Paul Goodliff writes:
Even if you have never been to a wedding reception held in a marquee in someone’s back garden (and I confess that I never have, not being acquainted with anyone who owns a garden that large, although I did attend a wedding reception once in a tepee in a field near Skipton!) you’ll have seen one in a film, I guess — “Four Weddings and a Funeral” springs to mind. Underneath the shelter of the canvas there are tables for guests to eat the wedding breakfast, and a space big enough to be used as the dance floor. Generally, if it is a warm summer evening, the sides are rolled up, and the breeze blows through the gathered friends and family as they eat, chat, listen to speeches, dance — oh, yes, and argue too.
In a recent address to the Churches Together in England Enabling Group as its newly-appointed General Secretary I used this picture as a way of understanding the ecumenical challenges and opportunities that lie before us. We gather as churches and networks under the shelter of the “CTE tent”, but like that wedding marquee, the sides are wide open to the world beyond, with its diverse culture and society. Some in the wider world welcome our presence in their midst (and the evidence is that, on the whole, government and other faith groups do value our contribution to the welfare of civil society) while others are more suspicious of our motives or values. Nonetheless, the role of the churches is never to withdraw from that society, but, as Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount, to be salt and light, both proclaiming the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and living it out. The sides of the marquee could be rolled down, but that would hinder both our connection with the world beyond — a world that God loves and that Jesus Christ died to save — and the free wind of the Holy Spirit that empowers and enlivens the Church.
Within the CTE tent we too sit around tables, eat, drink, engage in animated conversation, find the connections and, yes, disagree about important things — just as any gathering of family and friends experience. We are even called to join in with the divine dance that the Fathers of the Church called perichoresis, the dance of God’s love within the Holy Trinity that overflows to all that God has made. On some of the statements on the CTE website we are described as ‘the family of churches’, and that is a profoundly Scriptural and theological truth. We are brothers and sisters by new birth and divine adoption, who call God ‘Father’ and recognise Jesus as both Lord and Saviour. But Jesus also calls his disciples ‘friends’ (John 15:12–15) and one of the joys of the ecumenical community of churches is that there is real and deep friendship between the churches and those who their members. This is evident often at local levels in town or village CT groups, and also at the national level, where the work of ecumenism is strong. At the ‘intermediate level’, while the friendship is no less real, the organisations that provide the structures for ecumenical collaboration require some fresh attention, new vision and greater support.
Whether strong or weaker, the challenge ahead for CTE is how to collaborate more readily in the Missio Dei, the mission of God that is our calling in every generation. How can we deepen our discipleship so that every member in our churches is effective in their own calling to serve God’s world in Christ’s name and so serve God himself? How can we proclaim the good news with greater ecumenical collaboration? How can we partner with one another — both member churches and our Bodies in Association — to make the compassion of Christ real to the many in our society who are left behind (who are sometimes described as ‘the last, the lost and the least’.) We do so reaching out to those alternative ecumenical networks that do so much to incarnate the love of God in towns throughout the nation: movements like Gather, Heartedge and Hope.
I believe that CTE is best placed to provide the tent within which we can dream those dreams, catch fresh visions, plan, strategize and, most importantly, discover what it means to love one another deeply. Something of that is captured in the new CTE strapline — “one in Christ Jesus, engaged in God’s mission, empowered by the Spirit” — and if I were to opt for one phrase to capture my hopes and prayers for the churches in England over the coming years it would be something that emerged unprepared in a conversation at a recent CTE Presidents’ meeting — almost as if gifted by the Spirit, perhaps — and which I expressed as ‘discipling the whole church to reach the whole nation.’ I hope that you will be hearing more of that as the months unfold in this new year of 2019.
Rev’d Dr. Paul Goodliff
General Secretary, Churches Together in England.
Paul Goodliff writes: