Living Today the Church of Tomorrow – towards Peace, Reconciliation and Social Justice
Lady Kate Davson – International President
The International Ecumenical Fellowship
WHO AM I?
Only God knows me fully, and so he should – He made me. But am I today the person he intends me to be? Do I know who I am today? Am I in such a relationship with God that I am confident of His will for me? Does this confidence give me peace in my relationship with others – does it lead to reconciliation in my daily life with God, with others and with myself? How can this spiritual well-being lead to peace and development between peoples of different Christian traditions, peoples of different faiths, and peoples of different cultural background?
It was through the loving spiritual direction of an African friend that the true path of self discovery was revealed to me. At a particularly low ebb, after the death of my husband, all the demons in my life, which I thought I had dealt with, seemed to have united and come to the surface to torment me, and I needed sorting out. The prophet Zechariah wrote these words of the Lord, “…I will bring that group through the fire and make them pure, just as gold and silver are refined and purified by fire. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘These are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’” [Zech 13:8-9] Through guidance from this friend, Fr Martin Onyango, MAfr, I set myself to the crucible – but in the best possible hands. The pain was hard to bear, but the rewards have been miraculous.
“Whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything.” [James 1:2-4] Today I find it awe-inspiring how God blessed me at my weakest moment – and by what means? By my awareness of his inestimable love, and by the love of my friends.
It is likely that all of us here can identify the wounded history in our personal lives – perhaps in our families; in our local churches; in our communities; in our nations and, of course in our world. Have we had the courage to confront the demons we discovered? Have we gone far enough in accepting them, in confessing them, in forgiving those who have hurt us, and in seeking to be reconciled with them? From a deeply wounded state God transformed me, through purification, like gold in a crucible, into knowing, in joy, that ‘He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me’ (Psalm 18:19). This transformation of who I am has brought me peace, and having journeyed thus far, the whole world opens before me in the development of what emerges.
As a start, the relationships within my own family can be reconciled. It may interest you to know that my great, great, great grandfather was William Wilberforce. 2007 was the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. To commemorate that event, I took part, for the first two days, in a march in chains, from Hull to London. This was organised to show solidarity with the descendants of those slaves, so many of whom have now their home in Britain – a symbolic act of apology, begging for forgiveness and reconciliation between those who had inflicted such barbaric treatment on human beings, and their descendants. There was a commemoration at Westminster Abbey, in the presence of the Queen, at which I had the honour of reading Wilberforce’s great statement of his mission – “God has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”
But there was an additional bonus for me and my many cousins. Three of Wilberforce’s four sons became Roman Catholics at the time of the Oxford Movement, at the same time as John Henry Newman and Henry Manning. This tore the family apart, and, as a child, I never had the opportunity of knowing my Catholic cousins. Part of my rehabilitation, if you like to call it that, has been to seek out those unknown cousins and get to know them, be reconciled to them – it might be termed ‘family ecumenism’. After that service at Westminster Abbey, 85 members of the Wilberforce family met together in a room at the Houses of Parliament to renew our relationship. Of that number I only knew a maximum of 15, and most of those only for the past 5 years. Some of them thought it really weird of me to make such a fuss about it all, but others supported me totally, and understood the importance of that reconciliation. Peace, through faith, bringing potential for rich development.
But honesty with ourselves, with God and with our neighbour are imperatives on this journey to overcome our divisions. In Wilberforce’s words, ‘We are all guilty – we all ought to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others.’ God’s will for me has been to seek fulfilment of Christ’s prayer ‘that all of them may be One, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have me’. [John 17:21] My passionate desire for the unity of all Christian people – not uniformity but unity in diversity – brought me into the International Ecumenical Fellowship.
The story of the International Ecumenical Fellowship (IEF) is the story of pilgrims from many places, journeying together towards the same destination – the renewal of the Christian Church.
In the more than forty years since our foundation, our story has been one of a community of largely grassroots Christians inspired and encouraged to work for Christian unity. Our inspiration has been the vision and the experience of ‘Living today the Church of tomorrow’. Our vision has been shaped by events and personalities, but the experience has been everyone’s.
IEF’s name is significant in the word fellowship: we are a koinonia, a community bound together by the Holy Spirit.
One of our great strengths is the way that we bring lay and ordained Christians together across the divides of language, ethnicity, nationality, political structures, spirituality and Church traditions. This broadens our understanding of God and gives us a taste of what it means to be part of a worldwide Church. We come to appreciate the gifts that God has given to different traditions and faiths, and find God challenging us through ‘others’. In developing deep friendships with people from different backgrounds and cultures, we experience personally the power of Jesus Christ to make us one in Him.
In this way, our service to God, through faith, helps others overcome fear of the ‘other’, in an inter-Christian as also in an inter-religious context – surely a path, if followed in love, that can only lead to peace and reconciliation. In this peace and reconciliation all are equipped to work together for the development of social justice.
How has this cohesion been achieved? It was part of the vision of the founders, themselves members of the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Evangelical-Lutheran, Reformed and Orthodox churches, that “By prayer, study and action, the International Ecumenical Fellowship (IEF) seeks to serve the movement towards the visible unity of the Church according to the expressed will of Jesus Christ by the means He wills” (The Fribourg Statement 1967). This statement encapsulated IEF’s vision for shared worship, discipleship and fellowship in the following words: “To serve the will of God, and unite the people of God, by hearing the word of God, proclaiming the praise of God, and breaking the bread of God”.
Our action has been on different levels: in annual international conferences, held each year in a different country; in regional meetings in our different national contexts – we are currently from ten different European countries, five Eastern and five Western, with individual members in the USA and in Africa [our convenor has been a member of the British region for about 8 years]; and in smaller localised area group meetings. At the heart and core of each conference is daily worship and prayer. We normally begin each day with a creative and very spiritual morning office, we hold a daily Eucharist, each day in a different tradition, and a speciality of IEF is the Service for Healing and Reconciliation.
Within this framework we enjoy times for Bible study and at least one theological lecture is given by a leading theologian. One of our problems is always the effect of the Tower of Babel, as we are usually about 12-15 different nationalities and languages at a conference. Enormous efforts are made, in this regard, to translate all lectures, liturgies, Bible studies and reflections into at least the four main languages [English, German, French and Spanish], and to make sure that in any discussion groups work is done in a maximum of two languages, thereby enabling each person in that group to follow what is said. We meet also in workshops on both creative and biblical/theological/ecological themes; and we visit places of special interest, making an effort to meet local traditions and cultures. We seek to be inclusive and open to people of all ages, and young people make a special contribution to our life together.
Through these experiences, we become familiar with the liturgies and worship of Christian traditions that are not our own, thus dispelling the fear of the ‘other’ which lies at the root of our divisions.
For some years now we have been praying about how the continent of Africa can be brought into our fellowship. Five years ago I visited Mbeya in Tanzania and we enjoyed the first taste of what could be a fruitful partnership when I joined with the Anglican Bishop John Mwela, a Lutheran pastor, Rev’d Mwaipopo delegated by his Bishop, a Moravian Professor Dr. Nzowa and Fr Martin Onyango MAfr, in a Symposium with the theme “What does it mean to live our daily lives ecumenically”? With a lively audience of about 70, including catechists, pastors and ordinary grassroots Christians, I was thrilled by their delight to be included in a serious discussion on Christian daily living together in harmony.
Their response to so much that was said was ‘Why have we never been told about our divisions before? – why have we been kept separate? Now, I know that we in the West are partly responsible for this, in that during the colonial years, the missions batted for their own side. Surely the time has come when for Christianity to survive in our world, we must carry out mission together, we must worship together, above all we must carry out our social justice together. ‘They will see we are Christians by our Love’! Will they?
Fr. Martin Onyango and I have been praying how to envisage a way by which the African continent can be members with us in the same way as we are members with one another. This has logistical grounds – firstly economical, secondly topographical and thirdly political. IEF is a relatively small organization with absolutely no paid staff and without financial backing. Each conference is organized by a host region made up entirely of volunteers, who give of their time and talents willingly to serve the fellowship as a whole. But, as some of you may know to your cost, when it comes to supporting visa applications, not only is this enormously time consuming, but subject too to the problems of abuse. I ask forgiveness for bringing this up, but it has happened to us in the past. If we know the individuals personally, this is all very well, but if we do not know them, how are we to know if IEF is being corruptly used for entry to the UK or Europe for commercial or perhaps even worse motives. So many efforts to get visas for our African friends to join with us at a conference have been thwarted by ever more stringent conditions imposed by governments.
That is why I am here today, to say to you ‘here is a model of ecumenism that works. Fr Martin would dearly have liked to be with us too, but the timing with his work with ordinands did not allow it. He has the experience of ecumenical work in Mbeya, Tanzania, and would be overjoyed to find friends here with whom he could work across national boundaries. How could it be built up in Africa?
‘Small Christian Communities’ could become ecumenical – I can see neighbours meeting together for prayer and for Bible study – why not invite neighbours from other churches as a sign of a true community, inclusive of all God’s children? Small seminars hosted in rotation by the different local churches, with testimonies given by ordinary Christians as well as educational talks given by catechists or pastors. Large Annual Gatherings with ecumenical participation. Each or any of these suggested events must start and end with prayer and worship, if possible with a shared Eucharist; and let it end or start with a shared meal. Christ shared a meal with his friends before he departed to his death – it is meet and right that we should share food and fellowship with each other.
We should be so happy if our ‘Living Today the Church of Tomorrow’ could spread through Africa, spreading the love of God in the Unity of the Holy Spirit, with consequential peace among peoples and nations, who together are then empowered to bring about the development of their own lives and nations in this globalised world. You could count on our personal participation and prayer.
Our annual conference next year is in UK in Brighton – 22-29th August. If you could come as a small group, you could get a flavour of what it could be like.
Come ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’! [Psalm 34:8]