Margaret O’GARA. No Turning Back: The Future of Ecumenism. Edited by Michael Vertin. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014. pp. 240. $29.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-8313-2. Reviewed by Ella JOHNSON, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, Rochester, NY 14618
No Turning Back presents a posthumous collection of seventeen talks and essays from the final fifteen years of Margaret O’Gara’s unreserved engagement in ecumenical theology and dialogue. Taken collectively, the essays offer astute theological insights into ecumenical perspectives, especially perspectives on authority, in addition to practical suggestions for the ecumenical endeavor, notably the essentially collaborative nature of theological study and dialogue.
Before her untimely death in 2012, O’Gara had intended No Turning Back to be a sequel to her 1998 collection of papers, The Ecumenical Gift Exchange. Both books generally reflect a serious commitment to Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” (John 17). Like her previous book, No Turning Back has a threefold purpose: “It would illustrate the broad lines of ecumenism for general readers; it would share certain concrete details of recent ecumenical developments with specialist readers; and it would encourage both groups of readers in their commitment to the pursuit of full communion among the Christian churches” (p. xx). O’Gara’s spousal colleague, Michael Vertin, brought the project to completion after her death, by editing and bringing this collection of essays to publication.
Seven of the essays are published posthumously for the first time in this book, while the other ten have appeared in print previously. Sixteen of the papers are divided into two groups (of eight each, in rough chronological order); the other essay is the presented as the volume’s epilogue.
The first group of essays offers an introduction to perspectives of ecumenical theology, accessible to a general audience of theology students and/or reflective Christian readers. Most of the papers in this group were originally delivered as popular talks. They engage the following topics: strengths and weaknesses in the Roman Catholic Church in the world today; the present situation of ecumenical dialogue in Canada; Roman Catholic-Mennonite conversation on peacemaking; Catholic theological developments on the relationship between the local and global church; and the significance of friendship, hospitality, personal transformation and “prayer without ceasing” in ecumenical work. In these latter concrete themes, O’Gara presents critical challenges, such as: [W]e Roman Catholics must learn to want to share the gift of the papacy with others. We must become willing not just to keep wrapping it up and offering it, but first to do the hard work of reforming it” (p. 22).
While the first group of papers introduces the ecumenical perspective, the second group deepens it. Usually originating as scholarly lectures, these essays are longer, more technically specialized, and typically directed to academic or ecclesial specialists in ecumenical theology and dialogue. They present recent scholarship and insights into themes including Vatican I’s teaching on papal primacy, Anglican and Catholic teaching on ordained ministry, Catholic understandings of tradition, Magisterium, and divine law. The common thread running throughout these essays is O’Gara’s call to rethink the understanding of authority and to reform its exercise.
The epilogue contains a convocation address O’Gara had hoped to deliver for the occasion of an honorary doctorate she had been awarded by Regis College, Toronto, ON. Unfortunately, she died before the convocation and received the degree in memoriam. The address is aimed at all of us “who study theology” (233). Therein, she repeats a teaching, which I remember fondly as her former student: “theology at its best is a collaborative exercise, not a competitive one” (p. 235). Her challenge is accentuated by her own exemplarily life of rigorous scholarship, whole-hearted commitment to teaching and advising, and tireless efforts in ecumenical dialogue: “The deepened renewal of our knowledge that is theology is the calling of a lifetime, and indeed of many lifetimes from one generation to the next generation in the church. But in fact, it’s worth it: theology is worth a life! Let us take heart from that” (p. 237).
No Turning Back is beneficial for all theology students, Christian readers, and ecumenical specialists. It provides all readers with a clear and thorough sense of the ecumenical work that has been done, and it encourages its movement forward by offering a glimpse of a life dedicated to such work.