Churches Together Forum

Churches Together Forum

17th May 2022

Eileen Finch from our Diocesan Christian Unity Team shares a report from Lucy & Paul Docherty who are members of Christians Together in Fareham who attended the recent Churches Together in England Forum…

Every 3 years – or 5 if there has been a Pandemic – Churches Together in England gathers its member churches, Intermediate Bodies, Bodies in Association and other supporters for Forum. About 300 people meet at the Christian Conference Centre in Swanwick in the Midlands for two and a half intense days of meetings, worship, discussions, and networking. It is a glorious celebration of the rich diversity of the Christian Church in England. This year’s theme was:  Reconciling Hope – A Broken Church FOR a Broken WorldWhile reconciliation in a post covid world was the over-arching theme, it was impossible not to also think and pray for the dark shadow of the war in Europe between Russia and Ukraine. This additional theme was therefore added, if only informally, to the three advertised themes of:

  • Reconciling communities – bringing good news in fractured communities and society
  • Reconciling people with God – bringing the Good News to a disbelieving world
  • Reconciliation with the earth – reconciling people to planet earth: the task of being good news to a world in a climate emergency

It was wonderful to be able to be together with people again – praying, sharing, listening, and planning for a future – and we were privileged to hear some very good, and often deeply challenging, addresses.

Our first talk was from Archbishop Justin Welby who talked about the call to reconciliation and the challenge of achieving this in a context of war, climate change, rapid changes in science and technology, and the dysfunctional nature of the western economy. It was a sobering analysis of our current world, but it was not without hope. Our churches are called to unity – we need to focus on who we follow (Jesus) rather than what we follow (doctrines etc) and, with Christ as the head of the church, we must find our way to unity through him.  Unity has long been seen as a luxury, not a necessity and divisions have become habits: but reconciliation doesn’t just happen – it needs to be deliberate and applied at all levels of an organisation.  In responding, Cardinal Nicholls talked of the need for repentance, reparation, and forgiveness; the call to repentance has to come from within.  Calling others to repentance leads to guilt, which is never helpful, he said.

The talks about reconciling communities were difficult to listen to. Prof Antony Reddie suggested to us that white British people should identify with Pilate, not with Jesus, as Pilate represents the power of Empire, the final word in life and death. The cross and crucifixion were a means not only of killing but also of utterly debasing someone’s humanity as a sign of the supreme power that the empire held over “its” people. Our country in its past has also exercised supreme power over (mostly) black people and the Jesus to whom we introduced them was white, a not very subtle way of associating us with Christ. There is a cost to reconciliation – are we willing to face up to the legacies of slavery? Prof Tessa Robinson asked us to see how, as followers of Christ, we can be bearers of good news and repairers of fractures. But this requires us to face up to our history – slavery and lynching were once justified (by some) as being allowed by Christianity. It is not enough to say “sorry” and ask for forgiveness. We have to make concrete amends and if we don’t take such steps, we won’t recognise the true cost of grace – grace is not cheap.

Another talk centred on our relationship with the earth. Dr Ruth Valerio, a well-known author and Global Advocacy director for Tearfund talked about the devastating impact that climate crisis is having on the poorest people. She asked how we should respond to the absolute mess we have made of our beautiful planet. How does this make us feel? We were created as earth creatures to be God’s image bearers and to take care of what God had made. Jesus comes ultimately to bring about the restoration of relationships and she talked of the absolute link between environmental care, social justice, and our Christian mission. Evangelism is about inviting people to see all these aspects of God’s love. There is a huge mismatch in what we are doing – 9 out of 10 young people care strongly about the environment, yet only 1 in 10 feel their church is doing anything about it.

The Bible shows us how to look after our planet – we are placed here as stewards of the earth not to be in dominion over it but we have created a climate catastrophe which is an issue of global and racial justice in which those who did the least damage are paying the highest price. Reconciliation must be fair for everyone – we need to hear and share people’s stories, collaborate in finding solutions and accept the need for reparations. The hope for our planet is in each other – ALL of us must help. What next? We need to take to heart the words of Micah 6v8 which tell us that we are required to “do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God”. This means that we should:

  • Teach – raise awareness in our churches so that we can engage from a Christian perspective
  • Pray – it really does make a difference
  • Give – use our money to bless others …and in the right places – no shares in oil!
  • Speak up and take action.  We all know what we have to do

Amidst all the thinking were many opportunities to pray and worship and we were encouraged to try different forms of worship, including a Pentecostal / charismatic and Iona services. We met in small home groups to pray and reflect on what we had heard from our speakers, and attended workshops on a variety of different topics – and of course there was plenty of networking over mealtimes and in the bar in the evening!

As always in an event such as this there were many strands of conversation that left a mark on us, but it was the key speakers who had the most profound impact.  In gathering up the threads at the end Lucy and I came away with three clear themes:

  • The churches have a role to play in all the major issues of reconciliation facing our world today and we simply have to respond; if we don’t the church is lost.  We no longer have respect just because we are the church – it needs to be earned through actions that will speak to people far louder than any words from our pulpits. To put it in the vernacular, we have to address legacy issues of racial justice, climate crisis, gender equality etc through firm actions and by putting our money where our mouth is.
  • If we all profess to follow Jesus, there is more that unites us than divides us.  We can, and must, keep this simple fact centre stage in tackling our differences. There is so much more that we can do together.
  • The message of reconciliation demands that we talk, share and act. We need to do all three with an intentional focus that gives clarity around what we want to achieve. As the forum facilitator told us in the final session “Each of us is a representative of God with the responsibility to restore” … “we need to go out and deconstruct the walls that divide us and build bridges with the bricks.”

 As we left the Forum we took with us a wonderful image given to us by Paul Goodliff, the outgoing CEO of CTE who used covid analogies to talk about us being in a large tent with the sides rolled up for ventilation, but also to allow the Holy Spirit to blow through and in us. Inside the tent are all our churches mixing together as families do, giving and learning from each other in “receptive ecumenism”. The green shoots of ecumenism have continued to grow in our family, despite our very real differences (eg same sex marriage), and how we live with those differences will energise our growth in the future. Ecumenism has become like the air we breathe but we need to learn to breather better – to slow down so that ecumenical considerations become our first, not our last, thought. CTE has grown from 16 to 52 churches and the Pandemic has propelled churches into exciting new ways of connecting, bringing new opportunities for mission. We need to continue to gather in our ecumenical tent as pilgrims not strangers welcoming the breeze of the Holy Spirit to ventilate away the viruses of self-importance and self-preservation. Here in Fareham, we pray that the Spirit will blow through our small tent and nurture the relationships that we share, and help us to create more opportunities for sharing the love of Jesus with our neighbours.