An open letter to the churches of Britain and Ireland

By Keith Clements
14 Jan 2010

This ‘open letter’ to the churches of Britain and Ireland, from the former General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches, follows on directly from a 12-13 November 2009 informal consultation on the future of the ecumenical movement, convened by the author at Wesley College, Bristol. Ekklesia’s Simon Barrow was a participant in this gathering, and we reported on it here - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/10603

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At the start of this new year and just before the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January 2010) I am writing to you in my personal capacity but also, I believe, as representative of many people who in a variety of ways have been actively involved in the movement for Christian unity, in these islands and internationally, for nearly forty years. We believe that the time has come for the churches and all Christians to renew their vision and commitment to the fulfilment of the prayer of Jesus Christ ‘that they may all be one’.

2010 – Two anniversaries

This year, 2010, sees two important anniversaries. In 1910 there took place in Edinburgh the World Missionary Conference which is now widely recognised as the birth of the modern ecumenical movement. The past century has seen the churches of the world being brought ever closer together in common mission and evangelism, in service to human need, in struggles for justice and not least, in the actual search for visible unity. This story fully deserves to be remembered, affirmed and celebrated with thanksgiving to God for all that has been accomplished as a movement led by the Holy Spirit.

This year also marks twenty years since the inauguration in 1990 of the ‘new’ ecumenical instruments in the British Isles. As the fruit of the ‘Not Strangers but Pilgrims’ Inter-Church Process and the Swanwick Conference of 1987, in place of the British Council of Churches there came into being the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland (later re-named Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI)), Churches Together in England (CTE), Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS) and Churches Together in Wales (CYTUN), with the continuing Irish Council of Churches (ICC). These changes expressed an ecumenical vision which was new in two senses. First, it saw ecumenism as the churches themselves acting and growing ever closer together, instead of ecumenism as work done for them and apart from them. Second, it expressed a far more inclusive ecumenism than hitherto, with the full participation of the Roman Catholic Church and several of the newer black-majority churches. Twenty years on, this venture deserves recalling and appraising.

A lost cause?

It is apparent, however, that today, both in these islands and in the wider world, the ecumenical movement is seen by many as a failing, lost or irrelevant cause. Some talk of an ‘ecumenical winter’. We must fully acknowledge that real difficulties and new factors have arisen along the way. These include: the declining size and resources of many of our churches, making their internal well-being the priority rather than their external relationships; the emergence of new divisions within some churches, especially on certain ethical and gender issues, at least as great as differences between churches; an emphasis on the relations between Christianity and other faiths as a higher priority than Christian ecumenism; and the growth of a culture which values immediacy in personal relations and experience rather than the attachment to ‘structures’ and larger-scale organisations which was assumed by the ecumenism of former times. On the positive side, we must also recognize that the church scene today is far more diverse and complex – indeed often vibrantly so – than formerly, especially with the growth of the Pentecostal, black-led and ‘emerging churches’. With this diversity go very different perceptions of what Christian unity means and requires.

Resignation or response?

In such a situation it is all too easy to drift into sheer resignation and to forget that the call to visible unity is not an optional extra but a central and urgent imperative of the gospel. The lack of agreement on what form that unity should take, far from being a pretext for abandoning or deferring the issue for the time being, makes it even more imperative that the search be renewed. There is therefore all the more reason for a new, urgent and concerted effort to look again at the calling to Christian unity, and above all its goal, theologically and concretely. Just what does the prayer of our Lord ‘That they may all be one, as we are one’ actually mean for us today?

As a start, it would be appropriate for all our churches to take a fresh look at the commitments which were made twenty years ago when, as stated in the Swanwick Declaration: ‘It is our conviction that, as a matter of policy at all levels and in all places, our churches must now move from co-operation to clear commitment to each other, in search of the unity for which Christ prayed and in common evangelism and service of the world.’ What is being asked for is not another re-examination of the ecumenical instruments as such – these need the fullest possible affirmation, support and resourcing – but a self-examination and mutual questioning of the churches themselves as to their ecumenical commitment, attitudes, and actual performance. What were the expectations in 1990? How far have the churches actually lived up to them? How much closer are they today than they were then? How far in practice are we ‘committed to’ each other?

Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we need a truly open and honest encounter between our churches at every level, including both the leadership and all the people who make up the Body of Christ, on such questions. We must ask, ‘What kind of common Christian life and witness is needed in our four nations, today and tomorrow? What changes in our churches will be required if they are to be not just ‘churches together’ but churches together proclaiming the gospel and God’s justice and peace? In what ways is power a factor in our relationships? And what is really blocking the path to full visible unity, which at the very least means mutual recognition of ministries and fellowship at the Lord’s Table?’

Resources

This will present great challenges to us, but we should not doubt the immense resources we already have to hand. One major resource is the ecumenical memory. We are not bound by the past, but we need memory if we are to retain direction and purpose, and there is danger of an amnesia blocking off huge sources of wisdom. We have the collective experience and insights gathered over the years, both in these islands and in the worldwide ecumenical family, showing how far there has been real convergence on major issues of doctrine and church life, as seen in the Faith and Order movement and the many bilateral conversations between churches and Christian world communions. Equally, there is the precious memory of costly witness against injustice, oppression and war over the past century, to remind us that it is when churches are turned outwards to share the anguish of God’s world that they in fact find themselves drawn together under the cross. We need to capitalise on this story for the reinvigoration of our common witness in social, national and international affairs.

But the resources are also present and living. They are present for example in the hundreds of Local Ecumenical Partnerships (LEPs), which constitute one of the most remarkable stories of modern church life. Still apt to be viewed as oddities in the landscape of our denominations, they should be valued as normative for the kingdom of God and used as centres for learning what the future may offer if we are really serious about unity. The resources are also present in the energies of young people who are eager for a new world of peace and the preservation of creation, who will value the churches less for their capacity to survive unchanged than for their solidarity with these causes and their offering of a spirituality which can undergird such engagement.

‘The Holy Spirit unites in a single body those who follow Jesus Christ and sends them as witnesses into the world . . . Living in this communion with God, all members of the Church are called to confess their faith and to give account of their hope’ (Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, the WCC ‘Lima text’, 1982). Humanly speaking the most widespread resource lies in the hopes and prayers of the countless so-called ordinary people who long for the breaking down of remaining barriers among us and the creation of true communion in faith, life and common witness. Essential for a renewal of our vision for unity and the examination of where we have come in the past twenty years, will be the full participation in this process of people at every level of church life, especially those who feel that their voices are not at present being fully heard. We need a new, holy imagination.

Listening to the Spirit
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In November 2009 some thirty people from England, Wales and Scotland and from a wide variety of traditions met for a twenty-four hour meeting in Bristol to reflect on their experiences and perceptions of the current ecumenical scene. This was an informal occasion for openly sharing both hopes and disappointments, encouragements and challenging questions, memories and quite new ideas, all in an atmosphere of prayer and mutual acceptance. It did not reach, or try to reach, an agreed position statement but allowed very important questions to be aired and shared. I would like to commend its report Called to be One – What Now? to all who are concerned about the ecumenical pilgrimage – and indeed to those who are not! It is available at: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/Calledtobeonewhat.pdf (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat file).

But further, it was suggested at the meeting that other similar events could be organised by whoever wishes and in whatever context seems appropriate, at local, regional and national levels, in order to give opportunity for people, lay and ordained, to express their feelings about the current state of the churches, the direction which the movement for unity should take, the roles of church leaders and the best use of the ecumenical instruments. This would not in any way compete with what takes place at more formal and official levels but would help in creating and widening a new movement of informed enthusiasm, support and challenge for the journey begun by the pioneers at Edinburgh and undertaken anew with solemn commitment by the British and Irish churches twenty years ago.

Always, as was repeatedly said at the Bristol meeting, the chief resource – indeed the chief actor - in the movement is the Holy Spirit of God. That remains our hope and confidence. It also means that at any moment we should be listening for what the Spirit is saying to the churches (Revelation 2:7 etc). Neither I nor any of those for whom I speak can claim to know more than anyone else exactly what the Spirit may be saying, but we do believe that the need for renewed listening is now urgent. May I therefore invite you and all in your church or constituency to receive and reflect on this letter, as an encouragement to ‘making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3) for the sake of Christ and to the glory of God the Father.

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© Keith Clements is a Baptist minister, theologian and widely published writer, not least in the field of Bonhoeffer studies. He was General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches from 1997-2005, and before that international affairs secretary for the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland (now Churches Together in Britain and Ireland).

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