Lambeth Conferences – the ten yearly gatherings of bishops from across the Anglican Communion – are places of fellowship and controversy. The last Lambeth Conference, in 2008, was no exception. One of the controversial issues with which bishops struggled was whether a person in a same-sex relationship could be ordained bishop. Bishops were deeply divided on the issue which continues to threaten the fabric of the Anglican Communion. I attended the Conference and one bishop from war-torn Sudan said to me that he wanted us to walk together as a Communion but this would not happen if the Conference was asked to vote on this matter. In other words, we need to focus on walking together in order to stay together.
This conversation returns to me as I consider relations between churches. As the wider church has been celebrating some ecumenical milestones in the latter part of 2016 and we embark upon commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we may discover that the struggles in the wider church’s journey towards unity will help the Anglican Communion in its journey – and vice versa. Furthermore, the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches at Bossey, Geneva, whose 70th anniversary was one of the milestones being celebrated in the latter part of 2016, both embodies and illuminates these issues.
Bossey opened its doors in 1946, in the midst of pain and division following World War II. It was the fulfilment of a vision that, in a divided world with a divided Church, there needs to be a centre which focuses on reconciliation and healing. But Bossey was not to be a centre where the issues were simply to be studied, but a residential setting where joys and challenges were confronted in worship, study and community. Reconciliation and healing were lived, not just discussed.
Bossey has renewed itself in the light of changing contexts. This is reflected in the annual five month graduate school which draws together young Christian leaders from around the world and from a variety of Christian traditions. Through worship, study and community living, participants encounter the world and the world church in exhilarating and disturbing ways. Alumni (including ordinands from the Church in England) often speak of being transformed by their experience: some have become national church and political leaders.
A more recent development has been the inclusion of an interfaith perspective, a six week programme undertaken by an equal number of students from the three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) with the goals of seeking a better understanding of one another and exploring, in concrete ways, what people of faith can do together in a world so divided.
During this programme, Bossey maintains its Trinitarian Christian identity and worship, doing so in an inclusive way that provides a safe place to explore these issues. Participants of all faiths comment that they are changed by their experience, learn respect towards others and are strengthened in their own faith identities. They also discover that the ‘other’ is not to be feared.
So what lessons about unity can be learnt from these various streams? There are six points to be considered, the last two pointing a way forwards.
First, even though ecumenical enthusiasm in Great Britain is at a low ebb, those working faithfully towards unity are reminders that unity is not an option but a command from Jesus himself.
Second, churches need to look afresh at the deeper streams of ecumenical worship. The Church is moving on from ‘lowest common denominator’ worship which tries to please everybody and offend nobody and there is a welcome borrowing of traditions and customs from other churches.
Thirdly, in a world where there is an increasing emphasis on isolationism, the Church is called to model living with difference which does not mean accepting through gritted teeth and with bad grace those who think, believe and act differently from us. It means accepting that we are all members of the human family before being members of a religious family.
Fourthly, the very word ‘ecumenism’ has become suspect to many. ‘Ecumenism’ was popular in the 1970s/80s when it was enthusiastically embraced by many churches. But the seeds of suspicion towards ecumenism were planted in the early twentieth century when the Missionary Conference at Edinburgh (1910) articulated its goal of bringing the whole world to Christ – ‘the evangelisation of the world in this generation’.
This was later interpreted as an arrogant missionary approach of bringing the world to Christ as understood by the west and in the service of western interests. There is a similar tension across the Anglican Communion as one group is concerned that another is imposing a cultural agenda and priorities which the former regards as alien, untheological and insensitive to its context.
Fifthly, the ecumenical vision for unity needs to be clearly articulated afresh in every generation in a way that encourages, embraces and excites people. Ecumenism comes across as being too wordy, too structural and fearful of exploring its spiritual roots.
Today’s ecumenical vision needs to recognise the world as God’s creation and the Church as God’s creation where the role of the Church is to be open to the transformation that Christ brings and at the same time to transform and serve the world.
However one defines the ‘ecumenical’ vision, at the heart of it lies the question of how can churches (both local and national) worship and work together in the service of the poor. The commitment to working towards visible unity must be fed by and in support of this goal and should not drive it.
Finally, at the General Assembly of the WCC in 2013 in Busan, Korea, churches were asked to embark on a ‘pilgrimage of justice and peace’, both with fellow Christians and also with other people of good will, to work together to implement the signs of the Kingdom in today’s world.
Working with others is more effective than working in isolation. This pilgrimage provides a framework for a reinvigorated ecumenism. Whereas the previous emphasis within the Church was ‘let us stay together’, the Church is now being asked to move together, not just with itself but in mutual relationship and dialogue with others as together all try to respond to issues of justice and peace which are concerns of so many.
Moving together, faithful to the core of one’s belief and yet working with others who believe differently, for the good of the world that one has been called to serve, will encourage all involved to look afresh at their beliefs and maybe view them in a different light. Now that is something from which the Anglican Communion can learn and which my Sudanese bishop friend was encouraging.
Church Times, 6th January, 2017