The Churches must seize this moment of ecumenical opportunity

1 June 2023 • Persistent link:

Is it time for a game changer in relations between the Churches? There are already signs of the times pointing to a better way forward. The joint mission of the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to South Sudan was a powerful symbol of what church leaders can achieve when they work together. The visit of the Archbishop of York to Pope Francis in Rome was another indication that ecumenism still has plenty of potential. Archbishop Stephen Cottrell said afterwards that one of the biggest mistakes that Christians have made is to talk, write and confer about church unity “rather than seeing it as something that we must do.” He is right, though talking and writing have their place. And conferring.

It is striking that both the Church of England and the Catholic Church in England and Wales scarcely engage in joint ventures. Yet the problems their communities face are identical. The cost of living, the state of the NHS and social care, refugees, the housing crisis and so on are at the top of the political and social agenda. They should be at the top of the Christian agenda too. Church leaders do address them, but separately. Given how similar the points they make are, why do they hardly ever speak side by side? When the Archbishop of Canterbury made his full-frontal attack on the government in the House of Lords for its abominable “Rwanda” refugee policy, a few days later, the lead Catholic bishop for migrants and refugees issued a statement in support. It was largely ignored. The presence of a posse of Catholic bishops in the public gallery when Justin Welby spoke would not have been. The Churches must work together if they are not to be marginalised. There is even a moral and philosophical language they share. The bishops of the Church of England made a statement some years ago – “Who is my neighbour?” – that said the common good, the core idea of Catholic Social Teaching, is the essential basis for the making of social policy. Virtue, the bishops said, is nourished “not by atomised individualism, but by strong communities which relate honestly and respectfully to other groups and communities which make up this nation.”

Pope Francis could not have put it better. Earlier this year, the Catholic bishops issued “Love the Stranger,” a statement of principles guiding the Christian response to migrants and refugees that might have come from Anglican, Methodist or Nonconformist leaders. The Church of England recently produced an excellent report calling for a new approach on social care – an ideal subject for a meeting of Christian leaders. The major political parties in the United Kingdom are searching for new ideas. They realise that yesterday’s policies and ideologies have reached their sell-by date. There is an opportunity for a positive, thoughtful joint Christian intervention, in words and deeds. It should not be missed.