CTE is one of five ‘ecumenical instruments’ (or organisations) – along with Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS), Churches Together in Wales (CYTÛN), the Irish Council of Churches (ICC), and the overarching Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) – which were established in 1990 following the 1987 ecumenical conference in Swanwick.
The Swanwick Conference was a watershed moment for British ecumenism. Among other things, it marked the transition from a ‘Council of Churches’ model, which had been dominant on the British ecumenical scene for more than 40 years, to the current ‘Churches Together’ model of ecumenism. This enabled the full participation of the Roman Catholic Church and greater participation from black-led Churches in British ecumenism.
The difference between the two can be explained briefly as follows. On the Council of Churches model, the Council would speak and act on behalf of member Churches. As a decision-making body it would make recommendations, seeking to drive the Churches’ work towards visible Christian unity. The main problem with the model was that, despite the generally good quality of work produced and the successes in building relationships between Churches, the recommendations made by the Council were not always heeded, therefore exerting little influence on the life of the Churches themselves. The Council effectively operated as a separate structure alongside member Churches, to which it was not, however, accountable. With time, ecumenism came to be seen as an ‘extra’, a set of meetings and activities perceived to be only tenuously linked to the Churches’ life and mission in the world.
The ‘Churches Together’ model, on the other hand, rests on a ‘bottom up’ and ‘grassroots’ approach to ecumenism. Ecumenical instruments like CTE facilitate and aid inter-Church cooperation rather than seeking to implement a particular direction or agenda. Initiatives and partnerships between Churches have primacy and are meant to inform and shape the direction of ecumenical efforts at the national level through their respective ‘national instrument’. The model is built on the principles of consultation and collaboration, which encourages the member Churches themselves to work together, share resources and discern the direction and strategy for expressing and strengthening Christian unity. Ecumenism, in this model, is not an extra set of priorities and activities for Churches to embrace, but “a dimension of all that [Churches] do which releases energy, through the sharing of resources”
When it was first set up in 1990, CTE had 16 Member Churches. Today the number of Member Churches has increased to more than 50. These are national denominations or networks of churches in England. There are also a number of co-ordinating groups around various areas of interest, Bodies in Association (BiAs) and National Agencies, all of which sit under the CTE umbrella. As an organisation CTE’s strapline is One in Christ Jesus, engaged in God’s mission, empowered by the Spirit.
CTE is served by a small staff team led by the General Secretary. The team works under the direction of the Trustees who are appointed by the Enabling Group, which brings together national representatives of the member Churches. CTE is represented by six Presidents: The Archbishop of Canterbury; The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster; The Free Churches Group Moderator; The President nominated by the New Churches, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers in Britain) and the Lutheran and German-speaking Churches; The President for the Orthodox Churches; and The Pentecostal and Charismatic President.
The Presidents of Churches Together in England, in their preface to the 2017 Theos report ‘That they all may be one’, reflected:
“Churches Together in England was founded in 1990 to help the Churches in England explore how they could worship and witness together. During those 27 years the English Christian landscape has changed profoundly – that is reflected in CTE’s growth from 16 members in 1990 to 44 today*. There are many reasons for that: patterns of migration, new forms of spirituality, new ways of Christian discipleship. We are proud to represent that diversity, and eager to find ways in which we can work together in Christ’s name as we respond to the needs and aspirations of our society.”
*Update: as of autumn 2021, CTE has 51 national Member Churches.
This history originally appeared in the 2017 Theos report ‘That they all may be one’: Insights into Churches Together in England and contemporary ecumenism.