Friday, 13 April 2012

Ecumenical perspective

This afternoon, our good friend Mike Buck from Bristol University days came to stay overnight, before driving back to Scotland, after a holiday walking week based in Lampeter. It was lovely to catch up and reminisce, as we hadn't met face to face in twenty years. Mike came to Birmingham University when I was Chaplain, to do a post-graduate course, then he moved to a job in Bristol. He settled in Montpellier on the edge of the St Paul's Area, and started attending St Agnes Parish Church. He called us to say that the Parish was enduring a lengthy interregnum and jokingly asked if we  might be interested in a Team Ministry with an ecumenical dimension. At that time I was thinking of moving on, made a few inquiries of the Bishop of Bristol, and within a month or so, had been sent to Downing Street to visit the Lord Chancellor's Ecclesiastical Patronage secretary, whose office was a top floor room in Number Ten in the days of Harold Wilson's government. I was the ninth candidate, and the only one not to turn down the challenge of the job. 

I was just thirty, with hardly enough experience to lead a team and work effectively in urban mission, but the challenge seemed irresistible. It proved a rewarding educational experience of urban mission influencing everything I did thereafter. Mike was living in the Parish. He was on the PCC and churchwarden for a while. Ecumenism worked as long as team members (Anglican and Methodist) were young and liberal minded, but it slowly stagnated when they were replaced with older conservative clergy, unwilling to modify perceptions and expectations of what team work entailed. It's easy to be philosophical with hindsight, but it was frustrating and disappointing at the time. For Mike, a great ecumenical enthusiast, it was deeply disillusioning. He moved eventually to work as librarian for Christian Aid in London, and felt displaced by the metropolitan Anglican conservatism (of all churchmanships) he encountered there. In the end, he found contentment and a spiritual home in the post Vatican II contemplative renewal emerging in parts of the Roman Church. An evangelical among Papists, he now struggles with the neo-conservative trend of his church under Ratzinger rule. His comment on the Ordinariat was: "I went to Rome to get away from that sort of Anglicanism!"

Thirty to forty years ago there was much enthusiasm for the prospects of reconciliation between the churches leading to eventual organic union. It was a well intended vision, but I wasn't ever sure that a monolithic organisation was capable of doing justice to the cultural and religious diversity of world wide Christianity - which more resembles an organism which mutates as it propagates than it resembles an organisation which can be replicated. What was needed, I thought, was effective joint action issuing from better communication and resource sharing between Christian denominations.

Some effective instruments to achieve this has been achieved in areas like social justice, peace-making, reconciliation, aid for under-developed countries, and even in common prayer and worship. But in areas of lifestyle, values, personal ethics, authority and relationships, there are still major disagreements - some are embedded in the denominational institutions inherited from past history, others reflect the continued divide between liberal and conservative impulses which cut across denominations. This means living together with differences, by those united in confessing  allegiance to God in Christ Jesus, is still far from universally achieved.

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