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Beyond the ecumenical ice age

The last three decades of inter-church relations in Britain have often been described as an 'Ecumenical Winter'. After the energy and optimism released by significant milestones in the 20th century and the creation of united Churches and denominations in Canada, South India, Zambia and Australia, the ecumenical endeavour seems to have run aground. With the completion of each round of international dialogues, the readership of their reports seems to become more select and the responses more muted.

In Great Britain, the ecumenical weather seems particularly icy. Perhaps that's because we are wedded to a model of ecumenism that most other parts of the world have rejected. Our ecumenical endeavours have floundered on the craggy rocks of ministerial interchangeability and mutual recognition. Our attempts at a 'one size fit all' ecclesiology (which is, let's face it, what organic union proposes) is seen by most of the faithful as theological tinkering. Those who remain committed to the model use the myth of mission as the primary driver when the experience of genuine outward-facing mission and pioner work reveals that this is not required. For decades, the ministry of chaplains in various sectors has been respected and recognised by all outside the church. Universities, the Forces, prison authorities get that chaplains are public representative people from the faith communities to the wider world.

The way that British ecumenism has been constructed makes it almost entirely about internal church structures and therefore bores most Christians let alone anyone else. It fails, for the most part, because it does not take into account the immense diversity within our churches and instead tries to construct dialogues and negotiations on the diplomatic, plenopoteniary model. But churches are not nations and ecumenical reports are not treaties. The fault-lines between Christians are no longer denominational and many of our members could not articulate a reasonable case for why Methodists are different from other denominations.

Where do we go from here? Let me be bold to make just two suggestions:

  • No more reinvention of wheels - ecumenical nerds like me do actually read the reports that emerge from dialogues and keep an eye on activities in other parts of the world. There are lots of agreements in place already, so lets modify them for our use rather than ignore them. In this regard, let me just point out two:

  • The Fellowship of Grace, a full communion agreement between United Methodists and Lutherans in Scandinavia, parts of Germany and the US, allows for shared work in many ways. I have now suggested to two different Connexional Ecumenical Officers that we should talk to the Lutheran Council of GB abut extending it to Britain and nothing has happened.

  • The International Reformed-Methodist Dialogue concluded its work in the late 1980s with theological agreements. Why then are we not in full communion agreements with the Church of Scotland, the URC and the Welsh Presbyterians? In each case, this kind of recognition would be so valuable for our work across the three nations.

  • A Coalition of the Willing - Methodists have expended enormous amounts of time and energy in trying to make organic union work with other denominations. We have sacrificed much in that struggle, believing that this was the price we were expected to pay to fulfill Christ's high priestly prayer (John 17). And we have experienced deep disappointment as a result when others have not been prepared to do the same. It is time to call a halt to this self-flagellation and recognise that others are not ready to take that step. It is also time to renew our own sense of self-respect and honour the particular mission and ministry that we, as Methodists, have been given by God. Let us invest in relationships of mutual respect where we genuinely honour the work of the Spirit in the ministry of the other. Let us receive from others who do not wish to make us 'proper' but who want to enrich and be enriched in the fellowship and mission we share. For me, that starts with other Wesleyans in Britain and around the world, that wonderful family of 85 million Christians to which we belong. Let's work to extend agreements within World Methodism and extend them to other Wesleyans, especially our Pentecostal, Nazarene and Holiness tradition sisters and brothers.

“Jesus Christ, we proclaim with joy our common identity in you, and we thank you for inviting us into a dialogue of love with you. Open our hearts to share more perfectly in your prayer to the Father that we may be one, so that as we journey together we may draw closer to each other. Give us the courage to bear witness to the truth together, and may our conversations embrace those who perpetuate disunity. Send your Spirit to empower us to challenge situations where dignity and compassion are lacking in our societies, nations, and the world. God of life, lead us to justice and peace. Amen.” (from WCC)

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