Delegates from forty-seven denominations and church streams were gathered at last month’s Churches Together in England (CTE) Forum, but it was the friendships between the six presidents which were the real highlight of the gathering
In 1987 Swanwick was the site of a significant moment in Christian unity in the UK as the declaration signed there signalled a new era of openness and fellowship for its churches. Some thirty years later, this September, as Churches Together England (CTE) hosted its triennial Forum at the same venue, it was clear that much progress has been made in the declaration’s aim “to become more fully…the one Church of Christ”.
For one there is greater breadth. There forty-seven member churches which is up five even from 2015’s Forum, and counting alongside them delegates from fifty-one charities and organisations which work ecumenically, that’s a lot of voices. Would this “broadest ecumenical gathering of Christians in England” sing in tune?
Incoming CTE General Secretary Paul Goodliff was realistic about the present realities, for instance the “sadness” that “we can’t yet all eat round one table together.” And yet the evidence from the united prayer and worship, the networking over coffee and the shared meals was of a spirit of openness and generosity both buoyed by the gathering itself and reflecting the lived local realities from which many of the delegates came.
CTE is explicit about the aims of the forum. It’s not a deliberative gathering, but a way of taking the ecumenical temperature, of “hearing from each other where we are on the journey to be one in Christ”. It’s a place to be encouraged by the diversity and depth of Christian witness in England and to be enriched by forging new relationships and connections. More than that, “it is a chance to celebrate and to deepen our relationship with Jesus and with each other”, through Bible study, discussion, workshops and listening to varied speakers.
These values were no more present than in the interactions between the six CTE Presidents, who addressed the Forum in conversations across three sessions you can see through the website www.cte.org.uk. These were clearly people who enjoy one another’s company and have done the hard yards of growing relationships, displaying a mix of laughter and self-deprecation alongside a hope and confidence about the future.
Each President was invited to speak about where they had seen the “Transforming presence of Christ” in their own lives. Common themes emerged, of suffering, encounter and humility, as Free Church Moderator Hugh Osgood suggested we needed new ways of measuring success; Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby suggesting that “people will see the presence of Christ in us when we stop holding onto things and we start letting God put a cross in our hands.”
Up and down the country there are many local Churches Together groups which are speaking of and living these same realities; running food banks, praying together, setting up homeless shelters and joining in open-air witness. Stories of these things abounded in the seminars, small groups, breaks and mealtimes as further connections were built, email addresses exchanged, and invitations were offered, between delegates.
Of course not every local situation is that warm; good relationships have to be built and rebuilt over time and there are many obstacles in the way. It’s here where the Presidents have a role in communicating the spirit of Swanwick to their own constituencies and indeed the public sphere, not just at Forum but at all points in between.
Those convening the Forum hoped that it would be for those who went “the enrichment of our discipleship, an encounter with Christ who comes to us in the glorious diversity of his people, leading us deeper into the love of God.” The Swanwick Declaration declared “For we are strangers no longer, but pilgrims together on the way to your Kingdom.” There is much to suggest that the spirit of 1987 is alive in 2018, and that God is indeed still at work making his people one.
Rich Burley, Communications Assistant for Birmingham Churches Together, was at the CTE Forum