A conference of the British Council of Churches held in Nottingham in 1964 proposed that the different denominations in Britain should work and pray to be united as one Church by Easter Day 1980.
I thought at the time that this was quite a reasonable expectation. Churches were already coming much closer together, the bad old days of hostility and rivalry between different denominations seemed to be over, and when you are young (as I was then), sixteen years seems a long time – certainly enough time to sort out any problems that remained. Some people were a bit sceptical, but some were saying ‘Why so long?’
Well, here we are, forty years on from the target date, and we are as divided as ever. Why?
One reason, probably, is red tape and bureaucratic inertia. It is fine to talk idealistically about how we all belong together in the same faith, but church leaders have a vested interest in the status quo. We all feel comfortable in the familiar structure, especially if our jobs depend on it.
Members of congregations, too, are comfortable in their own church or chapel, and don’t like the order of service changing too much. On special occasions, like the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we are happy to organise united services and be all pally together, but these are almost always an addition to the normal programme. It it still very rare to find a congregation willing to give up its Sunday service to join in with others.
We have also underestimated the depth and seriousness of the divisions among us. There is still a great gulf between a Catholic faith that clings to the continuity of tradition and the Apostolic Succession and the more free and informal ways of Protestant churches. In addition, we have become more aware of the deep differences not just between our denominations but within them. A lot of ecumenical discussion has been conducted among people who have generally the same kind of attitude – liberal, tolerant and a bit laid-back about theological differences. But, usually outside these discussions, there are those who have a strictly evangelical faith, insisting on the infallibility of the Bible, a particular doctrine of the Atonement, and the unchanging authority of the moral code.
The local church I belong to is an open and inclusive church which tries (not always successfully, we must admit) to make people feel at home whatever their race, culture, gender, sexual orientation and everything else. Some of our neighbours are shocked and disgusted that we are willing to bless same sex partnerships. I would feel very uncomfortable in a church that was not like this. In this respect I have much more in common with some people of other denominations, and even of other religions, than with most of my fellow Baptists. In view of differences like this, the union of all churches seems as far away as ever.
Meanwhile, events are overtaking us. Many congregations and clergy are just ignoring the rules. I have received Communion from a Roman Catholic priest in an informal Mass held on Baptist premises! A Roman Catholic nun once asked me, a Baptist minister, to be her spiritual adviser. Among the most active members of a congregation where I was the minister were a Unitarian, several Salvation Army members, one or two Roman Catholics, I don’t know how many Anglicans, and at least one agnostic.
Talks about formal church unity are becoming more and more irrelevant. To quote Harry Williams (Some Day I’ll Find You, Fount Paperbacks 1984, p 318), a rather unorthodox Anglican priest: ‘ecumenism is the last refuge of the religious bore’.
As the organised Christian churches in Europe are in sharp decline, a new spirituality is emerging. Jesus is as important and attractive a figure as ever, but many who are drawn to him have no interest in the churches that claim to represent him. His call is to a far greater and wider unity. The word ‘ecumenical’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘the whole world’. Surely that is where the focus of our prayers should be.