Relationships with other denominations

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This page is a basic introduction to ecumenism.  If you are interested in how to be involved in ecumenical work, go to the How to Get Involved pages.

What is Ecumenism?

Definition of Ecumenism

The word 'ecumenical', or if you prefer the original Greek 'oikoumene', is derived from a root word meaning to 'inhabit'. So, it literally means the 'inhabited earth' or 'the whole world'.

Melksham Family of Churches logo
The logo from an LEP in Melksham including Methodist, Anglican, Roman Catholic, URC, Independent Evangelical.

The World Council of Churches in 1951 defined ecumenical in the light of the original Greek, 'to describe everything that relates to the whole task of the whole church to bring the Gospel to the whole world. It therefore covers … both unity and mission in the context of the whole world'.

'Oikoumene' is a relational dynamic concept which extends beyond the fellowship of Christians and churches to the human community within the whole of creation.

(Extracted from Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, 2002, page 840.)

Brief history of the Ecumenical movement in Britain

A well-known prayer speaks of "the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions".

And we have been travelling a path towards greater unity for a hundred years or more.

But, with every step forward towards one fully visible united Church, we seem to take at least half a step back.

The Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 set the pace.

Archbishop Randall Davidson issued his 'Appeal to all Christian people' (Resolution 9 at the 1920 Lambeth Conference) ten years later.

These days what the Archbishop proposed sounds awfully like a takeover bid by the Church of England! And it's surprising how close Churches came to saying 'Yes'.

After the Second World War, the larger Churches, except the Roman Catholic Church, covenanted together to form the World Council of Churches.

And the path to unity was seen in terms of mergers.

Think of the United Churches in South India, North India, Canada, Australia and Zambia.
And in this country the United Reformed Church.

But by the 1980s, an Anglican-Methodist unity scheme and an English Covenant had both failed.

A break-through came at Swanwick in 1990, when our Churches committed themselves as Churches Together.

And the Roman Catholics joined the pilgrimage.

But the unity represented by 'Churches Together' now sometimes looks more like a cartel - a trading arrangement which participants stick to only while it suits them!

More than fifteen years on, the problem is no longer hostility but inattention. Most of the time we manage to behave as though other churches aren't there!

(The above is an extract from the Living God's Covenant roadshow slide presentation.)

Unity in Mission

The relationship between ecumenism and mission was cemented during its earliest days at the World Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh in 1910. It has been described as the culmination of nineteenth-century Protestant Christian missions and the formal beginning of the modern Christian ecumenical movement. Those who have a forensic interest can find all the extensive conference papers online.

Over the last 100 years an ecumenical movement has grown up with a number of parallel interests. These include the search for full visible unity through structural unity and ecumenical collaboration in mission.

Unity in mission is essential to the success of mission for a variety of reasons. The prospect of churches competing is not edifying and creates an immediate impression of a divided church. More positively churches from several traditions collaborating will bring a very wide range of perspectives, specialisms and insights to the table; the pooling of resources may be mutually advantageous. The prospects for mutual sharing of mission are in need of much more exploration.

The centenary of Edinburgh 1910 was marked by a series of events called Edinburgh 2010.  Their website describes the events that took place during 2010 and it is possible to download the conference papers.

The scope of Ecumenism 

Organisations which assist churches in their ecumenical journeys are called ecumenical instruments. In Britain there are three national instruments for England, Scotland and Wales.

Churches Together in England

Action of Churches Together in Scotland

Cytûn: Churches Together in Wales

These support local churches through instruments such as Local Ecumenical Partnerships or Churches Together Groups. In England, County or Intermediate Bodies provide further support for local ecumenical work. Paid officers for these intermediate bodies are usually known as County Ecumenical Officers (CEOs) or County Ecumenical Development officers (CEDOs). In England, Scotland and Wales there are also Denominational Ecumenical Officers (DEOs); Methodists call theirs District Ecumenical Officers.

With the instruments for Ireland, the four nations are linked, through Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

Ecumenical relationships are also important for the British Methodist Church in Europe and Worldwide.

Major approaches to Ecumenism

(A meeting of Methodist, Baptist and URC Ecumenical Officers in 2007 made the following notes about major approaches to ecumenism.)

Our ecumenical vision is the goal to which we aspire and not how we organise ourselves on the way to realise that goal

We listed the following ecumenical visions: 

  • Full, visible unity - all parts of the Church become one 
  • Visible unity - some parts, not all become one 
  • Model of Return - returning to what some regard as the Mother Church. This was felt to be a Western and not a global model. 
  • Organic unity - shared life within the organism of church - an example would be the URC 
  • Reconciled diversity - parts remain separate but recognise each other. A vision that needs further exploration to tease out what it means - is it a justification for our disunity? 
  • Agreements such as the Lambeth Quadrilateral where we recognise common elements to the Church. These include: 
    • expression of faith in Scripture in the historic creeds 
    • baptism - we note that Baptists and other baptistic traditions (including many Pentecostals) cannot speak of a common baptism 
    • Eucharist 
    • Ministry and oversight 
  • All in each place - vision of working towards having a single community of Christians in each place 
  • Dialogue - expressing & realising unity through bi-lateral and other conversations and agreements. We note that this could be described as process rather than vision. Such agreements can be stepping stones to realising a fuller vision 
  • Spiritual or invisible unity - we are one in Christ now, but the visible church does not yet express it. Can be described as the gift of Christ to the Church or as what we are being called to. 
  • Recognising marks of the Church in each other - seeking to discern Christ in each other 
  • Kingdom unity - Unity focused not on bringing churches together, but looking for signs of the Kingdom amongst us. Discerning where God's purposes are being met and joining together in witness, prayer or service. More practical vision of sharing together in God's work.
  • Receptive Ecumenism - is where churches identify the problems they are facing and explore the practices of other traditions to find approaches to tackling their own problems.

The Methodist Churches' Ecumenical Vision

The inspiration of all inter-church sharing is found in the koinonia fellowship that binds the persons of the Trinity and the kenosis, self-emptying of Jesus in his incarnation, ministry and passion. The gospel is not our private property. We serve a crucified and risen Lord who is a universal Saviour. Our concern must be to develop a deeper faith that fuels a wider love - expressed in the everyday life of individual believers, local churches and the world for which Christ died.
(From Together Locally: A Handbook for Local Churches Seeking to Work Together, by Jenny Carpenter, CTE, 2002.)

The Review of Ecumenical Relationships Final Report to Council carried out during the year 2007 - 2008 suggested an ecumenical vision for the Methodist Church. Methodist Council asked for more work to be done on this vision and so Conference in July 2009 approved Our Ecumenical Calling: Making a Difference Together in the Twenty First Century as the Methodist Church's Ecumenical Vision.

In this statement the Methodist Church commits itself to worshiping, learning and working with other Christians wherever and whenever possible.

Christine Elliott, Secretary for External Relationships, said, "This is about sharing the Christian gospel together with partner Churches to make a difference in the 21st century and expressing our identity as Methodists in new ways."

The vision statement includes a commitment to pray, worship and work with people from other Churches regularly. It also affirms the Church's dedication to learning with other Christians about our common faith and heritage in order to support mutual growth.

Some theological texts important to Methodists in Ecumenical Work

'Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.' (From The Forty Four Sermons by John Wesley, Epworth 1944, pp443-444.)

The Canberra Assembly of the WCC in 1991 enumerated the marks of full visible unity:

  • 'The common confession of the apostolic faith 
  • A common sacramental life entered by the one baptism and celebrated together in one Eucharistic fellowship 
  • A common life in which members and ministries are mutually recognised and reconciled
  • And a common mission witnessing to the gospel of God's grace to all people and serving the whole of creation.'

Stained glass window in Falsgrave
From a Methodist URC LEP in the Falsgrave area of Scarborough. Millennium fundraising paid for this window and a substantial donation to the Leprosy Mission.

The Canberra statement went on to say 'the goal of the search for full communion is realised when all the churches are able to recognise in one another the one, holy catholic and apostolic church in its fullness'. The statement went on to address diversity, stating 'diversities which are rooted in theological traditions, various cultural, ethnic or historical contexts are integral to the nature of communion. Diversity is illegitimate when, for instance, it makes impossible the common confession of Jesus Christ as God and Saviour, the same yesterday, today and forever. In communion diversities are brought together in harmony as gifts of the Holy Spirit, contributing to the richness and fullness of the Church of God.'

The divine gift of 'koinonia' is both a gift and a calling. The dynamic activity of God drawing us into communion also entails the calling of Christians and Christian communities to manifest 'koinonia' as a sign and foretaste of God's intention for humankind. (From Towards Koinonia in Faith, Life and Witness, WCC Commission on Faith and Order   , 1993, pp8-9). 

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