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An ecumenical winter may be ripe for mission

20 February 2008

The chilling of ecumenical relationships could be God’s wayto reach a varied world, argues Mark Ireland

Members of the General Synod were in a downbeat mood last week, as they considered the state of relations with the Roman Catholic Church. The Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Revd John Hind, opening the debate, gave a frank assessment of the current ecumenical winter (Synod).

Despite recent setbacks, he tried to rally the Synod with an appeal to an early Anglican ecumenist, Bishop Charles Brent, who had argued not for unity at all costs, but for unity “at all risks”, declaring: “A unified Church is the only offering we dare present to a coming Christ, for in it alone will he find room to dwell.”

It is a bold rallying cry, but is it true? Christian unity is a bit like motherhood and apple pie — something we are all in favour of, and have been praying about for a long time — indeed, we have just celebrated the centenary of the first Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Features, 18 January).

As a former secretary of the diocesan board for mission and unity, I have spoken often on the well-worn theme that unity is for mission, drawing on Jesus’s high-priestly prayer for his disciples in John 17: “that they might be one . . . that the world might believe”. I have become increasingly uncomfortable with this exegesis, however, and I have a nagging suspicion that the relationship between unity and mission is more complex.

Church history can be read in an entirely different way: that division is a sign of growth, and that periodic attempts at unity occur when the Churches are in retreat in a hostile environment.

In the “great ecumenical century”, it has been those Churches that have engaged least with the ecumenical process that have seen the most growth, particularly the Pentecostal and New Churches — as Harvey Cox has documented in his seminal book on the rise of Pentecostalism in the 20th century, Fire from Heaven (Cassell, 1996).

Most of today’s denominations were born of a fresh move of the Holy Spirit, which historic structures were unable or unwilling to accommodate. Renewal has again and again been accompanied by splintering of the institutional Church. In a fallen world, not every Christian will recognise a fresh work of the Holy Spirit, and so division may be unavoidable.

In the 16th century, it was Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and his passion to purge the Church of corruption and to return to the centrality of scripture, which led to fragmenting of the Western Church and the birth of the Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, and Reformed Churches — and ultimately to reform in the Roman Catholic Church itself.

In the 18th century, it was John Wesley’s passion for evangelism and for scriptural holiness that led to the Evangelical revival, and yet the cold, institutional Church of England was frightened of anything smacking of “enthusiasm”, and Wesley’s movement was squeezed out to form a separate denomination.

In the late-19th century, the Methodist Church itself was unable to accommodate the fiery preacher William Booth and his challenge to get back to Methodism’s founding principles of evangelism and social action, and so his movement was squeezed out to form the Salvation Army.

In the 20th century, we put much effort into the search for institutional unity, and yet our numbers declined. Meanwhile, several new denominations have blossomed, despite often completely ignoring mainstream Churches. After more than 20 years in parish ministry, I can guess why. Have we not all experienced times when our loyalty to the dictum that “we should not do separately what we could do together” has in fact slowed down our evangelism, and been a recipe for meetings rather than action?

If we have all been praying for unity for a long time, and if God always answers our prayers, though not necessarily in the way we want, we should consider what God might be saying to us through the current ecumenical winter. Perhaps a friendly diversity of Churches is actually part of God’s will — for the evangelisation of an increasingly diverse culture.

Jesus’s prayer for the Church Universal is that believers may be indwelt by the Father and Son, and express their unity in love, thus fulfilling its mission of leading the world to believe. John 17 challenges us all to seek the indwelling of the Father and Son, and to express our unity in love, but these verses are primarily about relationships, not about structures.

In our choice-rich world, one size does not fit all. In a diverse culture, diversity is good for the Church, as diverse approaches enable us to reach more people. That is why the development of Fresh Expressions within the Anglican and Methodist Churches is so vital, as we develop a mixed economy of inherited and emerging Churches.

So let us not get discouraged by this dark ecumenical winter, or beat ourselves up for our failure to realise a vision of unity, which, sadly, may come fully only in heaven. Rather, let us get on with the Great Commission, and rejoice in our differences.

When Christ does come again, I suspect he will be more interested in how we are all getting on with making disciples of all groups of people than in how much time we have spent trying to persuade our Roman Catholic friends to share their bread with us.

To paraphrase Bishop Brent: “A missionary Church is the only offering we dare present to a coming Christ, for in it alone will he find room to dwell.”

The Revd Mark Ireland is Vicar of All Saints’, Wellington, with St Catherine’s, Eyton, in Telford, and co-author of Evangelism — Which Way Now? (CHP, 2nd edition, 2005).

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