Wednesday, 19 January 2011

May they be one...?

So, this is the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity: that annual occasion when we gather Christians together, forget our differences, and pray for the unity which Christ prayed for for His Church. Or at least that's the theory.

I belong to a tradition which is in a 'covenant relationship' with the Church of England, supposedly moving towards 'full, visible unity' at some point in the future. But since that covenant was agreed by our Councils and signed, the Church of England has changed significantly. Indeed it seems at times that there is more than one Church of England: one which believes in the full ministry of women within the church and one that does not; one that believes in eligibility for ordination irrespective of ones sexual orientation, and one that does not; one that believes in the validity of orders outside its own tradition and one that does not.

Of course there are, within the Methodist tradition, those who 'toe the party line' on women's ministry and issues of sexuality, and those who hold (shall we say) lightly to the decisions of Conference on such matters. There are still, I would imagine, churches and even circuits where women Presbyters are implicitly unwelcome, and much needs to be done to deal with gender imbalances within our structures. We are by no means a perfect church.

The re-ordination of three former Anglican bishops as Roman Catholic priests recently has put further strains on a delicate ecumenical situation, though their departure from the Church of England has been welcomed by some.

My experience of practical ecumenism has been mixed, to say the least: from enthusiastic groups planning, worshipping and reaching out together, to apathy, to outright hostility. In my last appointment I was the first Free Church minister ever to preside in the local Parish Church: in my present appointment I have shared worship and study groups with local Anglicans in some places, and practically been ignored by one of the largest ecumenical congregations in the north of England, who is our next-door neighbour.

Much still needs to be done to see an answer to Jesus's prayer that 'they might be one, so that the world might believe'. But ecumenism is not about losing ones identity as a Christian, whatever tradition your belong to, and being subsumed into one great amorphous 'blob' of a church. There must be room in the Great Church for the traditions and practices of Romans, Orthodox, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Pentecostals, Salvationists, whoever. That's what gives us our strength, drawing on what God has given us over 2,000 years of Christian history. We are not all the same, but we are all one in Christ. Recognising that will be the greatest step towards Unity, and it's for that that I will pray this week.