International Ecumenical Fellowship
41st International Conference, August 2011
Called to Be Friends: IEF in the Context of the One Ecumenical Movement
It is a great privilege to be invited to give this key note address at the 41st International Conference of the International Ecumenical Fellowship. In preparation for today I followed the reflections and Bible Studies prepared for the Conference and I read with mounting excitement the essays in Living Today the Church of Tomorrow in which I learnt of your history and your commitment to unity. Of course I knew something of the IEF from my time as General Secretary of the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity and have been touched by the unshakeable and infectious faith in unity of your President Kate Davson. I was fascinated to discover your roots in The International League for Apostolic Faith and Order at the time of the Third World Conference on Faith and Order in Lund in the early 1950’s, and to follow the establishment of the International Ecumenical Fellowship in those heady years after Vatican II when the Roman Catholic Church came bounding into the ecumenical movement. I don’t go back as far as the World Conference in Lund in 1950. I joined the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches in 1973 and went on to moderate the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order in Santiago de Compostella in 1993. So, as I read your history and your passion, it chimed strongly with my own history and my passion. But one of the things that most excited me was the constant theme that ran through all that I read about the Fellowship, the theme of koinonia, an almost untranslatable Greek word, ‘communion’, ‘fellowship’, ‘participation’ – words close to ‘friendship’. The title of that Faith and Order World Conference in Santiago was ‘Towards koinonia in faith, life and witness’.
I The gift of koinonia and friendship: an insight from IEF
What you have discovered about koinonia, ‘fellowship’, in your life together over these years, experienced especially at your international summer gatherings, is exactly what the ecumenical theological dialogues have come to recognise as the most powerful insight of the ecumenical century: that the unity of the Church has all to do with koinonia. Koinonia has become the central theme in bilateral and multilateral theological conversations as well as prior in the self- understanding of many world communions: The Anglican Communion, The Lutheran World Communion etc…. Koinonia resonates with our contemplative experience in prayer as well as with our experience of close human relationships of friendship.
By focussing on fellowship, communion, and by experiencing fellowship together here in Brighton we are drawn away from the sinfulness of our ecclesial divisions and directed towards that giving and receiving life of mutual love that flows between the persons of the Holy Trinity. That is the life we glimpse in the farewell discourses of John’s Gospel, nowhere more powerfully than in the prayer of Jesus in John 17. It is wonderfully captured for us in the Rublev icon of the Holy Trinity. We experience that life of love as we pray to the Father, joined in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We discover that the unity we yearn for is none other than ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’. That is the life we all, whatever tradition we belong to – Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Methodist, Anglican, Pentecostal, – are enfolded in through baptism, as we die with Christ in the waters of baptism and rise to new life in and with him and with one another in God’s own life of love. That is the life, God’s life of love, that we are called to make visible, audible and credible in the Church, for God’s sake and for the world’s sake. And this is the life you are discovering together in the IEF. But, surely, we cannot be content with this provisional experience, however much we treasure it. We must not be diverted from the quest for the visible unity of the Church, a unity in faith, in one sacramental life, served by one ministry and by structures of grace that support us and enable us to live, serve and witness together. That is our prayer and that is our agenda
But you in IEF know all of this. Your Bible studies on John 15 explore it imaginatively. You know from your personal experience that the personal and relational is prior to the structural and organisational in the life God shares with us and the life we already share together in him. You know what is meant when Jesus calls us friends and commands us to share that same friendship with one another. Your witness to that is an important contribution in the one, but increasingly complex, ecumenical movement. You know the joy of communion and friendship. But you also know the pain. Your book testifies to the times you have come face to face with the fact that you cannot all share the one bread and the one cup at the Table of the Lord. You all know the pain, the confusion, the anger when you cannot receive with those you love most. You know the confusion when you respond, according to your own conscience, contrary to the disciplines of your tradition. Then you can feel confused and fearful of offending your friends who take a different decision. It is important to recognise that there is a range of disciplines in all churches, from the open table to the ‘under certain circumstances’ discipline. Learning to maximise what is possible, or finding new and deeper interim gestures, like all receiving a blessing, can help. But so too can the recognition that living with this pain of not being able to share together can make us all the more determined to work even harder to overcome differences that prevent full Eucharistic sharing, which is, we know, God’s will for us, his gift to us, and the deepest sign of our communion with each other, in Christ. And what may seem as a harsh discipline of some churches does remind us that for full communion we need a recognised degree of agreement in faith. So we are sent back to the important doctrinal conversations in which we come to understand together anew the one Tradition. We cannot be content with where we are; we cannot be content until this sharing around one Table becomes a reality.
II IEF in today’s complex ecumenical landscape
So, where is the witness of IEF in todays’ complex ecumenical landscape? And what challenges might there be for you as you move through this second ecumenical century? The ecumenical movement of the last century was the great new fact of Christian history in the twentieth century as Archbishop William Temple described it. But where are we today? The complexity of the scene today is part of the success of the ecumenical movement of the twentieth century. Just think how far we have come and your part in it all.
- Learning to act together locally, regionally and globally
Ecumenical relations today take place on many different levels: inter- church families; local ecumenical partnerships; national, regional and international ecumenical councils and organisations. There is a very informative short description of ecumenical relations ion Britain and Ireland in your Conference Handbook. At the world level the World Council of Churches remains a ‘privileged’ instrument. And this very day we celebrate the 63rdAnniversary of the founding of the Council – 23rd August, 1948. The WCC provides a space for churches of East and West, North and South, to meet and get to know one another. More and more the WCC is coming to understand itself, not as a bureaucratic, organisational structure, but as a fellowship of churches. The balance of participants has changed. Those churches, which like my own church, the Church of England as well as many European churches, were founding members and once major players determining the direction and agenda. Now, we are far out -numbered by churches from the global south. It is not always easy to come to terms with agendas very different from our western agendas. The tensions are now often not so much between those of different ecclesial traditions as between north and south where all too often our colonial assumptions and experience trip us up. The Council has 349 member churches, many more from the South. Sadly, although it works closely with the Council, the Roman Catholic Church is not a full member.
The Council’s work embraces the work of its three founding streams; mission and evangelism, faith and order, and life and works. At the international level many denominational aid agencies came together last year in Action of Churches Together to work together on humanitarian aid and development, for example co-ordinating emergency relief after the earthquakes in Haiti, Japan and Christchurch, in New Zealand. Through the WCC the churches have been involved in a Decade to Overcome Violence and in Jamaica met together in a Peace Convocation last May. I wish I could say that the British Churches had been more active in the Decade and in the Peace Convocation, as the German churches have been. One of the moving things about the Decade has been the way small teams of Christians from different denominations, drawn from around the world, have visited areas of violence and deprivation to act in Christian solidarity and to offer friendship, to model the way of friendship. I saw these ecumenical gestures of solidarity and friendship at the Checkpoint in Bethlehem early on a frosty morning last December when Ecumenical Accompaniers stood in solidarity and friendship with the Palestinian men queuing for hours just to get through the Check point to work in Jerusalem. The horrifying thing is they do this day after day after day. I am glad that one of your workshops is on Called to be Friends across the Israel/Palestine Divide. We are, or some of us are, learning to serve and witness together, both locally and internationally, discovering it is more effective, more credible, together. Some of you met yesterday the street pastors in Canterbury’ This is an ecumenical initiative now blossoming in many towns in England where Christians together care for those, particularly the young, who need help late at night in our towns.
- Bilateral and multilateral doctrinal conversations
Then there is the complex network of bilateral and multilateral doctrinal conversations which have gone on for more than 80 years and have produced impressive convergences, and even consensus, in areas once thought to be intractable. Do you remember the Faith and Order document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, published in 1982- perhaps the most important ecumenical document of the ecumenical century which shows clearly how much faith Christians hold in common? [i] Or do you remember the important Agreed Statementsfrom the Anglican-Roman Catholic conversations?[ii] The many ecumenical documents are now gathered in 4 volumes of Growth in Agreement, each larger than the previous one. Everyone it seems has been talking to everyone else in an incestuous network of conversations. Last autumn Cardinal Kasper, the head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome wrote a book Harvesting the Fruits – in which he brought together the conversations of the Catholic Church with the Methodists, the Reformed, the Lutherans and the Anglicans. The Cardinal shows just how far we have come in reaching consensus or convergence in areas once thought intractable.[iii] But he also shows how far we still have to go. The Cardinal’s intention in doing this mammoth piece of research was to remind us, and to remind his own church, the Roman Catholic Church, just how far we have come, and to make sure that this is not forgotten and that the baton is passed on to a new and younger generation.
- New relationships
These agreements are not just empty words in books of agreement on library shelves for the academics. A few of the agreed statements have formed the basis for establishing new relations of closer communion. The Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue has led to the Joint Declaration on Justification enabling the condemnations of the Reformation to be left behind in the past. Who would have thought that possible in the 1960’s when IEF was born? The Leuenberg, Meissen, Porvoo, and Reuilly Agreements in Europe have brought Anglicans, Lutherans, Reformed, Methodists into closer communion, sharing in service and mission.These new relationships in Europe have their counterparts in other parts of the world including Africa, North America and Australia. The united churches of North and South India, Pakistan and Bangladesh remain important flag ship results of the ecumenical century.
The ecumenical landscape of which you in IEF are a part has changed. It is much more complex than it was when IEF was born in a time of euphoria. However, no-one can pretend that these advances do not also bring complications – ‘are your friends my friends?’ – is a question that is often asked, and, if they are, what does that mean in terms of the extension of shared life and witness? Some churches have learnt, like you, the value of ecumenical friendship and are convinced that we cannot give up on one another even when the going is tough. In the current tension within the Anglican Communion and between the Anglican Communion and the Vatican over the consecration of those living in openly gay relationships, when the Archbishop of Canterbury asked Cardinal Kasper to accompany us Anglicans, the Cardinal replied that there is no such thing as a unilateral action. What you do affects us and what we do affects you, of course we will accompany you, he said. Later he added that the problems of our friends are our problems also. However much we differ, we cannot give up on that fundamental relationship, that degree of koinonia, that friendship that we have already discovered in these ecumenical years.
- New initiatives now: the ecumenical movement still moves
New initiatives are being taken – don’t let people tell you that the ecumenical movement has stopped moving. On the international level a Global Christian Forum now brings Pentecostals, Independent Churches and Evangelical groups together with the mainline churches, including the Roman Catholic Church. 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. But the crucial thing that is happening is that through the Global Christian Forum more Christians are coming out of their isolations, getting to know one another and are discovering a common conviction about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are searching for ways of serving together and discovering new friendships. We are seeing that it is better together than apart. It is a more credible witness to the Gospel of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us.
We are learning too to relate to those of other faith communities together. And the ecumenical attitudes and inclinations we have nurtured in inner Christian dialogue – the courage to risk coming out of our denominational corners, the confidence to learn about others and the humility to learn from others, the willingness to act together in serving the local community and the hurting world – all these attitudes and actions we can bring to our relations with those of other faith communities. We can learn from them without surrendering our own loyalty to Jesus Christ, our own jealousies and without coercing them or demanding that they surrender their loyalties. In building these relationships we create a space in which the Holy Spirit can work for good. How good that you have included in your programme workshops on friendship in the Buddhist tradition and friendship between Christians and Muslims. Our world desperately needs Christians who will build relations of friendship with those of other faith communities.
One of the most exciting things to happen in the last decade is the emergence of a fresh ecumenical initiative in what is called ‘receptive ecumenism’, with its emphasis on the offering and receiving of gifts from each other’s different traditions. The initiative began in this country in Durham and has spread to other parts of the world. Some fear that this is an easy way out– a less costly form of ecumenical life. They think it shows churches prepared to receive gifts from others, as long as they can go on being themselves, unchanged. Thus this is not the costly ecumenism which demands radical change. On the other hand, it seems to me that if I receive a gift from you and embrace it in my own life then I am changed and if you receive from me a gift you are changed. In that mutual exchange of gifts we are changed towards one another. Our identities are enlarged into a common identity. [iv] Archbishop Rowan seemed to have got the point when, in that wonderful service in Westminster Abbey, he said to Pope Benedict:
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.
Can you, if you are not a Roman Catholic, imagine re-receiving the gift of a renewed ministry of universal primacy? And, if you are a Roman Catholic, can you imagine re-receiving the gift of a reformed and renewed ministry of universal primacy?
- Not all is positive in today’s ecumenical scene.
We have indeed come a long way together since your foundation in the 1960’s. Nevertheless, for all the advances that have happened there are, we have to admit, less positive aspects to today’s ecumenical movement. Among some Christians there seems to be a self -satisfaction that we have come far enough – co-operation when it suits us, or when we remember, is the name of the game. Better to remain in our separations. In places there seems to be a new ecclesial self- sufficiency which suggests that some actually want to go on being themselves, believing that they possess all that is needed for the fullness of the Catholic Church. Ecumenism, they say, absorbs energy weakening the primary calling to mission. One church acts without considering how its actions will be understood or felt by their ecumenical partners. The doctrinal texts are too often left on library shelves to gather dust. There is no painful facing up to the challenges they contain: challenges to renew our own lives as we examine ourselves in the mirror of these carefully prepared documents or challenges to build new relations with other Christians who, with us, can also recognise the faith of the Church in these agreed statements.
We all know there are sharp ethical issues creating new divisions, both within churches and between churches which raise questions of authority how decisions are made and what place ecumenical mutual accountability should have after all of these years of getting to know one another. What is the place of restraint and what for prophetic action? The very success of the ecumenical movement has given rise to competing agendas. Some hold that the priorities of this world’s agenda rank higher than the priority of the Church’s visible unity. Different ecumenical agendas are set over against one another – life and work, or mission and evangelism, over against faith and order, or the new agendas of justice and peace and ecology, or inter-faith relations for some seems to take priority over the agenda of Christian unity.
Then there is the failure of some churches to acknowledge the ecclesial reality of others with all the pain that causes. The Vatican document Dominus Jesus sent a chill through the ecumenical movement when it referred to others not as churches but as ecclesial bodies. It seemed to some to suggest an ecumenism of return. And within the World Council of Churches there remains a major distinction between the Orthodox who understand themselves to be the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and hardly begin to recognise even elements of church in others.
But, amongst all the weaknesses in today’s ecumenical movement, what seems most lacking in all our churches today is a passionate commitment to unity. I don’t mean just to good friendly relations but a passionate commitment – to the visible unity of the One , Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Of course we all say that we are committed to unity, like motherhood and apple pie! – but when questioned about what we mean by unity we see that it is unity in some sort of vague sense, or worst still, ourselves writ large. It seems we dare not think about what lies beyond Anglicanism, beyond Methodism, beyond Roman Catholicism… There is little common understanding, perhaps not even among you who are members of IEF, about even the contours of that visible communion which God calls us to live together for God’s sake and for the world’s sake. There is no motivating vision, and, therefore, no clear agenda that flows from a motivating vision, which is large enough to embrace the social, political, missionary, interfaith as well as the faith and order agendas and which understands them all as belonging to a single agenda for the unity of the Church, for the sake of the unity of the whole inhabited world.
In 1910 many of the missionaries who came to the Edinburgh Missionary Conference believed passionately in the need to work for the visible unity of the Church. They did have a strong motivating force. They knew that division in the mission field compromised a Gospel of reconciliation and was contrary to the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. Christians needed to be visibly united, seen to be one, for the credibility of the Gospel. By 1948 this conviction was expressed in the Constitution of the World Council of Churches with its mandate ‘to call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ’.
For all our ecumenical conversations, for all our ecumenical activities, the one thing that seems to elude us is agreement about what sort of unity, visible unity, God calls us to live in and for the world. What would unity, visible unity, look like? But without vision, Scripture tells us, the people die. And without vision the ecumenical movement will stop moving, it will grind to a halt.
III What sort of unity is God calling us to live in and for the world?
There is no more important ecumenical question to ask yourselves today than the question – what sort of unity do you believe God is calling you to live? If we could begin to claim together a vision of Christian unity made visible, audible and active in the world today then we might just get that kick start that is so needed in today’s ecumenical movement. We might see how to re-form and re-new the ecumenical agenda, and find energy to take more imaginative and more effective steps together on the way.
My hope is that the current challenge coming from the World Council of Churches to respond to a short picture in words – Called to be the one Church – will encourage the churches to ask themselves just what do we believe about the unity, the visible koinonia, to which God calls us and that it may provoke us to respond to the challenges that text puts to us and that we might begin to take new, bold and imaginative steps towards visible unity. As I thought about this I wondered if you in IEF would be able to say ‘yes’ to the skeletal portrait of visible unity that the World Council is challenging us all to consider as we move into the second ecumenical century? [v] Would you be able to say –‘yes that is the sort of Church we long to be together’. Called to be the One Church was the work of the Faith and Order Commission, the work of that Commission which in Lund, remember, was one of the inspirations for the coming into being of IEF all those years ago.
You do have insights to offer to this international reflection and discussion. If the unity to which you are committed in IEF is somehow about living visibly the gift of God’s mysterious Trinitarian life, then you know that the personal and the relational will always be prior to the institutional and structural. We are not about knocking denominations together in some clever structural joinery. We will not grow in unity unless that springs from a growth in personal relationships at every level of our lives – at the local, the national, the regional and at the world level. You in IEF know this better than any of us. You know that the personal and relational are the living tissue of our unity and a sign that our unity is grounded in God’s own life flowing among us. We must be at peace with one another, we must know what it is to forgive one another, to trust and expect the best of one another, and above all we must love one another and the world God so loved that he gave his only Son. And the unity to which we are committed, grounded in God’s own life, must astonish us with its diversity – diversity in the expression of our common faith, diversity in our life of fellowship, and diversity in our service and witness. It must be a unity which is always in dialogue, as we search together to discern the truth of God and what is right conduct with one another, and what is sacrificial service to the world. And as we seek the truth in the face of complex new questions we must risk living with the provisional. We may even be called upon to live with restraint when faced with the challenge of a new development. You must know, even from your life, that tension, even conflict, will always be part of our life together this side of the kingdom of heaven. But sharp things that divide us can turn out to be gift. If those on different sides can stay together bearing the pain of difference, even entering one another’s pain, then we shall sense together a communion with a God who suffered at whose heart is forever a cross. And you know that the unity we long for is not one of a Church obsessively turned in on itself, concerned with preserving itself from the messiness of the world, but one turned out in generous service. And our unity must be one that is expressed most profoundly when we eat and drink together at the Table of the Lord and are sent out to live and work together to God’s praise and glory.
IV Some challenges for IEF in the second decade of the second ecumenical century
So, finally, what might be some of the sharp challenges before you in IEF as you move into the second decade of the second ecumenical century?
- Stick with it. Don’t give up on unity, the visible unity of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, a Church called to be sign for the world of its own possibilities.
- Be bold in giving account of the hope for unity that is in you.
- Continue to experience, cherish, and extend the network of friendships across the boundaries of existing ecclesial divisions, across the divisions of continents and cultures, for you are preparing the seed bed for visible unity.
- Explore imaginatively together, in the light of your unique experience of fellowship and friendship, what sort of visible unity you believe God is calling us to live in and for a broken and divided world. Challenge one another to paint a picture in words of that unity.
- Remember that Lund Principle which was a part of the reason for your founding in the 1950’s, that we should consider ‘whether we (they) should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel us (them) to act separately.’ There is so much serving the world and binding up wounds that we could and should do together now.
- Be bold in challenging your churches to a renewed commitment to unity for the sake of the world.
- Above all, be vigilant in prayer, joining your prayer to the prayer of Jesus that we might be one as he and the Father are one, one like them and one in them.
- And one last challenge that came to me as I looked around the room. Ask yourselves how you can pass on your very special experience and your passion for unity, visible unity, to your children and grandchildren, to the next generation. How good that there are some , not many, younger members with us. Listen to them be prepared to hand on the baton.
V A moment of disclosure : the strange messenger of unity
Let me end with a story that remains for me a moment of disclosure about the urgency of unity. I was staying in a very large Roman Catholic Seminary, built when Ireland had many, many priestly vocations. Numerous doors led off wide long corridors, each one looked the same as the next. In one room a group of twenty theologians from different countries and different churches were meeting to prepare that Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order on Konini. An excitable French Canadian Roman Catholic theologian was in full flight explaining his vision of Church unity – everyone was concentrating on the picture he was painting. The door opened and in shuffled a dishevelled, unshaven man. The speaker continued without seeming to notice the stranger. The man sat down in an empty chair in the circle. He listened intently. Who was this strange man? – perhaps someone new to the group, from an eastern European country, just off a delayed flight. When the speaker finished talking all eyes were on the stranger. No-one dared break the silence. It was the dishevelled stranger who broke the silence. He barked, ‘Do you know what’s happening out there’, he pointed to the window. ‘People get drunk, they take drugs, they fight in denominational gangs, they shoot to kill, and family is against family’. The stranger went on, ‘He came to bring unity and peace. For God’s sake get on with it’. The stranger got up and shuffled out of the room. We asked at the reception desk who the man was, how did he know we were meeting in that room at that time. But no-one could tell us. They hadn’t seen anyone come in or go out. For us our stranger was a messenger. Get on with it – get on with working for unity, that was what he, Jesus, wanted, what he, Jesus, died for, and that is what the world with all its brokenness and division, desperately needs, the sign that a better way of living together is possible, a way of living as one reconciled people, concerned for the needs of others, a way of unity.
‘Get on with it for Christ’s sake and for the worlds sake’ – for Libya, for Gaza, for Iran, for Zimbabwe, for Sudan, for Dafur, for Haiti, for Israel/Palestine – for all the broken places and all the broken people that need the message of reconciliation that we have been entrusted with. Go on in IEF teaching us about koinonia and the value of friendship, the importance of Living Today the Church of Tomorrow. This is what Jesus died for – the one Body made visible and audible, attentive and active, credible and compelling – so that the world, through us, might believe. Go on helping us to understand the visible unity of the One Holy, catholic and Apostolic Church God longs for us to be.
Go on living today the Church of tomorrow.
[i] Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Faith and Order Paper 111, WCC Publications, 1982.
[ii] The Final Report of the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission, SPCK/CTS, 1982.
[iii] Cardinal Walter Kasper, Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith inEcumenical Dialogue, Continuum, 2009.
[iv] Receptive Ecumenism and a Call to Catholic Learning: Exploring a Way for ContemporaryEcumenism, Ed. Paul Murray, Oxford University Press, 2008.
[v] Called to Be the One Church, World Council of Churches web site