POSITIVE ECUMENISM

David Lickess looks forward in faith

 

A LADY of 95 in my parish tells how as a girl in Middlesbrough she would cross the road rather than walk past the local Roman Catholic church. Its members would not pray with other Christians. Anglicans and Methodists only entered each other's churches for funerals. There was ignorance and ill will. Those days arc past. But many people still see little light amid the darkness of denominational division. With progress slow, they feel the struggle for Church Unity takes up energy that could be given to mission and pastoral concerns. In some places long established good relations have borne fruit and working together is accepted as the way of being Christ's Church. In others people have not yet got to know each other and a few enthusiasts struggle to raise awareness. We have moved from an ecumenical winter to springtime, but summer seems distant. However, there are signs of real progress.

CHANGED ECUMENICAL SCENE

Now there's much friendship among Church leaders, clergy and laity, who regularly meet together, take part in worship in each other's churches and share aspects of their work, mission and pastoral care. Churches and congregations have come out of their isolation and are discovering each other's traditions. We're all living beyond the limits we knew as children, having got to know and even like each other. Most places now have Ministers' Fraternals and Churches Together in ...., where local Christians plan shared worship, outreach, work among young people and relationships with secular authorities.

Our Anglican cathedrals are centres of Christian life and worship for the whole community. York Minster has long had united acts of worship and witness, the Methodists recently held an Ordination there and Roman Catholic bishops have often preached. In our increasingly secular environment, Church members are seeing that our common Christianity is more important than what separates us and realise that our divisions seriously undermine witness and service to our nation.

Churches leaders now often respond together on educational, humanitarian, moral and social issues. Many have entered into regional agreements, like the Ampleforth Covenant signed in 1998 by the leaders of all the denominations in North East England. This commits them to mutual support and meeting together. In January 2000 all the Diocesan Bishops and Methodist District Chairman met at Ampleforth, building on their good personal relationships and leading to joint meetings of some Diocesan and District Synods.

Since 1990 Churches Together in England has helped the Roman Catholic and new black-led Churches to he a full part of the ecumenical scene. There is a national network of diocesan and regional ecumenical officers. Church central staff liaise their work more together, with different ones taking a lead on different issues. The aim is not just to do ecumenical things, but to do things ecumenically.

There are now over 800 Local Ecumenical Partnerships (LEPs) in England, with the CofE involved in most of them. Here two or more Churches share pastoral ministry and mission and often use the same building for their worship and meetings. Some are fully united congregations, served by ministers of different Churches working in close co-operation. Others are less formal, based on Local Covenants for Unity and shared activities. Churchfolk are learning what they can receive and give to mutual benefit. Many rural congregations are in practice ecumenical, as are many modern families. In new housing areas there's more sharing of buildings and clergy.

In my own rural commuter parish in North Yorkshire we meet together for evening worship every Sunday, monthly discussion groups and Eucharists once a year in each church - Anglican, Methodist and Roman Catholic, sharing communion where we can. We have a monthly ecumenical news sheet which goes to every home in the parish. Our layfolk join together in a pastoral care scheme, prayer visiting and children's work. All these help to dispel ignorance, strengthen our witness in the community and increase understanding and fellowship. This year we are establishing an LEP Covenant for Unity, to build on what we already do and move towards further sharing together.

OUR ECUMENICAL INVOLVEMENT

The Church of England is part of this varied scene and committed to all round and many layered Ecumenism. It is involved in a network of partnerships with other Churches, official and informal, with an increasing amount of shared ministry, worship and work. It's an active member of all the ecumenical bodies and has been a major player in international ecumenism throughout 20th century. The past 30 years it's been involved in a whole range of bilateral and multilateral conversations and reports with all the main Christian Churches, both through international discussions, especially in Europe, and talking to each other in this country. This has led to closer union with some Churches and greater understanding and friendship with all Churches.

Our ecumenical strategy stems from the Lambeth Quadrilateral (1888), which sees as minimal conditions for the full visible unity of Christ's Church - the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, and the historic Episcopate locally adapted in its methods of administration. Based on this approach, we're working towards the renewal of the mission of the Christian Church in this land, with all our ecumenical partners. This acknowledges the diversity within and between the Churches, but seeks more shared positive witness in all areas of national life, with CofE often taking a lead because we are the National Church.

Our ultimate goal is the full visible unity of all presently separated Churches - a vision recently re-affirmed by the House of Bishops, General Synod and the Lambeth Conference. This means neither uniformity of worship or practice, nor just reconciled diversity. It means the Church as 'koinonia' - full fellowship and communion, amid rich variety in ways of expressing our Faith, with acknowledgment of each other as Churches with authentic ministries, it means basic agreement about the Christian Faith, mutual acceptance of Baptism and the Eucharist, interchangeability of episcopally ordained ministers, with common synodical structures of decision making, a single focus of pastoral oversight in an area and shared collegial episcopal leadership. This goal is to he pursued not in one giant leap forward hut by a series of defined stages.

This strategy has been led by the CofE Catholic wing, in their writings and the membership and reports of ecumenical Conversations. These have placed great emphasis on institutional visible unity in an ecclesiastical organisation, on sacramental life and the threefold ministry, with the essential role of bishops in historic succession. Evangelicals see things more in terms of the spiritual unity between believers through their common faith and life in Christ, with a variety of visible organisations. We must involve them more in unity for the sake of mission.

In 1989 our Church passed Canons B43 and B44, which allow Anglican clergy and lay ministers to carry out in other Churches duties similar to those they do in their own, and ministers of other Churches to take part in Anglican worship if they are authorised to perform similar tasks in their own Church. That is, to preach, read the Bible, lead prayer and assist at occasional services. Recent changes in our membership rules allow admission to communion of baptised communicant members of other Trinitarian Churches, who can also be on CofE electoral rolls and elected to our decision making bodies.

UNITY WITH ROME

Vatican II and the Anglican - Roman Catholic Common Statements have created a different climate between us. ARCIC's work is impressive, with considerable theological agreement going behind Reformation positions on matters of the Eucharist, the Ministry and the Church as Communion. The reception they've received in the Vatican is less warm than many (including English Roman Catholics) would wish, with an increasingly conservative Pope and Curia and a Church seen as too centralised and authoritarian. Actions by our own Church have also caused considerable problem, witness women's ordination, doctrinal liberalism and provincial autonomy in matters of doctrine., morality and ministry. The recent Vatican document 'Dominus Jesus', while positively stating a clear Christian view about other Faiths, is negative and unrealistic about Anglicans and other historic Churches, ignoring the agreements reached in recent years and the practical co-operation that exists between us.

But there's some encouragement. Last May an international group of leading bishops from the Anglican Communion and Roman Catholic Church, meeting in Toronto, signed a Declaration saying 'We have moved much closer to the goal of full visible communion than we dared to believe. We acknowledge the consensus in faith we have reached and a fresh commitment to share together in common life and witness. Outstanding differences are not to be compared with all we hold in common. A new high-level group reviewing our worldwide relations has just been set up amid Rome's official paper was recently headlined 'The ecumenical way is the way of the Church'.

There's also an agreement about shared acts of worship between the CofE and the French Roman Catholic Church, which offers Anglicans eucharistic hospitality, plus a growing number of diocesan and parish twinning links between ourselves and Churches across the Channel. And there is considerable fellowship in England between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, led by both parish priests and layfolk.

UNITY WITH METHODISTS

Our Church has re-commenced Conversations with the Methodists, our neighbours in most rural communities and partners in most LEPs, with whom we've been discussing unity since the 1960s. Based on 'Commitment to Mission and Unity' they seek realistic, achievable targets and commitments, practical co-operation as well as theological dialogue. They seek unity by stages, not one scheme of Union in the near future, but building on the considerable amount of worship, ministry, witness and work we already share. We await the Report this summer and its challenge to our two Churches, especially to those of us who are ecumenical Anglican Catholics.

All this goes on while congregations at parish and local area level in many places are working more together, as noted in a recent booklet 'Releasing Energy'. There are regular shared acts of worship and outreach to the community, especially on pastoral and social issues. There are joint meetings at. deanery/circuit level to discuss common concerns, plus some joint membership classes and Confirmation services, and training of ordained and lay ministers.


WIDER CONVERGENCE

Through patient theological dialogue Christians have begun to find greater understanding and agreement on many of the issues that were the cause of their divisions, especially around central doctrines and the subjects of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. Witness the WCC Lima Report, Rome and the Lutherans 'Declaration on Justification', and reports resulting in closer union between Anglicans and European Lutherans through the Meissen Agreement with the Evangelical Church in Germany and the Porvoo Agreement for inter-communion and shared ministry with the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches. Meetings of Church leaders and local congregations are resulting from these agreements. The 1990s have also seen closer relationships developed between our Church and French Protestants and English Moravians.

We're also involved in less formal talks with the United Reformed Church, the Baptists and other Churches.

All these Conversations are overseen by the CofE Council for Christian Unity, which has members representing all shades of Anglican churchmanship. They start from where we already agree, then see where we can work together and move by stages towards the goal of full visible unity. They aim to say the same things to all our different partners and seek not to advance with one Church in a way that prevents progress with another. Dr. Mary Tanner, that doyen of Anglican ecumenists, calls this 'All round and every level ecumenism'. She also reminds us that 'The search for Christian Unity is not an end in itself, but so that the world might believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. So the search for visible unity can never he an optional extra on the Church's agenda and its hound together with the unity of all humanity in our broken world.'

BEING POSITIVE

A hundred years ago most churchfolk saw themselves distinctly as Catholic or Protestant, CofE or Free Church. Now many have come to recognise our common Christian heritage and the great similarities between us compared to people of other Faiths or none. The experience of worshipping and meeting together has opened people's eyes to what we share. Some hold to the vision of 'One Church united for mission and service', with integrated patterns of ministry and structures. Others are content to go along side by side, co-operating where they can but placing their efforts elsewhere. A minority have made very little contact with fellow Christians. For most of us the ecumenical dimension is not automatic and comes into our plans only when they are well advanced, though many clergy, laity and Church leaders want to work together where they can, providing it doesn't involve too much change!

New issues threaten gains made during recent decades, creating new divisions between and within all Churches, and moves that would draw us closer to one denomination often are a barrier to union with another. But, though the ecumenical movement at world level is complex and fragile, progress is being made and some Churches have taken real steps on the road. This is positive action that has changed the ecumenical landscape.

On the eve of His Passion Jesus prayed that His Disciples may know communion with Him and each other, then work to proclaim His Gospel to all humanity. Do we, individually and as a Church, respond together with our fellow Christians to His call to united worship, witness and service'? The Church of England is committed officially to closer ecumenical relations and often takes a lead in discussions, but not all its members are very positive about them. It's important that those of us who care deeply about Ecumenism show how much has changed and how, with greater commitment, unity can come, giving the Church a new hope of fulfilling its calling in the modern world.

David Lickess is Vicar of Hutton Rudby in York diocese, a member of General Synod and the Council for Christian Unity.

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