The ecumenical imperative has always been at the centre of how we are in the United Reformed Church, and I don’t think that has changed, but it is changing. When I was on sabbatical in 2001 I entitled the piece of work I did: “Local Ecumenical Partnerships: are they the best way forward, one way forward, or now past their sell-by date?” I concluded that LEPs have a large contribution to make, and that they are certainly not past their sell-by date. I have not changed my mind, but the reality is that many church leaders in other denominations put far less emphasis on them, and some, other than in very particular circumstances, whilst happy to continue those that are there, would actively discourage the formation of new ones. It is widely said that ecumenism has moved into a new phase. The phrase is receptive ecumenism – in which we allow others to do things for us, receiving their gifts. The other thing that is often said is that ecumenism that work is project ecumenism. So Christians working together on foodbanks, street pastors, sometimes youth projects or cafes, is where there is energy to be found. That is true, and there are some really good things going on – but I am interested in the fact that new LEPs do still spring up, sometimes with slightly new models, and I have yet to see any real evidence that they are not a critical part of mission strategy in many areas.
Back in and around the 1980s there was a heightened expectation that mainline denominations were quite likely to come together in the UK. However, as Stephen Orchard points out: “In place of these national reconciliations between denominations a form of local ecumenism has grown up, strong in some localities, weak in others, Mutual service to the community, be it after-school clubs, counselling services or Christian Aid collections, to name a few examples, is often carried out through these local structures.”
Let’s use what we have and work together on and in it – but not forgetting Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one” (John 17:21).