Ambitions for church unity 'unrealistic'

By staff writers
January 22, 2009

Ambitions for church unity are unrealistic and are being replaced in practice by local action, national church leaders have said.

The heads of the Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, and United Reformed Churches responded to questions put to them by the Church Times and the Baptist Times during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The findings appear to support predictions made by the thinktank Ekklesia in 2006, in the book “Faith and Politics After Christendom”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams; the Revd Jonathan Edwards, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain; the Revd Dr Martyn Atkins, general secretary of the Methodist Church; Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Roman Catholic Church in England; and the Revd Roberta Rominger, general secretary of the United Reformed Church were all interviewed by the newspapers.

They acknowledged a loss of impetus in national efforts to bring about unity. Dr Atkins talks of “less enthusiasm for unity as an end in itself”; Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor speaks of “a slowing down of progress”, despite increased commitment; and Dr Rowan Williams says: “You won’t find much interest in what you might call the ‘negotiating’ side of unity.”

But each speaks of an increase in what the Revd Roberta Rominger calls “a partnership of purpose and action”. The Revd Jonathan Edwards says: “Baptists are more involved in working with other denominations than ever before.” Dr Martyn Atkins says that there is “greater enthusiasm for focused ecumenical action, such as community projects”.

“I think this kind of focus is much more helpful,” he says. “We can express our unity in constructive ways.”

Dr Williams speaks of “an uncomfortable gap between national bodies and local enthusiasm” and admits that Churches Together in England and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, for “all the excellence of their leadership ...don’t kindle the imagination for most people in the Churches”.

None of the leaders see a dismantling of denominational structures in the near future, but Mr Edwards is most critical of the present situation. “We have to make the best of what we’ve been given,” he says, but goes on: “The inherent division of the contemporary Church is painful and time-wasting, and it fundamentally distracts from the Good News.”

Dr Williams says that endeavour at parish level provides most hope for the future. “The truth is that top-down strategies for institutional union are very unlikely to work in the near future any better than they have in the recent past. Prayer and silence and action together are the things that change us, and even change the world.”

Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia and author of the book Faith and Politics After Christendom said: “Post-Christendom is clearly bringing with it new forms of co-operation between Christians based not on theology or doctrine, but on action and the way they live. In many respects, this resonates with the experience of early Christians, who saw their faith far more in terms of what they did.

“The political and social expression of faith in particular will increasingly be a focus around which Christians come together, as we have seen for example around campaigns against climate change and to end debt in the developing world.”

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from January 18-25. It has been observed since 1908.

The church leaders’ responses are being printed in the Church Times, the Baptist Times, the Methodist Recorder and Reform.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.