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