Ian Cundy Lecture, Durham, June 2011
The Big Society, the Big Picture, the Big Vision: Ecumenism in the 21rst Century
The Big Society
At the end of the year when the request came for me to give a title for tonight I was struggling with the notion of the Coalition’s Big Society which had seemed at first so in tune with Christian social teaching, with its call to care for the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised. It seemed to echo that option for the poor that liberation theologians talked about so much in the 1970’s and 1980’s. At the same time I shared the reaction of others – isn’t that what we in the churches have been doing all the time, volunteering, looking for the gaps in statutory services and filling them. I remembered how in the 70’s I traced the way in which women as parish workers , then as deaconesses, and then as deacons filled the gaps that appeared in the State’s provision. Christians were already doing the Big Society and doing it in villages and inner city centres, mostly unrecognised and unsung. Of course we could do more and the Coalition’s call for the Big Society seemed an encouragement for us to do more.
Archbishop Rowan gave the Big Society ‘two and a half cheers’. One because it takes seriously that element of the irreplaceable personal/relational quality that makes good societies and a second cheer for insisting that the communities we each belong to, themselves belong together and depend on one another. At the same time he asked whether the Big Society was just ‘an alibi’ for cost cutting, a way for government to wash its hands of what he called, ‘a shared connection making responsibility’.
Then came swingeing cuts one after another. It was hard to keep up with them, little time to think through them. There were angry cries from city councils; cries from charities who found grants that were necessary to support local volunteering and deliver the services, drastically cut. Questions started forming in my mind. Had I been conned by the notion of the Big Society? Was it no more than a smokescreen for cuts in public services? Or was it just bad judgement in the places that had been selected for cuts? Church leaders who seemed to warm to the idea at first were becoming increasingly sceptical, calling for it to be more clearly defined.
I’m still struggling with the Big of Big Society. I want to think the best of the Coalition’s intention. I want to say that it does appear to chime with Christian social teaching, with its emphasis on the strong supporting the weak, the rich giving to the poor, the able helping the less able, the host community making generous and supportive space for the immigrant community. I want to think the best and not to be taken over by a hermeneutic of suspicion. But I am coming to believe that the execution of what sounds a noble idea is problematic and not as simple as it first sounded. The Government needs to find more imaginative and effective ways to strengthen what is already being done as well as exploring new ways to expand volunteering. Although some cuts now funded are required, nevertheless, for the right professionalism that is needed in caring, some things do need substantial investment. So, we Christians have to be wise in applauding moves which are in tune with Christian social teaching but also remain at a critical distance, ready to speak a prophetic word. But some picture of the Big Society does at least have the merit of helping us to context the contributions of the statutory and the voluntary services and understand the inter-relation between them.
Archbishop Rowan used the Big word again in his New Year Message. ‘When we try to make sense of our lives and who we really are, it helps to have a strongly defined story, a big picture of some kind in the background. The King James Bible, he said, gave just that – a big picture, a story in which lives made sense. People were able to put their lives into ‘the biggest of pictures which is the story of the universe- helping them to see the value of lives set in the context of the big picture.’
All this talk of the Big Society and the Big Picture I found a question returning to my mind. What is the Big Picture of today’s ecumenical movement? Indeed, is there a Big Vision that motivates today’s ecumenical movement? Indeed is there a bit picture in which we can make sense of the ecumenical journey that we have been on so far? Is there a vision that we have glimpsed in the first ecumenical century that will serve to orientate us in a second ecumenical century?
The success of the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century
No-one can deny the success of the ecumenical movement, the great new fact of Christian history of the twentieth century. Bishop Ian contributed over many years to the success of that story. But, partly because of its undeniable success in so many areas, the ecumenical landscape today is hugely complex and not easy to summarise.
Ecumenical relations take place on many different levels: inter- church families; local ecumenical partnerships; national, regional and international ecumenical councils and organisations. The World Council of Churches (WCC) is a ‘privileged’ instrument providing a space for churches of East and West to meet, to get to know one another, and to pursue common agendas. The number of participants, in terms of ecclesial traditions, has increased since its formation in 1948. Churches, like the Church of England, once major players, determining direction and agenda, are now far outnumbered by churches from the global south. These newer churches bring new perspectives and new challenges. While the number of ecclesial traditions has increased, sadly, the Roman Catholic Church is not a member of the Council. After Vatican II, when the Catholic Church entered the ecumenical movement with great enthusiasm and rich doctrinal resources, it did join the theological arm of the Council, the Faith and Order Commission, but not the Council itself. There remains a Roman Catholic shaped hole that weakens the global expression of ecumenism.
Ecumenical engagement has many different activities: evangelical and missionary endeavours; doctrinal conversations; social and political engagement; work for the preservation of creation; inter-faith conversations. This last year I have seen churches in many places in this country acting together: in Bradford to help Asylum seekers looking for shelter from the harsh winter conditions; in Cockermouth working together to support those whose homes were devastated by floods; and in Stamford caring for the elderly. In many places up and down the country Christians together are already doing the Big Society thing. At the international level many denominational aid agencies have joined in Action of Churches Together, working on humanitarian aid and responding together to crisis situations. In Bethlehem last December at 5.30 on a cold morning, together with 20 women from around the world from many different churches, I watched a long queue of Palestinian men waiting to get through the Check Point to work in Jerusalem. I was proud to see three volunteers from the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme quietly there in the grey morning light, watching and offering friendship, ready to step in if, for some unexplained reason, the guards held the queue up, ready to report any harassment they saw. One accompanier was from England, another from Australia, another from Finland, each from a different church but working together for justice and peace. Only a few days ago the World Council of Churches gathered more than 1000 Christians together in Jamaica in an International Peace Convocation, the culmination of acting together in the Decade to Overcome Violence. Find time to check the message of Peace to all Christians that came from that meeting. There could hardly be a more relevant message in our war torn world. It is all the more powerful because it comes from Christians together. I am constantly amazed at how much Christians do together at the local, regional and world levels. And most of it goes on in our names without us knowing.
For decades everyone it seems has been talking to everyone else in a complicated network of theological conversations, some of which have reached impressive convergences, and even consensus, in areas we once thought to be intractable. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry and The Final Report of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Conversations are two of the most significant achievements, published in the early 1980s. I remember how very involved Bishop Ian was in preparing the Church of England’s Official Response to these two documents and how a protracted conversation between Bishop Ian and Professor Henry Chadwick led to a more balanced Church of England response on authority and the Petrine ministry – crucial subjects still today. These are only two documents in what is now more than 4 large volumes of doctrinal texts from the ecumenical conversations in which we find some of the best ecclesiology of the last century providing a rich resource for every seminary dedicated to forming the next generation of ecumenists.
Too many of these agreed statements gather dust on library shelves. But some have formed the basis for reform in the internal life of churches, or have helped us to recognise marks of the Church in one another, and have become building blocks for establishing new relationships of closer communion. The theological agreements are the charter for close lived relations in this country. Without BEM there would be no Local Ecumenical Partnerships, no ecumenical canons. The Covenant between Anglicans and Methodists in this country, the Leuenberg, Meissen, Porvoo, Reuilly and Fetter Lane agreements in Europe have brought Anglicans, Lutherans, Reformed, Methodist and Moravians into closer communion through harvesting the results of these conversations. Sadly, the conversations that Bishop Ian chaired between the Free Church of England and the Church of England floundered at the last moment when the Church of England moved to ordain women to the priesthood. But the fact that a tiny minority church found the courage to enter conversations with the Church of England and made significant progress, owed much to Bishop Ian’s ability to make our partners feel at ease and taken seriously. Only towards the end did the Bishops of the Free Church of England confess their nervousness at crossing the threshold of Church House, Westminster, and how moved they were to be invited into the Bishop’s Palace in Peterborough. These conversations were a lesson on the sensitivities of conversations between minority and majority churches. The new relationships in Europe have their counterparts in other parts of the world - in Africa, North America and Australia while the united churches of North and South India, Pakistan and Bangladesh remain the flag ship achievements of the ecumenical century.
So much has happened in a century of ecumenism, we live beyond the landscape that my Roman Catholic and Methodist grandparents knew. The ecumenical movement has not stopped moving. On the international level the newly established Global Christian Forum brings Pentecostals, Independent Churches, Evangelical groups and migrant churches together with the mainline churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches. The Forum takes seriously the burgeoning of new Christian groups in the southern hemisphere, moving Christianity’s centre of gravity from north to the south. These newer churches have little interest in joining the World Council of Churches with its foundational commitment to the visible unity of the Church. They see co-operation in mission as the over-riding incentive for building relationships with other Christians.
The last years have seen another initiative, begun here in Durham, of ‘receptive ecumenism’, with its emphasis on the giving and receiving of gifts from one another’s traditions. The major gathering here in Durham in 2006 was hailed by Eamon Duffy as ‘the most remarkable event in living memory’ and by Bishop Tom Wright as ‘a new chapter in ecumenism… the quest for unity no longer feels bureaucratic and unfocused’. But some caution that receptive ecumenism is an easy way out– a less costly form of ecumenical life, suspicious that churches are prepared to receive gifts from others, so long as they can go on being themselves. But, surely, if I receive a gift from you and live it in my own life then I am changed and if you receive a gift from me, you are changed. In that mutual exchange of gifts we are changed towards one another, we move towards a common identity. Archbishop Rowan Williams said to Pope Benedict in Westminster Abbey when the Pope visited England:
Christians have very diverse views about the nature of the vocation that belongs to the See of Rome. Yet, as Your Holiness's great predecessor reminded us all in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, we must learn to reflect together on how the historic ministry of the Roman Church and its chief pastor may speak to the Church catholic—East and West, global north and global south—of the authority of Christ and his apostles to build up the Body in love; how it may be realized as a ministry of patience and reverence towards all, a ministry of creative love and self-giving that leads us all into the same path of seeking not our own comfort or profit but the good of the entire human community and the glory of God the creator and redeemer.
I heard this as a challenge in receptive ecumenism, the sort of challenge that Professor Paul Murray urges us here in Durham to consider.
Less positive signs today
We have come a long way together in an ecumenical century. We live beyond the limits of the ecumenical landscape in which I grew up. Nevertheless, for all the advances there are less positive signs in today’s ecumenical movement. Cardinal Kasper, nearing retirement, spoke of ‘ecumenism in crisis’, ‘ on a knife edge’, ‘a situation where things are hanging in the balance’. Some are bored, disenchanted, with all the work and unfulfilled expectations. The sheer complexity of the movement with its many activities on different levels, its complex jig-saw like picture of new relationships of closer communion between some churches, can give an illusion of an already existing unity, which obscures the continuing scandal of division. Among some Christians there seems to be satisfaction with all of this: we have come far enough – co-operation when it suits us, or when we remember, is the name of the game. Among others there is a new ecclesial self –sufficiency ; they seem to want to go on being themselves, believing that they possess all that is needed for the fullness of the Catholic Church. Some churches still cannot acknowledge the ecclesial reality of others. The Vaitican’s document, Dominus Jesus, sent a chill through the ecumenical movement when it referred to others as ecclesial bodies not churches. The faith and order agenda sometimes seems to suffer from a conversation the few enjoy too much for its own sake, getting further and further from reality. Sharp ethical issues create new divisions, both within churches and between churches, straining internal as well as ecumenical relations. Even between the closest partners there are no structures of mutual accountability that would encourage us to respond to contemporary issues together and not to go it alone. We ought, surely, by now to know that we should not take major decisions which affect the unity of the Church without taking proper account of the repercussions for others. As Cardinal Kasper said to Archbishop Rowan - ‘there is no such thing as a unilateral action….what you do affects us and what we do affects you….’. Sadly, too often church leaders, even in this country make unilateral statements on social or political issues which could be addressed more effectively by all. The success of the ecumenical movement has given rise to competing agendas within the one ecumenical movement. Some hold that the priorities of this world’s agenda rank higher than the priority of the Church’s visible unity. So the different agendas vie with one another for support and resources – life and work, with mission and evangelism or with faith and order, while the newer agendas of ecology, climate change or inter-faith take the place of the search for the unity of the Church. There is a failure to recognise the integral relation between unity and mission and service, while for many ecumenism is simply irrelevant, a waste of resources and energy better spent on mission.
We have failed to ask what living in Local Ecumenical Partnerships, or training together for ministry, or praying together in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, or what being together in witnessing for justice and peace have to tell us about the unity to which God calls us. We have failed to grasp the implications that our break through agreements of the 1980’s on baptism, Eucharist and ministry or the continuing fruits of ecumenical dialogue, have for our understanding of visible unity. We have not asked whether there is a consistent vision that lies behind the establishment of the new regional relationships, nor what living as part of a World Communion has to tell us about visible unity. We have not reflected on what implications a globalised culture has for our understanding of Christian unity. We have not asked the questions and so have missed the insights that we could have drawn from all of this which would have helped us to see a shared Big Vision
The Big Ecumenical Picture
What seems to me most lacking today is a shared understanding of the visible unity of the Church - a Big Ecumenical Vision - in the perspective of which we might make sense of the many ecumenical activities and new relationships. The ecumenical journey cannot simply be a blind adventure. Of course we all say that we are committed to unity – even to visible unity- but when questioned about what we mean by unity it turns out that we each have very different visions or worse still, our Big Vision is ourselves writ large. There seems no agreed understanding amongst us of the unity that God calls us to live, in and for the world. After a century of ecumenical advance there seems to be no shared Big Vision which inspires and directs the multiplicity of ecumenical agendas and activities and which shows how the unity of the Church is inextricably bound together with the unity of the human community and the integrity of creation and which points beyond itself to the kingdom of God.
Instead, most of us, if we are honest, seem to have settled for a model of unity which is simply a way of continuing the existing denominational structures which are polite to one another, hold hands over the walls of division, act together when it suits us, and justify this as acceptable, ‘reconciled diversity’, in which diversity takes priority over unity. To seek for more is what one ecumenist once called ‘a will of the wisp’. But surely God demands of us more than co-operation, more than reconciled diversity?
There is no more crucial ecumenical question today, it seems to me, than - what sort of unity, visible, audible and active, do we believe God is calling us to live for God’s sake and the world’s sake? If we could begin to claim together a Big Picture of Christian unity made visible, audible and active in and for the world then we might see how to direct the ecumenical agenda, and we might find the passion and energy to pursue it in a world of brokenness and mounting violence in which surely every move we Christians make to reconciliation and healing must witness to God’s healing possibility for all people.
So where do we look for that Big Picture? We can’t begin to answer the question of visible unity by starting with churchly matters, certainly not with those neuralgic issues of the ordination of women, apostolic succession, or the ministry of the Bishop of Rome that so far we have been unable to resolve. We need to go back together to what we confess about God, about the purposes of God in creation and redemption, and about the ultimate fulfilment of God’s purposes in the kingdom we call heaven. We must ask together –‘What sort of unity, visible unity would be faithful to this sort of God and point others to God? We have to do what Rowan Williams challenges us again and again to do – to what he calls re-theologise ecclesiology, to understand the Church and its unity in the light of our understanding of God.
Bishop Eric Kemp, Bishop of Chichester, for 25 years the chairman of the Church of England’s Faith and Order Advisory Group, with whom Bishop Ian worked closely both, in the Faith and Order Advisory Group (FOAG) and as Bishop Eric’s suffragon bishop, never tired of reminding us that ‘if your doctrine of the ministry is high, your doctrine of the Church must be higher, and if your doctrine of the Church is high, your doctrine of God must be highest of all.’ In other words, turn the agenda around, let go of the neuralgic issues that cause ecumenical log jams–start with God, the God in whom we all believe, whether we are Methodist, Anglican, Black Led, Roman Catholic, Reformed, Moravian, Orthodox, mega evangelical or migrant churches. Start with the God revealed to us in Scripture as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a Trinity of persons, eternally inclined to one another in a life of perfect communion of encircling love. Start with what we can say together about this divine life of communion and God’s purposes for the world God has created. We see in the pages of the New Testament the relation of the Son to the Father, and their relation to the Holy Spirit. Not only do we encounter a relationship of persons which reveals a perfect conformity of minds and wills, an astonishing mutuality, a mutual indwelling (perichoresis), a communion of love. We also come face to face with the purpose of that communion of love in creation, in redemption and in the on-going sustaining power of the Spirit. Only in this Divine frame of reference can we make sense of the Church, what the Church is called to be and to do, and the unity, the visible unity it is called to live and share. The unity of the Church has to reflect and speak of God’s own life of love.
The Church is the community, the communion, of those already drawn in the waters of baptism into God’s own life of love, experienced by us most profoundly, as individuals and corporately, in prayer and Eucharist. That is why prayer is the foundation of all ecumenical endeavour, payer together in the power of the Spirit, in union with Christ, offered to the Father in a relationship of love and holiness and why Eucharist is the central act of the church’s sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. This is where our identity comes from and this is where our unity is to be found. And our Big Vision would need to show that unity is not for our sake but for God’s sake and the world’s sake: it must always look to God in prayer and move outwards to the world.
We need now to ask what sort of visible unity, would speak of the God who calls the Church into being, to live in, to reflect and to offer to others, God’s own life of love. We would need to give more time to exploring the qualities, the ethos, the demeanour of communion, of the Church and its unity, before the institutional structures; to say something about the unimaginable diversity that would express true unity, when it is lived out in the languages, music, dance, and art forms of different cultures but always in a way that context can speak to context, context can recognise the same Gospel proclaimed in the amazing diversity – ‘diversity without threat’ - as Archbishop Rowan calls it.
…the limits of diversity are set by the kind of God we agree we believe in and the kind of activity such a God undertakes to heal and renew us; and that suggests that the limits of diversity are really set by whether we are at one in witnessing to the kenotic God, the God who always yields place, makes room for the fullness of the other…
In this Godlike perspective we would surely be better equipped to reflect on how a life of communion might be sustained and ever renewed by God’s grace, under the Spirit’s guidance, in fidelity to God’s promise to lead us into all truth. We would need to think how to confess together our common faith, ‘the faith of the Church through the ages’, not as dutiful recitation of creedal words but asking always together - what does belief in this sort of God mean for our life of service and mission in the world? If we believe this about God as creator what does this mean for our shared care of creation? If we believe this about salvation through Christ what does this mean for our common commitment to justice and peace, what does it mean for our relations with those of other faiths? If we really believe in the one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church what does this mean about our commitment to unity, holiness and apostolicity? There must be a clear line of connection between fundamental doctrinal commitments and action. We would have to say something together about God’s grace given in the sacramental life of the Church, how sacramental life is grounded in the work and grace of the Holy Trinity, the place where divine communion and our communion in union with God is encountered and reflected most fully and faithfully and from which we are always sent out to live and work to God’s praise and glory. And we would need to be open to enlarge our view of sacramentality by listening to what our Quaker friends have to tell us about the sacramentality of all life.
We would have to return to faith and order issues, but now in a consciously, divine Trinitarian perspective and with an openness to the world. Surely by now, in the light of what we believe about Divine Trinitarian life, we can be confident that we will be able to crack open some of the hard issues around ministry, apostolic succession, and about how the Church might discern and teach together in communion, and about the relation of local to universal, even the place and role of a universal ministry of unity that have tripped us up, both within our separated Communions and between our communions, making us content to accept an option - a model of reconciled diversity.
Even these issues cannot be intractable when set in the reconciling and healing light of Divine Trinitarian communion. We have to learn to re-phrase the questions on issues that still divide us. For example, on the ordination of women - Why is it Gospel news that women should be ordained to the priesthood? Or, why is it Gospel news that women should not be ordained to the priesthood? Would women in ordained ministry sign more faithfully a life of communion? Why would women in ordained ministry seem to deny the quality of divine communion? Why is it Gospel news that there should be a ministry of primacy? What sort of ministry of primacy would be Gospel news? Learning to ask new and appropriate questions at the points where we seem to have exhausted the old arguments for or against bishops, or for or against ordained women, or for and against a personal ministry of unity at the world level ought to be a major challenge for us to re-theologise these issues relating them always to the world and the kingdom.
And this is where the going gets hard. The personal and relational life of the Church, living in the fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, will always be prior to the structural: but the organisational and structural are not irrelevant. Order is required to serve, sustain and nurture the fellowship. But even the polity of the Church must be grounded in, and shaped by, the nature of God and God’s incarnation in history. (Rowan Williams) We shall have to discover how the Church might best be structured so that it can face new challenges, whether to faith, order or moral life; how it can best decide in the symphony of the whole church. Neither a model of self- sufficiency, nor of autonomous independent churches has a place within a Trinitarian understanding of the Church. Discovering a God-like polity to keep us in graced belonging can never be about how a few dominate the rest, nor about how we might discover a single agreed voice on every issue. It is about how we are all sustained in communion, with rich diversity, when we agree and when we disagree, so that we refuse to say - ‘I have no need of you’ – but, under the Spirit’s guidance, stay together, learning from one another, as we discover together the mind of Christ for the Church. It’s about discovering what ‘structures of grace’, ‘structures of belonging’ (don’t let’s talk anymore about structures of authority) would best hold us in a communion of dialogue and discernment; how ordained leadership, in relationship with all the faithful, can work together in the symphony of the Church, with conductors of the symphony enabling all to make their unique contribution to the whole. It is about how space is made both for prophetic witness and restraint accepted while new directions and actions are discerned by the Body of the faithful. It’s about what structures would enable diversity to flourish without a sense of threat. It’s about being prepared to risk living with the provisional while struggling for a common mind – the mind of Christ, really believing in God’s promise that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth.
We have hardly begun to reckon with the fact that in a world where we are more and more aware of a globalised culture, of our economic and ecological inter-relatedness, it is impossible to leave the local/universal dimension of the Church out of our picture of visible unity. Our understanding of unity is deficient if it is only local, only national, or only regional. It must also be universal, a catholic communion of all through time and across the world now, a diachronic and synchronic communion.
All of this may sound as if the Big Vision is only concerned with the Church. But, the Church is, in a sense, called to be the world ahead of itself. The visible unity of the Church is to demonstrate what God intends for the whole of humanity and creation. It is impossible to separate the Church and its unity from the destiny of the whole of humanity. The Church is given to the world to be in it and inseparable from it, serving and challenging it and attracting it.
Our country needs a credible picture of the Big Picture of the Big Society to motivate us. And, if we are to make sense of today’s complex ecumenical movement, or to see how to move out of the ‘crisis’ we are in, as Cardinal Kasper describes it, we surely need a shared Vision - a Big Vision of the unity we believe God calls us to live for God’s sake and the world’s sake – a Big Vision in the light of which we can make sense of the multiplicity of muddled ecumenical tasks, initiatives, doctrinal conversations -and prayer. If we could claim together a Big Vision we might find that we can already look at one another in a less dismissive, more confident and generous way. We can already recognise a Christ-likeness in the lives of others, a fidelity in them to the same Lord, the same Gospel of salvation, and a faithful response in service and mission. We might see a Christlikeness we desire to receive and share. A shared Big Ecumenical Vision might just give us that kick start into the second ecumenical century we so badly need releasing energy for continuing the journey. The ecumenical agenda might just become what Archbishop Rowan has called it ‘an agenda of joy’, rather than a burden.
I hope, and believe, that Bishop Ian might agree.
This lecture builds upon a paper published in Theology, November/December, 2010, Celebrating Edinburgh 1910: Reflections on Visible Unity, pp. 403-411.
Rowan Williams, How should churches respond to the Big Society? Second of the Charities Parliament Big Society series, July 2010.
Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Faith and Order paper 111, WCC Publications, Geneva, 1982. The Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission, CTS/SPCK, 1982.
The Church of England’s Response to BEM and ARCIC, Church House Publishing, 1986.
Revisioning Christian Unity: The Global Christian Forum, ed. H. van Beek, Regnum Books, 2009.
Receptive Ecumenism and a Call to Catholic Learning: Exploring a Way for Contemporary Ecumenism, Ed. Paul Murray, Oxford University Press, 2008.
Rowan Williams, The Goal of Visible Unity and the Limits of Diversity, in Returning Pilgrims, ed. C. Davey, CCBI, 1994, p.13