Christian Unity through Church Bodies 'Unlikely', Say U.K. Leaders

Greatest prospects for church unity are to be found at grassroots, leaders say

LONDON – Christians across the United Kingdom may have prayed to become one this past week, but church unity at the national level remains an unlikely prospect, say the leaders of the nation's main denominations.

The heads of the Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic and United Reformed Churches spoke candidly last week of a loss of impetus in national efforts to bring about unity in their personal responses to questions put to them by the Church Times and Baptist Times.

"There is still at grassroots a great enthusiasm for unity," acknowledged Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, but also "a fair amount of impatience with denominational structures that are seen as failing to deliver it."

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"Local Churches Together groups often have a good level of commitment. But you won't find much interest in what you might call the 'negotiating' side of unity," the Anglican leader added, referring to groups associated with the ecumenical organization Churches Together. "A concern for common witness and a relaxed attitude to common worship, yes, but not much keenness on what the official bodies are up to in their dialogues."

There is "an uncomfortable gap between national bodies and local enthusiasm," Williams observed.

The archbishop's sentiments were echoed by the head of the Roman Catholic Church of England and Wales, the Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who said there had been a "slowing down of progress" in spite of increased commitment to unity.

Dr. Martyn Atkins, general secretary of the Methodist Church, meanwhile said there was "less enthusiasm for unity as an end in itself."

The leaders' comments coincided with the worldwide Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which ran Jan. 18-25. Put together by the Church in Korea, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity draws inspiration from Ezekiel 37:15-28, which records God saying to the biblical prophet Ezekiel that "they shall be one in my hand...They will be my people and I shall be their God."

In observance of the weeklong prayer effort, personal comments from the heads of the Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic and United Reformed Churches were published in the latest editions of the Church Times, the Baptist Times, the Methodist Recorder and the URC's Reform magazine.

Though the Church leaders said in their comments that structural convergence among the denominations remains a distant prospect, they said there was nonetheless a greater commitment to join up work at the local level.

And according to Williams, the greatest prospects for church unity are to be found at the parish level.

"The truth is that top-down strategies for institutional union are very unlikely to work in the near future any better than they have in the recent past," he said. "Prayer and silence and action together are the things that change us, and even change the world."

The Rev. Roberta Rominger, general secretary of the United Reformed Church, similarly spoke of a "partnership of purpose and action," while Methodist leader Atkins added that there was "greater enthusiasm for focused ecumenical action" like community projects.

Atkins specifically pointed to "the strength in having a unified voice on matters of social justice especially."

The annual week of prayer is a highlight of the ecumenical calendar and is traditionally celebrated between January 18 and 25 in the northern hemisphere or at Pentecost in the southern hemisphere.

The resources and guides for this year's Week of Prayer for Christian Unity were developed by representatives of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea and the National Council of Churches in Korea. The production of the material was supported jointly by the World Council of Churches' Faith and Order Commission and the Roman Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Christian Today reporter Anne Thomas in London and Christian Post reporter Eric Young in Washington contributed to this article.

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