Friday, 30 September 2011

The Last Post?

The-last-post any one for tennis?Image by johnb/Derbys/uk via FlickrWith regret, this will be my last post for Methodist Ecumenical News.  I leave employment with the Methodist Church today and there will not be a successor until January at the earliest.  Even then there is no guarantee the blog will be continued.

Exploring Ecumenism

So, first of all thank you to everyone who has read posts on this blog.  There are very few blogs about ecumenism, even if you search globally, and so this has been an interesting experiment.  I have a personal blog, Exploring Ecumenism and you can follow my posts to EE on my Twitter account (@SissonsCJ).  I haven't posted since early August but these days I tend to work at it in fits and starts - I promise to start posting again soon!

I intend to review EE, so that it covers some of the ground on this blog.  EE is more theological and speculative, whilst Methodist Ecumenical News has covered events, often in a fairly clinical way.  So, I hope to pick up some of the ground covered on this blog but I will mix with comments and reflections, more than I have on this blog. 

Methodist Ecumenical News - a brief evaluation

So, what has Methodist Ecumenical News achieved?  I have been encouraged by the followers on Twitter who now number over 120, with a few joining each week.  Most of these are Methodists, which is encouraging.  (The blog was always seen as an experiment and my hope is to see its rebirth as 'Ecumenical Ecumenical News'!)  I expected establishing the blog to be slow because (broadly) ecumenists seem not to be much interested in blogging and bloggers don't seem to be terribly interested in ecumenism.  (This may be an age related phenomenon.)

For example, Methodist Ecumenical News has received very few comments, despite the number of visitors (about 20 000 over its life and 63 views yesterday (and 50 today (Thursday) by 12.30pm).  I was hoping for a community of readers but people read and don't comment (the same applies to EE, except for radical atheists on the topic of teapots).  My other disappointment is the planned community of writers never happened.  If a few other writers had joined in, the blog would not be closing.  A number of people expressed interest but it seems the technology defeated them and I never found out what the exact problem was.

The perils of success

Ecumenism has been immensely successful over the last few decades.  Formal conversations in particular have achieved a great deal in enabling the churches to recognise one another and to work together, sharing resources and, increasingly, worship.  Paradoxically, ecumenism's success is its main barrier to progress.  Here are three examples:
  1. As churches move closer together, theologically and structurally, they often find progress becomes slower.  The reasons for this are not necessarily theological.  It is property, finance and most often organisational structures that form additional barriers, not accessible to analytical theologians.  At first sight, organisational problems may seem to be ecclesiological, indeed they are, but the barriers commonly experienced are entrenched deep in people's understanding of their own tradition.  A theological rationale to change ecclesiologies might be convincing on paper but in real life something more is needed.  The problem is, for many people ecumenism means loss of identity, being subsumed into some larger church.  We are in desperate need of models of church that allow the traditions to maintain their identity.  Ken Howcroft's post yesterday hinted at one example where this may be happening.
  2. Whilst there has been significant success in formal conversations, analytical theologians are are not good at communicating their findings with the wider church.  Papers are often written in academic language and hidden away in journals.  They cover issues that are not relevant to most people's experiences and knowledge and understanding of arcane dimensions of ecclesiology is assumed.  We need a careful analysis of how this material is communicated.  The Methodist Church experienced this problem a few years ago when, despite previous decisions taken by Conference in principle to support bishops, the decision about what sort of bishops was rejected outright.  The problem is, a decision in principle might lead logically to a decision in practice but reality doesn't follow the laws of logic.
  3. As the mainstream churches have moved closer together, we have witnessed, over the last 20 years, a large number of new churches appear, which do not participate in mainstream ecumenism.  To them the historic churches probably seem to be a monolithic block of outdated Christians, made more threatening by their mutual closeness.  The Evangelical Alliance has for a long time been an alternative to the formal ecumenical instruments and now it is arguable there is a third ecumenism of Christians who belong to informal churches and see themselves as Christians Together rather than Churches Together.
Exploring Ecumenism tries to identify how we can find a way out of the paradox that the progress we make actually creates barriers.  We desperately need a new paradigm for ecumenism, rooted in local experience, shared globally.  This is not a task for analytical theologians but for ordinary Christians everywhere.  After 8 years amongst theologians, I return to real life and it is from that perspective I will blog in the future.

PS I have added a comment to the post about the Global Digital Library on Theology and Ecumenism about its launch and its web address.
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Thursday, 29 September 2011

A Message from Ken Howcroft in Rome

Ponte Sant'Angelo Methodist Church
Ken Howcroft left the Connexional Team at the end of July and here is his first report from Rome, dated 28 September 2011.

So – here we are in Rome! One minute, I am Assistant Secretary of the Conference and Ecumenical Officer, then three weeks frantic “re-stationing” of our possessions and packing, then a trip to the annual Synod (the equivalent of our Conference or the General Synod of the Church of England) of the Waldensian-Methodist Church in Italy, then a weekend back in London cleaning and finishing the packing – and we arrived here at the start of September. Since then we have unpacked and begun to find our feet. We have now found a home for just about everything. There was a time when I thought that the boxes moved from one part of the apartment to another overnight when we were asleep but we gradually sorted them all out. The books are on the shelves, but not necessarily in the right order yet. That makes finding things a slow process, but it also means that I keep coming across things that I was not looking for but which suddenly look interesting……

I am here to be the minister for (I still think “for” is more in line with our theology of stationing and ministry than “of”!) the Ponte Sant’Angelo Methodist Church in Rome. It is an English-language Methodist Church just across the river Tiber from the Vatican, and therefore claiming to be the Pope’s nearest (geographically?) Protestant neighbour. We have a fascinating and vibrant congregation from all over the world, including sizeable groups from West Africa and the Philippines. How to provide a home and support for groups of people from Methodist and other Churches around the world and help them to retain their own roots but also integrate into the Italian Church is a live issue here as much as it is in London and other parts of the British Connexion!

Methodist missions began in Italy 150 years ago at the time of the Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. The PSA Church building was originally owned by the Friars of St. Celsus, but was bought by the Italian Free Church and dedicated as a protestant place of worship by Alessandro Gavazzi, Garibaldi’s protestant chaplain, on 18th March 1877. At that time the building housed not only the worship sanctuary, but also a theological college, junior and infant schools and a library. Some of those particular activities have since ceased but the commitment to study and learning remains. I hope to contribute things both in the local church and ecumenically whilst I am here.

Technically, I have been given permission to serve abroad by the British Conference, which has seconded me to serve the Methodist Church in Italy (the Opere per le Chiese Evangeliche Metodiste in Italia [OPCEMI]) which is part of a united Waldensian-Methodist Church. The Italian Church has appointed me to serve in the district and circuit that includes Rome, and to have pastoral charge here at PSA.

Ponte Sant'Angelo Methodist Church, close up of door.
The Methodist Churches in Britain and in Italy, with encouragement from other Methodists in Europe and other parts of the world, have also asked me, as the other part of my role here, to build on the excellent work of my predecessors, most notably and recently Trevor Hoggard, and offer myself as a resource to help Methodists from round the world in their relating to the Vatican as well as fulfilling other ecumenical roles. To this end I have been in contact with Prof. Robert Gribben who is responsible for ecumenical matters under the aegis of the World Methodist Council; the International Anglican Centre in Rome; and the Roman Catholic English College. I have also had conversations with the Ambassador of the Australian Government to the Holy See, including sharing concerns about the situation of the Methodist Church in Fiji.

The ecumenical landscape is different here. Methodists and, to a greater extent (because their history is longer) Waldensians have a sense of being minorities excluded and at times persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church. The PSA church is built at one end of the bridge that leads to and from the Castel Sant’Angelo, the fortress that protected the Vatican City.  The Church is built in part of what in earlier centuries was a public square in which executions took place. Later in October a plaque is to be put on the side of the Church in memory of some Reformers who were executed here. The local congregation is a little anxious about this damaging relationships with Roman Catholics. It will be interesting to see if, as has happened to some extent in some parts of the world, we can start to move things to a point where the descendants of all sides in ancient disputes can begin to acknowledge and respect each other’s martyrs.

There are things to learn here, too. One of the ecumenical challenges in the British situation is how to develop structures that enable there to be visible communion that enrich and do not destroy the identity of the partners concerned. I have been intrigued to discover that the Methodist Church in Italy seems to have travelled a long way down this road. The Methodists and Waldensians constitute a united church, and have been for many years. But they seem to keep their separate identities to a great extent. In terms of oversight, and particularly of governance, there is a committee that deals with OPCEMI affairs. But it reports to the annual Synod of the united church in which Waldensians and Methodists together make decisions. So the Methodists have been able to share governance and oversight in those structures without losing a sense of identity.  I need to learn more about the polity but so far as I can tell (and I may be proved wrong when I get to know things better) this has come about pragmatically (how very Methodist!) and I shall be interested to discover what explicit theological reflection there has been about it. But they may be on to something of wider application!
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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Global Christian Forum Meets Next Week

"The Novotel Hotel and Convention Center in Manado, 
on the island of Sulawesi, will host the second 
global gathering of the Global Christian Forum".
It is almost a year since Methodist Ecumenical News drew attention to next week's meeting of the Global Christian Forum.  So, it is time to review the progress of the planning for the meeting.

The event (4 - 7 October 2011) will be held at the Novotel Hotel and Convention Center in Manado, the capital of the Province of North Sulawesi. Manado is situated at the far north-eastern tip of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Gathering around the central theme of Life Together in Jesus Christ, Empowered by the Holy Spirit, some three hundred church leaders and representatives from every continent have been invited to attend.

The makeup of the conference comprises a 50-50 split between what could be conveniently called 'Evangelical' and 'Traditional' churches all chosen using a set of principles to ensure balance in representing the variety and diversity of world Christianity.

Two plenary sessions will work directly under the main theme, and out of it, a third plenary will, intentionally, be Listening to What the Spirit is Saying to the Churches.

As well as discussing changing trends, participants will hear first hand of the experiences of the churches from across the world and will seek discern the further vision for the Global Christian Forum.

The invitations include representation from Christian World Communions, Ecumenical organizations, Evangelical/Pentecostal/Charismatic organizations and churches, Orthodox Patriarchates, the Catholic Church, Regional Councils, Conferences, Alliances or Associations, and Churches, covering all geographic areas and all traditions, mega churches and migrant churches.

Participants will include both women and men, and will cover a range of age groups from young people to more experienced church leaders. The four national church bodies in Indonesia are supportive of the meeting in their country. The Communion of Churches – the Pentecostal Churches Fellowship – the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches and Institutions – and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, have all warmly welcomed the Global Christian Forum to hold its second gathering in their nation and have constituted a joint national organizing committee.

For more information, it is worth looking at the Forum website, where you will find a programme and an explanation of what they hope to achieve and how.  Doubtless more material will appear after the Forum has met.  One document in particular is worth a look, Introduction to Second Global Gathering, which offers a brief recap of the history of the Forum and then goes on to explain the purpose of the gathering, who will be there and how the programme is intended to work.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

World Methodist Conference 2011

I thought it might be interesting today to focus on the World Methodist Council and the 2011 World Methodist Conference at the beginning of August. 

One of the great advantages of the internet is that so much information is available to us, which years ago might have been difficult to access.  But this does depend on the quality of websites and sadly the World Methodist Council website is a disappointment.  It desperately needs to be brought up to date and like the British Methodist Church (soon to be improved) has a single column format that restricts any creative use of space.  But it is dull in terms of content as well as layout.  The World Methodist Council page on the British Methodist Church website, which provides a basic introduction, and Wikipedia's page do not really supply more information.

Still, it's worth visiting the main site and if you hunt around you will get an impression of the range of its activities.  It is particularly interesting to look at the member churches.  It might seem odd on a blog committed to ecumenism to look at something entirely Methodist but what the WMC does is to remind us that all of our traditions are alliances of churches.  There is a family of Methodist Churches around the world.  They are autonomous churches that choose to acknowledge their relationship from a tradition that began with the Wesleys.

The use of new media was much more in evidence at the World Methodist Conference, which took place in early August, following a meeting of the World Methodist Council.  (The latter saw the launch of the papers about Methodist Roman Catholic relations, I featured yesterday.)  The conference papers are worth a read and give a better overview of the event than anything I can write here.
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Monday, 26 September 2011

Encountering Christ the Saviour

The 2011 World Methodist Council meeting in Durban, South Africa, 1 - 3 August saw the launch of the latest in the series of Methodist Roman Catholic International Commission reports, Encountering Christ the Saviour: Church and Sacraments.

It is the ninth in a series of reports produced every five years.  This year the Commission has also produced a digest of all nine reports, Together to Holiness: 40 years of Methodist Roman Catholic Dialogue.  

It's worth reproducing some of the introductory material to the synthesis as it offers a historical context:

This bilateral dialogue was the result of initiatives taken after the Second Vatican Council and decisions made by the World Methodist Council in 1966. The Joint Commission between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council held its first meeting at Ariccia, near Rome, in 1967. Since then, the Joint Commission has reported to its respective churches at five-yearly intervals. Eight reports have been presented so far, each informally named after the city where the World Methodist Council met that year: Denver (1971), Dublin (1976), Honolulu (1981), Nairobi (1986), Singapore (1991), Rio de Janeiro (1996), Brighton (2001) and Seoul (2006).

Roman Catholic/Methodist dialogue has a singular advantage: there is no history of formal separating between the two churches, and none of the historical, emotional problems consequent on a history of schism.

From the beginning of the dialogue, without any glossing over of difficulties, members of the Joint Commission have increasingly discovered the richness of the certain, though sadly as yet imperfect, communion that Methodists and Catholics already share. The ultimate goal of our dialogue is full ecclesial communion - ‘full communion in faith, mission and sacramental life’. As we move in that direction, we acknowledge the vital elements in the partial communion we already enjoy, while also recognising the remaining differences on which further work needs to be done.

A central place is held in both traditions by the call to personal sanctification, growth in holiness through daily life in Christ. Catholics and Methodists have always held in common, though they have not always fully realised it, what was the conviction of John Wesley, that each human being has a duty to seek holiness
and Christian perfection. Methodists and Roman Catholics find common ground from agreement in the universal call to holiness, and share a wide, deep and rich heritage of Christi an spirituality.

Study of the historical background of Methodist and Roman Catholic spirituality leads to the conclusion that what has mattered most in both traditions has been the reality of religion as it brings about the transformation of the human heart and mind in everyday life. This exceptional affinity between Roman Catholics and
Methodists - in that religion of the heart which is the heart of religion – gives particular hope for the future of Roman Catholic/Methodist relations.

As the title suggests, the latest report focuses on the sacraments, primarily baptism, communion and ministry.  The latter being particularly important as it provides the context for the other sacraments.  the report concludes:

The Seoul Report, “The Grace Given You in Christ: Catholics and Methodists Reflect Further on the Church”, harvested the fruits of Methodist-Catholic dialogue on the Church itself over the previous forty years. In the light of what had been achieved it was able to recommend practical ways in which there could be a mutual exchange of gift s between the two communions that would further the aim of full communion in faith, mission and sacramental life which was early declared as the goal of this dialogue.

In the Seoul Report it was also recognized that some matters remain questions of significant divergence between the two communions. One of these was the sacramental nature of ordination and the understanding of the ordained ministry as priesthood. Related to this was a sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist. This present document has addressed those questions, and in addition, looked for the first time in an extended way at the approach of each communion to the theology and practice of Baptism. It has done this in the context of the larger question of the sacramental understanding of the Church which has emerged consistently in reports of the dialogue over the preceding decades, and also of the paschal mystery of Christ, the way in which members of the Church participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus through the sacraments.

Finally, the report opens up a new and intriguing line of enquiry for the Commission in the future:

At the conclusion of this phase of the dialogue, there seems to be an issue that would benefit from further dialogue between Catholics and Methodists. It is the whole question of the experience of salvation and the response of the believer to the gift of God’s grace. Catholics and Methodists have different emphases in the way they speak about this, which seem to underpin a number of other matters upon which they often diverge. Catholics and Methodists can be very grateful to God that their relationship in dialogue has so deepened that the most profound matters which shape their respective identities are now able to be discussed.
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