(published as a chapter in Crossover City – Resources for Urban Mission and Transformation [Continuum, 2009])
The new ecumenism
Despite the high profile disagreements between Christians in recent years, there has been a real growth in local initiatives which bring different congregations together. This ‘new ecumenism’ has been primarily driven by mission initiatives which have sought to serve the needs of the local community in practical and tangible ways. Through this community mission varied congregations across the UK have discovered a unity in action: a common cause as one Church that is seeking to serve the local community.
One example is in Deptford, South London where Livability have worked with many different congregations to help them come together and sign a covenant to work together for the benefit of the area. The congregations involved include Pentecostal, Salvation Army, independent charismatic, Methodist, Catholic and two very different Anglican congregations. Theologically and culturally there are many differences – but a shared desire to see Jesus have an impact in their community has drawn them together.
The impetus for congregations to work together is now coming from some unlikely sources. Over the last ten years there has been a significant shift in many Pentecostal and charismatic congregations who are now emphasising God’s saving purposes for their whole area rather than simply individuals. Initiatives such as Redeeming our Communities, Soul in the City (2004), Eden and Street Pastorsepitomise this theological and missional shift in evangelical thinking and practice.
There is also a change in many ‘Churches Together’ groups who have developed a far more dynamic and outward focus that moves far beyond organising joint services. One of the best examples is Transform Newham in East London but there are also a growing number of initiatives such as Love Southend and, local to me, Love Streatham. These initiatives are bringing churches together with a purpose – to increase the impact they are having in the community. And again, more often than not, it is charismatic and Pentecostal churches that are at the forefront of this new form of ecumenism. No longer can it be said that these churches are simply interested in gathering people for praise and worship on a Sunday. The landscape is changing.
This shift is encouraging because often there is a generosity that lies behind the growing unity – a willingness to acknowledge that the Church is the Body of Christ and that other traditions have strengths that we lack. This kind of ‘unity in action’ is not based on a theological reductionism which purely focuses on ‘activism’. But it does mean passionately emphasising first those things on which we agree: that our communities are in desperate need for love, grace and an encounter with Jesus.
It seems that the growing community focus of the charismatic and Pentecostal congregations, as well as their passion and urgency, is having a galvanising effect on the wider church. These churches have become the powerhouse of a new unity that is breaking out around the country – a mission shaped movement which is in deep contrast to the tired, inward looking ecumenism of the past.
However, whilst there are encouraging shifts for mission and unity on a local level, there remains a theological tribalism within the institutional structures of the traditional denominations. Strongholds of disunity are more entrenched within the ecclesiastical structures than they are on the ground in communities. Despite their relative strengths, both the Church of England reports Faith in the City (1986) and Faithful Cities (2006) illustrate the failure to overcome the tribal theology that undermines the church’s mission.
Faith in the City
Back in the 1980s the Church of England’s Faith in the City report famously irked the Thatcher government of the day. The description of it as ‘pure Marxist theology’ by one Cabinet member secured for it something of a legendary status within the church. Perhaps too many in the Church of England have lived off the memory of these halcyon days when the established church offered a more effective opposition than the Labour Party did!
But from within the Church there was some thoughtful critique of the report. John Root wrote:
‘There is no greater enemy of wholesome moral debate in our society than polarisation into strongly personal, socially conservative responses; and impersonal, strongly political ones. By contrast scripture constantly interweaves personal holiness and political responsibility. Faith in the City is rightly strong on the collective injustice that creates the misery of UPAs; but it seriously neglects the effect of personal sins, such as dishonesty, laziness and sexual immorality. If the Church of England is to speak more prophetically to our society, it must learn to unite the voices of collective responsibility and personal transformation. Whilst the report is to be commended for saying unpopular things about the former it has been too bound by ground rules of secular debate to also speak the New Testament’s words of personal rebuke, repentance and re-birth’
John Root’s words are powerful because twenty years because they are still relevant. There remains today a real need to ‘unite the voices of collective responsibility and personal transformation’ in the church’s role in urban mission. Our continued tendencies towards tribal theology continue to disable the prophetic voice that the Church could have in this country.
Twenty years later the Church of England established a Commission for Urban Life and Faith which produced the report Faithful Cities published in 2006. Through the make up of the Commission panel, its modus operandi and its final report failed to engage with the changing face ofBritain and especially the Church. It failed to effectively engage with the evangelical perspective and experiences in urban mission. It was dominated by a liberal agenda which while it succeeded in challenging structural inequality and giving interesting sociological analysis, was unable to understand the commitments driving the growing evangelical agenda for an integrated approach to social action, evangelism and church growth and unity.
During 2004 I attended many of the Commission’s events and at the same time I was heavily involved in the predominantly evangelical Soul in the City initiative that summer. It was almost as if the two initiatives were happening in a parallel universe from each other such was the lack of connectivity between the two. The Commission for Urban Life and Faith events seemed to be operating within a culture dominated by the left hand silo on the diagram below. Whilst its report acknowledged some of the new initiatives and projects emerging from evangelical and charismatic churches it failed to give any theological analysis of why these initiatives were flourishing. No sustained or effective attempt was made to cross the cultural and theological divide.
Across the Church most people agree that the report Faithful Cities had very little impact either on society or even within the Church. Part of the reason is the far less polarised political context that it was published into compared to Faith in the City – but this is only half the story. The other important reason is because it failed to articulate or represent what a large part of the church feel passionate about. It simply failed to speak for their work.
On the ground Soul in the City was a great example of a growing missional unity but the ecclesiastical structures of the Church of England were unable to capture a similar unity in diversity. The Commission and its report reflected the divisions within the Church rather than helping to overcome them.
The effect of tribal theology
These are simply examples of the effect of tribal theology. I believe the tribalism which drives us into cultural and theological silos deeply undermining the Church’s witness in the world.
Firstly, it leads to brittle beliefs. If we just spend time within the silo of our tradition, only talk with those who agree with us, our beliefs are not tested, toughened or deepened by honest debate with those with different perspectives. Too often we can express ourselves confidently within the silo of our particular Christian culture but are rarely tested in robust debate. This lack of assertiveness and true confidence is not just a problem for internal well-being of the Church – it leaves us ill-equipped to articulate our faith in the public square. Too often, tribalism means we appear shrill and out of touch when speaking to those beyond the Church.
Secondly it turns the Church inward. So much energy in the Church is expended on criticising fellow Christians. The silos of disunity create safe havens from which prominent leaders can criticise ‘the other’, winning applause at conferences and selling books. Instead of resources, time and energy being used to send people out in mission, they are expended in deconstructing the beliefs of other Christians.
Thirdly, we simply mirror the political divisions in the world. Rather than bearing witness to the unity of transformation in Christ, the Church breaks readily into political camps with points to score and positions of influence to fight over. Too often our disunity is simply a thin religious veneer on existing social and political divisions. Instead of meaningful relationships with a focus on mission, labels such as ‘liberal’ or ‘fundamentalist’ are used, not for self-identification, but as expressions of contempt in order to write off the perspectives of fellow Christians.
Fourthly and most damagingly, it leads to the church conforming to secular orthodoxy rather than Biblical orthodoxy. Instead of ‘uniting the voices of collective responsibility and personal responsibility’ (Root) in a prophetic synthesis, we follow the basic division between conservative and liberal emphasises. This secular orthodoxy shapes religion and faith in its own image, rather than God’s. It is a faith that takes it cues from the ‘spirit of the age’ (the zeitgeist) rather than God’s eternal Holy Spirit. God save us from a church that is fluent in sociological and economic analysis but cannot speak confidently of how the Holy Spirit transforms lives.
A dialectical appreciation of Christian theology
In order to overcome this tribal theology we need to appreciate the dialectical nature of Christian truth. Instead of seeing the range of emphasises on key theological issues as opposing each other we need to understand them as a dialectic that is in-built into the Christian faith – that truth always involves holding contrasting factors in tension.
These creative tensions abound in Christianity. At heart of our faith is the belief that an eternal, omnipresent God incarnated Himself into a specific space and time within human history. We believe that God is both transcendent, wholly other from creation – but also immanent, a God who we can know as a Father. We believe in both experience of God’s grace working in our lives and in a revealed truth in the Bible. We believe in both a personal encounter of Christ and the social witness that the Church is called to live out. We believe in both the truth of the incarnation of God in Christ and the atonement that he brought about through his death. To all of these aspects of theological truth, the orthodox Christian can say ‘I believe’.
It is this dialectical nature of truth that is Christianity’s strength in being able to engage with the real world. It is rooted in the rabbinic tradition in which Jesus ministry was birthed – where dialectical instructions, e.g. to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ were common.
Grappling with the dialectics such as these is central to what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. Because in every community, whether urban or not, there are Christians whose personal beliefs or tradition of church will have different emphasises than their fellow Christians. This is both the way it has always been and surely also the way it is meant to be, as the Church displays the rich diversity of those called to follow Jesus. As Paul wrote to the divided Church inCorinth, ‘though all its parts are many, they form one body’ (I Corinthians 12:12).
The diagram sets out some of the dialectics within orthodox Christianity. Many people have travelled a journey between these emphasises. In my church home group which meets weekly for Bible study and discussion the topic of social justice is continually grappled with. Some have journeyed from a conservative emphasis on personal salvation towards a more social understanding of faith. However there are also others who have travelled in the other direction – who have questioned the more liberal emphasis they grew up in and embraced an urgency around personal faith and a conviction on truth that they found lacking previously.
The point of this model is to help us recognise the legitimacy of the range of belief within orthodox Christianity. We need to recognise the emphasis of others and commit to informed dialogue whilst we keep the focus outward on our mission in the world. It will be this dual commitment to unity and mission that allows us to go deeper into Christ together.
Robust and open discussion across these silos can be energising and exciting – if it is the context of mission. It can become a dynamic exploration which appreciates the strengths of the other position even if each group continues to disagree. I saw this kind of unity emerge during the Soul in the City initiative in 2004 in Leytonstone where joint work between an Anglo-Catholic congregation and the neighbouring Pentecostal church really produced fruit. After two weeks of working with the local kids they had deepened their relationship and found a unity in mission, despite the wide difference in their theology and culture. And this is the continuing experiences we see in the ‘new ecumenism’ discussed above.
Going deeper together
If the Church is to be effective and to make an impact in urban issues we urgently need Christian social thinking that is prepared to break the silos between liberal and conservative. William Temple, who as much as anyone worked for Christianity’s social impact said ‘If we have to choose between making men Christian, and the social order more Christian, we have to choose the former, but there is no such antithesis.’ Temple was right – these two emphasises are deeply interrelated – but he was also right in recognising their order of dependence on each other. The gospel must transform individuals if it is to transform society.
As we consider the Church’s role in the urban context we cannot live in the past – we have to look at what God is saying to his Church in this time. And as the high tide of Christendom recedes, it exposes a harsh reality. For there are too many large, impressive religious buildings which stand as empty relics of yesteryear, like spiritual museums of a different age. They may have served well in an age of cultural Christianity but that age is now long gone.
We have to face the reality that without purposeful evangelistic efforts many urban congregations will continue to die. And for those denominations their ability to provide social analysis, let alone any potential political impact, will die with it. For the Church’s social and political impact is derivative – ultimately it relies on people’s encounter with the risen Lord Jesus and being willing to participate in communities that in some way express this belief. In order to avoid being parasitic, the institutional social endeavours within denominations need to recognise their dependence on vibrant and healthy congregations and church growth.
The dialectics set out in the diagram are rich resources for Christian thinking and engagement with the world – they are our strength – but too often they become silos of tribal entrenchment that simply mirror the conflicts in the world. The centralised and institutional elements of the traditional denominations will not survive if they continues to be enslaved into secular divisions between liberal and conservative perspectives.
If the Church is to be effective, indeed if the Church is to survive, we must go deeper. Going deeper means venturing out into the risky places, the radical places where we speak the Word of God to both institutions and individuals; where we are unashamed to both proclaim Jesus as Lord and work in His name for restoration and justice for all.
This is a place where we will lose friends and cause offence, just as Jesus said we would (Luke 21:12-19). But it is here that we are really following Jesus and taking up the cross he calls us to. It is a place where we truly need depend on the Holy Spirit rather than the spirit of the age. But it is in this place, at the foot of the cross, where the Church will rediscover its role, its calling and its power to transform our broken world in Jesus’ name.