Christian impetus for cooperation and service still strong, say ecumenists

By staff writers
November 14, 2009

Despite setbacks and constraints, the cause of greater Christian unity and outward-looking cooperation in Britain and Ireland is still strong, a gathering of leading ecumenists has declared.

The informal conference at Wesley College in Bristol was convened on 12-13 November 2009 by the Rev Dr Keith Clements, former General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches, and an expert in both international affairs and the life and work of the theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

It had been occasioned by concerns about a continuing 'ecumenical winter', given some of the very public arguments within and between churches and an awareness that the size, staffing, finance and influence of the official ecumenical bodies established at the Swanwick Conference in 1990 (which launched the 'churches together' movement and wound up the former British Council of Churches) had been reduced significantly in the past 10 years.

Participants - who gathered as individuals rather than official representatives - recognised the depth of the challenge to Christian unity and common action coming from the pressure for denominations to 'brand' and 'sell' themselves, from the significant decline of historic and inherited church institutions and from the rapidly changing social, political and cultural context of Christianity in these islands.

There was strong affirmation from those present that the ecumenical movement (the word 'ecumenical' comes from the Greek, oikumene, meaning 'the whole inhabited earth') needed to be outward focused, not inward looking. Its energy came not so much from "ecclesiastical joinery" as from common Christian action and dialogue for the sake of the world.

The meeting was held under the Chatham House rule ( Participants included leaders of two of the ecumenical instruments in Britain and Ireland; clergy and lay people with considerable past and present experience of the search for Christian unity and common witness in England, Scotland and Wales; and members of the main Catholic, Anglican and Free Church traditions.

One of those taking part in the meeting, Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented afterwards: "This was a positive and hopeful gathering in a climate which can sometimes seem tough and un-inviting, both within the churches and in wider society."

He continued: "In the light of the continuing decline of inherited church structures in the post-Christendom era ( and in the face of strong sectarian forces within both organised religion and organised secularism, there are a significant and growing number of Christians working at the grassroots and cooperating for peace and justice who see the need for a different kind of unifying Christian witness. It is hope for people and planet, not for 'our own alone', that is the key 'love your neighbour' challenge in the 21st century.

"One question is whether the historic churches, especially those with more power and money, who can be very self-protective, are willing to invest in faith as movement rather than religion as institution. The founder of Christianity warned his followers that those who seek to save themselves at the expense of others have lost the plot. At present the big churches are still trying to cling on to past privileges. They need to learn to 'let go' in creative and hopeful ways."

Ecumenical links:

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland -

Churches Together in England -

Action of Churches Together in Scotland -

Cytun: Churches Together in Wales -

Student Christian Movement -

Conference of European Churches -

World Council of Churches -

Global Christian Forum -

Others -

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