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EO conference 2019 long (002)Reflections on CTE's Ecumenical Officers conference, Ecumenism Today

John Anderson, Methodist District Ecumenical Officer (DEO) for Oxfordshire, shares his personal reflections on the recent conference which brought together National, County and Denominational Ecumenical Officers from across England. The conference was held at the Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick on 14th and 15th October 2019.
The conference brought together over 100 attendees, which included denominational ecumenical officers, county ecumenical officers and national ecumenical officers or their deputies, with Rev. Dr. Paul Goodliff and Jenny Bond from CTE’s staff. There were over 20 Methodist DEOs, including myself representing the Northampton Methodist District, which I think was the largest group; not having been to one of these gatherings for some years it was on the one hand good to see familiar faces, but also slightly worrying that I recognised so many!
The conference ran from Monday lunchtime to Tuesday lunchtime, with most of the time being spent in one of the main halls, and we were arranged in round tables which enabled conversation after hearing from a variety of speakers. I appreciate that I am getting old, but I have grown to detest the use of the word “buzz” as a verb. But for those with hearing aids or those, like me, who have developed a hearing problem, the “buzz” was about right when table conversation was requested. This was acknowledged by Jenny Bond at one point in the conference.
In comparing this conference to similar gatherings that I have attended in the past, I would highlight two differences. Firstly, the Salvation Army (S.A.) was very well represented. David Evans, the S.A. National ecumenical officer has been actively recruiting officers to champion the ecumenical cause at county level, and we heard of a new LEP being formed in Hull between the S.A. and Baptists. Secondly, one of the national level leaders who took a prominent part in the conference was Marcus Chilaka from the Redeemed Christian Church of God. His presence was a reminder of the growing influence within CTE of the Pentecostal tradition, and so called “minority” churches. We were made aware of the on-going conversations between the Church of England and the Pentecostal tradition. The question was floated at some point in the conference “who actually, these days, are in the minority?”. Mary Asagba from Leicestershire attended the conference as the representative of the national ecumenical officer from the Assemblies of God.
The first session was hosted by Rev. Dr. Paul Goodliff, General Secretary of CTE and Rev. Sarah Moore, who is the URC leader within the ecumenical county of Cumbria (Sarah is soon to move to a new role within Scotland). Cumbria was well represented at the conference, and throughout reminded us of what was already possible, especially within Anglican-Methodist relationships and interchangeability of ministry. Whilst no one is pretending that the Cumbrian situation is perfect, there was a lot of positivity which set something of a tone for the conference.
I remember attending an Ecumenical Officers conference in Leeds a few years ago when the Cumbria covenant was announced and explained by the then leaders of the three denominations involved. It was obvious that the three had developed a very good working relationship, but the cynics said “it will never last once these three have moved on”. It was good to hear from Sarah that ecumenical relationships and working has grown, even though leadership has changed, and her opinion, and the opinion of others working in Cumbria, is that the ecumenical pattern is now “set in stone”.
One of the factors within the set-up of Cumbria is the matching of Diocese, District and URC area/region boundaries. I wonder what could be achieved if we actively sought to re-organise our Methodist District and Circuit boundaries to match those of our ecumenical colleagues?
Paul Goodliff reminded us of the work in the areas of ‘receptive’ ecumenism and ‘judicial’ ecumenism. I tried to explain the former to a District Policy Committee when it was first announced, and it went down like a lead balloon (due no doubt to my attempts to explain what it was about). It was interesting to hear that the ‘tag line’ is now “help us to recover something we have lost”. Judicial ecumenism is based around conversations comparing what we are allowed to do, rather than what we cannot do.
The second session consisted of seven very short reflections on the conference theme given by the national denominational representatives, interspersed with table debate on what had been said. I hope that CTE will produce a ‘hard copy’ of what each representative offered, because there were some very good things which I had failed to note down! What I did catch included:
Salvation Army: Are we brave enough to work together; work with the Holy Spirit; to trust? Do church leaders treat ecumenism as a mere ‘tick box’?
Roman Catholic (from Pope Francis): “We are united in praying together; unity is not uniformity; unity is not absorption.” We need honesty, humility, humour and hope.
Baptist: Lack of concern about systems, more about walking together and looking after each other in love.
URC: a reminder that the URC was created to die, yet will soon be celebrating the 50th  anniversary of its creation.
The third session was “ecumenical opportunities in new housing areas”. We heard from Paul Goodliff of how the churches were working together to cover the large amount of new housing being created in his hometown of Bicester, Oxfordshire. A number of resources were recommended:

There was a discussion around the definition of “affordable housing”, and the need for churches to get involved in the very earliest stages of a new build. There was some astonishment at the news from Oxford Diocese of the challenge set by the Bishop of Oxford to build 750 new churches in the next 10 years.
In the fourth session we split into denominational groups. I took away the following:

  • The ‘new’ or ’flexible framework’ from CTE has no legal status, but was created to stimulate ideas on how ecumenical work might develop; it was approved by the enabling group at national level.
  • The Church of England has re-written the ecumenical canons in line with the ‘flexible framework’ and generated a new ‘Ecumenical Code of Practice’ which can be found online. Ecumenical Canon B43 has been rewritten and we assumed that B44 no longer applies.

It was noted that the Church of England is now using the phrase ‘local ecumenical co-operative scheme’ (LECOS) rather than ‘LEP’ and this allows for more flexibility in working with a wider scope of churches. However, it was reported that one diocese was actively seeking out LEPs that had not been renewed after 7 years, declaring that the LEP was now an LECOS. Given recent experiences within the reviews of Christchurch, Brownsover and Emmanuel, Weston Favell, perhaps this is a general trend?

  • In Cumbria it was noted that mission took the lead in working together ecumenically.
  • There was considerable discussion about the use of local covenants, and the need for a repository of example documents of various sorts was floated, as well as suggestions for best practice.
  • There were the inevitable ‘war stories’. A comment by Dudley Coates reminded me of the DW3 sketch involving John Cleese (Anglican), Ronnie Barker (Methodist) and Ronnie Corbett (URC).

The final working session was entitled ‘Tools for Ecumenical Working’. Again, there was a lot of information attempting to coalesce in my tired brain.

  • CTE web site is full of useful information but often difficult to find. Use of the search function was recommended, call CTE if you can’t find something. CTE’s website is to be relaunched in late 2020.
  • CTE web site includes a PPT presentation on the flexible framework. A tool kit is hoped to be available within Q1, 2020.
  • It was noted that the threshold for churches having to register as a charity will fall to £5,000 from 2021.
  • We were encouraged to look at the resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity now and not wait until after Christmas!
  • A reminder that resources for Lent were available from CTBI. “Thy Kingdom Come” and “HOPE Together” web sites were also recommended
  • If considering the topic of human sexuality, the Methodist resources around the “God in love unites us” report and the Anglican “Living in love and faith” project were suggested.
  • The World Council of Churches web site also has lots of useful resources, including “Church towards a common vision” and the Lima “B.E.M” reports.

Final thoughts – everyone on our table thought it had been a good and useful time, if intense. I need to catch up on the ‘flexible framework’ and new Anglican Ecumenical Code of Practice. There were some questions that I wonder if CTE will be brave enough to pick up, e.g. “who are now the majority churches? Is it the ‘traditional’ churches?” and “is there negative ecumenism?” (in other words, we won’t do anything because everyone will become [insert denomination/tradition] at some point in the future.) And what is the place and role of the ‘sponsoring’ or ‘county’ bodies?
John Anderson is Methodist Denominational Ecumenical Officer for Oxfordshire

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