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Ecumenism - Is it a good thing?

Wed November 1st, 2017

I don’t like the words ecumenism or ecumenical – they sound so medical – perhaps like an ointment or even a surgical procedure.

Simply ‘ecumenism’ means the pursuit of church unity by focussing on common ground and ‘ecumenical’ promoting or tending toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation.

I have experienced some of these efforts over the years where people from different churches organize joint gatherings at the lowest common denominator, where such an effort is made to not offend anyone, almost everyone is uncomfortable. After all, aren’t denominations separate for good reason?

Remember though that Jesus prayed:

John 17:20 “I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. 21 May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you.

As much as it can sometimes stress us to work with those who differ with us on different levels of theology and practice, we can hardly ignore the prayer of Jesus!

So, surely, we must put up with some ecumenical gatherings, however uncomfortable we feel for the sake of Jesus!

Relationship

The issue that ecumenism raises is not the one of unity of meetings – all Christians together under one roof, which may be the reality of heaven but would be hard to achieve here, but one of relationship.

Here in York we have two broadly ‘ecumenical’ groups which operate separately. One is mainly a group of lay people (another word I am not fond of!) and the other a group mainly of ministers and ministry leaders. The former has struggled to survive over many years, but the latter has blossomed and grown over the last 18 years, to the point that it serves as a model to other groups throughout the UK.

One Voice would not describe itself as an ecumenical group, but rather a relational group! Outwardly it is clearly ecumenical by the extremely broad nature of the denominations represented – Anglican, Methodist, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, New Church, Independent, Baptist (sorry if I forgot anyone…), however, structurally it is built on relationships. For 18 years people have met together weekly for prayer for our city and at the same time made great friendships. Ministers have come and gone, younger people have joined us and older people have died, but the vibrancy and desire for God to be seen in our city have driven us closer and closer together.

In becoming friends, we step over denominational barriers and focus on our mutual goal – that the kingdom of God might be manifest in our city. 

Suspicion

If we have good relationships between church and ministry leaders in the city, then there is no reason that our various congregations should be suspicious of other groups – after all if our Minister gets on with their Minister then why should congregations take offence at each other? Suspicion has always had a terrible effect on breaking links between churches, but if our church leaders are not suspicious of each other, why should our church members be?

Surely there must be some ‘dodgy’ church leaders about though? What about them? In a city of over 100 churches there are bound to be a couple of odd-bods, and there are. In fact, one thing that helps tremendously when ministers get on well together is an openness to discuss problems – people that won’t accept any authority, or groups that are not connected to us that take people away. In reality, the dodgy folk don’t generally want to have anything to do with One Voice, because they are not relationally driven and are worried that they will expose themselves if they draw close to others. Sharing of information between friends is a helpful practice and solves so many issues before they become bigger! Simply asking for references when someone moves church is a great practice to have in your church and believe me you need to know how well they left their last church!

No church leader or elder should ever accept everything on face value – we have responsibility for the body of Christ and we must recognise wolves when they are prowling around. Also, we must be aware of those who bring the wider body into disrepute. However, it might be even more unforgiveable to avoid the building of good relationships across the diverse body of Christ, lest we ourselves become a stumbling block to the answering of the prayer of Jesus Christ! Strong relationships between church and ministry leaders are one of the most helpful ways of avoiding wolves.

Structure vs Relationship

Sometimes there are things we can learn from each other which enrich us, but fundamentally I have no desire to go and worship God in a way that I am not familiar with or with a style of music that I dislike – this is why I think that all churches meeting under one roof this side of heaven is unlikely. However, as we learn that we each want to see the kingdom of God come, there is much we can do together in our cities, towns and communities under the name of The Church.

To try and build something across denominational barriers without the power of strong relationships is crazy. Structuring how we can meet ecumenically is no answer, having a plan that puts something in a meeting that suits everyone is no answer either. The concept that the wider public will be fooled by a joint service between people that barely get on and don’t meet otherwise is questionable. If the public aren’t fooled, then I am sure that God isn’t. When relational unity movements like One Voice organise events it is so different – people come together for ‘common purpose’. At a recent national ‘Movement Day’ event in London we even had a leader of the Coptic Church with us! God bless him!

In no way am I trying to knock any efforts that others may be doing for build unity, but what I am saying and what I firmly believe is that relational working is the only way forward. Let’s be friends! Let’s forget the ‘medical’ terms and make friends with those who also work for Jesus in our cities, towns and communities.