Ecumenical Outreach

04/03/2016 12:00 pm

Reflecting on the importance of Christian Unity in relation to effective evangelisation, Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium:

“If we concentrate on the convictions we share, and if we keep in mind the principle of the hierarchy of truths, we will be able to progress decidedly towards common expressions of proclamation, service and witness. The immense numbers of people who have not received the Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot leave us indifferent. Consequently, commitment to a unity which helps them to accept Jesus Christ can no longer be a matter of mere diplomacy or forced compliance, but rather an indispensable path to evangelization.” (246)

In the article that follows, Charles Whitehead, one of the speakers at the Proclaim ’15 National Catholic Evangelisation Conference (July 2015), shares an experience of a pathway used to enable churches to witness together in service of local mission.

The Big Tent Event

Following a Lenten ecumenical discussion programme, our local Christians Together group invited me to look into the possibility of holding a joint churches ecumenical mission to our area of Gerrards Cross and Chalfont St. Peter, Buckinghamshire. My first step was to invite all the local clergy to come together to discuss this interesting possibility. They duly gathered under my chairmanship representing 3 Anglican churches (one evangelical, one liberal and one higher church), a Catholic church, a Methodist church, a Baptist church and a United Reformed church.

Within half an hour of discussion it was quite clear to me that a joint mission was not possible – their relationships and understanding of each other were very weak, resulting in more arguments than discussion. So I proposed that before taking any decision about the mission we should gather together monthly for a full morning to get to know one another better, to grow in our mutual understanding, and to build strong relationships. This we did and after 14 months we had sufficient agreement to decide to go ahead with a joint mission 18 months later.

We moved ahead together to plan a 2 week mission to be held in a big marquee holding almost 1,000 people on Gerrards Cross common, to be co-ordinated by Scripture Union and featuring top people from each of our denominations as main speakers. We also put in place a programme with a specialist team going into all our local schools. The marquee was to be in use every day for different groups from Morning Prayer at 07.00 followed by a breakfast meeting, a coffee morning, a lunchtime gathering, afternoon sessions for schoolchildren, and an open evening meeting or service with worship and a speaker. Our big meetings were the Saturday and Sunday evening gatherings when the marquee was full. We put in place a full advertising and marketing campaign under a very creative title: "The Big Tent Event".

Crucial to any success was the prayer campaign in support of the mission which was undertaken by all the churches over a 12 month period. Also important was the programme to train representatives of each church to receive those who responded at the various events and services, to pray for them and to introduce them to the life of one of the churches. But how would we decide to which church we should introduce someone who came forward at one of the services? As chairman I was tasked with working out an appropriate system! What I came up with was as follows. When someone came forward the first question would be, “are you a member of a local church or have you ever had contact with a particular church or denomination?” If the answer was “yes” they would be introduced to the team from that church or denomination. If “no” the second question would be, “did someone invite you to come here with them and if so which church do they attend?” If “yes” they would be passed on to the team from that particular church. If “no” the third question would be, “have you ever felt attracted to any denomination or to one of the local churches?” If “yes” they would be introduced to the team from that church or denomination, but if “no” the person to whom they were speaking would introduce them to the team from his or her own church.

This system worked really well and every local congregation had new or returning members following the mission. The late Cardinal Basil Hume enquired how we handled this tricky question when he came to speak, and complimented me on a very sensible and practical system which he thought could be a good model for use elsewhere.

As an example of a typical response, one of the men who came forward told me he had not been to church for many years and was not sure why he had come to the service, but during the evening something had really spoken to him and he found himself coming to the front for prayer. He was delighted to have been reunited with his Methodist roots and subsequently became a committed member of the local congregation. Such stories were not uncommon.

One of the most encouraging things for me was that in spite of the efforts of the local reporters at our daily Press Conferences to find areas where we had disagreed or fallen out during the 2 week mission, they could find nothing and their final headlines read “Their Unity held!” and “The Churches really are Together!” The fruit of our relationship-building work was evident and the churches have continued to work together in many different events. Personnel may change, but something has been put in place which has stood the test of time and remains fruitful and alive. Perhaps the key is that at the beginning of every month the clergy and leaders still meet together at our home to pray for each other and for our joint ministry and mission to the area of Gerrards Cross and Chalfont St. Peter.