“A pilgrimage together, hand-in-hand”: Churches Together in England celebrates 30 years
On 1 September 2020, Churches Together in England (CTE) celebrates the 30th anniversary of its formation. Here CTE’s General Secretary, Rev’d Dr Paul Goodliff, reflects on the last 30 years, while looking ahead to the many opportunities for churches to worship, serve and witness together into the future…
In the late 1980s there was a growing conviction that the existing ecumenical body, The British Council of Churches, was no longer effective. Its work was often ignored by its member churches, and a major weakness was the status of the Catholic Church as an observer only. In 1985 during his visit to Glasgow, Pope St John Paul II, observing that the whole Christian community are ‘pilgrims on earth’, asked “can we not make that pilgrimage together, hand-in-hand?” So was born the metaphor for a new kind of ecumenism – one that would fully embrace the Catholic Church (and over the years since its birth in 1990, many more churches) – becoming churches together in pilgrimage.
The transition process
On our CTE website you can read the story of the process that enabled The British Council of Churches to transition to the new ecumenical instruments in the four nations of these islands — Irish, Welsh, Scots and English, together with Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (then The Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland).
My reflection here highlights the key conference that brought this process to its conclusion.
In September 1987, churches from across these islands gathered at Swanwick, Derbyshire, and made the decision to form the new instruments. The question remained, however: would the Catholic Church join?
It hung in the balance until Cardinal Basil Hume spoke of his experience of the unity at Swanwick as a gift of God in abundance and recommended to his fellow Catholic delegates that they commit to the new ecumenical instruments.
A fresh era of ecumenical endeavour was born, and perhaps we have grown so used to these ways of working together that we forget how momentous a decision that was thirty years ago.
This momentous occasion in 1987 is commemorated at The Hayes Christian Conference Centre in Swanwick today, with the symbol of a Pilgrim’s Shell displayed alongside an inscription from the Swanwick Declaration.
As we journey together on the pilgrimage towards the unity that Christ prayed for, this anniversary reminds us how far we have come – and how much further we have to travel.
The last 30 years
Over the last thirty years, CTE’s national church membership has almost doubled, with many Pentecostal churches joining in more recent times. At its birth in 1990 there were three Orthodox churches in membership, now there are nine; there were six Pentecostal churches or networks in 1990, now there are eighteen, and absent in 1990 were any of the New Churches, but now we have three in membership. A full list of our 50 Member Churches can be found here.
This growth in membership has stretched CTE to a very broad representation of the character of English Christianity, matched by our growing number of Bodies in Association (organisations who work ecumenically) – now standing at more than 50.
But that is only half the story. With local Churches Together groups in villages, towns and cities across the country giving on-the-ground expression to ecumenical life, supported by fifty five Intermediate Bodies working at a county (or sometimes city) level, the DNA of the pilgrimage model runs through every level.
Yes, we disagree about many theological and ethical concerns – that is the fruit of a thousand years of church history – but our deeper conviction is that what we share in Christ is infinitely greater than the things we disagree on. The call to unity rings continually from the Spirit and the words of Jesus in Scripture, reflected in CTE’s strapline: ‘One in Christ Jesus, engaged in God’s mission, empowered by the Spirit’.
As we celebrate thirty years of ecumenical life in England, the best birthday gift we can give to each other is a renewal of the commitments made by twenty churches at CTE’s inaugural service in St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, on 1 September 1990. May we deepen the commitment to journey in pilgrimage together as fifty Member Churches, whatever the challenges along the way; to renew the ecumenical life at county level, and in every local gathering of churches in villages, towns and cities across the land.
The churches might be facing unprecedented challenges in a world in crisis, but the many ecumenical opportunities for proclaiming the gospel, serving wider society and witnessing to the ‘faith once given’ are there to be grasped. Let’s do so together as Christians in England, as St John Paul II said, “hand-in-hand.”
Rev’d Dr Paul Goodliff
General Secretary, Churches Together in England