What is Ecumenism? Seven reasons churches must work together (Ministry Blog Series – 5)

In a change from my normal blog posts, I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written down the years, including for the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales . My good friend and colleague Revd Siôn Brynach has recently been appointed Chief Executive of CYTUN (Churches Together in Wales) and so I thought this was a good time to share a paper I wrote recently about the future of ecumenism in Wales.

Ecumenism has changed. In my doctoral thesis, I explored ecumenism in the 1960s and many then were predicting the future to be a steady march to Christian unity. By the time I set up the Welsh National Centre for Ecumenical Studies with Dr Noel Davies in the 1990s, it was dawning on us that this was not inevitable – but there was still a feeling that it was good for both the Church and society that denominations work together. By today, we live in a changed world, with very different priorities, challenges, and hopes from even a generation ago. And so, in light of these, we need to reflect upon seven points in considering the future of ecumenism in Wales:

1. Ecumenism is absolutely necessary to the future of our faith.

We live in a society that is obsessed with choice. But in this I believe we don’t have a choice. Christians working together is not a preference for us to consider. For the Church to survive and thrive, for the Church to be a gift to Welsh society, this is our only option. As the Welsh football logo puts it – Together Stronger. After all, we pray to “our father”, not “my father” – we are all one family in Christ. It is facing the future together that we can become a true blessing, inspiration, and resource to the people of Wales.

2. Ecumenism in the future faces a different reality.

In the past we have, quite rightly, argued that ecumenism is absolutely necessary because it is a biblical and theological imperative. But, in today’s world, it is also absolutely necessary because of how the younger generations view us. Almost all non-Christians (young and old), and even a good majority of the younger Christians, express confusion and disbelief that we don’t work together. Many young people today don’t know what the word “ecumenism” is, but my experience of schools and universities show me that, when they talk of Christianity, they’re talking of ecumenism. Valuing and cherishing our unique traditions is an important part of being in this ecumenical family, but the fact that the world doesn’t see us as different is both a huge challenge and a liberating blessing.

3. The future of ecumenism is rooted in the community.

Good ecumenism grows from grassroots outwards – it evolves from practical action in our communities. Becoming a holy ‘talking shop’ alienates and divides. Ecumenism must make a very real and practical difference. In my experience as a parish priest and as someone who has trained ordained and lay ministers of various denominations, ecumenism comes alive when it is real people coming together to live out God’s love in their local community – to help refugees, to assist those struggling financially, to maintain foodbanks, to ensure environmental initiatives flourish, or to protest against discrimination and inequality.

4. The future of ecumenism is at the centre of public life.

It is only together that we can truly be at the heart of the public square and the public life of Wales. Recently I taught a Masters course for chaplains of various denominations, and the chaplains (health, military, school & University) were consistent in telling me that, aside from a small dissenting minority, those in our secular institutions and organisations still look to us for spiritual, pastoral, and moral leadership. In Wales, we are a country of two principal languages and a flourishing Welsh government. The ecumenical presence needs, therefore, to prioritise relationship-building and continue to be embedded in Welsh life (in both the Welsh and English medium) as a resource and an inspiration – in the Senedd, in schools, in the health service, in the media, in city centres, in rural workplaces, and so on.

5. The future of ecumenism cannot ignore the digital.

Both the local community and the wider society are central to ecumenism, but digital communities and communication are also of paramount importance. Churches and denominations cannot consign themselves to ecclesial ghettos, but need to work together to reach out to our digital world. I was delighted to speak to the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland trustees recently about the hugely successful podchurch venture that my church pioneered during the pandemic. Podchurch, which released worship that was centred on climate change, racial justice, disability, refugees, and many more issues, was listened to across the denominational spectrum and was able to inspire so many beyond my own tradition.

6. The future of ecumenism needs to be open to inter-faith friendship

Ecumenism emphasises our unity in Christ, but it also recognises our common humanity with our brothers and sisters in other faiths. This leads to fruitful dialogue and effective action. Not that ecumenism and interfaith work should be confused – in the early 2000s I resisted pressure to make the Welsh National Centre for Ecumenical Studies the “Welsh National Centre for Inter Faith Studies”. It is only because churches come together in ecumenism to celebrate both their similarities and differences that we can have something unique and inspiring to contribute to inter-faith dialogue and action.

7. The future of ecumenism is grounded in hope.

So many people in Wales have lost their attachment to institutional religion. But this need not lead us to lose heart. Those of us championing ecumenism can build on two things:

a) The latest studies reveal that spirituality is still important in people’s lives. The work of theologians such as Gordon Lynch and Charles Taylor have shown that people’s spirituality is simply taking a new form – in film and music, or in exercise and yoga, or in football and other sports, or even during public grief, as was shown after the death Queen Elizabeth II, when places of worship were visited for prayer and for the signing of books of condolences. Together churches can consider the implication of this popular spirituality and then work to provide moments of uplifting transcendence for a society hungry for connection.

b) As well as the presence of an innate spirituality, the respect for the tireless work of the churches for social justice is also increasing. The impact that ecumenical initiatives have had in Wales in recent years has shown this, both at a local level, with life-transforming ecumenical projects like Llanfair on the Penrhys estate in the Rhondda Valley, and nationally, with inspiring CYTUN work on such important issues as campaigning against poverty, welcoming refugees, and combating climate change.

So, yes, ecumenism has evolved so much in the past decades. But its absolute necessity remains. In a world where there are now so many divisions in areas of politics and identity, we Christians can embody a wonderful unity in diversity to bring hope to our fractured world, as we speak for those with no voice, stand alongside the sidelined, and reveal to the people of Wales that our faith is good news for all.

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