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Angela Tilby: Ecumenism has lost its way

18 January 2019


“MAY they be one so that the world may believe.” The prayer of Jesus from John 17 suggests that successful evangelism depends on unity among Christ’s followers. Today, it seems years since the Churches really believed in visible unity; the very name “Churches Together” suggests that the once precious goal has been quietly abandoned.

There are many reasons why this has happened. The vision of unity which was promoted in the mid-20th century depended on an already existing Christian culture which now barely exists. The syllabus for religious education in schools brought clergy together from the different denominations. Radio and television provided opportunities for worship and discussion which were carefully organised across local, national, and denominational divides.

The result was a canopy of shared understanding based on commonly held translations of scripture, a broadly shared social ethic, and a readiness to witness to the nation as a whole. It was never perfect. The Roman Catholic Church was not really signed up for it, although there were significant individuals who contributed greatly. Evangelical bodies were wary, suspecting that the whole enterprise was a liberal plot to undermine the true gospel. But, imperfect though it was, it carried a genuine hope that visible unity was possible.

What has broken down in more recent decades is that whole canopy of shared understanding. Religious education and religious media now bypass the Churches. Anglican divisions have ended hopes for reunion with the Methodists. English Nonconformity has declined precipitously. Evangelicals and Pentecostals veer away from ecumenism, since their underlying ecclesiology is non-institutional. As they see it, the only unity worth having is that based on agreed doctrine.

Internationally, too, there is stasis. The World Council of Churches, for example, continues to urge ecumenical ideals, but its pronouncements are no longer widely covered by the press.

But the critical problem is not how much the Church has changed, but how much the world has changed. The ecumenical movement grew out of a shared concern for Christian mission, fuelled by a historic series of international missionary conferences at the start of the 20th century. The aim of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910, “The world for Christ in a generation,” could now sound arrogant, even imperialistic.

There are many reasons why ecumenism has lost its way, but perhaps the basic reason is that the high-priestly prayer of Jesus no longer speaks to us in the way that it once did. Reinterpreting the Lord’s will on mission and unity should, perhaps, be the focus for this week of prayer.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 18 to 25 January.

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