Ecumenically Challenged?

Monday, 19 October, 2015

Jules Middleton asks why we find it so hard to work together.

Eighteen months ago, I found myself in the somewhat unenviable position of chairing a meeting of several local churches. It was the first time that all of them had agreed to meet with a common goal, and - coming from the only fresh expression of church in the area - I think I carried with me the awareness of other people's suspicion. My hope was that we could find a way to work together; a way of working built on the essential foundation of prayer.

Let's face it; churches are notorious about not wanting to work together. They can so often be like kids in a playground, name calling and whispering, sharing half-truths about each other, instead of recognising that at the heart of all that we do; in whatever form; with whichever words, props or attire; we all worship the one true God. In Philippians 2, Paul speaks of unity saying:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.

Working ecumenically, this has to be our goal: to share that same love that we all experience with those around us. Moving forward from that initial meeting, I am delighted that we have managed to do this, having just celebrated the first birthday of 'The Melting Pot' - a community café which the churches now run together. Our combined interest was to reach an area of a nearby village which had long been overlooked, sneered at and ignored, and it was about time we changed that.

Melting Pot Café - kitchen

As I prayer walked the area recently, I stopped and looked around. On two sides, rolling fields stretched away from me; on another was a view past a playground to the beautiful South Downs, and in front of me stood the social club in which we have made something of a home. This is truly a beautiful and blessed place. I was struck by how so often we only see things from one viewpoint; here perhaps a few unkempt gardens, an old bike going rusty in the grass, cigarette butts littering the ground, but just turn to one side or another and the view is transformed. It's the same in the church too; we tend to view things through the lens of our own brand of Christianity, rather than through the eyes of Jesus.

Of course, running the café hasn't been completely plain sailing! Making relationships is key to the heart of any missional outreach, not only with those we are reaching but also with each other. We've needed to work within, and yet also stretch, each of our boundaries and barriers. As a fresh expression of church, we have a Bishop's Mission Order and are licensed to cover two deaneries, but that isn't to say we can then stomp all over other clergy's 'patches'. We recognised that careful conversations and planning behind the scenes would be the backbone of what we were aiming to achieve but in acknowledging that knowledge and desire, we knew that misunderstandings could still happen because - even within the same denomination - we sometimes speak different 'languages'!

Another part of the learning curve is that we must be realistic; knowing that we are unlikely to be united in all things but being clear that the purpose of the project has to be something which we are most certainly in agreement about. There's no doubt that having complete clarity on this can help avoid challenging conversations later down the line.

Coming from a fresh expression of church, we had always assumed (admittedly with an unspoken hope) that this café would - in time - develop into its own fresh expression but how, and when, that happens was really up to God and our first priority was simply to make relationships and bless the area. However, I've subsequently learned that if the phrase 'church plant' looms on the horizon, it can strike fear into many a church minister - however much well-intentioned planning goes on!

Like any relationship, a degree of compromise is required. We have had to learn to work together, pray together, and find a unity that we can focus on.

After 18 months, we are really only just developing those key relationships with each other and with local residents, so time will tell where and how the café develops but, for now, we are just taking it one step at a time. I really believe that the future of the Church as a whole relies on us uniting and reaching out: united in that love we share. Jesus' 'new' command to love one another is just as relevant now as it was then: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Loving each other doesn't mean we get it right all the time, but it means we are trying to be with each other, to pray with each other and to work with each other, united in the love of Christ. Now that doesn’t sound too hard does it...?!

About the author: 

Jules Middleton is an ordinand in the Church of England and Mission Pastor at The Point Church, Burgess Hill, Sussex. She tweets as @redjules.


Hiya Jules
I had a read through the ‘ecumenically challenged’ article and thought you might like to hear of stuff going on in the Lichfield Diocese.
We are in the 3rd year of a project involving transformative church partnerships-‘ For richer, for poorer’.
In this we actively seek to bring together pairs of churches in areas with different socio-economic demographics. The idea is firstly to get people to listen and hear each other’s stories and then to walk some miles in each other’s shoes. In building genuine partnerships at the pace churches are happy to go, and in ways which work within their own traditions, people are waking up to realities elsewhere and learning to appreciate and pray for each other. As they do this so they swap ideas, meet up from time to time, help each other out and work together to combat all sorts of things arising out of aspects of the web of poverty*- like issues around resources, relationships and identity, in their areas.
It is a joy to see for examples… a very ‘high’ church in an inner city community linked with a much more evangelical/central type church in a leafy village, a female vicar led church linked with one led by a priest who doesn’t believe in the ordination of women, and a laid back,’ open every day of the week’ outer estate church linked with a ‘mainly open on Sundays’ more formal church in a very rural farming community.
There are many ways in which people have chosen to transcend personal views, theological stances and churchmanship ‘positions’ in order to work together for ‘the Gospel’ and wider impact of the church. While to some the steps taken can seem very small to others they are huge given the culture and tradition of the particular church. As leaders model respect and hospitality to others so barriers are broken down and interesting spin offs happen. Ideally all the partnerships will soon move beyond getting to know each other and really work together in mission and combatting poverty.
I’d be delighted to share more with anyone interested
Ruth Clay
Transformative Church Partnerships in Lichfield Diocese -For richer, for poorer 2013-16

Hi Ruth

Only just come across your comment so sorry for the delay, but this sounds great! I'd love to know more. How can I contact you?

Hi Jules email addy above.Be good to tell you more! Thanks Ruth

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