Welcome to the world of ecumenical relations.....

Being responsible for ecumenical relations for the United Reformed Church I am drawn into a wide range of groups and activities so it's my hope that over time this blog will help to paint a broad picture of what is happening in the ecumenical scene; allow me to share my own reflections and might also help me to remember what I was doing last week......

As I travel around the country and sometimes further afield I plan to upload photos as well as commentary and my hope is that this will play a small part in the gradually growing dynamic of ecumenical co-operation.



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Third International Receptive Ecumenism Conference

Receptive Ecumenism is one of the new movements within the ecumenical scene but hardly a new phenomena. When I was 19 I was invited to be part of a World Council of Churches discussion group in Bristol on the theme of 'Giving account of the hope that is in us'. The experience of hearing what other Christians understood by hope started a process of seeing how I could incorporate into my spirituality the insights of others that I experienced as being of value. Many others have had similar experiences and it is that fact that has been taken up in recent years and turned into a project. That project has been largely led by Durham University and the work of Professor Paul Murray. It has been adopted with some enthusiasm by the Roman Catholic Church as well as other ecumenical partners. The project in Durham has had three specific areas of focus including, for example, looking at what different traditions in the North East of England have done in the area of leadership and whether one tradition can learn from another. Centre for Catholic Studies : Receptive Ecumenism - Durham University

The scope of the conference is to explore the international dimension of Receptive Ecumenism but this has done much more than simply extend the discussion geographically. Plenary sessions have received input from people from various continents which leads to the realisation that in widely diferent cultural backgrounds of the Church the issues vary widely. In some cultures the role of women is far more significant an aspect of the objective of RE than in the UK. In other cultures the perspective of the church in a place that has largely been unaffected by the enlightennment debates we are so familar with in the West brings another perspective to the way in which RE works not simply between churches in the same locality but across international boundaries. I was particularly interested in what we might be able to learn from the work of the Asian Bishops writing in relation to Buddhism and its connection, for us, with the kind of paradigm shift we need to make from a Newtonian to an Einsteinian way of thinking and its implications for ecumenism in possibly shifting us to anew pardigmatic way of thinking that might create a whole new set of priorities and perspectives.

Similarly, as an example of a different area of focus, input and discussion in one of the parallel sessions was focussed on the philosopical dimension of Pope Benedict's work on the two loves, Eros and Agape and how the subtle development in thinking within the Catholic Church about the relationship between the two contributes to Receptive Ecumenism.

Probably the main set of questions for me relate to how the very fruitful and fascinating work that is done at events such as what happens here connects with the life of the local church or indeed the individual spirituality of any member of one of our churches. In one sense the basic principle of RE is remarkably simple and easy to put into practice but its application within the policy development, for example, of our churches remains highly problematic and challenging; but what is life without challenges!?

 

 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Commemorating World War 1

The following is the text (slightly adapted) of a paper I gave at the meeting of the URC's Peace Fellowship in October. I have placed it in the ecumenical blog simply because there are ecumenical questions and implications for what we decide to do.

 

"The concern I have developed regarding the forthcoming commemoration of the start of World War 1 was triggered by a letter from the government to faith communities inviting them to be involved. The letter specifically referred to a proposed event on August 4th in Westminster Abbey but of course by extension invited faith communities to be involved with the whole period of commemoration. This was placed on the agenda of the Free Churches Group meeting in April 2013 just after the letter was received.

 

Government initiatives have developed since then but the focus remains on encouraging as many parts of society as possible to join in the commemoration, including making it possible for school children to visit the battlefields. There are places where a museum exists including part of a trench still kept as it would have been along with collections of equipment, photographs and so on. On one level it is clear that children will have the chance to discover what being involved in the war was like and will be given the statistics of loss of life just as the rest of us are reminded year by year on Remembrance Sunday but what values will be promoted alongside this? The focus of the commemoration is not simply on the educational aspect for children and from a Christian perspective it is surely essential that we approach the forthcoming period with great caution and rigorous theology.

 

There will, as I have said, be an emphasis on the terrible loss of life that was experienced, no one could get away with not acknowledging that but there will be a number of agendas focussed in a variety of ways on national pride and identity and down that path lay many temptations and dangers.

 

What I found myself focussing on very quickly was the importance of the use of language.

 

Is this a commemoration and what does that mean? What about the language of victory or defeat and how might that become loaded with idea of one side right and the other wrong? What about the deeper meanings of peace, justice and reconciliation and how open are these terms and others to accidental or deliberate manipulation?

 

The most obvious use that I have recognised so far and which I questioned at the meeting of the Free Churches Group was a use that has been common recently, the phrase 'those who gave their lives'. Sometimes that is more neutrally put as 'those who lost their lives'. But it is important to reflect on when 'lost' is used and when 'gave' is used and when a switch may reflect or may be intended to create a subtle shift in emphasis.

 

A few years ago I watched a performance of 'Oh! What a lovely War' in which my son played General Hague and I remember becoming focussed on the thought that there were millions of young men who rather than giving their lives had actually had their lives taken away from them and I reflect that it was not popular then and is not popular now to put it that way. There are deeper questions of how the whole thing might have been avoided, whose responsibility it was and of how it is possible to change a culture that allows politicians and military leaders to be able to think only in strategic terms, like a chess player who may sacrifice a pawn or two in order to win the game and there are those who would rather those who would rather those questions were not asked.

 

I will be surprised in the commemorations if we hear the phrase 'lives taken away' used rather than 'lives lost' or 'lives given' so the challenge for the church and for other faith groups is to do what the Churches eventually succeeded in doing with the abolition of slavery, to de-legitimise the use of certain terms and certain concepts.

 

I cannot help but reflect on what happened when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire with the resulting of the legitimisation of certain concepts and the de-legitimisation of others. We must discuss the theology of the Just War and whether it is still fit for purpose as a legitimisation of the whole military culture of the present time. It is a question for deep and serious discussion with huge implications for the development of weapons technology among other things.

 

But I want to return to the question of language and the use of language. There is of course more to be said about it because there were many thousands of young men who enthusiastically signed up on a wave of patriotic fervour, spurred on by the language of the posters and politicians appealing to their patriotism. Perhaps the argument could be made that no one really grasped what kind of war it might become, neither in the villages and towns of Britain nor in the government offices of Westminster but that response is not good enough. There was plenty of experience around already of 'modern' warfare to know what kind of carnage it could produce and from a Christian perspective, just how difficult any application of Just War principles had already become. In popular culture, however, the idea of serving your country was and remains strong along with the strong sense of approval and love of country that goes with it and the approbation that goes with appearing to be disloyal. Recently we can see the attempts to describe Ralph Milliband as someone who hated the country that had given him sanctuary and the disreputable way in which this kind of language has been used. All of this 'dynamic' is used to take precedence over any careful theological or humanist reflection on the exercise of responsible power over people's lives or deaths.

 

I am sure that there will be a good deal of careful use of language in the commemorations that will be engineered in certain quarters to create the desired balance of regret at the huge loss of life on the one hand but admiration for all those heroes who gave their lives in defence of their country on the other and deeper questions beyond certain boundaries will be discouraged. Surely part of the responsibility of the church is to say that there are no boundaries beyond which it is right to ask questions about causes and responsibilities and consequences.

 

Change the language to 'lives taken away' and it becomes much more uncomfortable. Who took them away? Was it the enemy or the politicians and strategists who simply played with numbers and refused to see human beings, who were concerned with power politics and their own advantage or disadvantage and did not see themselves in any real sense as servants of ordinary people rather than being in control?

 

It is dangerously tempting to say that we have come an a long way since 1914-1918 and made progress because in some senses we have. We no longer execute people for cowardice in battle. We understand the problems of post traumatic stress disorder but we still exclude disabled soldiers from victory parades in case it spoils the effect just as Margaret Thatcher did at the end of the Falklands campaign, just as Elizabeth the First had done after the defeat of the Spanish Armada where the maimed and dying sailors were packed on the streets of the Plymouth Barbican while the partying went on up the hill and the priests gave thanks to God for the victory.

 

It would be good to believe that the Church has got better at choosing what to bless and what not to bless but it can be patchy. At the end of the Falklands campaign, though, the service in St Paul's reputedley infuriated Margaret Thatcher because it had a tone of reconciliation rather than victory and regretted the loss of life on both sides. Once again that was a lot to do with the use of language and again I want to say that the most important role that the churches can play in this period of commemoration will be to keep asking awkward questions about the use of language and the adequacy of the depth of discussion the language take us to. What do we mean by reconciliation and peace? Does it simply mean saying sorry and being able to live together again or does it actually mean understanding what created the conflict and violence in the first place and digging deep into issues of power, the sharing of resources, the dynamics of national identity and so on and properly understanding them and then making appropriate decisions that may cost us money or affect our lifestyle but won't in the end cost us untold lives or take us into a morality where we can shut our eyes to what we are doing because we are doing it using drones or getting our machines to fight our wars for us. Do we confine our reflecton to the peiod of the war without applying it in our present time.

 

One of the results of the impact of the First World War has been for strategists and military technicians to work at creating means of delivering mayhem that do not mean that our side has to be brought home in body bags but at the same time not caring how many body bags the other side needs. We might say that the development of nuclear weapons is an example of that, especially as they were used at the end of the Second World War but that is such an exceptional example that it stands Ina category of its own with a uniques set of issues especially relating to the concept of deterrence. Better examples are the well known and currently hotly debated issue of the use of drones as weapons and not simply for reconnaisence. A less well known example is of the development of the BLU-82 daisy cutter bomb. This is an explosive device that explodes on a more or less two dimensional plain and will obliterate everything over a 600 yard diameter area. It was first used in Vietnam and has formed a significant component of the 'shock and awe' military philosophy. What can one say from a Christian point of view except , 'how in heavens name does such a weapon fit within the Just War concept' and 'so much for loving your enemy'?

 

 

It seems to me that as we prepare resources for this period, one of the things that is needed is a comprehensive overview of how all the relevant aspects interconnect and then from a Christian point of view, what the theological input is to the discussion.

 

I mentioned nationalism / national security / national identity as one of the factors and that is a high profile issue one way or the other these days and is a very good example of where the the use of terms actually demands deep and careful understanding. I have sometimes wondered what future generations might look back on our time and say ' how could they possibly have seen that as important?' and I hope that one of the things they will say that about will be our obsession with national pride before our nse of being one race on one world.

 

We have a significant challenge and opportunity during the period that is approaching almost effectively to restate many of the core values of the Christian faith, to really be the salt for the world that Jesus told his followers they should be. If we do it properly we will not make ourselves popular but to be true to the gospel of peace and to the Prince of Peace, it is a challenge we must not shirk."

October 2013

 

 

 

Post Assembly reflections

Perhaps the first question one asks oneself at a gathering such as the World Council Assembly is, 'What can I compare it with?' and the second is 'What use is it?'.

 

One inevitably garners the answer to the first question from one's own experience and my answer is therefore that it feels like a cross between a URC General Assembly, or perhaps a Methodist Conference and the German Kirchentag. The answer to the second question can only really be found after some deeper reflection on the experience as a whole.

 

There were numerous strands to the event which lasted from October 29th to November 8th and drew in the region of 5,000 people in the Bexco conference Centre in Busan, South Korea. Not all were official delegates and in fact they were in the minority. Many others came as observers, delegated representatives from non-member churches or because of their engagement with one or other of the themes that made up the wider agenda of the assembly. Some came simply as participants often paying for themselves as enthusiasts for one or other facet of the assembly.

 

The make up of the programme itself, with its theme of God of Life: Lead us to Justice and Peace reflected the diversity of those attending. As a basic structure the programme began each day with worship led from within one tradition or another. This was held in the huge Worship Hall of the centre. Bible study followed this, either in different language plenaries or in small groups which gave the opportunity for much more shared discussion of the text.

 

Each day then had a thematic plenary in the auditorium which offered various forms of input but in each case included the stories of people from different parts of the world and traditions and often the opportunity for some kind of question and answer or discussion. One of the strengths of this was that it was possible to bring people with especially powerful and moving stories from parts of the world that we are more used to hearing about through television or the press. There is something quite compelling in being physically part of the world church in microcosm hearing the stories of so many fellow members of that church speaking of their pains or their joys. This is by far and away the most meaningful aspect of this gathering which is unique in the net that it draws across the world church, not only in geography but in theological spectrum, expression of depth of history, context and spirituality.

 

Much work had been done in the run up to the assembly by commissions and committees and the fruit of this work was fed into the ecumenical discussions to which participants were asked to commit themselves for four meetings in order, in some cases, to refine or otherwise work with documents that would be considered in plenaries later in the agenda.

 

The Madang (Meeting Place) was a marketplace area of various stalls with information from various interest groups or churches. It also housed or organised a variety of one off workshops on a wide range of themes.

 

All of this reminded me of the Kirchentag which is of similar format but on a much larger scale and into which and from which ordinary church members, young and old as well as church leaders can both input and gain fresh ideas, energy, encouragement, information and challenge.

 

The real purpose of the Assembly, though lays in the agenda of the business plenaries which met on each day of the assembly (apart from the weekend which had a totally different pattern of visits in the area in Seoul). Most of these sessions were open for anyone to attend but some were closed sessions which were focussed on the election of committees, notably the Central Committee and were only open to delegates. It was these sessions that also finally agreed what were effectively the public statements of the World Council on behalf of the member churches.

 

One of these was the Message of the Assembly entitled 'Join the pilgrimage of Justice and Peace', another, close to the central purpose of the WCC was the Unity Statement: God's gift and call to unit - and our commitment. Another significant document was the report of the public issues committee which was particularly important because of the range of issues on which it made statements, from the situation in Israel / Palestine to climate change. All of the statements contained within it were variously discussed, dissected and put back together. It was in this area that one of the most interesting elements of the assembly emerged. In debating the statements some people will nit pick over wording for reasons that seem incomprehensible while others will argue about emphasis or the inclusion or exclusion of certain words or sentences because of the meaning that it has for their very existence, often speaking with a good deal of emotion or pain.

 

Another significant report that was adopted was of the Programme Guidelines Committee. This is in many ways one of the most important committees in that it develops the agenda for work and areas of focus for the WCC in the future.

 

The statement on the way of Just Peace provides a different kind of emphasis in that it does not advocate action but provides a theological underpinning for action, especially in the area of the theme of Justice and Peace. Other documents too, are sent to the churches for reception. Together Towards a Common Vision was prepared in advance of the Assembly, considered in the ecumenical conversation especially looking at how it can be received and responded to in the churches and then sent out by the Assembly for consideration and response. Responses are requested by the end of December 2015. Clearly it is intended to influence the internal agendas of churches across the world as well as their ecumenical cooperation.

 

The document on Mission and Evangelism formed the focus of the Mission Plenary and includes a series of affirmations that was agreed by the Central Committee in September 2012. This was presented to the Assembly and is intended, again, to be received by the churches and to provide an agenda and set of values that will drive our collective agendas in the next few years in a way that will hopefully offer a coherence not only to the churches but to the wider world.

 

Much of this leads me to my chief reflection. How can this huge agenda which draws its net not simply geographically wide but theologically and politically wide too, be properly received within the churches so as to make the kind of impact and difference it is intended and ought to make? When churches are so focussed on their own internal agendas and often focussed more on survival than anything else, how can a focus on this global existence be not just maintained but grown. The answer, it seems to me, lays in the determined will of the churches to recognise the reality of being the Body of Christ on Earth and making their plans and decisions in that context, therein lays the answer to the question 'What use is it?'. If that answer is to be 'All the use in the World', it is up to us to make it so.

 

 

David Tatem - November 2013

 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

And outside there were protests.....

We knew before we came that there were going to be people protesting against the WCC outside the Assembly. These protests started even before the day began with quite a large scale gathering which was heavily policed and even resulted in a hoax bomb call that brought in the local SWAT team. The protests have continued right throught the Assembly with one man sitting outside the halls with a large placard in English indicating that he has been fasting and praying against the heresy of the WCC for the whole period of the gathering. On day 12 he was looking decidedly thin and drawn.

I took one of their leaflets on the first day and found it contained a mix of political opposition and conservative theology that used the langauge of serving satan, communism, heresy and the need for repentance. A car has been circling the assembly halls for several days with loudspeakers through which the driver has endlessly announced that 'Jesus is coming now, repent!'.

It's easy to dismiss them as the lunatic fringe or 'fundies' but when one learns more about the historical context following the end of the Second World War, the arguments between sections of the church over the response to the Japanese occupation and the history and feelings in relation to the communist north you begin to realise that it is impossible to jump to simplistic conclusions. Some of the arguments from the protestors are subtle and clearly deeply felt and can only eventually be responded to by careful discussion and most of all by creating friendship and developing a culture of listening to one another.

I was pleased to see that many Assembly participants took time to talk to the protesters and even stand with them to have their pictures taken. We will all leave but the Koreans who hosted us will remain and we can only hope and pray that the legacy will be the opportunity for better communication and eventual reconciliation.

As a postscript, the closing service or 'sending prayer' was disrupted by a protester who got onto the platform and was bundled off by security guards and aarrested by the police. It was hoped to be able to speak to the man but he had already been arrested. As we left the Bexco conference centre, there was a noticeably large police presence outside and the protesters were around in force having their final say.

 

Watching the process of amending WCC statements

In the last business sessions the fine tuning of the wording of the statements and messages from the Assembly provides a fascinating insight into the complexities of the interaction, not just of language but of theological emphasis, contextual concerns, ethical stances and so on.

The paragraphs of the statements are projected on screen and worked on one by one with contributions from delegates on phrasing, grammar and sometimes on deeper issues of emphasis. Especially when a statement is about, for example, the search for peace in the Middle East the contributions can become quite emotional and the desire to be even handed can conflict with the desire for a statement to be strong in favour of positive action on behalf of suffering groups.

Similarly, the statements that are more concerned with theology can produce contributions that remind one of the argument over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and with the Son... or proceeds from the Father and the Son and with the Father and the Son...., the famous Filioque Clause that was part of the age old split between the East and the West. One wonders what would have happened had the council had the use of the kind of technology and techniques available today, using consensus decision making perhaps. Would the split have been avoided or might there have been a much earlier fragmentation into differing traditions? Answers on a post card......

At the end of the day, though, if the drafting process is effective, the statement can be accepted as one which reflects the broad feeling of the Assembly and in some cases it voices a very strong sense of support for important issues around the theme of Justice and Peace. The question then becomes how those statements are received by both the member churches and by the wider community. In the days of the programme to combat racism that produced both a high profile for the statements and some strong reactions against the WCC. Time will tell whether the statements from Busan are received in anything like the same way.

 

Justice and Peace

The themes of Justice and Peace have been at the heart of what the Assembly is about. As I write this, the business plenary is negotiating the wording of a statement asking for the theme to be integrated into the future direction and programme of the World Council by means of a shared pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. The theme of evangelism too has incorporated the perception that issues of Justice and Peace cannot be separated from the ultimate goal towards we which we believe God is moving not only the Church but the whole of creation, that we cannot evangelise without including these themes in the message we share. As a balance, the idea that Justice and Peace can somehow be detached from spirituality and the communication of the Good News is also addressed and corrected. My own sense has been of a gradual growth of a holistic perception of what the mission of the Church is. For me this is all about the expansion of our spirituality, moving away from narrow interpretations to both deeper and broader ones.

This was strong in the small Bible study group discussion around Peace. We started by looking at the meaning of the various translations of the English word that some of us reflected has commonly come to be used to simply mean the absence of something disruptive. We were fortunate to have a Jewish participant in the group for whom the word Shalom of course means something much more positive and dynamic; wholeness, completeness, harmony. In Samoan the word is Talofa which translates 'I greet you in love' and so the sharing went on building up of a spectrum of interpretations that expanded our understanding of the meaning. This is the value of such a method and such a gathering as this.

Our Bible study ended with the thought that both Justice and Peace are things that demand engagement and commitment if they are to be achieved and that both must be rooted in love rather than fear and can and often will take us into very rough rather than calm waters if we are properly engaged. But it also connects us with one another and with the active agenda of the Holy Spirit which is where we find the more personal experience of peace which is about life and not simply about escape into heaven.

Once again I reflect on the fact that it is about the difference between an understanding of salvation that is only about survival and one which is about Life in all its Fulness.

I hope it doesn't begin to sound like a stuck record (remember them?) but I keep finding that understanding the dynamics of not recognising the difference sheds a lot of light on many of the issues of both divisions between Christians and the failure of the Church often to be seen as relevant to people's lives.

 

 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A General Reflection on the Assembly

Every now and again I find myself thinking about the assembly in general rather than about aspecific part or theme. After a while I began to wonder what I could compare it with and the best I can say is that it like a cross between the URC General Assembly (or indeed Methodist Conference, General synod etc:) and the German Kirchentag. I realise that isn't particularly helpful for anyone not familiar with the Kircentag in particular but it reflects two dimensions. One is the level of debate and decison making, setting agendas and diplomacy, the other is the level of the meeting, listening to one another and sharing of experiences. Un any ways iy is the second level that gives the greatest value to the experience. There could, after all, be other ways of making decisions but there is no substitte for bringing together people from every continent to share together in a huge spiritual melting pot.

The challenge to those of us who are experiencing this and to the churches back home is to see how what is experienced here can be communicated and received by the church at every level.