Staying with the theme of history , this new sequence will explore the recent history of ecumenism in Britain (mainly England). My posts usually explore theological approaches to ecumenism. This sequence will focus on the contemporary context in England, applying these approaches.
This year is the centenary of the Edinburgh 1910 missionary conference (illustrated). This has been understood as the start of the modern ecumenical movement. I will focus upon post-war developments and, more specifically, the post 1982 ecumenical scene. The post-war period can be divided into three parts:
- Until 1982, there was a period of growth in ecumenical relationships; a time when many people saw the future church as ecumenical. To be ecumenical was to be at the cutting edge. The world saw the formation of the World Council of Churches , and several national united churches were formed by Protestant churches, most notably the Church of South India . In England, this was the period of the first local ecumenical partnerships (under another name) and the formation of the United Reformed Church , which was seen as the first of many unifications to come. The URC, Methodist Church, Church of England and Moravian Churches, entered into talks about an English Covenant.
- In 1982, the General Synod of the Church of England voted against the English Covenant. This was a shock to the ecumenical movement. The question was: where next? The way this was answered, through a process called Not Strangers but Pilgrims is described in a very readable paper by Colin Davey and Martin Reardon. This immensely successful interchurch process culminated in 1987 with the Swanwick Agreement and the launch of the new Ecumenical Instruments in 1989. This process brought the Roman Catholic Church onto the ecumenical scene and also saw a shift in emphasis from Councils of Churches, acting on behalf of the churches, to Churches Together, where churches make their own decisions to work together.
- Post 1989 has been a period of contradictions. On the one hand, the old council of churches approach has not died but underlies much of the practice of the new interchurch process. These conflicting objectives have led the churches to look increasingly inwards. This deep seated lack of clarity about the way forward, means the churches have failed to appreciate the significant changes taking place over the last 20 years. The increasing numbers of small local new churches , the appearance of an interfaith agenda, a movement towards a consensus about the priority of mission and the emergence of an increasingly radical secular agenda.
I must stress this analysis is my own and few ecumenists would recognise the conflict between these three agendas (councils of churches, churches together, mission). I have written about some of the consequences already, particularly the loss of support amongst younger people for the old ecumenical agenda. Whatever way we look at it, the enthusiasm for formal ecumenism in the 1980s has dissipated.