Whither the Ecumenical Pilgrimage?

by Ian Howarth.

Reading Israel Selvanayagam’s recent history of the Church of South India, ‘The Greatest Act of Faith,’[1] with his passionate advocacy of the importance of organic union if the church is to have any credibility in a secular world, I am led to reflect on the ecumenical journey as I have seen it over my lifetime.

Dr Selvanayagam finishes his book with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.,  ‘who at the heart of his struggle with the nexus of evil forces, declared: “We, the Roman Catholics, Orthodox and the Protestants, either come together as brothers and sisters or die as fools”,’[2] and I am left almost with a feeling of guilt that I cannot generate the enthusiasm for pursuing the goal of organic union between God’s people that I had in the early days of my Christian faith. Dr Selvanayagam is adamant that coming together ultimately must mean organic union, but his book also outlines the danger of dominant partners using organic union as a means to assimilate smaller units into the larger, for which he cites the assimilation of the CSI into a province of the Anglican Communion, without discussion with the other partners as an example.

When I was confirmed in 1969, it was at one of the first joint Anglican/Methodist confirmation services, even if the school where it happened did have to import a retired bishop of a diocese in the Middle East, and we were actually confirmed in two queues one going to the bishop and the other to the Methodist school chaplain, who was standing in for the President of Conference whose train had been cancelled! It was the comments that it was a good job it was the President’s train that had been cancelled and not the bishop’s, that gave me one of my first insights into a key difference in our ecclesiology!

I began my presbyteral training at the ecumenical Queen’s College, in 1982, and our first guest lecture was from David Edwards, the Anglican lead for the proposed English Covenant, which despite support from the Methodist Church and URC, had recently been voted down in the house of clergy of the Church of England, thus effectively bringing to an end the processes that might lead to an organic union between the churches. There was much wringing of hands and a sense that a dream had died.

Throughout my ministry the quest for organic union has gradually slipped off the table, and the Covenant with the Church of England was seen by many as an end of the process. On the ground ecumenical co-operation has been patchy. Some flexibility in Anglican Ecumenical Canons has allowed joint work and worship in LEPs and across particular areas. Yet, I have become acutely conscious that ecumenical working at a local level relies far too much on the personalities and outlook of local church leaders – usually the ordained ones!

As I approach the end of my ministry, I have to say that I react to the current proposals of ‘Mission and Ministry in Covenant’ with a deep sense of tiredness. I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that I think this is at the top of the list of our priorities. The sense of banging a head on a brick wall is too strong.

As I look back over the story I have told above, I am conscious of how church based it all is. For all the talk of mission the discussions have become increasingly institutional, and the issues seem to resemble arguing about the number of angels you can get on a pin head. The things I thought important and exciting forty years ago, now seem echoes of a past age. They also speak of a world where the church was a much more powerful influence in society and the thought of coming together organically could have made a significant difference to the Christian voice.

So what do we do with that statement of Martin Luther King? And perhaps more important, what do we make of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, that ‘they may be one as you, Father and I are one, and they may be one in us?’

We can argue that that does not mean organic union but another sense of oneness, but meanwhile the church becomes more divided. The issues around sexuality threaten our oneness in a very different way from questions of episcopacy and church governance. The rise of independent churches with a congregationalist form of governance has in many ways sidelined the smaller denominations like Methodism.

The question of whether we can be in unity with those with whom we profoundly disagree with theologically is a pressing one, that Methodism is currently struggling with on its own, let alone across denominations.

If I am honest, I think that organic unity will probably have to wait for the eschaton. However, I believe we have to find a new way of demonstrating our oneness across our divisions, and that can be a key witness to a divided nation.

That starts within Methodism. If we can show we truly can express what it is to be one in Christ with contradictory convictions around marriage, then we can have something to say to our fellow Christians in other traditions facing similar challenges, but above all, we can offer a witness to a world that sees disagreement as inherently leading to division, and we can truly preach a Christ, in whom there is ‘no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’[3]

[1]  The Greatest Act of Faith: The First Organic Union of the Church of South India, by Rev Dr Israel Selvanayagam, Christian World Imprints

[2] Ibid p 246

[3] Galatians 3: 28

5 thoughts on “Whither the Ecumenical Pilgrimage?”

  1. I’m with you, Ian. I have moved from tradition “organic” union model where I ministered in LEP’s towards something I consider much better, dynamic ecumenism. I find that instead of being buried in sharing agreements and constitutions, which drain all the energy, we are engaging in a complex web of relationships which may come and go, but which get the work of the Gospel done. Rather than gather into a single institutional circle we become a Venn diagram which flows and changes with the Holy Spirit’s moving. It’s messy, frequently frustrating, but ultimately rewarding. It begs the question what does “that they may be one” actually mean?


  2. I do not mean, be of my opinion; you need not, I do not expect or desire it, neither do I mean I will be of your opinion. I cannot; it does not depend on my choice, I can no more think than I can see or hear as I will. Keep your opinion and I mine, as steadily as ever. You need not endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute points or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Only give me your hand. I do not mean embrace my modes of worship, or I will embrace yours. I have no desire to dispute with you one moment; let all matters stand aside, let them never come into sight. If your heart is as my heart, if you love God and all mankind, I ask no more, give me your hand. —John Wesley

    I have thus joined hands (and minds and hearts) with all sorts of Christians and some professing ‘other’ faiths too, including a lovely, open-hearted Palestinian who told me that his Muslim mother talks daily to the Virgin Mary. I too have long been a keen ecumenist (remember Lent ’86?) and am now a member of an Anglican / Methodist partnership with links across denominations and with ‘other faiths’. ‘Loving the Lord our God’ (whatever name we give to God who refuses to be labelled with a name) ‘and our neighbour as ourselves’, still transcends differences of understanding and forms of worship.


  3. I agree with Josie.
    I don’t have a clue what ‘organic union’ means (you can always count on me to bring things down to man-in-the-street level) but I feel pretty sure in my heart, even with my very limited theological training, that what God wants is unity, not uniformity. We don’t all need to believe the same things, worship in the same way or serve in the same way for us all to be one with God and with each other.
    All we need for all denominations and all faiths to live in peace and harmony is to lose our own egos and acknowledge that God is bigger than any religion, any kingdom, any theories, any doctrines and most certainly any of our puffed-up opinions!
    Love is the same in any language, and a range of voices singing in harmony sounds richer and more beautiful than one voice singing alone.


  4. How I smiled over Ian’s story about the President’s train being cancelled and thank goodness it wasn’t the Bishop’s. It reminded me of so many similar incidences over the years when as a Methodist I worked for the Anglican Church. One just smiled wryly to oneself!
    It is so also very true that the unity which seemed so important and which so consumed our energy over 30 years ago would hardly make headline news today.
    But we do not serve our sisters (and brothers) well if we sweep our differences of opinion under the carpet. Our Western liberal values have made this mistake too often. For example in our colonial past missionaries overlooked polygamy and fgm when oppressed and suffering women cried out to us and still do.
    Today the Anglican Church continues to train and ordain clergy who do not accept the ordination of women.
    When presbyter in Chislehurst, outer London, it was the turn of the Anglican ‘Forward in Faith’ church to host the Women’s World day of prayer. The Anglican priest had to attend as a woman wasn’t allowed to do the gospel reading!
    Again, as women, we smiled wryly to ourselves. But our commitment to harmony with our sisters and brothers in Christ should not silence us. Anglican women priests are not welcome everywhere and their calling still often limited by their gender. Within the Catholic Church many women feel a deep sense of the Holy Spirit calling them to the priest hood but this is denied them.
    Unity and harmony ‘yes’ but also solidarity not silence.


  5. So are you saying, Barbara, that they all should be like the Methodists?
    And, taking it a step further, that everyone should be like the Christians?
    Isn’t this the very heart of the problem?
    Instead of trying to control, we should simply find a faith, and a denomination, which feels right for us, and allow others the freedom to do the same. And all work together for one God, one world, one human family.


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