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For the Good of the Church: Unity, theology and women, by Gabrielle Thomas

04 June 2021

Mary Tanner considers ecumenism between and within Churches

THIS important book helps us to understand receptive ecumenism, a recent new way in the ecumenical pilgrimage to visible unity, a way of offering and receiving gifts carried in the lives of different Churches.

The author emphasises qualities required in walking this way: a real desire to know the other, an ability to listen, enter their world, and discern their gifts, and an openness to receiving their gifts. It demands, too, that we understand our own tradition better and what gifts we have to offer others, in humility and love. In sharing gifts, we move closer to one another and to that unity that is God’s will. This new way does not replace, but belongs within the complexity of, ecumenical movements that go back to the early years of the last century. Like other movements, it is grounded in shared prayer.

We are offered a vivid description of women from a broad spectrum of churches in this country, including the newer Independent, Evangelical, and Pentecostal churches, engaging in receptive ecumenism. Their personal, testimonies, some from ordained women, others from those exercising lay ministries, are not simply reported, but quoted, helping us to hear the experience of these women and enter their conversation. There are positive testimonies where women are heard and flourish, but there are also many hard situations where women are discriminated against, or made to feel that they are the stumbling-block to unity. Two particular challenges to be faced are identified: working in the Church as women of colour, and the area of lay vocation.

The second part of the book explores the gift of hospitality, the gift of vocation, and the gift of leadership. The last of these will be of special interest to the members of the Church of England as we reflect on living with the Five Guiding Principles of the House of Bishops (2014) on how to live with difference over the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate.

Here again, we listen to the experience of women in their own words. Some ordained women speak of positive and generous response and creative relationships with those opposed to the ordination of women; others have negative and painful stories to tell. This chapter is a valuable monitoring of how we are living together “in an open process of reception” with difference. Those in leadership need to listen to this.

Thomas often speaks of living in a “bleak winter of ecumenism”. It was Archbishop Robert Runcie who replied: “If winter, can spring be far behind?” There might have been more affirmation of signs of spring already here. We have come far since Edinburgh 1910, and women’s voices in the ecumenical movement have contributed to an understanding of unity as God’s gift and our calling to live out for God’s sake and the world’s.

This book shows how the practice now of the new ecumenical way of receptive ecumenism can help us envision together the unity of the Church, and that, from their experience, women have a special contribution to make in shaping that vision and challenging Churches to repentance and renewal of life. Will the Churches receive the insights coming from this new ecumenical way — not least of all, the insights and longings of women engaging now in receptive ecumenism?

As Anna Rowlands says in commending the book, it is “pastoral, theological, political and ethnographic, and in itself is gift”.

Dame Mary Tanner was General Secretary of the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity, 1991-98, and European President of the World Council of Churches, 2006-13.


For the Good of the Church: Unity, theology and women
Gabrielle Thomas
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £20

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