Natan Mladin discusses our latest research on the state of ecumenism in England and the future of Christian unity.
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This year we mark 500 years since the Reformation. Some talk of an anniversary. Others remember with a heavy heart. Whatever we make of its significance, one thing is clear: The Reformation precipitated the splintering of Christianity in a myriad of denominations. This surely is no good thing.
According to basic Christian teaching, the Church is One (Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, as the Creed puts it). According to The Center for the Study of Global Christianity in the US, however, the Church is… 45,000. True, the number refers to Christian denominations around the world, but the point still stands. To state the obvious, Christianity is deeply divided.
Enter ecumenism. A rather clunky term, ecumenism has, at its heart, the concern for the healing of historic divisions and the unity of the Church. Ecumenism is about taking seriously Jesus’ prayer for the unity of His followers, “so that the world may believe” (John 17:21).
Our latest report, That They All May Be One, reflects our continued concern for the future of Christianity in the UK. In Doing Good we noted that Christianity is facing major challenges, with fewer people in the UK identifying as Christians or attending church on a Sunday. Yet there is good reason to stay soberly hopeful.
Doing Good contended that the number of people who consider themselves Christians may be smaller, but those who profess faith are more likely to walk the talk and talk the walk. The level of Christian social action – or “social liturgy” as the report called it – is growing and making a palpable difference to lives and communities across the UK, meeting physical, spiritual, and social needs.
Among other things, our latest report adds nuance to this picture. In a highly plural religious landscape, faced with economic pressures, amidst a growing diversity of Christian expression in the country, Christians are coming together to meet specific needs in their communities, collaborating across denominational boundaries: running food banks, homelessness interventions, offering pastoral support in rough places and displaying many other examples of ‘Christian social liturgy’. Face–to–face dialogue continues, and it remains important, but there is a slow and decisive shift to side–by–side action and mission.
If previously the question of unity was tackled in England within top–down structures and ‘hard’ denominational boundaries, today the situation is markedly different. Contemporary ecumenical work in England is much more relationship–based, action–orientated and grass–roots. Most of the 44 member denominations of Churches Together in England – the country’s principal ecumenical organization, and the case–study for our research – reported a renewed interest in focusing the pursuit of unity in mission, witness and practical service.
Today, Christians in England are less keen on thrashing out denominational differences in matters of doctrine and church polity. The future seems to lie more with joining afresh in mission – sharing and showing the Gospel in concrete and creative ways. Against a backdrop of Church decline, a fragmented and increasingly polarized society, this surely is a welcome direction of travel.
Natan Mladin is Relationship Manager and Researcher at Theos | @natanmladin