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Reform Magazine | April 15, 2021

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A good question: Are churches united enough now?

A good question: Are churches united enough now?

One question, four answers

RICHARD REDDIE
‘We would have more impact working together’

My son’s school has the Latin motto Unitate Fortior which, when translated, means ‘Strength in Unity’ or ‘Unity is our Strength’. As someone who works for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, whose raison d’etre is church unity, I know how important, yet challenging, this much-vaunted ideal is. (I write this piece with January’s annual ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’ still fresh in my mind.) For me, the real question is: ‘What is the purpose of our unity?’ And the answer to this, through an adaptation of my son’s school motto, is that united we have the strength to address the injustices in our world while sharing the love of Christ with those in need.

In my work as the Director of Justice and Inclusion, I can see how the churches, if they work together, can tackle issues such as the scourge of serious youth violence in Britain and Ireland. I am acutely aware of different church denominations and para-church groups’ projects to address this problem. While most of these do excellent work, they would have more impact if they worked together. I am part of an ecumenical, church-based initiative called the Synergy Network which encourages churches to stand together in an effort to change young people’s lives.

Away from work, I have also seen first-hand the way in which a united church can have a positive impact on local communities. The Covid-19 pandemic has created havoc in so many areas of our lives, yet the churches in my part of southwest London have come together (like never before) to meet local needs in the form of food banks, and a helpline offering spiritual and practical advice…

Richard Reddie is Director of Justice and Inclusion for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland

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VICTORIA TURNER
‘Church unions are useful – if they heal relationships’

The union between Congregational and Presbyterian Churches that created the United Reformed Church was not envisioned as an ecumenical end goal. We saw ourselves, in our beginnings, as a loose ecumencial body, inviting other Churches to join and, as Martin Camroux has expertly discussed in Ecumenism in Retreat, we solidified into a denomination almost accidently. Did this happen because the union of, eventually, four Churches was enough?

Ecumenical enthusiasm in Britain had its heyday from the 1940s to the 1970s, and it concentrated on the Faith and Order agenda – the end goal conceptualised as institutional unity. Some outcomes of this effort are that we understand each other’s ecclesiologies and practices more, we have affirmed the legitimacy of others’ ministries, and we can also share rites with denominations where before we could not. However, energy for ecumenism came out of mission: at Edinburgh in 1910, missionary and Church leaders realised that the Church needed to cooperate to effectively evangelise the world.

It was the few representatives from the global south who said that cooperation was not enough and that they wanted a united Church without the imposition of foreign denominations. The reaction to this was to educate the ‘newer Churches’ as to the reasons for our divisions. Ecumenism has been focused on British institutions, but it goes beyond our Church structures. Oikumene, the Greek word behind ‘ecumenical’, can be translated as ‘the whole inhabited earth’ and, ultimately, it asks about the unity between our relationships with each other, with those outside of the Church, and with creation. For me, Church unions are useful when they fulfil this larger reality – if they heal relationships…

Victoria Turner is a PhD researcher in ecumenism at New College, Edinburgh

DOMINIC ROBINSON
‘We are called to something bolder’

‘Let’s begin to listen to one another.’ These words of President Joe Biden at his inauguration represented for many the hoped-for dawning of a new era. The pandemic has, through such great suffering, been giving birth to much soul searching, as many look to larger horizons to address a new existential angst in the midst of our weariness as a world at odds with itself. For Christians, this current global situation presents a non-negotiable imperative. At this time, more than any recent time in history, we need to be as united as we possibly can be.

The particular context of this invitation to closer unity is our vital place in a society as it blinks its way into a new post-pandemic era. Listening together to the signs of the times, hearing what our neighbour has to say, from whatever religious tradition or none, and responding together confidently in common witness to the radicality of the Gospel is the key ecumenical challenge of this extraordinary time.

We have the solid rock of a century and more of fruitful dialogue and work for Christian unity. The ecumenical movement has been through all four seasons of the waxing and waning of inter-ecclesial relationship building as we agree and disagree on doctrine, spirituality, Church culture. All this is a vital part of the story that shapes a future which must never be satisfied with partial, incomplete unity…

Dominic Robinson is Parish Priest of Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception, Mayfair, London, and Chair of the Justice and Peace Commission in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster

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DAVID BRATTSTON
‘Disunity is now an illusion’

There is no further need for efforts toward Christian unity. The major churches have already attained a sufficient degree of harmony and mutual acceptance to fulfil Jesus’s oft-cited prayer in the Gospel of John ‘that they may be one, as we are one’. We must now concentrate on more vital endeavours.

Most denominations have intercommunion agreements, fellowship, joint ventures, and cooperation in local, national and world Church councils. Any disunity is largely illusory, with the differences being only in nonessentials. What keeps denominational separation in place are the secular laws which confer corporate status and centuries-old property-holding arrangements, and can be overcome only by an Act of Parliament.

I have looked for the meaning of Christian unity in the scriptures and in the writings of the earliest Christians. From sources up to the middle of the third century, I found that unity means attitudes, qualities of character, or modes of relating to people with whom one is in personal contact. In the biblical sense, unity is a pattern of conducting one-to-one relations among Christians that fosters harmony at the neighbourhood level. The scriptures and church fathers never mention a merger of organisations. Contrary to allegations that Churches today are too fragmented to fulfil Christ’s will, I believe that there already is Christian unity among mainline denominations, especially at the local and personal level…

David Brattston is a retired lawyer

These are extracts from an article published in the March 2021 edition of Reform

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