What started it all off?

1982 was a very eventful year, ecumenically, in Britain and Ireland. On the world stage, two important documents were published: the Lima report on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, and the final report of ARCIC 1. This was also the year of the first Papal visit (by Pope St John Paul II) to Britain, and this proved a catalyst for an intensification of ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church. And, sadly, this was the year that the Covenant for Unity failed – though that provided an impetus for development on a broader front. 

In the background, in England, there was a growing recognition that the British Council of Churches was no longer as effective as it could be, partly because the good work done by the staff often had little influence on its member Churches. Additionally, a serious weakness was that the Roman Catholic Church was only an observer and the black-led churches were missing.

Informal conversations became a formal meeting of British and Irish Church Leaders in September 1984. The task was to explore possible ways forward and the decision was made to wipe the slate clean and start again. The question was: what do the churches need to move forward towards Christian unity? This was a vibrant and exciting time for ecumenism. There was a real conviction that something new and inclusive was possible and a conviction that pragmatic structures should not be the starting point but whatever emerged should be firmly based on the nature and purpose of the Church. Everyone was excited and BCC staff were so committed to the vision of something new that they collectively handed in their notice.

Not Strangers But Pilgrims

In February 1985 the Inter-Church Process of prayer, reflection and debate was established. It was named in the light of words spoken by Pope St John Paul II in Glasgow when he addressed ‘the larger community of believers in Christ’, stressing that we are ‘pilgrims on this earth’ and asking: ‘can we not make that pilgrimage together hand-in hand?’

A key element of Not Strangers But Pilgrims was that it was rooted in consultation, at local and national level. Perhaps there has never before or since been such a widespread consultation at local level, entirely due to the imaginative idea of utilising BBC radio. In Lent 1986 an estimated million people, meeting in 60,000 to 70,000 groups, listened to the Lent 86, What on Earth is the Church for? course and replied to the questionnaire. Their responses were eventually collated into Views from the Pews (downloadable from CTBI).

At national level the participating churches were asked for their understanding of Church. This had never been attempted before and the resulting Reflections: How Churches View their Life and Mission was described in its introduction as ‘a unique collection: churches confessing to one another, in charity and honesty, their self-understanding and their reflections on their relationships with each other’.

A third book, Observations on the Church from Britain and Abroad, aimed to supplement these ‘self-portraits’ with the views of others. Colin Davey, in From Councils of Churches to Churches Together, pg 7, particularly valued Christian Aid’s ‘argument that the aim of ecumenism should be to seek to create a community of disagreement’ – with emphasis on both words.

Crunch time: 1987

The Not Strangers But Pilgrims Inter-Church Process recognised that working only at the local and at the British & Irish level was perhaps no longer sustainable and so in 1987 three conferences were held in Nottingham, Bangor and St Andrews. They asked if there should also be national ecumenical instruments (no-one was talking about Councils of Churches any more) as well as one for Britain and Ireland. What would they be for and how should they be organised? Martin Reardon, in From Councils of Churches to Churches Together, pg 8 ff, gives a vivid account of some of the tensions and difficulties of these conferences.

The three national conferences culminated in a three-nations conference (with observers from Ireland) at Swanwick. From today’s perspective we may think that the outcome was a done deal but that would be to misunderstand. There was a strong sense that to agree to move forward was a huge step of commitment, not to be taken lightly. Jenny Bond was working in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference secretariat and remembers waiting anxiously for telephone updates. Would Cardinal Hume agree to move forward or would he not? Martin Reardon’s account shows that her anxiety was shared by many others. He recounts how ‘Swanwick was transformed’ when Cardinal Hume spoke about his experience of unity at Swanwick as a gift from God given in abundance, inviting the ‘Roman Catholic delegates… [to] recommend … that we move now quite deliberately from a situation of co-operation to one of commitment to each other’.

New ecumenical instruments are born

From Councils of Churches to Churches Together, pg 11 ff, explains how the Not Strangers But Pilgrims process moved from the Swanwick conference to the publication, in 1989, of The Next Steps for Churches Together in Pilgrimage, including definitive proposals for ecumenical instruments, a title so snappy that it immediately became known as ‘the Marigold book’!

In 1990, Churches Together in England, Cytûn (Churches Together in Wales) and Action for Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS), together with the overarching Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland were inaugurated. (CCBI kept the ‘Council of Churches’ title for legal reasons for some years before becoming Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.) You can download below a greetings leaflet for the CTE inauguration service listing the founding Member Churches.

The Swanwick conference had also recognised the importance of ‘intermediate’ ecumenical instruments which were already in existence in some parts of England, bridging the gap between local and national and acting as Sponsoring Bodies for Local Ecumenical Partnerships. It was recommended that these should be established throughout England with boundaries roughly the same as the English counties. (This is why Intermediate Bodies are often called County Bodies.)

Further resources