Yesterday’s CME consisted of a study day on The Anglican/Methodist Covenant, led by the rather eminent ecumenist Paul Avis. Though we’d all been given the relevant texts to read in advance, I clearly wasn’t the only one there whose preparation had been on the skimpy side….perhaps an indication of the general level of interest in the topic.
Here in Ch Kings, there is no obvious Methodist presence…our local ecumenical links are with Baptists, RCs and and Independent Anglican Fellowship, so I was one of many there who had to say that the Covenant had had very little impact on their daily lives. But to be authentic, by its very nature a Covenant should affect every aspect of life for those involved…and as members of a church in covenant, this means us. Beneath the surface of the day, there was a strong sense from many there that all this focus on the theory of ecumenism was unhelpful…what really mattered was what was happening at grass roots level, with local Christian communities united in the love of their Lord.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? -, and in the evening I went to the annual Charlton Kings Churches Songs of Praise service, a splendid example of this approach in action. Here we have no formal local ecumenical partnerships, nor are we formally “Churches Together in Charlton Kings” but there is great pride locally in the things that we do together. These range from running "The Vine" fair trade coffee shop, organising a walk of witness on Good Friday, and a bi-annual Pentecost Party for the whole community, to forming the nucleus of the Community Players, whose productions often revolve around a “spiritual” theme. Clearly, these are all Good Things in themselves, and I’m told that Charlton Kings is held up in the diocese as an example of good ecumenism. We all enjoy our friendships between the churches, - even though our monthly ministers’ lunch isn’t always quite as open and honest as we’d all like it to be, so looking at ecumenism “from the grass roots”, you’d be hard put to it to fault anything that goes on here…
However, I do sometimes wonder if this is no more than a rather complex and demanding exercise in papering over the cracks. As far as I know, there has never been a real opportunity for us to consider the things that divide us, to work out what it really means to be church in each denomination, and to reflect on whether God is calling us to change our natures for the sake of a greater visible unity.The only time when theology was allowed to surface at all, during our ecumenical Alpha Course in the autumn of last year, when there was huge discomfort as we recognised that we really weren’t simply divided by denominational accident. We all backed off from these discoveries (which shouldn’t, after all, have been news to anyone there!) and reverted to our familiar celebration of the things that we can do together.
Much wiser, surely?
If we are serious about growing in unity with our fellow Christians, then we need to commit to a period of honest examination of the DNA of our respective churches and open discussion of our differences. This may, in the end, lead us to conclude that the amount of co-operation that we manage currently is actually the best we can do…and if that’s so, well and good. But we will at least know why we are as we are….and avoid the pitfalls of superficial fellowship without the essential theological support. So, I’m very glad of the accident that brought CME and Songs of Praise together on one day…for me, it was a paradigm of the way forward, as I’m sure we need both to do our theology and to love our neighbours if ecumenism is to be a living reality in our churches.