Some Reflections on Future Directions for Ecumenism

 — Feb. 28, 200528 févr. 2005
An address to the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland assembly by the Bishop of Clogher, the Rt Rev Michael Jackson on 23 February 2005

Small writ large, large writ small

When we lived in Cork I had someone come one day to install a Burglar Alarm System. With an intonation in his voice all of his own, which it would be both impertinent and impossible to imitate, he said to me: Twenty years ago, people wanted an Alarm installed because they were out of the house a lot; today they want one installed because they are in the house a lot. Not only had circumstances changed but perspectives had also changed, as indeed had priorities. We too are about such a shift in emphasis and expectation here in the CTBI Assembly. We seek a perspective on the past in order to help to illuminate the priorities of the future. If we are not to become rooted once again in present structures this will require some thinking on our part ‘outside of the box.’ This is all the more necessary as the Assembly seeks a sense of fresh direction.

(1) Keeping it positive

Let us be careful at the outset to honour what has been given and what has been achieved. Unity, all of what we are accustomed to saying suggests, is something already given by God in our common faith and common pattern of Christian initiation. As the ecumenical tradition has repeatedly said: Unity is both God’s gift and our task in the church for the world. As we work to make unity more visible, that unity can be enhanced incrementally by our rapport, by our worship, by our action, by our courage. It presupposes a shared goal, but not necessarily a common goal. Let us also be hopeful of the future: the church is not a shadow of its former self but an intimation of its future life.

If we are to look for signs of this, I suggest that they include the following:

a) Post-modernity: Many fear it because it is so open-to-everything, so undifferentiated. And it offers no obvious hierarchy of values. For this reason, it lies at the base of the dilemmas of many institutions, particularly those which deal with ultimacy, as do the churches. Post-modernity has brought with it the recognition that diversity is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Such a recognition challenges from yet another angle old assumptions that institutional unification is a definition of unity. However, diversity brings scope for maturity and celebration more than it brings bereavement for lost or future innocence.

b) An acceptance of diversity brings an urgent need for a theology of diversity. Such a recognition is important if we are not simply to equate diversity with disarray. This, if we can see and use it as such, is a positive invitation to respond externally to a frustration being voiced internally that elements of mutual challenge, of dissent, of the prophetic edge, are lacking in much ecumenical encounter. An engagement in respectful diversity, in my experience, strengthens self-understanding and witness to others. This engagement takes place within communion ‘koinonia’ as both an activity and a state of being which transcends and honours distinctions. Diversity is profoundly Christian and profoundly churchy.

c) Post-modernity again opens us up to a sense of responsibility for the things which matter to us. Too often the things which are simply assumed and unexamined remain largely unnoticed and unappreciated. We are, therefore, already being urged to go behind (monolithic) institutionalisms which have a knack of invading churches and church structures and sapping their creativity. Here a sense of history is a great help. We must constantly differentiate between tradition and traditionalism. I should be concerned were CTBI to be or to become a traditionalism rather than a dynamic tradition. The period of the early church was a time of theological ferment: creativity and response every bit as much as politicking and warfare. Orthodoxy was not a pre-packaged outcome. In terms of doctrine. it had a radical rather than a conservatizing side to it. The changes in society of which we are part, along with the place of the church and churches in that society, demand and encourage a new radicalism as the working definition of tradition in each generation. Otherwise, the tradition of Christianity is no more than traditions of Christianities. While we wallow in our own small print, others shop elsewhere. Ecumenism needs to go for the gaps in our churches, our fellowships and our society and to fill them with the love of God.

d) There are signs across the churches of a sustained awakening of what we might call ‘the eschatological perspective’ which is cutting across denominational fault lines. This is often expressed in terms of Kingdom Values as priorities in individual Christian self-understanding, honoured and implemented by the institution in its pattern of discipleship. In this, there is something radical, something diverse, something unpredictable in its outworking. Here we must recognize that much climate-change has already happened in ecumenism. To me, CTBI needs to be in there with the best of them ‘facilitating, challenging, enabling, understanding and respecting. The very fact that something irritates us points to the fact that it is alive and we are alive. We are having our current debate precisely because so much change is already in place if only we were to use it and make it work. Much of the self-conscious Charismatic Movement, for example, is now woven into the life of the churches differently. It is received and re-presented locally and appropriately in living and critical churches of all traditions. Yet it remains recognizable as the movement of the one Holy Spirit of God. What flows from this is that we must be receptive, responsive and flexible, with room for manoeuvre in what is always a developing ecclesial life as the Spirit which blows where it wills prompts us and others to move with it.

e) There are intimations of an urgency for a fresh, sustained agenda: unity-in-mission. This challenges the: mission-and-recruitment model by suggesting engagement (rather than assimilation) to be at its heart. It is painful because it it has come out of the recognition of diversity as essential to a definition of the church. It is painful also because it is much less secure in terms of its notional ‘end-product.’ It also questions the automatic assumption that the conversion of individuals is the only valid outworking of mission. Because it begins as something difficult, where the practical often precedes the theoretical, the mission-and-unity agenda takes us into something about which we are rightly uneasy: areas of non-consensus. We are also realizing the importance of this for Inter-Faith Encounter. And yet I feel that our capacity to be mature and generous in this regard is a test of our Christian faithfulness to the Christ who meets people in the contemporary border-lands and on the edges of both risk and need. It is also a test and sign of our ecumenical unity. Lack of internal engagement will weaken us even more than lack of internal agreement based on good theological criteria when it comes to interaction with those quite ‘other’ than ourselves. Diversity as a contemporary reality has indeed forced upon us a fluid combination of theology and practice. The dangerous alternative is a new Christian monolith of dogmatic certainties imposed on human realities with these certainties being marketed as the only safe space for Christian people in a clash of cultures. This is a destructive caricature of both church life and human life.

This is a fundamental area in which to work through our ecumenical calling and I feel that we must engage in it energetically.

(2) Keeping it spiritual and structural

One of the most perceptive comments in the material which we received in preparation for this Assembly is that we live in a society wary of institutions but with a hunger for identity. ‘Spirituality’ is the route often taken by those who seek that identity without over-alignment with any institutional version of the church. There is a real and double problem here: the institutions have to recognize that they need the questing spirit of those who are looking elsewhere; those looking elsewhere need to recognize the wider source of the stimulus to identity which they themselves crave. If we go back into the matrix of Christianity we would find in someone like St Augustine a genuine inability to understand the necessity to differentiate theology, spirituality and philosophy as independent, competing entities. To Augustine, they all express the same quest for God. We need to recapture something of that spirit today, the scent of that creative imagination.

a) An acute problem is that disengagement from institutional churches very often quickly entails rejection of structural ecumenism. One of the questions which we need to ask is: Who inspire people today? Where do people go for role models? and from a church perspective: Why is this so? and Why can we, or can we not, seem to make the cut in this regard in society at large? How can we impact in a sustained and sustainable way on life beyond the church door? How can we hear the heart-beat of this society? The first decade of the twenty-first century is fast emerging as the period in which spectatorship rather than engagement has come of age. This runs alongside a thirst for the honouring of experience in local fellowships with a freedom from structure. The ‘one generation church’ has come firmly on to the scene. It has lessons to teach about hospitality and lessons to learn about continuity. There is a danger that in this realignment the wider picture is lost.

b) Without wishing to be negative, such ‘hearing of voices of enthusiasm’ comes at a tremendous price, much of it as yet unidentified and unacknowledged. Feeling, focus and perspective need to work in harmony in this new sense of vision. Here there is a particular problem as CTBI has grown, and rightly, beyond the remit of BCC. The original criterion of membership assumed something like an automatic expectation of institutional equivalence of members leading somehow to an idealized institutional goal. This was a widespread assumption on the part of churches which to anyone today seems difficult beyond measure. The face of Christianity in these islands is different, it is constantly changing and becoming more different daily. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more painfully seen now than in relation to what we still call The Black Majority Churches. They describe themselves for us in Pilgrims’ Progress as having a conservative Bible-based approach, lively worship, an emphasis on social action and wealth creation. Yet, despite such common territory, there is also a strong diversity in derivation, in theology, doctrine and history as well as in individual denomination. They are no more uniform than the rest of us.

c) Such recognition has to go hand in hand with another maturity. The delineation of ‘liberalism’ as something which will simply go away if we call it: cold, nominal, unadventurous or anything else like this. To do so is to do dis-service to a noble tradition in church life which itself enables and facilitates many other manifestations of the total tradition within the life of the church. As Black Majority Churches seek, rightly, individual respect such as to be heard and to matter under any new dispensation, respect itself must be diverse and mutual. The new expression of CTBI in terms of ecumenical collaboration across the four nations must facilitate incorporation of all who wish to be part of its new life as members of Christ’s body, however, such belonging together is defined or expressed. I cannot see this happening without structural ecumenism and the discipline it brings along with the emotional and personal connections which will make this structure dance.

d) If, in the social climate which I have outlined, it is our intention to take diversity seriously, structures are required at very least as a decompression and recompression chamber for ideas, initiatives and for the level of sharing of information and inspiration which is needed if ecumenism is to flourish. I very much take to the language of festival and of relational commitment. These ideas and activities release energies of which the church has been deprived by its institutionalization. But structures, in my opinion, will be needed whether things go well or less well. Networking is every bit as much a science as it is an art. Maturity demands that we face the question: Can structures not be seen more as vehicles of expression than vehicles of repression? Diversity needs catholicity if it is to avoid being a print-out of examples without cohesion, focus or direction.

(3) The four nations

For anyone from Ireland the concept of ‘four nations’ makes more sense in terms of rugby than it does in terms of religion yet even in that context, it is incomplete without France and Italy in 2005. The all-Ireland Ecumenical Bodies struggle with the expression of lived ecumenism in both Irish jurisdictions and also with CTBI. This derives first and foremost from a desire to retain and enhance ecumenical relationships in difficult and complex denominational circumstances at home and not to lose precious ecumenical threads. For my own part I must record that recent work which we have been able to do in Ireland in the area of racial justice facilitated by CCRJ with Arlington Trotman and his staff has been vital in helping us to work across the denominations and with the Newer Churches in relation to a serious and vital social issue as churches together. And in the process, this has lifted us out of our introspection and rescued us from our limitations as solo-players. This has been a good model. But it needed the catalyst of CCRJ.

a) The Roman Catholic Church and Church of Scotland, in particular, have addressed matters of mutual concern together with others in Scotland through dialogue, action and reflection. This offers a model of ways in which in the heart of diversity, much of it highly combative, mission can disclose unity as something which we already have received and in that spirit give to others. Problems remain but ground has been broken. The challenge which Scotland offers to us is that where there is a manifest need to hold together social and political action, as was the case in the 1990s, ecumenical togetherness – often in the most unlikely of climates – can flourish through the rediscovery of the basics: spirituality, prayer and witness. The unremitting backdrop of sectarianism may seem rather alien in England or Wales but feels very real from an Irish perspective. Something specific can be learned here.

b) The experience of Local Ecumenical Partnerships, whether of the single congregation or the churches in covenanted partnership variety, in England and Wales in particular, again is something in which institutions can be challenged at the heart of who they are, what they say, what they do by a genuine, probing ecumenical sound-bite such as: Why do apart what we can better do together? Of itself to struggle with the frustrations of sharing an ecumenical kitchen in this way, and not simply an ecumenical dining room, challenges ecumenism to be versatile as well as diverse.

c) Were the four-nations spirit to be lost, then I think that too much would be asked of the national instruments to turn theory into practice. Support from outside is very potent when it offers a precedent for action or a challenge to inertia, particularly when there is little local sense of urgency to turn a possibility into an actuality or when there is an appetite simply for yesterday’s menu tomorrow. In the wider picture, it is important to remember that the Together part of CTBI has itself shown something of both a devolved and an integrated ecumenism already. When member churches require tasks to be carried out at the level of four nations, an over-arching structural support-mechanism in some form is needed for there to be a sense of coherence, a sense of urgency and a sense of achievement.

d) Finally a strong, and to my mind convincing, argument is made and can be sustained that the Faith and Order component, foundational in ecumenism since 1927 but which has not been a structured part of CTBI, is best served by arrangements wider than the nationally local – precisely because the issues requiring discussion and response keep theological concerns at the forefront of ecumenical life. Such an approach is not elitist, it simply is what it says it is: theological. It can identify common ground behind differences of language and practice. It can challenge expressions of unity where difficulties which emerge later reveal that insufficient time had been given to grappling with the need for theological understanding and convergence prior to embarking on sustained action. Such theological exploration can be as strong an encouragement to small churches to express the ecumenical totality themselves through their own relationships with others as can shared fellowship and examples of good practice be a stimulus to ecumenical witness. Theology can be an energy vital to ecumenical encounter.

(4) Some pointers to the future.

I have no desire to pre-empt any decisions which might come to the fore about ecumenical architecture. In conclusion, I wish simply to encourage us in our discussions to look more to who we want to be than what we want to be. I suggest that we have a serious eye on our relationships with one another, on our witness to Christ and at this point to leave the question of structures and concentrate on who we are to one another.
We need first and foremost to be confident as Christians in our discipleship if others are to be disciples of Christ.

a) In all of our Four Nations – and I am acutely aware of it in the wider European context also – governments look to faith communities to help with the building of communities characterized by open and inclusive identities. They do so for two reasons at least: faith communities are everywhere; Western governments are frightened of the slide towards mutual irrelevancies and antagonisms in an increasingly ethnically mixed society.

b) Our response should be to go where the definition of a religious community takes us: to the recognition that for me to flourish others must first flourish. The happiness of others is not a by-product but a pre-requisite of my personal happiness. If we challenge the cult of self-absorption, we will transform the societies of which, of whom, we are part.

c) We know well that the centre of the church is Jesus Christ but we honestly do not know where the edge of the church is – and: Thank God for that! This insight I owe to the Group whom the Archbishop of Canterbury called together in September 2004 to discuss the ecumenical future. The church was never intended to exist for itself alone. We are all called to live beyond the perceived limits of our individual limitations. The church is the place from which disciples of Jesus Christ today touch the untouchable and in so doing are holy and in Christ make others holy. But also by the transforming presence of Christ, the edge becomes a new centre. And the church is also the place to which people come to deal with sin and death, judgement, heaven and hell. Active engagement with those who are radically different gives a positive, proactive interpretation of ‘safe space’ as ‘living room.’ This is one of the greatest gifts which the church can give to the world in an ecumenism with a human face which challenges globalization as being just another information overload.

d) The encounter with world faiths is something which Christians today can avoid or sidestep only by living an increasingly introspective life. In the eyes and ears of many who are not hostile to the church or the churches, the Inter-Faith axis is now more pressing than the inter-church axis. This comes about through the decline in religious observance and the changing face of contemporary society but also, more positively, through an expectation that Christians are about their neighbours writ large, not just about their approved Christian neighbours writ small. Our ability to engage with the Inter-Faith agenda will say a great deal about our ability to be ecumenical – precisely because it is about other people and not about ourselves.

e) In order to do any of this, we need to be willing to take more risks. Membership of the church is and always will be broader than membership of our own church. The Irish Jesuit, Michael Hurley, introduced the idea of ecumenical tithing into Irish Christianity whereby a person consciously decides to spend 10% of time spent with Christ in the company of those of other denominations – as a regular thing. This could well take the form of finding koinonia as a radical, conscious decision with members of a community of ecumenical commitment and in a tradition other than our own. It necessitates leaving a comfort zone and challenging all the institutions concerned.

f) Ecumenism simply does not work if it is ‘top-down.’ The roots need to want to feed much more than its being defined as the flowers nodding politely in one another’s direction. We need to read the signs on the ground and help them to flourish in themselves and to challenge us in our ecumenical activity.

g) Finally, the Four Nations perspective to me is vital in grasping the energy of the regional and the global. Too readily do we revert to our own preoccupations if we do not covenant with one another actively to share the handling of matters which in affecting the Four Nations as a whole affect our internal life and our external relations. Why ought we not to embrace Pentecost as an Ecumenical Festival which is open to expressing something new and old all at once about the future and the glory of our togetherness? In so doing we might well surprise ourselves – and why not?

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