of Oliver Tomkins--including his disappointments--while at Lincoln and as bishop of Bristol. His involvement with the various union discussions in Britain, the importance of Nottingham 1964, and his support of Anglican-Methodist church unity are all well documented, as is his support of what became known as "local ecumenical projects" (now "local ecumenical partnerships"). It is all the more surprising, therefore, that no mention is made of Tomkins' last venture--the proposal for an "ecumenical bishop" in Swindon. It would have been helpful to have an account of this on the basis of materials which must be in the Oliver Tomkins archives.

This is a most important biography for all who are involved in the ecumenical movement. In a work of this complexity it is not surprising that there are a number of mistakes, e.g. Presbyterians are left out of the Church of South India (p.67)! On the whole the judgments on Oliver Tomkins' life and work seem well measured. However there are a number of judgments which reflect the author's own view on the ecumenical agenda rather than that of Oliver Tomkins--e.g. on the Faith and Order study "God in Nature and History" (Bristol 1967). While Hastings regards this as a most impressive report, his articulation of that judgment in this context is intrusive. There is also another matter in which, I think, the author intrudes his own agenda into this work. While Oliver Tomkins undoubtedly wrestled very deeply over the issue of inter-communion, Adrian Hastings uses this as a framework to raise his own views on this topic. While this has been an ongoing concern--and existential issue for him--over the years, and while his viewpoint is extremely cogently argued, it is difficult to assess how central the issue was for Oliver Tomkins himself.

Adrian Hastings has placed us deeply in his debt by allowing a "man wholly consecrated to unity" to speak clearly to us through his life, his struggle and his ecumenical vocation.

Alan D. Falconer is director of the WCC's team on Faith and Order.
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Author:Falconer Alan D.
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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