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Lesslie Newbigin and

Reformed Ecumenism
Andrew C. Stout

Lesslie Newbigin’s legacy is one that transcends confessional identity.

His insights into and example of the missional and ecumenical nature
of the Church have reached far across denominational and theological
divides to shape the life of mainline, evangelical, and Catholic churches at
an international level. As an important figure in the founding and ongo-
ing life of the World Council of Churches, his vision for the unity of the
Church continues to have enormous influence in ecumenical circles, as
does the legacy of his participation in the formation and life of the epis-
copally organized Church of South India. While Newbigin’s ideas have
become common currency for many Christians in our post-Christendom
context, the Reformed roots of much of his thought and ministry are not
a prominent part of that legacy. Yet, the better part of Newbigin’s eccle-
sial life was spent ministering in confessionally Reformed churches. In
addition, his missional thinking in strongly evangelical, in terms of not
only its broad vision but also its doctrinal foundations. As confessionally
Reformed evangelicals seek ways to give greater expression to the catho-
licity of their tradition and pursue ecumenical endeavors, Newbigin has
the potential to be an invaluable resource. I will attempt to establish New-
bigin’s credentials as a theologian in the Reformed tradition. I will then
turn to his views on episcopacy and the potential role of bishops in the
Reformed tradition. Finally, I will propose that confessionally Reformed
evangelicals look to Newbigin as a model for how episcopal structures
can be consistently appropriated by Reformed churches in the interest of
more visible expressions of catholicity.

Andrew Stout, St. Charles Community College, 4601 Mid Rivers Mall Dr.,
Cottleville, MO 63376, astout@stchas.edu

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The ecumenical movement of the twentieth century achieved much

common ground among diverse Christian communions. Mainline ecu-
menism, as embodied in the World Council of Churches, has helped
to establish a common ecclesiological ethos and mutually recognized
ministries among varying traditions.1 However, for those hoping for a
Church that is more publicly and organizationally unified, the aims of
the modern ecumenical movement come up short. While the mainline
discussions surrounding ecumenism continue in subdued state, Re-
formed evangelicals, many of whom are aware of and chastened by the
shortcomings of the ecumenical movement, have begun to articulate
new visions of ecclesial unity. There have been various articulations of
“Reformed catholicism” that attempt to relocate the Reformed church
within the broader Catholic tradition while exploring the possibilities
that such relocation could afford ecumenism.2 These theologians take
Reformed confessional and doctrinal distinctives quite seriously, and
yet they envision a unity for the Church that cannot be reduced to con-
fessional subscription. In his proposal, J. Todd Billings insists that to
speak of a “catholic-Reformed” tradition is a way of “suggesting that
being Reformed is not an autonomous end in itself but a way to occupy
the ‘holy catholic church.’”3 Reformed Catholicism does not envision a
static Reformed orthodoxy that needs simply to be defended, but rather,
sees the Reformed tradition as a vital channel through which the Catho-
lic Church can be renewed and achieve visible unity.
I want to suggest that Lesslie Newbigin’s writings, as well as his ex-
ample, are invaluable resources for those who want to arrive at a greater
expression of the Church’s catholicity via the means of the Reformed
confessions. Newbigin embodies the hopes of the ecumenical movement,
and he was, of course, a key player within it. He is also, and this has been

1. For a helpful summary and assessment of mainline ecumenical efforts, see Michael
Kinnamon, Can a Renewal Movement be Renewed?: Questions for the Future of Ecumenism
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).
2. See Michael Allen and Scott Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for
Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015); for Peter
Leithart’s definition of Reformed catholicity, see “The End of Protestantism,” First Things,
November 8, 2013, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/11/the-end-of-prot-
estantism; see James K. A. Smith “‘Lift Up Your Hearts’: John Calvin’s Catholic Faith,”
lecture, Meeter Center Lecture, Calvin College & Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI, October 11,
2012, for a scholarly treatment of Smith’s understanding of Reformed catholicity, and Letters
to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press,
2010), for a popular treatment.
3.  J. Todd Billings, “Catholic and Reformed: Rediscovering a Tradition,” Pro Ecclesia 23:2
(Summer 2014), 139. For more on his understanding of the catholic-Reformed tradition, see
J. Todd Billings, “The Catholic Calvin,” Pro Ecclesia 22:2 (Spring 2011), 134.

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280 Andrew C. Stout

less acknowledged, someone who worked within the Reformed tradi-

tion and was informed and guided by Reformed confessions. While he
worked within and was shaped by the ecumenical movement and the
Reformed tradition, Newbigin’s ecclesial vision has a unique component.
As an advocate of the historic episcopate, and a bishop in the CSI, New-
bigin considered the historic episcopate to be a necessary component of
visible unity.
In Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life, Geoffrey Wainwright relays an
insight that was offered to him: “Dan Beeby told me that three things
were necessary in order to understand what Lesslie was up to: some
knowledge of the Reformed tradition, some experience in cross-cultural
mission, and a streak of nonconformity.”4 There are any number of
threads running through Newbigin’s life and thought that establish him
as both Reformed and evangelical in orientation. First, Newbigin spent
much of his ministry serving in confessionally Reformed churches. While
known for being a major figure in the ecumenical movement and an ad-
vocate of reunion between denominations, Newbigin was strongly rooted
in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. Raised in the Presbyterian
Church of England, he worked through a period of doubt as a student
at Cambridge while participating in the Student Christian Movement
(SCM), an ecumenically focused student group. In his autobiography, he
notes that “it was a very strong principle in the SCM that one could not
truly share in the ecumenical experience of Christianity without being
a fully committed church member, and as I was regularly attending St
Columba’s Presbyterian Church I joined the confirmation class there and
was duly received into membership by its much loved minister George
Barclay.”5 Newbigin trained for ministry at Westminster College, Cam-
bridge, the theological college of the Presbyterian Church of England, at
the time. Motivated by his involvement in the SCM and a desire to do
missions work in India, he was ordained by the Presbytery of Edinburgh
of the Church of Scotland to serve as a missionary. From the very outset
of Newbigin’s ministry, he brought missionary and ecumenical concerns
to Reformed churchmanship.
While serving as a missionary in India, Newbigin left the Church of
Scotland to serve in the South India United Church, a union of Congrega-
tionalists and Presbyterians. Eventually, the South India United Church

4.  Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life (Oxford; New York: Oxford
University Press, 2000), viii. Similarly, Michael W. Goheen explains that “Newbigin merged
more Reformed ecclesiological emphases, like the calling of the laity and the Christian
contribution to cultural development, with Anabaptist elements like the communal and
antithetical dimensions of the church’s mission” (“‘As the Father Has Sent Me, I Am Send-
ing You’: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology,” International Review of Mission 91:362
[July 2002], 367).
5.  Lesslie Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda: An Updated Autobiography (Eugene, OR: Wipf and
Stock, 2009 [1993]), 14.

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Pro Ecclesia Vol. XXVI, No. 3 281

joined with Methodists and Anglicans to form the Church of South India
(CSI) in 1947, and Newbigin became one of the church’s founding bishops.
He served as the bishop of Madurai and Ramnad from 1947 to 1952 and the
bishop of Madras from 1965 to 1974. After moving back to England, New-
bigin was faced with a choice of deciding where to transfer his ministerial
credentials. Instead of making what might have been the more obvious
choice of ministering within the Church of England, he chose instead to
return to his Reformed roots. His commitment to the work of unity in the
CSI “required that we should choose the one from which we had come.
This was the more attractive since the Presbyterian and Congregational
branches of the Reformed version of the faith had become one in the United
Reformed Church. I therefore applied to the URC for admission as a min-
ister and was in due course received.”6 The former bishop served as the
national moderator of the United Reformed Church (URC) from 1978 to
1979 and served as the pastor of a small URC congregation in Birmingham
from 1980 to 1988. These roles in the URC allowed Newbigin to continue to
participate in potential reunion schemes between the Church of England,
Reformed, and Methodist churches. From his childhood to his time as a
university and ministerial student, and throughout his ministerial career,
Newbigin displayed an ecumenically oriented commitment to Presbyterian
and Reformed churches and governmental forms.
Second, the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church,
found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, is reflected in Newbigin’s
ecclesiology. On the invisibility of the Church, chapter 25 of the Confes-
sion states: “The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists
of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered
into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the
fulness of Him that fills all in all.” The Church can also be viewed from
the perspective of its concrete and visible form: “The visible Church,
which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to
one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the
world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the king-
dom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which
there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” The rest of the chapter goes
on to discuss the purity of the visible Church in its doctrine, ministry, and
worship. While the chapter begins with an explanation that the Church is
“invisible” in the sense that we do not have the capacity to view the full-
ness of its scope, the Confession is primarily concerned with the Church
as it can be visibly discerned in gathered congregations.
The visible unity of the Church was the driving factor in Newbigin’s
thinking about the nature of the faith. In the introduction to the second

6. Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda, 230.

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282 Andrew C. Stout

edition of The Reunion of the Church: A Defence of the South India Scheme,
Newbigin articulates his sense of the urgency of the Church’s unity:

There is no way of escaping the issue of full churchly unity. An attempt to

take refuge in permanent neutrality will only mean that we are shut up to
the wrong form of unity. There is a tendency even among serious church-
men to speak of this question as though it was one on which there was
no real urgency, on which we were free to construct our own timetable of
study and to proceed entirely at our own pace. It is, in fact, common to hear
churchmen speak as though they did not really regard Christian unity as a
serious question this side of the End. This is a disastrous illusion. Christians
cannot behave as though time were unreal. God gives us time, but not an in-
finite amount of time. It is His purpose that the Gospel should be preached
to all nations, and that all men should be brought into one family in Jesus
Christ. His purpose looks to a real End, and therefore requires of us real
decisions. If we misconstrue His patience, and think that there is an infinity
of time for debate while we perpetuate before the world the scandal of our
dismemberment of the Body of Christ, we deceive ourselves. In an issue
concerning the doing of the will of God there is no final neutrality.7

For Newbigin, the visible unity of the Church is not an agenda that
we are free to pursue or ignore at our own leisure. The Church is called
to be a community visibly united under Christ, and that intention must
motivate our ecumenism. The Church “first of all exists as a visible fact
called into being by the Lord Himself, and our understanding of that
fact is subsequent and secondary. This actual visible community, a com-
pany of men and women with ascertainable names and addresses, is the
Church of God.”8 The Church is visible, local, and concrete in nature.
“In contradiction to this, the idea of the invisible Church, in its popular
use, derives its main attraction—unless I am much mistaken—from the
fact that each of us can determine its membership as he will. It is our
ideal Church, containing the people whom we—in our present stage
of spiritual development—would regard as fit members.”9 The popular
understanding of the invisible Church often mitigates against unity by
creating a rationale by which it is possible to formulate a private criteria
for inclusion in the “true” Church. Newbigin recognizes, however, that
there is “a very important truth behind the idea of the invisible Church:
that which constitutes the Church is invisible, for it is nothing less than
the work of God’s Holy Spirit.”[AQ] Still, the truth that must be kept at
[AQ: Please the forefront is the fact that “the Church itself is the visible company of
add cita-
tion for
7.  Lesslie Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church: The Defence of the South India Scheme (West-
port, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979 [1948]), xiii–xiv.
8.  Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (Eugene, OR:
Wipf and Stock, 2008 [1953]), 27.
9. Newbigin, The Household of God, 28.

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Pro Ecclesia Vol. XXVI, No. 3 283

those who have been called by Him into the fellowship of His Son.”10
Though he is dubious about the way that the language of the invisible
Church has been put to use, Newbigin, like the Westminster Confession,
emphasizes the importance of dealing with and evaluating the Church as
it can be seen in visible congregations while also acknowledging that the
Church can never fully be reduced to that which we can see. In this way,
the invisible/visible Church distinction is a Reformed principle that plays
an integral role in Newbigin’s ecclesiology. Though Newbigin does not
appeal explicitly to Westminster in his treatment of the distinction, one
cannot help but suspect that the language of the Confession had seeped
into the bones of this Reformed churchman.
Third, Newbigin applies the reformational emphasis on the doctrine
of justification by grace through faith, along with Luther’s principle of
simul justus et pecator, to the question of the visibility and reunification of
the Church. He notes that when The Reunion of the Church was first pub-
lished, the pivotal argument regarding justification by faith was ignored
by reviewers, “except one—who complained that it was out of place in
a book on the Church.”11 In chapter 6, “Justification by Faith,” Newbigin
covers the topics of the redemptive work of Christ, the believer’s faith in
Christ’s work, and justification’s dependence on faith; his treatment of
these topics is very much in line with the statements on justification in
chapter 11 of the Westminster Confession. He goes on to elaborate that
justifying faith “cannot be severed from its actual living context, namely
the fellowship of the Church. The new relation with God through Christ
is necessarily also a new relation with all who share it.”12 Elsewhere, he
comments on the visible and public nature of this justification:

God justifies men by free grace, and man’s part is to believe. That is for the
apostle a clear and unassailable certainty. But how does He do it? It is not
done by some private secret transaction between God and each individual
soul, but publicly—as it were—upon the plane of history. He made a cove-
nant with Abraham ‘and his seed’. He called Israel as a people to be His peo-
ple, to be His holy nation, His royal priesthood. He has established a visible
congregation with visible signs. It is emphatically to this congregation—to
the actual historic community of Israel—that He has given ‘the adoption,
the glory, the covenants, the law, the service of God and the promises’, and
it is to this community that Christ in His human nature belongs. ‘Salvation’,
as the Lord Himself said, ‘is from the Jews’.13

God began his gracious work of justification with Abraham and his fam-
ily. With the inclusion of the Gentiles into this covenant of grace, God’s

10. Newbigin, The Household of God, 29.

11. Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church, xvi.
12. Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church, 97.
13. Newbigin, The Household of God, 46.

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284 Andrew C. Stout

redemption through Christ is made visible and public in the Church, its
structures, and its sacraments.
The corporate and visible nature of justification is essential to New-
bigin’s rationale for the reunification of the Church. In justification, God
takes sinful men and attributes to them the righteousness of Christ. It is
a work of pure grace for the Church no less than it is for the individual.
“The Church is both holy and sinful. This is the fundamental root of
the whole problem of the Church, that it is a union of sinful souls with
Holy God.”14 By affirming that the Church is holy and sinful, Newbigin
attempts to synthesize two ecclesial attitudes: first, a Protestant mindset
that would locate the essential unity of the Church in “the event of the
preaching of the Gospel and the administering of the sacraments,” while
leaving visible unity to be expressed in federations of organizationally
separate church bodies; second, a Catholic ecclesiology which emphasizes
the Church’s status as “a continuing historical society,” the sinlessness of
which is ensured by unbroken succession with the historic episcopate.15
To maintain either of these two positions exclusively would be to deny
the tension that a sinning yet holy Church must maintain in this time
between the ascension and the parousia: “That is our situation in the
flesh—simul justus et peccator—and we are in it together. . . . The final
judgement belongs to God alone on the last day. We are to judge nothing
before the time. Every attempt to slacken the eschatological tension by
supposing now some sort of true Church within the Church, involves a
concealed—and sometimes open—pharisaism.”16 To deny this dual status
to the Church is to fall prey to an over-realized eschatology that sees the
Church as an already visibly unified whole. If justification by faith is al-
lowed to guide our understanding of reunion, then neither Protestants
nor Catholics can claim their own particular ecclesiological credentials are
that which makes them the true Church. Both must recognize essential
components of the Body of Christ in the other, acknowledging the pos-
sibility that God could add those to the number of the “true” Church who
do not have the pedigree of unbroken episcopal succession. Newbigin
offers a kind of “third way” between these two alternatives:

If then the divided bodies are truly parts of the Church, two methods of
uniting them are ruled out. One is that which treats one part as alone the
Church and the others as dissident groups which have to be reunited to it.
The other is that which treats all the parts as though they were quite sepa-
rate and autonomous human societies which could freely decide whether
and on what terms they will agree to form unions with one another. Re-
union must be the restoring of the unity which has been broken, the fruit
of a penitent return to Christ Himself.17

14. Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church, 100.

15. Newbigin, The Household of God, 49.
16. Newbigin, The Household of God, 128.
17. Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church, 105.

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Pro Ecclesia Vol. XXVI, No. 3 285

The application of the doctrine of justification by faith at the corporate

level means that for reunion to take place between divided church bodies,
there must be a constant recognition that our own sin stands in the way of
reunion. We must be willing to hold our own ecclesial programs loosely,
recognizing our own capacity for sin and our need for God to justify us
in spite of our sin.


Although Newbigin warns of equating the unity of the Church with

episcopal succession, he is convinced, largely through the influence of
Michael Ramsey, that an episcopally structured body is necessary for
the gospel to find its full expression.18 The historic episcopate offers the
greatest opportunity for the Church to give full visible expression to its
catholicity. Instead of seeing episcopal succession as a legitimizing stamp
on a church body, Newbigin sees the structure of the episcopate as the
proper fullness of ministry centered on the gospel and the sacraments:

It is possible to believe (as I do) that it is God’s will that the Church should
be episcopally ordered, and yet deny absolutely that episcopal ordination
is essential for a valid ministry. For the being of the Church, and therefore
the validity of its ministry, rest not upon the conformity of the Church to
God’s will, but upon the grace of God who justifies the ungodly. Once
again we come to the doctrine of justification by faith. If episcopal ordina-
tion is essential to a valid ministry, then that ministry which is not episco-
pally ordained is not a valid ministry and has no way of becoming such
except by receiving the ordination which it lacks. But if the true secret of
the Church’s being is that it is the place where God’s supernatural grace
takes hold of those who were no people and makes them His people, takes
the prodigal and makes him a beloved son, takes the sinful man and the
sinful body of men and makes them verily members incorporate in the
Body of Christ for no worthiness of theirs but for His own infinite mercy;
then one can both insist that episcopacy is God’s will for the Church and at
the same time acknowledge without any hedging or double-talk that non-
episcopal bodies are truly churches. That is the root of the matter. Confor-
mity to God’s will is not the precondition of fellowship with Him, but the

18.  As he began to lend his efforts to the plan of reunion that resulted in the CSI, Newbi-
gin was not initially convinced of the necessity of the historic episcopate. He notes that what
changed his mind was “the reading of Michael Ramsey’s book The Gospel and the Catholic
Church. I found there a doctrine of the ministry which did not contravene but rested upon
the biblical doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and I saw that the historic epis-
copate could be gladly accepted as something given by the grace of God to be the means
of unity. But this meant that one had to reject at the same time any way of interpreting the
historic episcopate which made it a conditio sine qua non of the fullness of grace. That was
what some Anglo-Catholic theologians seemed to be doing.” Unfinished Agenda, 70.

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286 Andrew C. Stout

fruit of it. God justifies the ungodly in Jesus Christ. That is the secret of the
being of the Church as it is of the Christian man.19

Elsewhere, Newbigin distinguishes between episcopal succession

being “essential,” and being “proper.”20 If the promise for the Church is
full visible unity, then the episcopate functions as a tool to see that unity
come about in greater and greater measure. It cannot be a litmus test to
disqualify a church from being a true part of the body of Christ, but it is
a necessary part of the visible unity that the Church must work toward
and eventually arrive at. As he put it, “The acceptance of the historic epis-
copate does not involve acceptance of the doctrine that episcopacy is the
divinely appointed basis of the Church, and that it alone can guarantee
valid sacraments and a valid ministry.” Rather, the historic episcopate “is
accepted as that which has been and may be again the organ and expres-
sion of the Church’s unity, its unity through time with all who have gone
before and through space with all everywhere who call Christ Lord.”21 For
Newbigin, the unifying potential of the episcopacy is a matter of urgency:

Those who believe, as I do, that God wills His Church to be one body,
united not only in word and sacrament but also in visible fellowship with
a universal ministry credibly representative of that apostolic ministry
which was its first foundation, must also listen to the apostolic teaching
about justification by faith as our only standing ground in the presence of
God. If they will do so, then they can look forward to a growing visible re-
integration not in some distant hypothetical future but now in the decades
immediately before us.22

The urgency of Newbigin’s arguments for episcopal structure is evi-

denced in his critique of Anglican opposition to the formation of the CSI.
As he worked toward the reunion of Presbyterian, Congregational, Meth-
odist, and Anglican churches in the CSI, the plan was opposed by Angli-
cans who supported the practice of provisional ordination for ministers
who had not originally received ordination from an Anglican bishop.
Newbigin understood this approach to pit the “power of attorney,” given
by Christ to the Apostles and transferred to bishops against the organic
unity of the Church as a body. Yes, the historic episcopate is apostolic in

19. Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church, xxxiii–xxxiv.

20. Newbigin says that episcopal succession is proper, but not essential: “I have used
the word ‘proper’ and not the word ‘essential’. The difference between the two is essential
for a true doctrine of the Church. To speak of continuity as ‘essential’ would be to say that
where continuity has been broken there is no Church. To speak of it as ‘proper’ is to say that
it is what corresponds to God’s will for his Church, but it is not to say that God is bound to
withhold from a body which lacks it his acknowledgment of it as his Church” (“Episcopacy
and the Quest for Unity,” Address to Consultative Committee for Local Ecumenical Projects
in England, January 1983, 3[b]).
21. Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church, 109.
22. Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church, xxxiv.

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Pro Ecclesia Vol. XXVI, No. 3 287

origin, but legitimate ordinations cannot be limited to an unbroken line

of succession since a minister is not set apart simply by recognition from
above, but also from his role as a representative of the congregation before
Christ. That is, the minister represents Christ to the people, thus receiv-
ing authority from Christ through the Apostles and bishops. However,
he also represents the congregation to Christ, thus deriving legitimation
from the organic life of the body of Christ. The fact that many Protestant
ministers have not received ordination at the hands of a bishop in an
unbroken line of succession is evidence of the Church’s sinful division,
but it cannot limit the mercy of Christ: “He treats even these mutilated
limbs as His own Body and fills them—so far as they are able to receive
Him—with His Spirit.”23 Newbigin saw the uncompromising Anglican
approach to ordination as putting up unnecessary barriers to reunion. For
him, the failure of the 1948 Lambeth Conference to approve of the South
Indian Scheme was a major missed opportunity never to be regained.24
Newbigin’s position, that the episcopate is a gift that makes manifest
the invisible unity of the Church through visible and organizational
means, qualifies his understanding of the value of ecumenical organi-
zations like the World Council of Churches, which “gives institutional
embodiment to the conviction that the Church ought to be one, while
remaining neutral as to the proper form of that unity.”25 This is not a
bad place from which to begin an ecumenical dialogue, but to view a
federation of churches that each maintain their own separate govern-
mental structures as a sufficient manifestation of unity is a “disastrous
error” that “offers us reunion without repentance.” Ultimately, the kind
of ecumenism represented by the World Council of Churches runs the
risk of “forgetting that the World Council only has a right to exist as a
means to do something further, as a stage on the way from disunity to
unity; and that if it comes to be regarded as itself the proper form of the
Church’s unity in Christ, it will have become committed to a disastrous
error.”26 Unity that does not require separated churches to acknowledge
and repent of the sinfulness of their separation—committing themselves
to working toward common governing structures and common ordained
leadership—falls far short of the kind of visible unity that Christ prayed
for. Even intercommunion and the recognition of the validity of ministers
from various traditions is not sufficient for Newbigin.27 It is essential that

23. Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church, 166.

24.  For more on this issue, see Mark Laing, “The International Impact of the Formulation
of the Church of South India: Bishop Newbigin versus the Anglican Fathers,” International
Bulletin of Missionary Research 33:1 (January 2009), 18–24.
25. Newbigin, The Household of God, 20.
26. Newbigin, The Household of God, 22.
27.  As he states elsewhere, “For Christians who live in separate bodies to practise oc-
casional ‘intercommunion’ and then to separate again and go their ways as if they were not

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288 Andrew C. Stout

separated churches find unity in a common pastoral ministry that can be

responsible for their shared eucharistic life.
At this point it becomes clear just how important a role bishops play
in Newbigin’s ecumenical vision. A bishop is, above all, a pastor and a fo-
cal point for Christian unity. In a proposal for a covenanting plan among
English churches, Newbigin describes the basic pastoral and unifying
functions that he envisions for the office of bishop:

The basis of it all would be the intention, accepted by all, to move together
towards a time when all the Covenanting Churches share the ministry of
persons who perform the functions of personal pastoral oversight over an
area larger than that of the local congregation, who share responsibility for
leadership of the Church in teaching, evangelism and action, and whose
ordination/consecration is such that it embodies the unanimous assent,
prayer and authorisation of all the churches and is therefore within the
historic ministry of the universal Church. This would in fact be the es-
sential substance of the historic episcopate, and I cannot doubt that before
long it would be clear that those who exercise this ministry are bishops
and should be so described. But the substance is at least as important as
the name.28

Elsewhere he defines a bishop as “a pastor, an evangelist, a teacher

of the faith, and a leader in worship,” further noting that, with regard to
diocesan workers, a bishop’s “relation to the workers must be that he is
pastor to them as members of the Church, but not administrative ‘boss’
to them as its employees.”29 The pastoral and unifying roles of a bishop
are two sides of the same coin. As diverse churches begin to recognize
the pastoral role of ministers who operate at a supra-congregational level,
those churches become bound together in unity through a common min-
istry. The bishop is not merely an administrator or an executive. Rather,
he is a personal locus of unity: “As God in Christ deals with us in a per-
sonal way, so all ministry must have a personal character, providing in
a specific person a focus for the unity and witness of the community.”30
In the same way that a pastor provides unifying leadership to a local
congregation, so a bishop embodies the unity of the congregations in a
particular area.

members of one body is surely a profanation of the sacrament” (“What Is ‘a Local Church
Truly United’?” Ecumenical Review 29:2 [April 1977], 122).
28.  Quoted in Wainwright, A Theological Life, 122.
29. Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda, 87.
30.  God’s Reign and Our Unity: The Report of the Anglican-Reformed International Com-
mission, 1981-1984, paragraph 92. Though this report was the result of a commission that
was appointed by the Anglican Consultative Council and the World Alliance of Reformed
Churches, Geoffrey Wainwright notes that “Newbigin—as would in any case have been
evident from the vocabulary and the style—was the principal writer of the final document”
(A Theological Life, 124).

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Pro Ecclesia Vol. XXVI, No. 3 289

In emphasizing the personal role that a bishop plays in unifying local

churches, Newbigin never loses sight of the collective modes of authority
and oversight that must also operate within ecclesial structures. Describ-
ing the South Indian Scheme, he notes, “It is important to see that the three
elements—episcopal, synodical and congregational—were in proper bal-
ance. The bishop must be neither an autocrat nor a puppet to be used by
the local masters of the arts of politics.”31 The unity of the Church must
take appropriate expression at each level of the Church’s life:

These visible forms of unity will include at all levels both the personal leader-
ship which is appropriate to that level, and also synodical structures through
which the common faith of the Church can be expressed. It is true that there
are important divisions among Christians as to the relative roles of these
two elements—personal and synodical—at different levels of the Church’s
life, but the same basic principles apply at all levels because the fundamental
reality is the same at all levels—namely the reality of the shared life in Christ
for the doing of his will at every level of the world’s life.32

Newbigin’s consistent maintenance of the episcopal, synodical, and

congregational expressions of the Church’s structural unity give his eccle-
siology a unique character. He recognizes something that is lacking in
many treatments of the episcopal structure of the Church, that episcopal
leadership is meant to support and enable the structural expressions of
Christian unity that are often associated denominationally with Congre-
gationalism or Presbyterian and Reformed churches. He notes that “the
job of a bishop [is] to help congregations to be in fact what congrega-
tionalism holds in theory that they are, but what (without someone like
St. Paul to prod them) they usually are not!”33 For Newbigin, the role of
the bishop is a flexible one. Episcopal structures are adaptable enough to
incorporate the best insights of most denominational structures, giving
greater expression to the Church’s unity at every level.
Not only is Newbigin convinced that the Reformed and Presbyterian
churches can appropriate the office of bishop in a consistent way, but he
is also convinced that Presbyterian structures are uniquely congenial to
the development of episcopal structures that could provide unity among
diverse traditions. The Reformed faith is rooted in and sourced from con-
fessional statements, statements like the Westminster Confession, Heidel-
berg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and the Second Helvetic Confession.
Newbigin appreciates this confessional heritage and works from within
it. However, he also makes the case that confessional statements should
not function as a final word in such a way that they cannot be informed
and adapted according to the needs of the Church in each generation.

31. Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda, 100.

32.  Newbigin, “What Is ‘a Local Church Truly United’?,” 126.
33. Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda, 116.

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290 Andrew C. Stout

Commenting on the circumstances that brought about the South Indian

Scheme, he notes, “It is true, of course. . . . Creedal statements are required
to safeguard the true statements of the Gospel itself. But there is an experi-
ence of living together in which deep differences of tradition are overcome
not by being ignored, but by being held in relation to the fundamental fact
of a common debt to the Redeemer.”34 Far from being constricted by their
particular confessional and ecclesiological commitments, “it may perhaps
be claimed as a merit of the Presbyterian tradition that it has kept clear the
distinction between fundamental standards and subordinate standards,
and that it has always claimed freedom to modify the latter in obedience
to the former.”35 The confessional statements of the Reformed tradition,
at their best, point to and support a unity in Christ that is mediated by the
Word of God. This means that while confessions help to articulate and
clarify a common doctrinal foundation, they cannot in themselves function
as comprehensive or intractable requirements for unity. If episcopacy is a
biblical and practical requirement for the reunion of the body of Christ,
then the Reformed tradition is capable of adapting to new ecclesial expres-
sions while maintaining its integrity.
However, more than its ability to adapt, Newbigin cites specific
features of classic Reformed ecclesiology as conducive to new forms of
episcopacy. He observes that

episcopacy has existed in almost every possible variety of form. The es-
sential point is not one or other of these varieties, but the possession of
the commission from Christ through the Apostles. Perhaps the nearest
modern approach to the earliest form of mon-episcopacy is the Presbyte-
rian minister, surrounded by his elders and sharing with them the duty of
episcope, but having himself alone the right to administer the sacraments.
But, according to the view we are considering, the Presbyterian minister
does not—as a matter of historical fact—possess the apostolic commission
which is the guarantee of the Church’s continuance. That commission
is now, as a matter of fact, held by the men whom the church now calls

Put more plainly, he says elsewhere, “It is recognized in both com-

munions [Reformed and Anglican] that the Reformed pattern, in which
each local congregation has a minister assisted by a body of elders, is
in conformity with a pattern which seems to have been common in the
earliest times. The Reformed minister occupies a place analogous to that
of the primitive bishops. In this sense the Reformed may rightly say: ‘We
have bishops already.’”37 The session or consistory of the Presbyterian

34. Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church, 18. See also The Household of God, 53.
35. Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church, 149.
36. Newbigin, The Reunion of the Church, 151.
37.  God’s Reign and Our Unity, paragraph 112(a).

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Pro Ecclesia Vol. XXVI, No. 3 291

and Reformed traditions is an episcopal structure in miniature, with the

elder/minister/bishop presiding over the sacraments while the elders
assist in the distribution of the sacraments and the governing of the
congregation. It is clear that for Newbigin there is no reason why this
same model of governance could not be applied at a conciliar level. The
Reformed tradition places a premium on the role of corporate leadership
and accountability in its presbyteries and general assemblies, and “it is ac-
cepted in most Reformed churches that some form of oversight is needed
at a supra-congregational level. Normally this oversight is exercised by
a corporate body—presbytery or synod.”38 More than this, however, the
personal leadership that a minister can exercise in the midst of his elders
should also be given a “supra-congregational” expression. In fact, at a
practical and functional level, presbytery moderators often fill certain
aspects of this role. Newbigin says,

We think that Reformed churches should accept the fact that, at every
level, oversight needs to be exercised in a way that is both personal and
corporate. Personal oversight apart from the wisdom of a corporate body
is apt to become arbitrary and erratic; oversight by a corporate body
without a personal pastor is apt to become bureaucratic and legalistic. In
fact many Reformed churches have developed forms of oversight at the
regional level which combine both elements effectively.39

Far from undermining the authority of the presbytery or synod, “an

effective and sustained personal leadership, if rightly exercised, is the best
way to ensure the authority and effectiveness of a corporate body such
as a synod or presbytery.”40 In this way, the Reformed tradition would
benefit from an explicit recognition of its need for the personal authority
of a bishop, which is often at work implicitly and unrecognized within
Reformed ecclesial structures.
One final point about Newbigin’s understanding of episcopacy and
the role of a bishop is the importance of the local context in which it was
developed. The episcopal structure of the Church of South India was
largely a response to the missionary context of the indigenous churches.41
Though there was often a disconnect between the needs of such congrega-
tions and the Western missionary societies that were meant to minister to
these congregations, the missionary societies also maintained an impor-
tant principle that helped to create the possibility of reunion. Protestant

38.  God’s Reign and Our Unity, paragraph 112(c).

39.  God’s Reign and Our Unity, paragraph 112(c).
40.  God’s Reign and Our Unity, paragraph 116.
41.  For an account of the development of the CSI and the formative effect it had on New-
bigin, see Mark T. B. Lang’s “The Indian Church and the Formation of Lesslie Newbigin’s
Ecclesiology,” in Theology in Missionary Perspective: Lesslie Newbigin’s Legacy, ed. Mark T. B.
Laing and Paul Weston (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 92.

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292 Andrew C. Stout

mission in India observed the principle of “mission comity,” ensuring

that (in most cases) there were not competing Protestant congregations of
different denominations in the same area. This allowed Indian congrega-
tions to clearly present a unified image of the Church to the surrounding
and dominant non-Christian culture. The particular cultural context of
the Indian churches made visible unity a high priority, while the principle
of comity laid the groundwork for that unity to eventually find expres-
sion in the episcopal structure of the CSI:

The position of the Bishop as the Chief pastor of the flock in each area has
become something that hardly anyone would wish even to think of aban-
doning. But, on the other hand, the Church has a far more open door to
the non-episcopal communions than the written text of the Basis of Union.
I can only interpret these two facts to mean that episcopacy is seen and
valued as the visible centre of the process by which the Good Shepherd
gathers together His own; and that the desire to see this unifying and rec-
onciling work extended and strengthened overmasters any desire to make
claims of episcopacy which would exclude those who are willing to come
into the fellowship.42

In the CSI, the episcopal ministry of bishops, presbyters, and dea-

cons became a means by which diverse churches could share a common
eucharistic and governmental life. Instead of calling into question the
legitimacy of churches without an episcopal heritage, the CSI’s episcopal
structure functioned as a way to welcome and facilitate unity among
churches from different traditions.
Newbigin understood much of the most important work that he
did as a bishop to be visitation in the rural village churches where the
gospel was spreading.43 This was a grueling task in the extremely large
diocese of Madurai, but as Newbigin saw it, “the challenge was to help
each one of them to be a living sign and foretaste of the Kingdom. This
is how I understood the job of bishop. That was why I believed these
long journeys to be of the first priority.”44 The shape of Newbigin’s
episcopal vision is, in many ways, very traditional, but it is also shaped
by the particular needs of an indigenous Indian Church. The office of
bishop in particular, with its capacity to personally embody the goals
of reunion, was an important and flexible tool for bringing about the
reunion of Indian churches. I believe that it is also an essential compo-
nent in giving expression to Reformed catholicity in North American
church circles today.

42. Newbigin, Reunion of the Church, xxxi.

43. Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda, 97.
44. Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda, 99.

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Pro Ecclesia Vol. XXVI, No. 3 293


It has been established that Newbigin worked and thought largely within
Reformed confessional parameters. It is even clear that much of his ratio-
nal for the legitimacy of the historic episcopate is rooted in reformational
concepts. However, it could still be asked whether Newbigin’s synthesis
of Presbyterian and episcopal polity is a consistent development of these
Reformed sources. I believe that it is a consistent development, and I will
attempt to locate the space for this development by looking briefly at the
views of Calvin and the Westminster divines regarding the episcopate
and the role of the bishop. I will also look at some more recent trends in
Reformed theology that support a development of Reformed ecclesiology
along lines similar to those advocated by Newbigin. If Newbigin is to be
a resource for those who identify with “Reformed Catholicism” in the at-
tempt to contribute to and participate in a more visibly unified Church,
then it must be shown that he is not simply discarding the inconvenient
elements of Reformed ecclesiology in favor of a more expedient approach.
At a very basic level, Calvin is committed to the cause of a visibly
united church. Though he distinguishes between the visible and invisible
church, I. John Hesselink believes it is clear that “Calvin would not have
settled for mere ‘spiritual’ union. All his exhortations about unity refer to
the visible, not the invisible church.” Hesselink goes on to quote John T.
McNeill, who observes that “his passion for ecumenical unity induced an
ecclesiastical tolerance that was unusual in his day and is still distasteful
to many who profess themselves Christians.”45 Like Newbigin, Calvin’s
ecclesial vision and efforts are directed toward a Church that is unified
under common ministries.
Calvin understands the roles of “bishop” and “presbyter” to be identi-
cal when it come to the explicit biblical use of the terms.46 However, he

45.  I. John Hesselink, “Calvinus Oecumenicus: Calvin’s Vision of the Unity and Catholic-
ity of the Church” in The Unity of the Church: A Theological State of the Art and Beyond, ed.
Eduardus Van der Borght (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010), 92.
46.  Michael Ramsey critiques Calvin’s distinction between bishop and presbyter. Ramsey
acknowledges that Calvin’s distinction is correct in terms of the original sense of the New
Testament texts, but he notes that Calvin “was using Scripture in the archeological way. He
failed to perceive in the New Testament the organic relation of the local community to the
whole Church, the place of the Apostles as representing this relation, the permanent char-
acter of this relation in Church life, the need for the Apostolate (other than the presbyterate)
to represent this relation in every age. The answer to Calvin is to appeal to Scripture, not
archaeologically but ‘organically,’ and to study the growing organism, and the Apostles’
unique place in it and thence to see the later Episcopate filling the same place” (The Gos-
pel and the Catholic Church, 196). Newbigin, clearly influenced by Ramsey on this point, is
working with Ramsey’s “organic” hermeneutic rather than Calvin’s “archaeological” her-
meneutic. As Ramsey points out, Calvin’s position is not simply mistaken. It is accurate to
a certain extent, but it needs to be supplemented by an approach to Scripture with a more

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294 Andrew C. Stout

acknowledges—with approval—that the early church designated certain

presbyters to function as bishops. These early bishops functioned not so
much as rulers in the church, but as representatives of the presbyters in
a particular place:

All those to whom the office of teaching was enjoined they called “presby-
ters.” In each city these chose one of their number to whom they specially
gave the title “bishop” in order that dissensions might not arise (as com-
monly happens) from equality of rank. Still, the bishop was not so much
higher in honor and dignity as to have lordship over his colleagues. But
the same functions that the consul has in the senate—to report on busi-
ness, to request opinions, to preside over others in counseling, admonish-
ing, and exhorting, to govern the whole action by his authority, and to
carry out what was decreed by common decision—the bishop carried out
in the assembly of presbyters.47

For Calvin, the diocesan bishop was a legitimate and biblical, though
not absolutely necessary, development of the role of the presbyter. Cit-
ing Jerome, he notes that “the ancients themselves admit that this was
introduced by human agreement to meet the need of the times.”48 These
bishops were primarily pastors rather than bureaucrats. Explaining the
“chief duty” of ministers, Calvin says that “both bishops and presbyters
had to devote themselves to the dispensing of the Word and sacraments,”
noting specifically that “it was a principle of long standing in the church
that the primary duties of the bishop were to feed his people with the
Word of God, or to build up the church publicly and privately with sound
doctrine.”49 For both Newbigin and Calvin, the office of bishop is above
all pastoral and liturgical. Based on his status as a pastor, he acts as a
representative of a local body of presbyters or pastors, acting as a focal
point of unity between congregations. The office of bishop is a flexible
one that is adapted to the needs the church in a particular time and place.
Unbroken apostolic succession is not an absolute requirement for either

robust understanding of the organic nature of the Church and of doctrinal development.
This indicates how those who are Reformed, yet Catholic-minded, can understand their own
ecclesial position—as one that is provisional and temporary as they work toward the full
unity of the Church expressed in a restored episcopate.
47.  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and Ford Lewis Bat-
tles, Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 4.4.2.
48. Calvin, Institutes, 4.4.2.
49. Calvin, Institutes, 4.4.3. Eugene P. Heideman observes that it is only when a bishop
fails to fulfill this ministerial role, as Calvin believed Roman Catholic bishops had, that he
should be rejected. Heideman discerns an ecumenical motivation in Calvin’s approach to
bishops. “He did not advocate setting up a rival set of bishops in the Reformed Churches. As
a result of Calvin’s actions, theoretically, at least, the way remained open to the recognition
of the bishops in the Roman Catholic hierarchy as true bishops when they again fulfilled
their magisterium” (Reformed Bishops and Catholic Elders [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1970], 103).

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Newbigin or Calvin, though both acknowledge that it is part of the full-

ness of the Church’s inheritance.
This flexible approach to church government continued to characterize
the Reformed tradition in the seventeenth century. The Westminster Confes-
sion, though it became the statement of faith for the Presbyterian Church
of Scotland, was originally the product of an advisory committee to the
English Parliament. As Robert Letham points out in his excellent treatment
of the Westminster Assembly’s historical context, the Assembly was made
up of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and a small group of Independents.
This composition shows “the Assembly’s dynamism and flexibility, its
ability and willingness to encompass a range of models” for understanding
contested doctrines and issues.50 Letham cites an instance of “the Assem-
bly’s desire to reach as wide agreement as possible,” as he quotes from the
minutes of the Assembly regarding its commitment “to take into consider-
ation the differences in opinion of the members of the Assembly in point
of church government, and to endeavour a union if it be possible.”51 The
Confession itself, in chapter 31, lays out the duties of synods and councils
in a general way without committing itself to a specific form of organiza-
tion. When the Confession was adopted by the Church of Scotland in 1647,
it became the official confessional statement of a Presbyterian body. How-
ever, its original intention was to serve more broadly among churches with
Reformed convictions. In this respect, there is no reason, in principle, that
the CSI could not have adopted the Westminster Confession as a statement
of faith, and there remains no reason that an episcopally structured church
with Reformed doctrinal commitments could not do the same in the future.
In the midst of the optimism that characterized the ecumenical move-
ment in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, some Reformed
Protestants saw an opportunity for Protestants and Roman Catholics to
unite in some form of episcopal structure. This is illustrated in Eugene
P. Heideman’s 1970 book Reformed Bishops and Catholic Elders, in which
he claims that “our title represents neither ecumenical dream nor eclectic
heresy. It is intended to call attention to the sober realities of the life and
being of the church in the kingdom of God. . . . The possibility that this
earth may one day see reformed bishops and catholic elders must now
be reckoned with.”52 While this has proven to be an overly optimistic as-
sessment, this ecumenical spirit has produced and continues to produce

50. Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context,
Westminster Assembly and the Reformed Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 115.
51. Letham, The Westminster Assembly, 116.
52. Heideman, Reformed Bishops and Catholic Elders, 7. For information on the Reformed
Church in America’s role in the CSI, including Heideman’s personal involvement, see his
book From Church to Mission: The Reformed Church in America Mission to India, the Historical
Series of the Reformed Church in America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001). For a brief
portrait of Newbigin working through questions of Reformed theology in the young CSI,
see 658–59.

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296 Andrew C. Stout

proposals for adoption of episcopal structures by confessionally Reformed

churches. More recently, Eduardus Van der Borght, commenting on the
Faith and Order Commission’s text Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, offers a
Reformed response to the document’s discussion of the threefold office of
bishop, presbyter, and deacon. His evaluation of the benefits of this sort of
episcopal structure for Reformed churches strikes many of the same chords
as Newbigin. Van der Borght emphasizes the bishop’s core role as minis-
ter of Word and sacrament, adding that he believes that “an office that is
structured personally at the regional level could benefit the Reformed tradi-
tion, which only has a collegial structure at this level.”53 Though they are
not at the forefront of current ecumenical dialogues, there continue to be
serious and informed discussions about the possibility and the ecumenical
potential that the office of bishop might afford Reformed churches. These
proposals, as well as the broader episcopal structure that they advocate,
owe an enormous debt to Newbigin, both for his writings directly on the
subject and for his work in seeing these ideas worked out through the CSI
and the WCC.
Newbigin’s understanding and practice of the office of bishop, in
addition to being a legitimately Reformed development and response
to the reunion efforts of the CSI, is a crucial component for those who
are involved in ecumenical endeavors today. The office of bishop offers
a flexible locus of unity that connects diverse congregations through the
personal ministry of a trans-local minister. The office, as Newbigin envi-
sions it, provides the possibility of structural and ministerial unity that is
currently lacking in much of the mainline ecumenical movement. It also
provides a distinctly Reformed rationale for an office that is not tradition-
ally part of Reformed ecclesiology. For theologians and ministers who
identify with “Reformed catholicism” and desire the visible unity of the
Church, the office of bishop is an unavoidable issue that must be dealt
with at some point in the future. If Reformed Catholics are going to take
the next step from recognizing the catholic nature and ecumenical poten-
tial of the Reformed tradition to actually working toward reunion, then
Newbigin-style bishops may well be the unifying figures needed.

53.  Eduardus Van der Borght, Theology of Ministry: A Reformed Contribution to an Ecumeni-
cal Dialogue, Studies in Reformed Theology (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2007), 287. For more on
how a Reformed understanding of the ministerial office can contribute to unity, see Allan
Janssen, “Office as an Instrument of Unity,” in The Unity of the Church: A Theological State of
the Art and Beyond, ed. Eduardus Van der Borght (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010), 243–46.

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