Monday, 1 August 2016

Ecumenical loss

On Thursday, a Methodist Local Preacher who used to work at the old Courtaulds plant in Grimsby was telling me how valued the work of an established Industrial Chaplain had been when there were deaths at the plant a number of years ago, and the first article in the Church Times the following day highlighted the role the present Urban and Industrial Chaplain in North East Lincolnshire is playing at the closing of the BHS store here, so the likely loss of this post seems particularly sad this week.

The diocese of Lincoln is ending its grant to Lincolnshire Chaplaincy Services Ltd (LCS).  This is the arms-length ecumenical body through which such posts have most recently been deployed.  It is the successor to a number of Greater Lincolnshire-wide formal Ecumenical Partnership through which a range of other activities (including Social Responsibility) had been operated on an ecumenical basis for many years.  The diocese has been its main source of funding. 

All such work is to be brought ‘in house’ by the diocese at the end of the year.  The decision formally agreed by the Bishop’s Council grows explicitly from dissatisfaction that the diocese has been the main financier of things it cannot deploy or direct (although my guess is that an episcopal request about a specific piece of work or a synodical nudge about the general direction of policy would actually have been resisted rarely or not at all).

I can’t help seeing at least some parallels with a recent decision based on arguments such as ‘do you realise how much of our money is being spent by an external body on which we only have a limited representation?’ and ‘shouldn't the body of which we are members have sovereignty while our wider cultural rootedness with those a bit different from us should be relational rather than structural?’. 

I’ve been part of a small group giving some advice about how a smaller number of posts might be most effectively be deployed ‘in house’, so I wait to see what happens next with more interest than most.

But my chief reflection for this post is just how out of fashion formal levels of ecumenical working have become.

At a personal level, there were, say, nineteen years (1979-97, the cut off point is arbitrary) when I simply assumed this way of working was normative: a gap year at a Methodist mission, undergraduate years which included membership of a MethSoc, ordination training at a joint Anglican, Methodist and URC college, a year’s full-time post-graduate study at the Irish School of Ecumenics (after a four year Curacy), and five years as a Team Vicar in a single shared church which was an Anglican, Methodist and URC Local Ecumenical Partnership in a diocese where (as I’ve said) ‘sector ministries’ were also deployed through formal Ecumenical Partnerships and where one of the Bishops chaired our national Council for Christian Unity.

And this wasn’t just me.  The most striking things about the Alternative Service Book 1980 was the way the Eucharist was so easily recognisable as being the product of a generation’s shared scholarship.  In 1982, the ‘Final Report’ of the Anglican-Roman Catholic and the consensus of the World Council of Churches ‘Lima’ report on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry set the theological tone in the middle of my training.  The ecumenical Lent activities shared by a significant number of churches leading up to the primary commitment to joint working of ‘Swanwick Declaration’ in 1987 set the practical tone in my early years of ordained ministry.

But the nineteen years since (1998-2016, the neat division into nineteen year periods is illustrative rather than analytical) have simply been a slow drift away from such grand schemes.  Ecumenical goodwill, joint working and Churches Together bodies have quietly reverted to being the (often highly valued) ‘added extra’ where they exist but not the primary drivers of mission or policy.  Perhaps fewer people really believed in all this in the first place, but found it difficult to voice dissent which would have looked like voting against ‘motherhood and apple pie’.  Perhaps the pressures of decline and internal tensions have become the dominant forces.

The photograph was taken in St Michael's tower.

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