SETS Conference 2011: Chairman’s Reflections

This year’s conference, held in the International Christian College, Glasgow, on 9 and 10 May, was one of the best. The theme of Evangelical Ecumenicity was a challenging one because the evangelical movement, when it originated in the 18th century, was profoundly ecumenical. But as the modern ecumenical movement took shape in the 20th century, evangelicals tended to remain on or beyond its margins.

While the dominance of liberal theology in mainline inter-church dialogue was at least partly responsible for this ecumenical aloofness, the causes of the extraordinary fractiousness of the contemporary evangelical movement have come from within rather than from without. Evangelicals may have successfully resisted a rationalistic reading of the gospel, but have allowed Enlightenment individualism to dumb down the recurring biblical focus on the unity of the people of God.

All the speakers brilliantly complemented one another. David Reimer and Larry Hurtado expounded the diversity-in-unity motif that prevails in the ecclesiology of both Old Testament and New. Martin Spence and Stephen Holmes set the conference theme in its historical and contemporary theological context, while Rose Dowsett and Fred Drummond reviewed the current evangelical ecumenical state of play globally and nationally.

The challenge of the conference was practical as well as conceptual. It prompted us to reflect how today in our relationships with others we might best respect both theological unity and cultural diversity. In order to cohere, any Christian movement must exhibit a measure of core theological uniformity. But over enthusiasm in sustaining that uniformity can dissipate the diversity! On the other hand, the privileging of cultural diversity can undermine theological consistency! So perhaps the challenge of SETS 2011 is to accept the stress of living in the parenthesis between the uniformity of modernity and the différance of postmodernity by modelling a biblical equilibrium between unity and diversity.

The increase in numbers and enthusiasm this year were encouraging and hopefully are a portent of future vitality and growth in the SETS network.

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