CTH Annual General Meeting 2010

What does this person do! Confessions of a County Ecumenical Officer

Bede Gerrard

When St Augustine of Hippo decided to write an account of the path of his conversion to Christianity, he chose the title of Confessions for his work. As a teenager, when I first read the book, I must admit that I was not a little disappointed by the content as it did not seem in the same league as the People or News of the World when it came to confessions. (I was to discover that St Augustine was using the word with a much earlier meaning.) Tonight I hope that you will not similarly be disappointed with my short talk by the expectations raised by its title.

I took up the job as County Ecumenical Officer for Oxfordshire (CEO) on September 29 (my wife's birthday) 2000, just three months before the start of the 21st century. I was 56 and had just ‘early retired’ for the second time, and wanted a part-time job both to keep me out of my wife’s hair during the day and to put a glass of wine on my Sunday table. I also wanted time to be able to go to church when I wanted to. (The Orthodox Church seems to provide a goodly number of early morning weekday services.)

I can still remember my interview when I argued with the Baptist member of the panel that the unity of the Church is an Evangelical Imperative. I felt then, and still feel today, that we do not have the option of being content with the disunity of the people of God. I feel that an Anglican bishop was profoundly wrong when recently he said that he did not want to be 'in communion' with the Pope. As a minister of the Word and Sacrament he should be praying each and every day for the unity of the people of God, and for the ability to be ‘in communion’ with all those who profess and call themselves Christians. Not that we ought to be looking for a monolithic undifferentiated leviathan of an institution. No! We ought to be trying, with our fellow Christian brothers and sisters, to be reflecting in our lives and in the life of the Church the unity in diversity which is at the heart of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.

I contend that the content of the faith with which we have no option but to agree, if we wish to be called Christians, is surprisingly small. There is also a large body of theological interpretation, which we may not hold as necessary for salvation, but which we do not have the right to forbid people to believe or to preach against.

But what has this to do with how I carry out my job as CEO? The answer, I think, is a threefold path.

First, by using the formal instruments, as they are called, of the traditional ecumenical movement, Churches Together Groups, Local Ecumenical Partnerships and Local Covenants, the organisations such as Churches Together in England, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and the World Council of Churches. I strive to develop communication, understanding and prayer between and within groups of Christians.

Second, through formal and informal theological discussions, I try to understand where each tradition is coming from. I participate in groups which share understanding, the CTE Co-ordinating Group for Spirituality and Prayer, the local Orthodox-Evangelical dialogue, the national Orthodox-Catholic conferences and conversations and the times when someone from another tradition wants to know about mine and is willing to share their own.

Third, by working for a just society, I want to help to create the social arena where there is freedom to choose and to believe. This involves me with the civic and public bodies such as the District, City and County Councils, the Police, the NHS, the Prison Service and people working for voluntary societies and people from faiths other than my own.

So, how do I go about trying to do these three things?

The first is done with the considerable help of my wife. She is the one who edits and distributes the two newsletters that go out, one to the churches of the city and the other to those of the county. Making known what is going on, and what is there to share with our fellow Christians, is important for the health and well-being of the people of God in the city and the county. If I know what you are doing and you know what I am doing, then that is a start in my getting to know who you are and of you getting to know who I am. But those e.newsletters only work if those who receive them cascade them to more Christians, so that they get to know the news, and so it spreads out like the ripple from a pebble dropped into a stream or a pool.

Another part of the task is the meetings of Churches Together in Oxfordshire and its Enabling Group, the meeting of the Senior Church Leaders of the county, and the meetings with people like you and other groups of Christians within the county. Sometimes I even get to preach or lead services. As far as the LEPs are concerned there are the formal reviews that take place from time to time and the discussion that goes into setting them up the carrying out and final production of a coherent document that truly reflects the life of the particular project and encourages them to continue the good work they are doing.

Recently Christians living on the Leys estates, BBL and Greater Leys, have been concerned about the proposal to build on Grenoble Road. What should they as Christians do? They needed to have plans that are not just concerned with 'Stop the urban sprawl' but with the spiritual wholeness of whoever might come to live in the houses if they are built. On several occasions a group has met to look at the implications of the proposed new build. We exchanged ideas and experience and looked at what the Church has done in other places to ensure that people are not effectively de-churched by building estates without social or worship facilities. And it is not just Grenoble Road that has the prospect of massive numbers of new residents on the edge of towns or villages with the consequent drain on existing resources and the simply falling away of opportunities for people to meet locally to socialise and to worship. But here the edges between Christian Unity and Social Concern are already becoming blurred.

Much more difficult to define are the theological parts of my work. Not because I don't do much of it, but because often it doesn't look as though you are doing theology. The CTE Co-ordinating Group on Spirituality and Prayer is where we exchange ideas from the different Christian traditions about what is happening in the spiritual life of the individual Churches. How is knowing what is going on in the Icthus Fellowship and listening and sharing the 'poetry' of members of that Fellowship have anything to do with the unity of the Church? I am led to a phrase that a former General Secretary of Churches Together in England, used when he summarised a conference led by a single Christian tradition; 'They are not YOUR treasures you are sharing with one another, but GOD'S'. The treasures of our traditions, if they are worth sharing with other traditions are not that tradition's treasures, but God's. The Parish system of the C/E, where there is not a square inch of England that is not in a Parish, is a treasure that we can all learn from, and similarly the use of icons or statues as a help to devotion and focus of our prayer life God-ward, or the importance of the sermon in Free Churches, are not Orthodox or Catholic or Free Church treasures but treasures of the whole Church,. I could go on with examples from several traditions but I hope you get the idea.

The bipartite dialogues that I am privileged to take part in enable me to focus on what is keeps us Christians apart and what does it actually mean when an 'Evangelical' asks me 'Are you saved?' I feel inclined to point at the person passing in the street and say 'Not only am I saved but that person, whom I do not even know, is also saved; and what we have to do is work out with God our salvation which is already prepared as a gift for us.'

I find out that when some Christians talk about Eucharistic Ministers they do not mean the same as I do in my tradition when I use the same words. I, as an Orthodox Christian, and a bit of a pedant, can talk about the history of the Church in terms of two thousand years or so whereas others will talk about a long established fellowship that is less than twenty years old. We not only need to be able to use words to bring us together rather than divide us we also need to realise that when we talk about time we can have wildly differing meanings. For me the earnest praying for the unity of all the people of God began in the fifth century, at the time of the Council of Chalcedon, or even earlier, whereas for others it began after the Edinburgh Conference of 1910 and this year we are celebrating 100 years of Prayer for Christian Unity.

As part of prayer for Christian unity, for nine years I have been a member of the editorial committee of CTBI which works on the material for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And if you don't think that is theological you only need ask the current General Secretary, who, when he came into post, thought it was a simple editorial task and why were 15 people from 11 traditions and five countries needed to do it. He came to the group and left it convinced that he had not heard such deep theological discussion carried out so fervently but also so amicably in his time as a priest.

As well as the WPCU material I have also been involved in editing Lent study material and looking at the content of other publications such as the material for the Churches' Commemoration of the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

That just leaves me to cover, what has become at least half of my official 18 hours a week, my interaction with public and civic bodies and with people of other faiths. Here are a few of the bodies I work with or within. The Oxfordshire Stronger Communities Alliance, a gathering of people working in the voluntary sector, public bodies (Police, NHS, PCT, Emergency Services) and the District, City and County Councils; the Steering Group for the Building Better Neighbourhoods research project; the South East England Faiths Forum. My work now includes chairing Oxford Council of Faiths, and participating in gatherings concerned with people of faith and the environment; the University of Oxford Racial Equality Group looking at the place of multifaith chaplaincy in the University; also I sit on the Brookes Chaplaincy Council and have taken part in discussions on the expanding of chaplaincy facilities to people of other faiths, who constitute about a third of the students at Brookes. I have informal contact with the Thames Valley Police chaplaincy concerned with the provision of prayer material for people, from different Christian and other faith traditions, to be placed in the custody facilities at larger police stations in the county.

Comments are requested on the development plans for the county and districts within the county; I sit on the Oxfordshire Partnership Board as the representative of faith community interests, and receive a variety of publications, reports, reviews and even from time to time am asked to write a review of books that might be of use to people from the churches throughout both the county and the country.

But enough from me, please ask me about things you wonder why I do; or why don't I spend more time doing; or which you feel do not really form part of the job of someone whose job it is to keep the Churches talking to each other, to further the kingdom of God in this county and to work towards the fulfilling of the prayer of Christ – 'Father, I pray that they may be one, as we are one, that the world might believe that you have sent me.'

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