General Secretary's Address @ CTE Forum 2012
Rev Dr David Cornick is the General Secretary of Churches Together in England, and gave this address at the 2012 CTE Forum on 25th Octber 2012.
'What does love require of us on the ecumenical journey ahead?'
25 years ago last month the Holy Spirit blew through this place, and the British church changed.
Those who were there remember Cardinal Hume presiding at a Catholic eucharist. He invited non-Catholics to come forward for a blessing, and found himself blessing Archbishop Runcie and a host of other church leaders. And then, after communion, there was a significant silence. The congregation realised that the Cardinal was so moved, he found it hard to finish Mass. The following day’s service, when the Cardinal and the rest of the Catholic delegation came forward to receive blessings from Anglican and Presbyterian clergy, was equally moving. Two days later Hume addressed the conference, ‘Christian unity is a gift from God and in the last few days I have felt He has given us this gift in abundance…'. The moment had come '...to move deliberately from a situation of co-operation to one of commitment.'
And so, with a bit of politicking around the edges, a sea-change happened, and the Cardinal shifted ecumenism into a different dimension. There are days when words, poetry and the Spirit's dance create thin places and you can almost touch the kingdom of God and feel its transforming authority. Days when the blind see, the lame dance and the endless possibilities of God re-sculpt the horizon. Days when the Swanwick Declaration is written. '...We now declare together our readiness to commit ourselves to each other under God. Our earnest desire is to become more fully, in his own time, the one Church of Christ, united in faith, communion, pastoral care and mission. Such unity is the gift of God. With gratitude we have truly experienced this gift, growing amongst us in these days.' What was intended was, in Robert Runcie's words,
a shift from ecumenism as an energy absorbing extra to ‘a dimension of all that we do’. That’s the kind of thing you sign up to when the Spirit is in the air. Its all a bit more difficult back at the ranch when you have to work out precisely how ‘… 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’, let alone ‘…[develop] proposals for ecumenical instruments to help the churches of these islands to move ahead together.'
And so twenty-five years on, its time to take stock. A quarter of a century might be as a blink of God's eye in eternity, but for mere mortals it is the difference between brown hair and grey, a thirty six inch waist becoming a forty-five inch waist and the sudden discover that gravity is having its inexorable effect on your face. Or measure it in public affairs. 1987 was the year in which Margaret Thatcher won her third term. As she passed memorably into history, John Major's marginal administration somehow lasted six and half years before Blair's 'third way' re-wrote British politics, to be replaced by the short lived Gordon Brown in 2007 and the Coalition in 2010. During those years we've seen wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the death of a Princess and the marriage of her eldest son, 9/11 and the rise of militant Islam, devolution, and almost complete financial melt-down. That is to say nothing of the cultural changes caused on the one hand by continuing immigration and on the other by the IT revolution. In 1987 mobile phones were the size of breeze blocks and best installed in cars - and that was two years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the world-wide web. Twenty-five years is a long time, even in church. Its time to take stock of the post-BCC era and ask the churches what it is that love requires of us.
There is good news. The ecumenical rainbow is brighter now than it was in 1987, its colours more vibrant and exciting. The journey is no longer the prerogative of the Church of England and assorted Protestants, but is peopled by the Orthodox of the East, the Catholic Church, Pentecostals, African, Caribbean and English and an increasing number of community churches. In 1987 we could barely have dreamt of such variety, such diversity. There is good news. In many places co-operation amongst Christian churches is normal and unremarkable. This year we were all part of More Than Gold, which enabled the largest ever Christian response to the Olympics - over half a million people attended church-run community events, and demand exceeded supply - on the Isle of Dogs for example, the churches planned for a festival for 500 people, and 4,000 turned up. The figures are stunning and cover everything from Games Pastors giving 13,000 hours of pastoral support at transport hubs, to 434 days of street art. There is good news - the churches continue to be deeply engaged with each other in bi-lateral dialogue, of which ARCIC III and the Anglican-Methodist Covenant are only the most visible instances. That slow, gentle work of deepening understanding of each other continues unabated, despite reduced budgets. There is good news. The dynamics of English Christianity have changed in the last quarter of a century. Broadly speaking the gentle decline of mainstream Protestant churches has continued unabated, balanced by a rise in immigrant congregations. David Goodhew puts it well in his study of church growth since 1980, 'The key thing to note is that parts of the British church have seen serious and long-lasting decline during these same years - but parts have grown. British churches are experiencing both decline and growth. Britain has grown more secular and more religious in the last 30 years. It all depends where you look. Any portrait of the British church which focuses mainly on decline or growth is unbalanced.' (253) The growth is found mainly but not exclusively amongst immigrant and new churches, in the new 'world-city' of London and along major trading routes. Goodhew notes that '...The more multicultural and the more economically bouyant an area, the more likely it is to have growing churches.' (255). There is good news - we are not living in the last days of English Christianity. So, what does love require of us?
Ecumenism cannot be what it was in 1987, not least because the conversation circle is so much broader than it was. In some towns new ad hoc groupings of churches are emerging, some formed from Churches Together Groups, some alongside them. As ever in ecumenical life, dialogue, conversation and friendship are necessary, with the proviso that love demands of us that we aren't going anywhere where our Orthodox and Catholic friends are not included. After all, between them, they are over 60% of the world's Christians. More Than Gold is once more a brilliant model. There was a huge harnessing of new church energy, but it enabled unlikely and wonderful partnerships like Seventh Day Adventists and Coptic Orthodox, and the whole thing would have collapsed without the Salvation Army and the Roman Catholic Church. It was an object lesson in what the new ecumenism might look like.
Love requires of us that we strive to reflect the wholeness of God's people, that we seek to discover that of Christ in the other. I want to suggest some practical ways to move that forwards. One of the joys of the past three years has been the willingness of some Pentecostal churches to join the ecumenical journey. That is all the more important as Pentecostalism is now a significant world church family. The Free Churches Moderator reminded us yesterday that every time a local church receives a new member, it changes. Every time a denomination enters a covenant with another, it changes. That is because they are open to the Christ who comes in the other. The same applies to an Ecumenical Instrument. We are committed to widening the Presidency for example. We have welcomed Archbishop Gregorios as an Orthodox President, and we are committed to welcoming a Pentecostal President. With the grace of God, we will accomplish that by the time we return here.
Discussion with Pentecostal friends during Forum suggest that we could benefit hugely from a deeper conversation with them about theology and ecclesiology so that we and their partner churches can learn more about them, the things that are important to them, and that they can share. Some of them have taken a courageous step by joining this journey, and I hope we can honour that by offering a hand of welcome and a willingness to learn more.
In 1987 the Ecumenical Movement took a decisive step forward when the Roman Catholic Church moved from co-operation to commitment. Prior to that was a long history of hurt, misunderstanding, and treading on painful corns. I suspect that the relationship between ecumenism and Pentecostalism has been similar. It would, surely, be a fitting way to recognise the 25th anniversary of 1987 if we could say to the Pentecostal family, we regret any hurt that our movement has caused you, and we look to a future where we can receive freely and fully from each other, locally and nationally.
Another practical way forwards is to realise that to-day's church climate might mean permeable membranes rather than hard edges, short-term alliances rather than long-term committees, and a patience with impatience of ecumenism.
I have a dream of a Churches Together in England as an umbrella under which all kinds of enterprises of Christian co-operation, from Fresh Expressions to English ARC, from church leaders' meetings to Christian Aid and CAFOD are willing to stand. Not because I have any desire to build an empire, not because we want to own or control - we don't and we can't - but because I want the people of God to grasp the unprecedented breadth of their present ecumenical engagement, even if they don't call it that, and the potential for what might be. The problem with ecumenism is not that it has failed but that its success has gone unheralded because in its glory days the churches set themselves an almost impossible ideal - and then failed to celebrate what they have actually achieved - the replacement of enmity with friendship, competition with fellowship in Christ. And that was a very considerable achievement.
I don't think Swanwick 1987 was an illusion or a mistake. The Spirit did move in this place. A vision was given, and the leaders of England's churches reached out in hope and anticipation. But back at the ranch it didn't quite work out. Ecumenism is manifestly not a dimension of all that churches do, and if I am brutally honest, from what I can see their commitment to each other is a strictly limited affair. Ecumenism has become a by-word for yesterday's agenda, mired in bureaucracy and disappointment. What matters is keeping the denominational ship afloat.
And then something happens to raise our sights. Few of us who were privileged to be in Westminster Abbey to celebrate evening prayer with Pope Benedict and Archbishop Rowan last year will ever forget it. It was not only the wonder of the occasion, the music and the joy of the gathering, it was the timing. Only a deludedly optimistic ecumaniac could doubt that the slow but certain movement of the Church of England to ordain women to the episcopate will move the possibilities of rapprochement between those two communions into the indeterminate future. But here was a gesture of deep spiritual friendship, of a continuing if different relationship. Here, if you like was a living parable. Addressing the wonderfully ecumenically diverse congregation, Pope Benedict asked us to entrust the '...blessings, the disappointments and the signs of hope which have marked our ecumenical journey' to God, confident that '...the friendships we have forged, the dialogue which we have begun and the hope which guides us will provide strength and direction as we persevere on our common journey.'
In other words, be faithful, don't lose the vision, hold on to the truth that your allegiance is to Christ and none other. Hold on to the vision that your oneness in Christ is a profounder reality than the ebbs and flows of ecclesiastical politics and philosophical fashion. Hold on the vision that in God's good time the church of God will be one, and that its unity will embrace the whole of humanity and indeed the whole created order. I take Pope Benedict's words as an encouragement to those in England who have been given a particular love and responsibility for the ecumenical movement. Hold on to what you have been given. Keep the candle burning even as you listen to the rhetoric about the value of denominations and mission and the value of diversity to a post-modern consumer age, which conveniently side-steps the logic that the opposite of unity is not diversity but dis-unity. Do not lose sight of what God wills for the whole of creation, that all things in heaven and on earth will be gathered together under one head, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Hold the vision, the gospel does not change.
c) Keep a sense of proportion
I love the story of the young nun who was eager and enthusiastic and bustled about her convent and about her business for the Lord's kingdom. One day as she was striding along the corridor, an elderly sister stopped her, put her hands on her shoulders, looked her in the eye, and said, 'Sister, I have good news for you. There is but one Saviour, and you are not him.'
I have days like that young sister. I don't bustle much, but I do have days when I think that the entire burden of ecumenism, or indeed the English church depends on what I do. I have a sneaking feeling that it might be a sin of the professionally religious. There are days when we forget that the church is God's, that it is the God of mission who has a church, not the missionary church that has a God. There are times when we forget that Jesus came to save the world, and the church's task is not to save itself, to spend itself and be spent in the service of those whom Christ called '...the least of these, my brothers and sisters'. An ecumenism that is not focused on the oikoumene is not worth the effort. Unity is never an end in itself, it is the goal of the missionary God who will not rest until all are gathered in the sheepfold, brothers and sisters of every colour, culture, age and ability - united in praise and adoration.
I don't think that we doubt that ultimate goal. I don't think we doubt that in God's good time that will be accomplished. Our difficulty isn't about the ultimate but the penultimate. And that, surely, is about growing into the fulness of Christ. And we do that by being as close to Jesus as we can. As Judith reminded us, our traditions have many gifts which map out paths to Christ. The remarkable thing about that journey is that the closer we get to Jesus, by whatever path, the more we discover his likeness in our brothers and sisters.
I don't have many illusions about the United Reformed Church, which is the church I belong to. I could list its foibles for hours. But one thing I do know. That is where Christ claimed me for his own, and that is why I owe it love and loyalty. It is Christ's place. It also gave me a sense of proportion, for it also taught me that it was but a tiny fragment of Christ's place, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and that Christ in his holiness, otherness, poverty and, yes, majesty, infuses the whole of that church in all its bewildering diversity. And from every part of that church he has gifts for me, if I have but the humility to open my hands and receive them. Perhaps, just perhaps, the next stage of our ecumenical pilgrimage, is to come with open hands asking to receive what you have to give me of Christ. Maybe that is what love requires of us.