George Vandervelde, Passion Week, and Ecumenism: The Gift of the Hermeneutics of the Gospel

“The closer we come to the cross of Christ, the closer we come to each other.”
— The World Council of Churches, Stockholm 1925

I’m going to tell you the story of Dr. George Vandervelde, but not yet.

First, when it comes to denominations of Christianity, I’m not one to deplore the vast diversity of Christian churches as some sad state of affairs. Schism certainly makes me sick to my stomach, but I thoroughly enjoy learning about the different charisms, special emphases, and unique art, music and architecture of the variety of expressions of the Christian tradition. The vast array of colourful denominations reflects the diversity of the gospels, the multitude of translations of the Bible, and the Trinitarian nature of God himself. Denominations are the “hermeneutics of the gospel” and even our debates and disagreements can be a spiritual discipline: when done in the right spirit, they can push us closer to the cross.

“Denominations are not the problem. They are hermeneutics of the gospel that have always been with us, since the early church. The sin is not diversity of interpretation, but the refusal to do communion together.”

– Richard Schneider, Canadian Council of Churches

Different candles, same light.

(Pixabay)

At least when there is some basic unity in the disruptive diversity. In the Gospel of John, Christ prays for his disciples before going to the cross. He asks that his followers “may all be one,” as he and the Father are one, “so that the world may believe” and have life in his name (John 17). Christian unity is here made central to the very being of the church and to its mission and witness. “This is how people will know you are my disciples,” explains Jesus. “If you love one another.” Not if we agree on everything and force uniformity, but if we mirror Christ’s grace in our differences.

The worldwide celebration of Easter this weekend is a motivation, and often a practical opportunity for demonstrating Trinitarian “unity in diversity.” Some churches do sunrise services together on Easter morning (pre-COVID). The closer we get to the cross, and our own sorry state, the closer we get to each other. Confession, and its accompanying humility, open space for forgiveness and understanding. Then, together in the vast space within the open tomb, we find reason for shared joy.

Ecumenicism as Modern Christian Identity

I’m starting to consider myself an ecumenist of late. I grew up attending a Reformed church during the year, then packing my bags in the summer for Beacon Bible Camp—historically run by a type of Plymouth Brethren. In my teens I went on a short-term mission trip with Teen Missions, an organization out of Florida with Baptist connections, and then through my university years I worked summers at Scott Mission in Toronto, an urban ministry started by Presbyterian folk. I made many friends in this work, and a Jamaican-Canadian Sabbatarian Christian named Errol comes to mind just now. A love for kids from the housing projects in Toronto brought us together.

I attended a low Anglican church during graduate school, and I went from there to work closely with both Intervarsity and the Roman Catholic chaplains as a campus minister at Brock University. I completed an M.Div. at McMaster Divinity School during this time—a Baptist seminary—although my coursework was done at six other seminaries, too: Reformed (Calvin and ICS), Lutheran (Concordia), Anglican (Wycliffe), and Evangelical (Tyndale and Regent). Later, I did my PhD as an ethnography of a Brethren in Christ (Anabaptist) megachurch, which I attended for about two years. Finally, I was recently the Christian Reformed Church’s representative to the Canadian Council of Churches, serving on their Commission of Faith and Witness, where a dozen or two denominational officials gathered to deliberate the pressing issues of the day. Now I’m with Global Scholars Canada, a very deliberate evangelical ecumenical endeavour bent on equipping “missional Christian academics.”

One of my meetings with the Faith and Witness Commission at the Canadian Council of Churches, 2017. Every meeting included an educational visit to a church–this being a Catholic Church in Montreal.

I know this biography is not unique, and probably the vast majority of Christians today have some varied experience with different ecclesial bodies. Denominational walls have shrunk as public secular pressures have intensified. Evangelicals have been cooperating “interdenominationally” in mission through parachurch organizations for centuries, though, and mainline denominations have in the last 75 years in Canada cooperated in civic events and political concerns through the Canadian Council of Churches. But in terms of church attendance today, it may be more of a consumer mentality than ecumenical motivations that move people to venture a new sanctuary for their faith.

Ecumenical Winter

In my time with the Canadian Council of Churches of late I heard the phrase banded about: “our current ecumenical winter.” I believe they were mourning the hey-days in the 1970s when mainline enthusiasm and attendance was still high and there was a budget for and interest in ecumenism. We were told a course on ecumenism at St. Michael’s College had to be cancelled because no students signed up for it (2018 or so). Seminaries don’t seem too interested in the topic—someone said, “Maybe they are too busy trying to hold their own constituencies together?” This suggests ecumenism best in times of increasing church participation. Yet one would think now would be a time when we need each other most. When facing a common challenge like declension, petty rivalries could fade and we seek common cause in re-vitalizing the faith.

Someone suggested most church colleges at University of Toronto don’t teach their own theology in dogmatic fashion anymore—and they don’t teach only their own tradition. So whether it’s a course in ethics, Old Testament, systematic theology or counselling, the professor will draw from ecumenical sources, while highlighting his/her own tradition. From this angle, the ecumenical movement could be said to be such a success that its become part of the fabric of most theological education. Now we are free to dialogue all the time, and perhaps, to consume various traditions as we like, picking and choosing. But again, that consumer model can dissipate one’s passion, I think, and weaken ties. So its a mixed blessing.

We live in an ecumenical winter, living off the harvest of the ecumenical summer. We may need each other more as the cold winds of secularism blow, and religious freedom becomes a more pressing issue (take Quebec’s Bill 21 as one example). A recent poll by EFC suggests more than half our nation claim the identity of religious “none”—although over 60 percent still identify as Christian, too. But Christendom is over, and that’s probably a good thing as we are no longer caught in the temptations of privilege, power and popularity; but that doesn’t free us to turn inward and feel sorry for ourselves. We need to continue to engage, and the task of cultivating a robust, ecumenical public theology may be a wonderful, creative project to continue together. If we can all get along. We’ll see if deep rifts in sexual ethics and the nature of personhood unravel those possibilities.

“Often we think that ecumenical work is only that of theologians. It is therefore important that theologians study, they agree, and they express their disagreement: this is very important. But in the meantime ecumenism journeys on. It journeys with Jesus, not ‘my Jesus against your Jesus’, but with our Jesus. The journey is simple: it consists of prayer, with the help of others. Praying together: the ecumenism of prayer, for each other and all for unity. And then, the ecumenism of work for the many who are in need, for many men and women who today suffer as a result of injustice, wars, these terrible things. … All together, we must help. Love for our neighbour. This is ecumenism. This is already unity. Unity in journeying with Jesus.”

— Pope Francis: Address to the Christian World Communions delegation, Oct. 12, 2016 (pixabay)

George Vandervelde, a Scholarly Ecumenist

I’ve taken of late to writing biographies—you can see at least half a dozen on my blog here. What follows is the biography of George Vandervelde, an older brother in the faith who attended my home church in Willowdale (CRC). He was my friend Norman’s dad and an ecumenist. I wrote this for another webpage on ecumenism but decided to post it here as well.

In a way, he is a classic ecumenical type: highly educated, doctorate in theology, and a biography with transnational themes. With roots in Holland, he got his ThD from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and taught systematic theology at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto from 1977 until 2005, specializing in soteriology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology. As a Reformed theologian, he wrote a book on Roman Catholic theology entitled Original Sin: Two Major Trends in Contemporary Roman Catholic Reinterpretation (University Press of America 1981). From his location as a leader in the Christian Reformed Church of North America he dedicated his life to research and study about the unity of the church, as well as on the subject of indigenous spirituality.

Dr. Vandervelde held many positions on ecumenical committees. He served on the Canadian Council of Churches Faith and Witness Commission as well as the U.S. National Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission. He was a leader in the development of the Global Christian Forum in the early 2000s. He was co-chair of the World Evangelical Alliance—Roman Catholic International Consultation and served on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which produced the report Church, Evangelization and the Bonds of Koinonia (2003). He represented the Canadian Council of Churches in the 1998 Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, urging those gathered to work towards greater unity, calling the brokenness of the church “a prolonged, festering wound in the side of Christ.” He was pleased to have a private dinner at that time with Pope John Paul II, and there is a photo that marks the event in which he is shaking the pope’s hand.

In a dialogue between his denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, and North American Catholic Bishops, Vandervelde was key in acknowledging that the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. and A. #80), a central confessional standard, was inaccurate in its critique of the Catholic mass. He was also instrumental in the development of a Contemporary Testimony for his denomination, entitled “Our World Belongs to God” (1988).

Vandervelde said of his own work, which was at the nexus of theology and philosophy: “I have gradually moved into issues of ecclesiology, gospel and culture, and ecumenism as my areas of concentration. I think this is related to never having quite left behind the fork in the road between academic theology and engagement in the mission of the church.”

One of his students, Danny Swick said of his teacher: “George Vandervelde’s insight into ecumenism, formed largely through his own ecumenical activity, may be his most valuable attribute as a teacher… it is the way his passion for the unity of the church shapes his erudition that makes him a great teacher.”

His friend and colleague Al Wolters said of him: “He was an ecumenist in the best sense of the word: passionate for Christian unity, but also aware of the significance of long-standing theological differences and the importance of dealing with them winsomely and at a foundation level… he enhanced the prestige and respect of the ICS and the various Reformed and evangelical bodies he represented in ecumenical dialogue.”

Dr. Vandervelde lived in Willowdale, in the north end of Toronto, Ontario, with his wife Beatrice and three sons. He died in 2007 after a short battle with cancer. A festschrift in tribute to him was done in 2006 entitled That the World May Believe: Essays in Honour of George Vandervelde edited by Michael Goheen and Margaret O’Gara (University Press of America). Dr. O’Gara wrote that she considered George a colleague and a friend, extrapolating on the importance of friendship to ecumenism. She maintained that George reminded her that “one gift ecumenical partners offer each other in the gift exchange is serious criticism. Such criticism can be heard because of the basic mutual recognition present between dialogue partners… Ecumenists who experience this [friendship in Christ] have been made ready for the demands of dialogue.”

I haven’t spoken about friendship yet, but I’m thinking more and more lately that it is a key to the Christian faith, as we grow from children to servants to friends of God. This mature friendship with God grooms us for friendship with our ecclesial cousins and others besides. This blog began with the gospel of John and it ends there as well: “I call you my most intimate and cherished friends, for I reveal to you everything that I’ve heard from my Father.” (John 15:15). Friendship may just be the secret to successful ecumenism.


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