We need to be honest about the limits of ecumenism

Pope Francis leads ecumenical vespers at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls in 2014 (CNS)

I was in my early twenties when I first attended an ecumenical service which was arranged by a group of city centre churches. All six churches had signed a covenant which had great aspirations for unity. The main manifestation of this group was occasional gatherings in each other’s churches. So every couple of months we would move to a different church on a Sunday evening.

During my whole time as part of this group I cannot say that I actually learned anything of the traditions of the other churches and communities. The problem was that the worship was nebulous. In an aim to try to meet the needs of every community the worship didn’t reflect anything of anyone’s tradition. We aimed for something which would unite us and what we achieved the lowest common denominator.

Several years later as a curate in another town I encountered a near identical situation. When I suggested it would be better for each host church to provide the worship that was their norm I was gently admonished as if I had expressed some form of heresy. The monthly Sunday evenings had become something of a sacred cow.

In both contexts the worship was dull and attracted the same people. It was hard to get people in my own parish to be enthusiastic about it because they perceived the whole thing as uninspiring and achieving little.

Is Ecumenism dead?

Our shallow attempt at expressing unity was also undermined by the drifting of certain communities and traditions from Christian orthodoxy. The prospect of full corporate ecumenism was growing into a much more distant reality with every new innovation that some communities seemed desperate to chase after. Most of those who attended did so out of sense of loyalty, obligation and duty.

I remember one particularly liberal minister speaking strongly and compelling about the urgency of unity. Despite this, his conviction seemed shallow because his own vocal stance on the ordination of women and gay marriage were making his aspirations for ecumenism more of impossibility than ever before. He didn’t seem to be able to join up those particular dots.

I began to realise that despite our joint services, covenants and Good Friday walks of witness, very few people actually meant it. What we did was full of hollow gestures. There were positives, such as actually knowing each other, but our impact was a fraction of what it should have been.

A way forward

Today I am involved in a very friendly Churches Together group but I still struggle to encourage parishioners to attend. I calculated that during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity less than 8% of my regular congregation actually attended any of the services. This was despite my efforts to drum up support.

There does however seem to be a new way emerging. Up and down the country churches are beginning to work together in far more practical ways. In my local town, churches of every description are cooperating to provide food banks, homeless shelters, Street Pastors, a community café and a day centre for homeless and poorly housed people. Regular unity services have largely been abandoned in exchange for joint practical action. This seems to be a far more sensible and meaningful approach.

Rather than pretending to be unified, churches can become closer by having a common aim in serving the community. This proves that local friendships can be forged without having to sit through something dull in a cold and damp church that makes us miss Countryfile.

As welfare and community services face ever increasing cutbacks there is exiting an opportunity for ecumenism to step into the breach. Placing our energies here will do far more good and says far more about our relationship with each other.

Churches are in a well placed to recognise needs within the community. This will be far more positive and lasting that chasing after something which for the moment seems impossibility.