Choose the Narrow Path

The Way for Churches to Walk Together

by Pierre Whalon (Author)
©2023 Monographs XIV, 292 Pages


Why is it that churches agree to the same basic faith in hundreds of dialogues, and yet remain locked in an "ecumenical winter"? In Choose the Narrow Path, Bishop Pierre Whalon argues that to acknowledge the same doctrines while acting as if churches should remain separate is not only a recipe for disaster, but it is also itself a sin. This book spells out that doctrinal agreement in Part I, while Part II uncovers a more personal reaction, structured around the Nicene Creed.
The primary argument is that, while churches may be "one," "holy," and "catholic" in what they believe, none of them is truly "apostolic" in their action. To begin to address this failing, the author calls for exceptional intercommunion for members of all churches that subscribe to the Narrow Path but are still reluctant to walk it together.
"Bishop Pierre Whalon … offers clear points about the challenges that Churches face, but also a way forward through what he describes as "the narrow path."
— The Most Reverend Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church
"Bishop Pierre Whalon’s Choose the Narrow Path is a much needed and highly accessible handbook of the contemporary Ecumenical Movement for the unity of the Christian Churches."
— The Right Reverend R. William Franklin, Assistant Bishop, Diocese of Long Island
"Bishop Pierre Whalon has gone beyond the rhetoric to produce a sound scriptural-based systematic treatise with concrete practical applications. The book … may well be the catalyst, as the subtitle suggests, That Opens the Way for the Churches to Walk Together."
—Prof. Cyril Orji, Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Dayton, OH
"Bishop Whalon’s Choose the Narrow Path is … a book for Christians of all stripes to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest—great for study groups and church leaders alike."
—The Very Reverend Dr. William S. Stafford, Dean Emeritus of The School of Theology, Sewanee, USA
"To walk any narrow path with a precipice on either side is very dangerous, but Bishop Pierre Whalon proves to be an excellent and sure-footed guide for the churches to try to walk together. He calls for action now so that we can avoid the scandal of disunity which threatens to plunge us into the depths, and instead to witness together to Jesus the Risen Christ."
—The Rev’d Canon Professor Richard A. Burridge,The University of Manchester

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction: Calling the churches to account
  • Preliminary developments in ecumenism
  • Setting the table
  • Beginning with the Bible
  • Part I: “So that the world may believe”
  • Chapter One: Utrecht and Uppsala
  • Chapter Two: Roman Catholic bilateral dialogues
  • Western churches
  • Other dialogues with western churches
  • Roman Catholic bilateral dialogues: Eastern churches
  • Chapter Three: Other churches in dialogue
  • The Anglican Communion in dialogue
  • Anglican-Oriental Orthodox Dialogue
  • The Lutheran churches in dialogue
  • The Methodist churches in dialogue
  • Faith and Order
  • The Orthodox Churches in dialogue
  • Chapter Four: Particular resources
  • Ut unum sint
  • Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry
  • Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
  • The Church of the Triune God: the Cyprus Report of the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue
  • Chapter Five: Gift ecumenism; receptive ecumenism; transformative ecumenism
  • Chapter Six: Choose the Narrow Path
  • Part II. Beginnings: Theology as praxis
  • A brief note on structure
  • Start with God …
  • Belief, faith, knowledge of God
  • Knowledge of God
  • Know: how?
  • Knowing?
  • Believe: what?
  • Hypothesis, belief, credulity, faith: “I/we believe in …”
  • Proverbs
  • Faith
  • Back to knowing … what?
  • “The eros of the human spirit”
  • What is God?
  • “We believe in one God …”
  • “the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth”
  • “of all that is, visible and invisible”
  • Who is this Jesus in whom we believe?
  • One Lord
  • “The only Son of God”
  • The Incarnation: “begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father”
  • Fides quærens defensionis
  • Attending to the questions
  • Relocating metaphysics
  • Naming
  • Procession
  • Intellectual emanation
  • Procession as intellectual emanation, part 1
  • Faith and thought: a necessary excursus
  • The mind of God: emanation, part 2: “light from light”
  • Adding to the notion of intellectual emanation
  • Procession to relation to Person
  • Persons, properties, missions
  • God is love
  • The Incarnation: “begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father … through whom all things were made”
  • Naming: the Word
  • “by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man”
  • “for us and our salvation”
  • Back to the originary scene
  • The fruit of a certain tree?
  • “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate”
  • Making peace by his blood
  • Who died on the cross, again?
  • “He suffered death and was buried.”
  • “On the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.”
  • As prophesied and proclaimed
  • “He ascended into heaven”
  • “and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
  • “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end.”
  • Judgment Day
  • “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life”
  • “… who proceeds from the Father and the Son”
  • The gift and gifts of the Spirit
  • Charisms and Baptism in the Spirit
  • “He has spoken through the prophets.”
  • “We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”
  • What kind of unity?
  • Holy
  • Catholic
  • Apostolic
  • “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
  • “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Introduction: Calling the churches to account

The prevailing wisdom says that ecumenism is frozen, in a winter that does not seem to end, as if we are in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia during the reign of the Snow Queen. The Christian churches of the world seem doomed to remain separate, with conflicting claims to be the “true,” the “right,” the “original,” the “New Testament” church, etc.

At the same time, there have never been more dialogues, conferences, documents, reports:

The churches are in fact awash with ecumenical reports. There have been so many conversations, so many wise heads, so much sheer scholarship, so much money spent, so much prayer offered earnestly, in the hope that if we are seen to be one, the world might believe!1

Kurt Cardinal Koch, president of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity (formerly the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity) sent a note decrying an “ecumenical emergency” to the 2022 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops entitled “What Unity Do We Christians Seek? Reflections on the goal of the ecumenical movement from a Catholic perspective.”2 The note significantly opened by quoting from the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Unity Commission of 1980: “We need a ‘common vision’ because we shall grow further apart if we do not aim towards a common goal. If we have conflicting views of this goal, we shall, if we are consistent, move in opposite directions.”3 The cardinal states that “the basic questions of what, who and where the Church is, and what absolutely pertains to its unity, [are] the main items on the present and future ecumenical agenda.”

Now is a propitious time to take stock of the accomplishments of the ecumenical movement, therefore, specifically in identifying so far what the churches in dialogue have in common, in order to return to the central question of how unity must be practiced. One major challenge is the general ignorance of those accomplishments among Christians, beyond the members of those dialogues and interested clergy and laity. The great bulk of the faithful, including local clergy, simply do not connect with the work of their churches’ ecumenists. For instance, even after 57 years of official dialogues and significant agreements with the Roman Catholic Church, including the establishment of the Anglican Centre in Rome4 and the joint bishops’ commission known as the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM),5 I still have conversations with Roman Catholics—even bishops—who continue to insist that King Henry VIII started his own church in order to procure a divorce.6

And yet it remains true, as Margaret O’Gara wrote, that ecumenists

speak easily of the mutual recognition of our baptism, of the real and unique presence of Christ in the Eucharist, of justification by faith through grace, of the church as a communion, of a universal ministry by the bishop of Rome as something desirable for all the churches to recover, and diverse forms of devotion to Mary as an authentic inculturation of the Gospel.7

Ecumenists have worked hard, but by and large their efforts, impressive as they are, remain unknown by the vast majority of the faithful. This ignorance should not be mistaken for indifference, however, for most believers have at least some awareness that our disunity gives the lie to our proclamation of the Gospel entrusted to us. If some are unaware of that, nonbelievers and members of other faiths will quickly make it plain.

Another major challenge is the actual work of moving forward toward visible unity. Cardinal Koch argues that many people have given up on this goal as undesirable in the wake of postmodernism’s dismissal of unity in favor of plurality. “It is therefore characteristic of postmodernism to abandon unitary thinking on principle, which means not only tolerating and accepting pluralism but fundamentally opting for it. With this postmodern mindset, any quest for unity seems premodern and antiquated” (“What unity?” §5).

Be that as it may. The clearest sign of disunity we Christians give to one another is barring from Holy Communion other Christians belonging to churches different from our own. While among many Anglicans and most Reformed churches some practice of intercommunion obtains, for the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches such “laxity” is an exception. The scandal of disunity begins at home.

This assertion may seem reasonable to those who would point to continuing discord among the churches, exemplified by the unwillingness to share Holy Communion together, or even to admit the validity of another church. Compared to where the churches were even 50 years ago, we have all come to a very different place, and this gives hope for further growth together. Nevertheless:

Surely the supreme irony within Christian theology and practice is the situation that the churches find themselves in with regard to the Eucharist. On the one hand, all those churches which make the Eucharist a central part of their preaching and practice emphasize unity—in practice, this is a multivalent notion in preaching—within their celebrations. While on the other hand, not only are the divisions between churches rarely so raw and vicious as when the Eucharist, as part of Christian praxis, is involved but, even between churches who are today willing to take part in ecumenical dialogues, the issue of intercommunion seems an insurmountable difficulty.8

This book aims to identify and highlight the common theology that the ecumenical dialogues have developed. This material points to a gate and a Narrow Path for all the churches to walk in together (cf. Matthew 7:13–14). What I mean by “a common theology” is in fact a reasoned statement of faith we all can make together that can be unearthed from these dialogues. It also lays bare the deep disagreement in ecclesiologies as a challenge to any one church’s assertion of its apostolicity. In order to further the goal toward real unity—and the hard demanding work of getting there—we must not only recognize each other’s Baptism as valid but also acknowledge that all the baptized need the Holy Communion as part of the way of life that following Jesus entails: “this do in memory of me.” To praise God together, even praying together, cannot be simply talk: “not only with our lips but in our lives” is what God demands of us. A vital sign of walking the Narrow Path will be for all its churches to admit to communion those Christians who are prevented by geography from attending a church of their own—exceptionally, of course. Such a practice will facilitate the discovery of that unity which is God’s gift to us all—it will grow fuller and more visible.

As we shall see, unity in Christ is not just “so that the world may believe,” it is also so that we may believe that we too are beloved as he is, beloved in him, not just for our sake but for the sake of the whole of humanity, indeed, the creation itself.

Preliminary developments in ecumenism

The early twentieth century saw a blossoming of attempts to bring together the separated Christian churches. Already in 1888, the Anglican Communion had produced the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral as a basis for “Christian Reunion” as they called it. The initial version, created by the Episcopal Church House of Bishops at an 1886 meeting in Chicago, Illinois, even offered to give up the Book of Common Prayer (the heart of our identity as a Church) for the sake of that Reunion.9 In 1902 the leader of the Orthodox Churches, the Patriarch of Constantinople, issued a broad invitation to those churches to reach out to other Christians. The 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference heralded the movement that led eventually to the establishment of the World Council of Churches. In attendance was Charles Henry Brent, then missionary Bishop of the Philippines, where he had a vision of a world conference on faith and order. He was able to convince the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in that year to establish a joint commission to promote such a conference. By 1920, 69 churches had decided to participate, and a preliminary meeting was held in Geneva. 70 official representatives from 49 countries participated, and Brent was elected president.

In that same year both the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops put out further calls for the Christian churches to re-unite. The 1927 World Conference on Faith and Order presided by Bishop Brent10 gathered 400 delegates from 40 nations representing 127 autonomous churches attended, with Roman Catholic unofficial observers.11 It was the ground for the establishment of the World Council of Churches in 1948. Sixteen years later, the Second Vatican Council issued the decree entitled Unitatis redintegratio, a blueprint for Christian reunion at least from that church’s perspective.

In 1966 Pope Paul VI and Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey launched a search for unity that still continues in the now third cycle of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Consultations (ARCIC). One major ecumenical event in particular was the 1982 release of the World Council’s Faith and Order document, “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” which outlined a way forward for uniting the churches. It was widely acclaimed at the time, and many Churches officially accepted it as a step onward. In 1990 the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches reached an agreement on a shared understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ, healing a 1439-year-old disagreement that had provoked the first great split of the Church universal in the fifth century.12 In 1998 ARCIC produced a document called “The Gift of Authority” which attempted to reconcile Roman Catholic and Anglicans around the ministry of the Bishop of Rome. “Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ” appeared in 2004, and closed out the second cycle of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Consultation.

At that time, everything seemed to come to a screeching halt. And even to go backwards, as Cardinal Koch reminded the Lambeth bishops. The huge hopes that had been raised throughout the twentieth century seemed dashed. We entered the “winter of our discontent” in the ecumenical movement.

The story of faith in Christ is punctuated with unlikely changes, however. When all seems lost, God does something new.

One of my favorite hymns is Er ist ein Ros entsprungen:

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,

From tender stem hath sprung.

Of Jesse’s lineage coming,

As men of old have sung;

It came, a flow’ret bright,

Amid the cold of winter,

When half spent was the night.

The birth of Jesus took place in the depths of Israel’s subjugation by Rome. The call of Moses came during Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. David was anointed king though he seemed to be not only unlikely but ineligible. Esther saved her people when their extermination seemed sure. Francis of Assisi singlehandedly revived the Western Church. John Henry Hobart lit a fire in the Episcopal Church in America that not only saved it from dying out, but in the process also laid the ground for what became known as the Oxford Movement, with its huge ecumenical influence.

And this plot recurs over and over in the different histories of the separated churches, as well as the initial flowering of ecumenism in the twentieth century for all Christians. When all seems lost, God does something new.

Therefore, “amid the cold of winter” in ecumenical relations, it does not seem unreasonable to expect that the Holy Spirit will do something now, “when half spent is the night.” To point to the achievements of ecumenical dialogue is to suggest not only that there is fact significant progress, but also to claim that there is enough common understanding to put forward a common theology and practice that points the way, “the narrow path” that leads on toward a new day.13

Setting the table

There are four great currents that have arisen in the river that has flowed through time since the baptism of the very first disciples: the Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, and Anglican streams. While a plain reading of the New Testament shows that there never was a church that was completely united in faith, practice, and order, the fact that during the first three centuries the church was essentially a secret society tended to muffle conflict. Membership could be punishable by death, and often was. This meant that disagreements were muted, and ways of handling conflict developed that allowed for the growth of Christianity despite its interdiction. When Constantine legalized the church, it became apparent that there were in fact significant differences which immediately erupted into open conflict. These existed before ad 325, of course, but legitimacy had the effect of pouring gasoline on the smoldering embers. Now imperial power could be enlisted to support one side or another.

At the same time, a great change had occurred in the Empire: it had split into an eastern as well as a western half, as Constantine built a second capital on the Bosporus, Constantinople. This was reflected seven centuries later in the formal schism between the Eastern and Western churches, when in 1054 Pope Gregory VII’s legate laid an unanswered letter on the altar of the Hagia Sophia church in that city.14

It has been called Istanbul since the fifteenth century, reflecting of course the achievements of Arab Islam over eight centuries. The rise of that religion and the consequent empires that followed were major challenges to the churches, especially in those lands that came under Muslim rule. For some this remains true to this day, especially those churches that are now known as Oriental Orthodox, that arose after the schism of the fifth century following the Council of Chalcedon. While Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, and is still growing swiftly, Islam is second. The recent wars, armed conflicts, and terrorism have had the effect of pushing the churches into seeking dialogue and entente with Muslim leaders.15 And secondarily, this has had the effect of pushing the churches into each other’s arms. This is all the more reason to seek out that “narrow path.”

Beginning with the Bible

The first step onto the Narrow Path is the recognition that all churches hold in common the great bulk of the Holy Scriptures. The history of Christian reflection on God began with the New Testament, itself composed of various reflections on Jesus as Messiah with the Hebrew Scriptures as backdrop. Like the Hebrew Scriptures, these are in different genres. There is the gospel genre,16 letters to individuals (e.g., Philemon), to particular churches, and wider audiences (e.g., I Peter, Hebrews, Revelation, etc.). There is complete ecumenical consensus on these 27 documents as forming the Christian Scriptures. While their interpretation has always been at the heart of discord among the churches, there is unanimity that, along with the Old Testament, they are “the Word of God.” One mark of the narrow path is a basic agreement with Article Six of the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles: they “contain all things necessary to salvation.” While various traditions would want to say more than that, none contradict it.

Roman Catholics, Eastern Christians, and in a more limited sense, Anglicans, would also add those books in Greek that appear in the versions of the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus would have known. These “Apocrypha” or “deuterocanonical texts”17 are not accepted by reformed churches as containing necessary salvific teaching—they do not form part of their Bible.18 The Eastern churches add an extra psalm (151) and various other writings. The very ancient Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Church (Tewahedo) also adds literature peculiar to their tradition.19

Notwithstanding, all the churches agree that the reformed biblical canon (at least) is called “the Word of God,” meaning they witness to the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ. However, various theologians base their arguments on the other books. For instance, Thomas Aquinas refers to the Books of Wisdom and Sirach to buttress some arguments, while John Calvin never would20 (although Article Six expresses his position).21

The second step onto the Narrow Path is to survey the major results of the various ecumenical dialogues, analyze them, and then draw conclusions. Attention shall subsequently focus upon the 1982 Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry document22 of the World Council of Churches, Pope Saint John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Ut unum sint,23 the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,24 and the 2006 Cypress Report of the Anglican-Orthodox dialogue, “The Church of the Triune God.”25 I consider these documents to have great significance for my thesis.

I propose to begin by analyzing the newest full-communion agreement, Utrecht and Uppsala, celebrated on January 20, 2018, by the Church of Sweden and the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht. This will form the model for research, which will then lead to arguments for and against an Urtheologie—the basic theology I call “the Narrow Path”—which is emerging from ecumenical conversations and their documents.

In a second part, I will propose a way of developing that “Narrow Path” into a full-blown systematic theology, which, as David Tracy defines it, “the major aim of all systematic theology is to formulate a theological understanding of the originating religious event into a theological focal meaning.”26 In other words, I will make a personal statement of faith. If I dare to criticize the present state of affairs among the churches, I need to put my cards on the table.

But first, let us each remind ourselves that schism is a grave sin. All Christians need to repent of our divisions and what we have done and continue to do to maintain them. True repentance leads to reconciliation. What I propose in this book is at best only a small halting step toward that goal.

As Pope St. John Paul II prayed,

Merciful Father,

on the night before his Passion

your Son prayed for the unity of those who believe in him:

in disobedience to his will, however,

believers have opposed one another, becoming divided,

and have mutually condemned one another and fought against one another.

We urgently implore your forgiveness

and we beseech the gift of a repentant heart,

so that all Christians, reconciled with you and with one another

will be able, in one body and in one spirit,

to experience anew the joy of full communion.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.27


Bishop Pierre Whalon

Pentecost, 2023

1 “Into All the World: Being and Becoming Apostolic Churches”: A Report of the Anglican-Methodist International Commission for Unity in Mission (2014), ix. See https://www.anglic​anco​mmun​ion.org/media/102​827/Into-All-The-World-AMI​CUM-Rep​ort-2014.pdf.

2 http://www.chr​isti​anun​ity.va/cont​ent/uni​tacr​isti​ani/en/cardi​nal-koch/2022/sal​uts--messa​ges--aut​res/addr​ess-at-lamb​eth-con​fere​nce.html#1.

3 In Roman Catholic–Lutheran Joint Commission, “Ways to Community,” see: Harding Meyer and Lukas Vischer, eds., Growth in Agreement: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level (New York/Geneva, 1984), 215–40, cit. n. 2.


XIV, 292
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (November)
Church Anglicanism World Council of Churches Protestantism Eastern Orthodoxy Choose the Narrow Path Pierre W. Whalon ecumenism intercommunion systematic theology Nicene Creed Aquinas Roman Catholicism
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. XIV, 292 pp., 1 b/w ill., 4 tables.

Biographical notes

Pierre Whalon (Author)

Pierre W. Whalon is a bishop of the Episcopal Church, serving the Convocation of Episcopal Church in Europe from 2001 to 2019. Before that, he served as a priest in three parishes, two in Pennsylvania and one in Florida. He is also a published author of many articles and three books, as well as a music composer. Bishop Whalon lives near Paris with his wife, Hélène.


Title: Choose the Narrow Path