Church unity: progress slows while local enthusiasm grows

by
21 January 2009

by a staff reporter

NATIONAL and international dis­cussions about church unity have been largely replaced by local action, church leaders say this week. The Archbishop of Canterbury confesses that he “finds echoes” of impatience with national bodies within himself.

Five church leaders — Dr Willi­ams, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Dr Martyn Atkins (Meth­odist), the Revd Jonathan Edwards (Baptist), and the Revd Roberta Rominger (United Reformed Church) — responded to a set of four questions asked by the editors of the Baptist Times and the Church Times. Their replies are also published in the Methodist Recorder and Reform.

They acknowledge a loss of impetus in national efforts to bring about unity. Dr Atkins talks of “less enthusiasm for unity as an end in itself”; Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor speaks of “a slowing down of progress”, des­pite increased commitment; and Dr Williams says: “You won’t find much interest in what you might call the ‘negotiating’ side of unity.”

But each speaks of an increase in what Ms Rominger calls “a partnership of purpose and ac­tion”. Mr Edwards says: “Bap­tists are more involved in working with other denominations than ever before.” Dr Atkins says that there is “greater enthusiasm for focused ecumenical action, such as community projects. I think this kind of focus is much more helpful. We can express our unity in constructive ways.”

Dr Williams speaks of “an uncomfortable gap between national bodies and local enthusiasm”. He recalls the former British Council of Churches, and says that “there was some feeling that this was a credible mouthpiece for the Churches on many issues.”

He acknowledges that structures had to change, not least to ac­commodate the Roman Catholic Church. But he admits that the new bodies, Churches Together in Eng­land, and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, for “all the excellence of their leadership . . . don’t kindle the imagination for most people in the Churches”.

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None of the leaders sees a dis­mantling of denominational struc­tures in the near future, “and the idea of a convergence that just bypasses structural questions is unrealistic,” Dr Williams says. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor des­cribes church struc­tures as “manifestly important, be­cause they represent the way in which a church community regards itself in terms of how it understands Christian faith, how it worships and prays, and how it lives out the gospel”.

Mr Edwards is most critical. “We have to make the best of what we’ve been given,” he says, but goes on: “The inherent divi­sion of the contemporary Church is painful and time-wasting, and it fundamentally distracts from the Good News.”

Endeavour at parish level provides most hope for the future, Dr Williams says. “The truth is that top-down strategies for institutional union are very unlikely to work in the near future any better than they have in the recent past. Prayer and silence and action together are the things that change us, and even change the world.”

See answers from:

Rowan Williams

Martyn Atkins

Cormac Murphy O'Connor

Jonathan Edwards

Roberta Rominger

General commentary

Do you think more efforts should be made to bring about insti­tutional union? Vote here

Endeavour at parish level provides most hope for the future, Dr Williams says. “The truth is that top-down strategies for institutional union are very unlikely to work in the near future any better than they have in the recent past. Prayer and silence and action together are the things that change us, and even change the world.”

See answers from:

Rowan Williams

Martyn Atkins

Cormac Murphy O'Connor

Jonathan Edwards

Roberta Rominger

General commentary

Do you think more efforts should be made to bring about insti­tutional union? Vote here

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