From Churches Together in England (CTE) Conference: Hayes Centre, Swanwick, Derbyshire: 28th – 30th September 2021
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend this conference, organized and master-minded by CTE largely in the person of their indefatigable, all-coping, all emailing secretary, Jenny Bond. Theoretically the conference was for ecumenical officers at county or diocesan level, but it has also included representation from the Christian Unity Commission of our Archdiocese. Our Chair, Robin Orton, was, for me, our “lead” representative, with Bishop Hendricks (President) who was able to be there for most of the time. However, I was delighted to have been offered the chance to be there and I found both the formal programme and the informal contacts enriching, enjoyable and informative. I have come away a little wiser, and above all, grateful.
The formal programme, with the theme “Nourishing the Roots” began with a review of the history of ecumenism, from the Edinburgh Conference in 1910 then through a fairly rapid overview of key dates including conferences, decrees, partnerships, levels of presence and interest. This probably seemed long and “old hat” to some delegates as it lasted from early afternoon on the first day to supper-time, but I was new to the topic so coped with a steep learning curve. The theme continued with an Emmaus walk for which we were directed to pair-up with someone whom we did not know, find somewhere to walk (in the rain), share from our backgrounds and concerns and listen, having invited the Lord to be with us. A Salvation Army officer and I found unexpected rewards from sharing so much common ground after we discovered mutual Church of England backgrounds.
In Night Prayer that evening and regular Morning and Evening Prayer sessions we shared with leaders from various traditions. With the aid of a multi-talented and committed group of instrumentalists hymn singing raised the roof and every word mattered.
On Wednesday the first input was given by Fr Jan Nowotnik, National Ecumenical Officer for the Catholic Bishop’s conference, who was scheduled to give an ecumenical approach to a synodal journey, ie to address the leading question,“What is Pope Francis asking of the church?” Jan spoke with awareness that the audience, 108 delegates from an organization embracing 50+ church traditions, was not necessarily familiar with the “walls” broken down by Vatican II. Synodality is to bring ALL together, and don’t forget those of no faith and those on the margins. His NB’s included:
- Allow others to be where God wants them to be, avoid focusing on ourselves,
- Cut down the virus of self-sufficiency,
- Speak with boundless confidence and humility to welcome each other,
- Beware of lingering in your own comfort zone,
- If a structure doesn’t work, get rid of it,
- Be aware of Acts 2:44f: the early church prayed together, held all in common and shared,
- Listen(!) Dialogue is not Monologue, and finally,
- We are better when we walk together.
That day we were also timetabled with room and space of two hours for denominational meetings. We were ten Catholics and I appreciated the opportunity actually to articulate my long-felt concern and even frustration that my awareness of what I, inevitably, see as the “special” position of the Church of England with its close appreciation of Catholic theology, does not seem to be widely shared with the average Catholic parishioner. Similarly, so many parishioners have not yet heard of the principles of Receptive Ecumenism
Our prayer that evening, continuing with the theme of the road to Emmaus, suggested that the hinge moment of the encounter was the moment of invitation. Jesus “made as if to go on” but was invited, “Stay with us”.
Then further into the evening we were invited, with imagination, to attend an Extraordinary General Meeting of Churches Together in Dibley (as in TV "The Vicar of . . . "). We were introduced to the nine churches in that wide area and their imaginary agendas of eight different possible scenarios for working together, sharing in imaginary situations of varying length and complexity. Resources included a toolkit prepared by CTE with checklists and hints to help us suggest suitable form/s of agreement. This addressed an apparently current need to help local groups find the most suitable type of agreement for their situation. Working in our table groups I was involved in a suggestion of sharing a building belonging to the Salvation Army with a new community church. Two members of my table were experienced in this form of sharing so we had guidance and fairly expeditiously were ready for feedback with our suggestion of a partnership agreement.
Our last morning, Thursday 30th, began with prayer led by Akpo Onduku, a member of “my” table group and the National Ecumenical Officer for the Redeemed Christian Church of God. This was appreciated as charismatic worship at its best, a comment in which I share. We then moved to a long, reflective and powerful session led by Callan Slipper, the National Ecumenical Officer for the Church of England: themed “One to be One”. Exploring the roots of ecumenism is an exploration of Jesus Christ, exposed in His prayer, “Father may they all be one, as You and I are one.” As in the miracle of the Trinity God alone is in love, “Love one another as I have loved you.” This means: do as Christ does, love as Christ loves, care as Christ cares, use all the means we have of being ecumenical and don’t be content until you have got to the root of a problem. Receptive ecumenism is enabled by truly loving. Of course we’re united because the centre of our faith is Christ crucified. Let us use His way of transforming negatives to positives, learn how to start again towards total inclusiveness with hearts to love the whole world.
Before lunch we were scheduled to share an Agape, a Christian fellowship meal for the whole conference, recalling the meals shared by Jesus with his friends and expressing the koinonia (sharing and belonging) of the Body of Christ. For me, distracted by the need to be ready for booked trains, this was less memorable within the prayer and worship we shared, but it stood out as one of the ways nothing was spared in the effort to listen, relate and make time for all.
I arrived home, tired but most appreciative; particularly for the opportunities to learn from and share thoughts and questions with those with considerably more learning and experience than I have. Thank you to Robin and to the Archdiocese for all gifts received.