Rev Peter Whittaker has been the CTE Enabling Group Moderator and Chair of CTE Trustees up until the summer of 2012.
At the start of CTE Forum 2012 on 23.10.12 Peter gave his reflection on the 'Ecumenical Journey thus far.'
Full text below
Reflection on the ecumenical journey thus far ..
Picture courtesy of John Roberts
“What does love require of us?”
How was your journey? No not what happened as you travelled here in a physical sense today. Better- how IS your journey, your ecumenical journey that’s got you to this point in your life’s pilgrimage? Where will that journey take you – in the providence of God - in these days we are to spend together?
Let me share with you something of my journey thus far. A glance into my rear view mirror as our Forum begins. And let me encourage you to reflect on your own journey- learn from it and share it with others in our time together in this special place - where so many ecumenical steps have been taken in these islands. St Paul says to us “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Perhaps my journey began through my Dad when I noticed difference, rivalry and even hostility. He was a brass bandsman and twice each year he went “over’top” to Lancashire from our Yorkshire home. He went once to play for processions of witness for Protestant Churches culminating in a fantastic chapel tea. And once for a religious procession for the Roman Catholic Church. They were rewarded for that job by much booze – alcohol. That didn’t please dad he preferred the chapel teas!
Or maybe my real journey began in the early days of my working life in the heady days of the 1960’s, attempting to find faith and defend religion in the pub on Friday lunchtimes - over a pint and a beef sandwich. Most of my workmates had little time for organised religion but loved to argue about all aspects of life. I was bested in many a debate but found an ally in Joe McGowan a salesman and a Roman Catholic. We stood shoulder to shoulder vocal for the faith.
Or perhaps it was at Scargil House in Kettlewell – the Yorkshire Dales where as a young adult I spent weekends with others of my generation whose background was Anglican or Roman Catholic. They were life changing encounters.
I’m sure I began as a youngster with the innocent but possibly God inspired sense that a Christian was a Christian was a Christian – and that all Churches were just that Churches. I felt I belonged to one Christian Church until life experience taught me about division. Until I understood that Church leaders, with whatever titles, were no better at power sharing than our current politicians struggling with government in coalition. My working assumption, that’s underpinned my ministry within the Methodist Church, has been and is that unity is God’s gift and desire. Deep down within me is the feeling and knowledge that the oneness of the Christian faith is the underlying reality. That it’s our failure that creates division. That it’s my failure that perpetuates division. We are better together even if I can’t quite imagine how that will work out in its fullness.
I owe a tremendous debt to the Methodist Church that formed me, nurtured me and allowed me a place as an ordained Presbyter – a minister of word and sacrament - But my Church – the Methodist Church – my home - has always been too small. My spirituality and practice has borrowed and adapted from the whole spectrum of our faith. The gifts I’ve received from other traditions – the traditions in this room that you represent - have enriched me and my tradition. They’ve become an integral part of my faith and witness. I’m a product of this more ecumenical age – thank God.
A couple of weeks ago I was in a beautiful part of the independent kingdom of Yorkshire – at Wydale Hall, outside Scarborough. I was leading a day of reflection for around 30 retired Methodist Ministers – male and female. I’d chosen as my title “Whither Ecumanism?” I encouraged those folk to share their experiences of the ecumenical journey of the last half century. Some had served the world church, some had been in theological education, and many had been itinerant ministers serving in the circuits of the British Conference. Many shared inspiring and moving stories of the breaking of barriers, of the richness of encounter across denominations and of personal friendships, friendships that had left the deepest gratitude in these women and men. It was a privilege to hear their testimonies.
Some shared deep frustration at how so much had been promised through ecumenical sharing and yet progress had – in their mind – been slow or had stalled. I tried to encourage them to recognise that it will take more than one generation to overcome the divisions of a thousand years. I tried also to explore with them the richness of ecumenical sharing in England. And we are all here tonight!
This richness includes newer Churches and other branches of the Christian community from elsewhere in the world becoming embedded in our culture. What we now know as Black and Ethnic Minority Churches, Pentecostal Churches and Orthodox Communities. Beginning to make their contribution to the diversity of witness and service offered in Christ’s name. Through our day together, a number of those retired Methodist Ministers confirmed that they had a new perspective on their place in the story of unity and felt encouraged. That’s where their journey has taken them when they had the chance to reflect upon it. Where’s your journey taken you? Where are you going?
The conference room in Tavistock Place was full. This is the room in the CTE offices that has around the walls honours boards with the names of those who’ve served the Free Churches and the broader ecumenical movement down through the years. Holding a meeting in that room you really feel surrounded by the community of saints! Sometimes you even feel they approve of what now happens in that room. I was to chair a gathering of our member Churches to discuss our work. CTE now has 37 members and is still growing. We have amongst us Bodies in Association described at the Ecumenical movements voluntary sector. The range, variety and diversity of our members is amazing, and challenging. When I fancy a bit of hyperbole – I tell people it’s the widest range of Christian expression on the planet – and actually that may be true of the current ecumenical scene in England and is not hyperbole at all!
Listening to the contributions from that range of churches, who vary in size, ways of governing, traditions, ministries and activity is a humbling experience. And they all want to be in the room - most of the time! They’re all committed to listening to others, to getting to know others and to share in a whole variety of ways. The ecumenical tent is large. The ecumenical tent is crowded. Some near the edges look as if they may sneak out at the sides and look slightly uncomfortable when they recognise some of the others who are also in the tent. Moderating that lot – my task until recently – is a challenge. Each Church believes that the way it does business is either the only way or the best way. Some Churches have until they entered this tent always worked alone. For some recognising others as Church in a full sense is easy and natural, for others it’s very difficult. But we stay together and increasingly learn from each other and bear one another’s burdens.
Why is all this important? You may just remember that our country hosted a small event with a bit of running and jumping in London this summer. In common with many places – inspired by “Going for Gold” we hosted an event on a school field in Knaresborough for all the youngsters connected to local Churches. I spent the afternoon chatting to their parents – most of whom had little or no contact with the Church. In between cheering on their children, eating hot dogs and ice cream, in a natural way we talked of many things from family to politics, from local issues to global concerns and the place of Church and faith in the year of the Olympics. That afternoon has challenged us to seek unity in mission – to tell the Christian story to a whole generation who’ve not heard it and they live in our town. That’s where my journey has taken me – where’s yours going?
I tell one final story from my journey that’s become for me a powerful parable from which I draw strength for the continuing journey into unity.
The Methodist Church sent me to a European Conference. I don’t think they understood how important it would be otherwise they would have sent someone else. But I arrived in Basle – Switzerland in the late spring of a year that changed the world – 1989. I was a delegate to the “European Ecumenical Assembly” – “Peace with Justice.” The first time since the reformation that European Churches, north, south, east, and west – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant had come together. We felt the thrill of change in the air, of unity as we met together and sensed the turmoil that later in the year brought down the Berlin Wall. For my generation that wall was one of the most potent symbols of division in our world.
We worshipped together in Basle Cathedral and had been encouraged to take with us a small bag of soil from our place, in my case our garden in Ashby-de-la-Zouch. During worship we poured these offerings of the earth into a container and mixed the soils of Europe together - planted a tree and watered it in. At the door of the cathedral it grew. We heard later that the tree was vandalised – burnt – destroyed. But then the following spring that green shoots had been seen the plant was not dead it was alive – it was flourishing in the soil of our continent. Out of our diversity came unity and new life – we were better together.
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.”
What does love require of us?
Where will your journey take you in these next few days?