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Not about staying together, but moving together

06 January 2017

The Anglican Communion can learn from a fresh ecumenical vision, says Brian Castle

Place of healing: the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches at Bossey, near Geneva

Place of healing: the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches at Bossey, near Geneva

THE Lambeth Conferences are places of fellowship and controversy. At the most recent, in 2008, bishops were deeply divided, for example, on whether a person in a same-sex relationship could be ordained bishop.

I attended the Conference. One bishop from Sudan said to me that he wanted us to walk together as a Communion, but this would not happen if the Conference was asked to vote on this matter. We need to focus on walking together in order to stay together.

This conversation returns to me as I consider relations between Churches. As the wider Church has celebrated some ecumenical milestones in the latter part of 2016, and as we embark on commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year, we may discover that the struggles in the wider Church’s journey towards unity will help the Anglican Communion in its journey — and vice versa. Furthermore, the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches at Bossey, near Geneva, the 70th anniversary of whose foundation was one of those marked in 2016, both embodies and illuminates these issues (institute.oikoumene.org/en).


BOSSEY opened its doors in 1946, in the midst of division after the Second World War. It was the fulfilment of a vision that, in a divided world with a divided Church, there needed to be a centre that focused on reconciliation and healing.

Bossey was not to be a place where the issues were simply to be studied, but a residential setting where joys and challenges were confronted in worship, learning, and community. Reconciliation and healing were lived, not just discussed.

Bossey has renewed itself in the light of changing contexts. This is reflected in the annual five-month graduate school, which draws together young Christian leaders from around the world and from a variety of Christian traditions. Through worship, study, and community living, participants encounter the world and the world Church in exhilarating and disturbing ways.

A more recent development has been the inclusion of an interfaith perspective, a six-week programme undertaken by equal numbers of students from the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) who are seeking a better understanding of one another, and exploring what people of faith can do together in a divided world.

During this programme, Bossey maintains its Trinitarian Christian identity and worship, doing so in an inclusive way that provides a safe place for exploring these issues. Participants of all faiths comment that they learn respect towards others and are strengthened in their own faith identities. They also discover that the “other” is not to be feared.


THESE various streams can teach us much about unity, and I have identified six particular ways.

First, even though ecumenical enthusiasm in Britain is at a low ebb, Christians working towards unity are reminders that unity is not an option, but a command from Jesus himself.

Second, Churches need to look afresh at the deeper streams of ecumenical worship; the Church is moving on from a “lowest common denominator” worship that tries to please everybody. There is now a welcome borrowing of traditions and customs from other Churches.

And yet questions remain about how far such borrowing prompts a deeper exploration of the origins of the traditions, and the challenges that they may bring to Churches that adopt them.

Third, in a world where there is an increasing emphasis on isolationism, the Church is called to model living with difference. This does not mean accepting with bad grace those who believe and act differently from us. It means accepting that, before being members of a religious family, we are all members of the human family.

Fourth, for many people, the very word “ecumenism” has become suspect. Ecumenism was popular in the 1970s and ’80s, when it was embraced enthusiastically by many Churches. But the seeds of suspicion of it were planted much earlier, when, in 1910, the Missionary Conference in Edinburgh articulated its goal of bringing the whole world to Christ: “the evangelisation of the world in this generation”.

This was later interpreted as an arrogant missionary approach of bringing the world to Christ as understood by the West, and in the service of Western interests. There is a similar tension around the Anglican Communion, as one group is concerned that another is imposing a cultural agenda and priorities that it regards as alien, untheological, and insensitive to its context.

Fifth, the ecumenical vision for unity needs to be clearly articulated afresh in every generation, in a way that encourages and excites people. Ecumenism comes across as being too wordy, too structural, and fearful of exploring its spiritual roots.

Today’s ecumenical vision needs to recognise the world as God’s creation, and the Church as God’s creation, where the part played by the Church is to be open to the transformation that Christ brings, and, at the same time, to transform and serve the world.

However the ecumenical vision is defined, at the heart of it lies the question how churches (both local and national) can worship and work together in the service of the poor. The commitment to working towards visible unity must be fed by, and support, this goal, and should not drive it.

Finally, at the General Assembly of the WCC in Busan, Korea, in 2013, Churches were asked to embark on a “pilgrimage of justice and peace” with fellow Christians and other people of good will, to work together to implement the signs of the Kingdom in the world.

Working with others is more effective than working in isolation. This pilgrimage provides a framework for a reinvigorated ecumenism. Whereas the previous emphasis within the Church was “Let us stay together,” the Church is now being asked to move in mutual relationship and dialogue with others — as all try to respond to questions of justice and peace.

Moving together, faithful to the core of one’s beliefs and yet working with others who believe differently — for the good of the world — will encourage all involved to look afresh at their beliefs. That is what my friend the Sudanese bishop was encouraging, and that is something from which the Anglican Communion can learn.


The Rt Revd Brian Castle is a former Bishop of Tonbridge, an honorary assistant bishop in Bath & Wells diocese, and an honorary research fellow at Exeter University.

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