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Comment > Opinion >

New ecumenism at work

Inter-Church activity can reach far beyond bland services into community action and evangelism, argues Mark Beach

 

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Over the past 20 years or so, ecumenical activity in many places has been reduced to a minimum standard of acceptability. United services can aim to keep everyone quietly on board rather than to expand the fellowship among Christians of differing traditions.

In Rugby, there was a change in the first ten years of the 21st century. Christians united in serving the town in a variety of ways, and, as they joined in common tasks, so the differences seemed to diminish, and a real unity grew among congregations and their leaders. This could be replicated in other places.

It all began with church leaders' meeting each month for breakfast in the home of the pastor of an independent church. This gave space for trust to grow, and soon the group had outgrown the front room of a large semi. We shared our vision for mission and ministry, and acknowledged our frustration at existing ecumenical relationships. The breakfasts continue, and now more than 40 leaders gather for fellowship, prayer, and planning a variety of activities.

One of the early successes was a united service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, held in the Roman Catholic St Marie's. The high point of this was a prayer tunnel, in which many of the ministers formed an arch through which the congregation passed and were prayed for.

The Greek Orthodox priest made the sign of the cross over people's heads, others prayed in tongues, and one simply said "Good evening" and shook the hand of each person. This simple activity showed the impact of leaders' praying together, while allowing each person to express the growing unity in his or her own way. This became a vital understanding.

AN early example of working together came in the "Refresh" project, serving hot drinks to clubbers on a Friday evening in the porch of St Andrew's, a large town-centre church. The idea emerged at St Andrew's, but the congregation recognised that it could not meet the need alone. Soon, more than 30 people regularly stayed up until 3 a.m., serving queues of young people, chatting away. Often, the conversation hinged around "Why on earth do you do this?" It was a perfect introduction to talking about God.

For me, the most moving occasion was meeting a regular customer, whom I had not seen for some months: he reminded me of an evening when he had been depressed after the break-up of a long-term relationship. "You are the only reason I did not commit suicide that evening," he told me. I could not find the words to reply.

Refresh thrived for several years, but was replaced by Street Pastors in 2010. As part of the national initiative led by the Ascension Trust, there are now 36 trained pastors who patrol the town-centre on Friday and Saturday night. The pastors come from different churches, but theological differences are no barrier, and the same trust that was built among the leaders has become evident here, too.

After this success, others began to suggest activity that could be carried out by members of a variety of churches. "Hope 4" is a soup-kitchen for the vulnerably housed: more than 200 volunteers provide a hot meal and a listening ear. It also now runs a drop-in centre, offering washing facilities and help with benefits and job applications. In the first ten months of 2012, it welcomed 3682 visitors, and served 3522 meals.

Another group saw a need to set up a "Christians Against Poverty" project. The national charity overseeing the work was nervous about the proposed model, under which leadership would be shared among churches rather than being led and staffed by one church. We understood their point of view, but believed that our collaborative approach brought deeper strengths. We were pleased to be given permission to use the brand, and the project now thrives.

THE inherited pattern of ecumenical activity has also continued, but with renewed vigour. The Good Friday march of witness this year was attended by several hundred people, who then met in St Andrew's for hot cross buns. This annual gathering has become a time when friendships are celebrated, and bonds within the Body of Christ are deepened.

These various initiatives take place under the banner of "Revive Rugby". It is now an accepted label in the churches, but is also recognised by the borough council, the police, and other agencies that look to it as the point of contact with the Christian community.

Yet there is more than this. The mission of the Church has been greatly enhanced, not only through the projects, but also through a growing sense beyond the churches that Christians can work together, and in doing so create opportunities for conversations about God.

THE development of Revive has not been trouble-free. There have been debates over whether it is right for the oversight of the partnership to be solely in the hands of church leaders. In a mixed economy of different ecclesiologies, it is important to recognise that not all churches share the C of E's commitment to synods and councils.

Another area of potential conflict has been the question how to decide whether a project can come under the banner of Revive. One church proposed a charity shop to support an anti-abortion group, and invited other churches to join. Some felt that they could not subscribe to this, but did not want to threaten the growing trust they had achieved; careful dialogue allowed this debate to take place, and for all to have the sense that they were being heard.

Another question was whether the local Interfaith Network could be seen as a Revive project. In the end, the decision was not to see the network as coming under this umbrella, but again the debate was conducted in a thoughtful way. To me, this proves that trusting dialogue can indeed lead to resolution, not recourse to the minimum that is acceptable to all.

I believe that this is a model that could be adopted elsewhere. It takes time to develop the relationships, and there is no substitute for that process. It also requires a vision of the contribution that the Church can make to the life of a community, and the realisation that, alone, only the largest churches can begin to tackle the level of need.

On a recent visit to Rugby, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, remarked that he had seen a new ecumenism in action. It is a partnership that serves people, and provides a fertile ground for evangelism.

The Very Revd Dr Mark Beach is Dean of Rochester, and was formerly Team Rector of Rugby.

 

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