A Reflection on Geoffrey Wainwright (1939-2020)
by Edgardo Colón-Emeric, Irene and William McCutchen Associate Professor of Reconciliation and Theology
On March 17, 2020, the Methodist Church lost one of its leading ecumenists, Geoffrey Wainwright (1939-2020). For almost three decades, Wainwright formed Christian ministers and theologians at Duke Divinity School for the church universal. In the best of Methodist tradition, Wainwright loved scripture and singing. He exhorted his students to “guard the good treasure” entrusted to us in Scripture and the sound doctrine of the church, “with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us” (2 Tim. 1:13-14). Indeed, he inscribed these verses on the books that he autographed for his students. Wainwright believed that good hymnody helped form sound doctrine. Hence, he frequently invited his students to sing hymns during lecture, especially those by Charles Wesley. The integration of praise and theology displayed in the classroom is superbly expressed in his classic text, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life.
Because Wainwright was Methodist, he was ecumenical. He introduced himself to his students as an evangelical, orthodox, catholic theologian, all lowercase letters. His profound doxological vision, linguistic skills (he was fluent in at least four modern languages), and passion for Christian unity helped him become a world-renowned ecumenist. He played a leading role in the production of Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, a landmark in multilateral Christian dialogues. His ecumenism was infectious. Many of his students left his courses scandalized by ecclesial divisions and committed to their healing.
I last visited him as I was preparing to attend a meeting of the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission, which he had long co-chaired. The topic for that meeting was ecclesial reconciliation. When I asked him if he had any words for the members of the commission, his reply was unequivocal: “Tell them to get it done.”
Wainwright has now entered the one, true church for which he longed and labored. His witness is our commission—Christian unity. In the words of Charles Wesley, “Let saints on earth unite to sing with those to glory gone, for all the servants of our king in earth and heaven are one.”