Letter from the Vicar (June 2009)
During the twentieth century one of the main movements in the Church was the ecumenical movement. This sought to bring Christians of many different traditions and denominations back together again. It sought to respond to the prayer of Christ in John 17, ‘may they all be one’.
In many ways this movement has been enormously successful. Whereas one hundred years ago Christians of divergent Churches were deeply distrustful of each other, now there is great friendship between Christians. Churches work together in a great variety of ways. Church leaders often meet together and sometimes respond to issues facing Church and society by making common statements. We think nothing of worshipping in one another’s Churches. There have been some very important agreements between theologians of different Churches. This is all real progress for which we need to give thanks. I remember an old parishioner who recalls being thrashed for attending non-conformist worship in the 1920s. And in an old Anglo-Catholic Prayer Book of mine one question the penitent is supposed to ask themselves in self-examination before confession is “have I engaged in schismatic worship?”. In other words, “have I been to a Free Church service?” Naughty, naughty!!
Understandably, however, many people bemoan the fact that more has not been accomplished by the ecumenical movement. Its objective is often spoken of as “full visible unity”. Clearly this has not been achieved. A number of unions have, of course, occurred. The Church of South India, the Uniting Church of Australia and the United Reformed Church in our own country would be classic examples. The Church of England is itself a member of the Porvoo Communion of Churches with (predominantly) Lutherans in Scandinavia and the Baltic. But other opportunities have been lost. Attempts to re-unite with the Methodists and other Free Churches fell in the 1970s and 80s, though schemes for union with the Methodists are back on the table. Some feel that in many ways the time for big re-union schemes has passed and in some ways has been rendered irrelevant by developments in the life of the Church that have occurred in the past thirty years.
In that period some Churches have seen a rapid decline while at the same time there has been a growth in new, independent Churches with hardly any denominational baggage. It is very difficult to envisage how these Churches can be taken into any schemes for visible unity and in truth they have very little interest in such schemes, though they are often happy to work with other Churches of whatever hue in mission and social action. This period has also seen the emergence of new alignments in Christendom among the Churches rather than between them. Evangelicals from whatever denominational background associate with other evangelicals, charismatics with charismatics, traditionalists with traditionalists and liberals with liberals. There is, in other words, plenty of unity but it is not so much between Churches as between like-minded Christians.
But Christ’s prayer for our one-ness still stands and we need to try to make it a reality wherever possible. I believe that the ecumenical movement has an important future and we will be able to explore new and important ways in which unity can be expressed. Sometimes, of course, we have to look to our own back-yard. This summer I am trying to encourage members of Holy Trinity with St Nicholas to see themselves, ourselves, as one family, one body, one people under God in one Church, one parish. Though we have two buildings and a variety of congregations we must be united. Our work for unity must start right here.
Please come together on 7th June with other members of our Church so that we can underline and express our one-ness. Thus may we respond to Christ’s heartfelt prayer, “that we all may be one … that the world may believe”.