Newspaper headlines and editorials scream for greater political and financial unity. In these dark days of economic turmoil we are exhorted to tighten our belts and get on our bikes, to repay our debts and seek jobs up to one and half hours away from our homes. Church leaders have called for compassion, seeking to ensure that the “have not’s” are not left behind, bearing the largest hit proportionately. Justice, they say must go hand in hand with prudence to explore the treasures held in trust by the Christian tradition allowing a “profound and ongoing dialogue between the secular reality and the world of religious belief”.
But is the desire for greater unity increasingly counter cultural in the context where nations and institutions are pulling away from seeking greater unity and even the Churches themselves appear to be pulling back from their historic ecumenical agreements? Do the Churches exemplify in their own policies and ways of engaging the current sense that Britain is well out of any wider call for greater unity across Europe and beyond? The modern ecumenical movement began its current journey in the immediate years after the Second World War. The World Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches and the British Council of Churches all established themselves as conciliar bodies in the post war context. Their “charism” was of peace and reconciliation as Churches themselves sought to bring nations and peoples together. Churches saw themselves as the bridge builders between the victor and vanquished, between the broken and those ready to rebuild. So over the years it is the Churches who have often been the “bonds of friendship” between suspicious nations. This continued to be true in the European context right up to 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, where European Churches continued the dialogue and relationship building between east and west. When all else seemed to have failed, it was the Churches across Europe who continued to meet together and build bridges of trust and dialogue. In national contexts the work undertaken by the Churches in the Northern Ireland peace process was hugely significant, as was the ongoing work of reconciliation across the Balkans. European Churches are not alone in having done this kind of bridge building however. The Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa was driven by leading Church representatives, most notably by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Addressing the economic situation the Observer newspaper recently recognised that “It is an issue of hard-core politics, of the post-war agenda of harnessing old enemies into an economic union that ensures they never turn on each other again.” (7.8.11) Just as the modern ecumenical movement was born out the political context of the time, so it seems that the Churches are reflecting the current prevailing mood, in not seeking greater unity through shared programmes. Sadly, clergy and others now often view the ecumenical structures with suspicion and dismiss them with the question “what’s in it for us”. In this context we would do well to remember that it was the Christian vision of peace and reconciliation that formed the founding principles of the European Union. The flag of the European Community is alleged to have formed in the minds of those praying in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, whose head was surrounded in a halo of stars.
So the words of Jesus “that we should all be one, so that the world might believe” (Jn. 17.21) should be totally relevant not just to the Churches, but also to today’s bankers and politicians. Except it doesn’t seem to make any impact in these days of greater individualism and personal choice. Are Churches reflecting their members, who after all are members of our wider society, as they move towards being consumers rather than citizens. Might it be that, the language of “value for money” and “added value” often heard around ecumenical discussions, betrays the under-current of secularisation of faith that is infecting the Churches.
Let us also recall that we are perhaps two or three generations away from those who have had any real experience of those immediate war/post war experiences which were the foundation of the modern ecumenical movement. Indeed, we are already at least one generation beyond those who directly remember the fall of the Soviet Empire and have gone through at least two further phases of cultural change. Firstly, the post Thatcher era when we were encouraged to work hard and pull ourselves up by our own individual bootstraps. It was a time characterised by an emphasis on personal rights rather than corporate and community service. Secondly, we have been moving through a time when the whole notion of growing closer together, of being responsible for one another and sharing each other’s concerns, never mind burdens, has been replaced by a much more individualistic approach where my needs, my aspirations, and my happiness, have taken centre stage. In other words the call to greater unity is seen as a weakness and a compromise rather than a strength.
The Eurozone financial crisis simply reinforces this growing sense of “it’s easier to do it on our own”. This is reflected in the way the Churches are increasingly working individually. The twenty year old vision of moving “from ecumenism as an extra, which absorbs energy, to ecumenism as a dimension of all that we do, which releases energy through the sharing of resources” seems to have fallen in to disuse. The default on the agreements of the Swanwick Declaration has gone largely un-noticed. When for example, do we see, hear or read about Church leaders speaking out together across denominational, never mind national boundaries?
The Swanwick vision of “moving from co-operation to commitment” might be a useful one liner for the current banking and political crisis. Today it seems to be somewhat counter cultural as prosperous Northern Europeans cry out against assisting poorer southern neighbours with their problems.
The now often used statement that “it’s easier to do it on our own” may have short term appeal and benefits to those who are especially concerned about their own personal or ecclesiastical survival. But it says nothing positive to those who are looking to Churches for some kind of moral and spiritual leadership. It should come therefore, as no surprise, that the world no longer believes that the Churches have any credible input into the current national, European and international economic difficulties.