#TheologyinIsolation 18: Though we are many – Towards a new dawn of ecumenism
Tom Mumford on ecumenism in a time of COVID-19
I was scrolling, again. Was there anything new or interesting on social media? Had anything good appeared since I last checked…three minutes ago?
It was the week before the national ‘lockdown’, but I was already confined to barracks, convalescing at home with a broken foot. Refreshing my news feed yet again, something caught my eye – bingo! It was a tweet from the former Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove. He wrote:
“A parish priest persuades his village to quarantine itself to protect others. This film ‘The Roses of Eyam’ left a big impression when I saw it in the 1970s. Might it be shown again on TV please?”
I searched online, wondering if it may be available there – it was, on YouTube. What I wanted was something new to watch, something to while away the time and distract me from the pain of my foot; but what I also hoped for, was something that would offer a hint of wisdom as to what parish ministry might look like in the coming weeks. Though the lockdown wasn’t yet enforced, it was all but inevitable, and unsurprisingly ‘ministry in a time of pestilence’ (as the BCP puts it) wasn’t on the syllabus at theological college.
Although dated (and a tad over-acted), I found The Roses of Eyam to be a moving and rather profound film. It tells the true story of when plague struck the Derbyshire village between September 1665 and December 1666. It depicts the economic, emotional and physical devastation of mass sickness. It makes clear the mental and relational hardships brought on by self-isolation. But it also tells of the incredible self-sacrifice by the few, for the many. It speaks of the capacity and resolve found in communities at times of crisis and affliction. Encouragingly, it demonstrates an emerging desire to come together, to work together, despite existing divisions among people and institutions.
One of the most striking and powerful comings together that emerged from the film was an ecclesial one. It was the unlikely alliance of the two Church figures in the village, new Rector William Mompesson and previous Puritan incumbent Thomas Stanley. To cut a long story short, Thomas Stanley had recently been removed from the incumbency of Eyam due to his refusal to comply with the 1662 Act of Uniformity. This made use of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer compulsory. His replacement, William Mompesson, was a royalist, a ‘kingsman’ on the other side of the English Civil War, a conflict still relatively fresh in the social and political memory of the country. To all intents and purposes, then, these men belonged not only to different political groups, but to entirely different churches.
During the outbreak, however, these two figures moved past their differences for the good of the village, and indeed the wider region. They worked together to minister to and serve the people in sickness and death. Their example showed leadership and courage, their coming together actually helped bring the villagers together. But not only this, what they did was ultimately witness to, and demonstrate, the beauty of unity in the Body of Christ. And that made me wonder: could this happen again in the COVID19 outbreak? Would it?
Thankfully, relationships between Christians in England today are much better than they were in the seventeenth century. But ecumenism is not exactly in its heyday. It has been on the backburner in the lives of most local and national churches, particularly when attentions have been turned to countering the declining numbers in pews. Yet, as this pandemic continues to unfold, are there hints of a renewed ecumenical effort? Is ecumenism about to make a comeback? Might we see again the beauty of unity in the Body of Christ re-emerge?
At a local level, signs are promising. In the parish I serve, ecumenical engagement has been central to the community response. The core steering group leading the support effort, comprising councillors, charity leaders and other key local stakeholders, includes three ministers, all of us from different denominations. Our networks and links have been vital in establishing good relationships, and will only grow in importance as this crisis develops and deepens. But this coming together isn’t purely functional. Between denominations early on there was a desire to support one another. Ministers met physically (moving now to conference calls) wishing to offer each other moral and practical support, including sharing ideas of how to maintain their church’s worshipping life during lockdown. Relationships have developed, and ecclesiological suspicions have even begun to break down. For example, one minister remarked how they now saw the benefit of the Church of England’s hierarchical structure. They admitted to wishing they had the clarity of guidance and support from ‘above’ (agree with it or not), as we had from bishops. There is a sense that we are learning from each other, growing in understanding.
Nationally we have also seen hints of promise. There has been a revival in join initiatives, not least the National Day of Prayer instigated by Churches Together in England and supported by the Church of Scotland, the Evangelical Alliance and other groupings. This culminated in an incredibly moving display of candles in windows as a sign of ongoing prayer and a witness to Christian hope. This has been maintained by many each Sunday evening at 7pm. There was also the #SingResurrection initiative on Easter Day, as well as a joint statement from church leaders in Holy Week and evidence of those leaders communicating more regularly. There also seems to be a growing awareness and interest in what other denominations are saying and doing at the moment, how they are demonstrating God’s love for the world. The broad appeal of the Pope’s Ubi et Orbi address is but one example of this. Is there, then, perhaps a growing acknowledgement that only all of the Church has all of the truth?
My sense is that although these are early days, we may well be seeing some life breathed back into ecumenism, back into that vision of Christian unity that Christ calls us to. Because during this time when everything is stripped back and we are forced to go without, we are forced to re-examine what unity looks like, and what it actually consists of. And when we do, we realise that the old cliché is right: there really is ‘more that unites us than divides us’. When all is taken away, all the trappings of institutions and the physical buildings, we realise that what we are left with, we all have, and that’s the face of Christ to gaze into. It is into that face, into that mystery of divine love that we must gaze together. What we see may be different, but our task is to tell each other what that is, to pray, and to allow that to shape our ongoing loving service of the world. Then might we see, as Eyam did all those years ago, the fruits and the beauty of Christ’s united, but gloriously differentiated, body emerge.
The Reverend Tom Mumford is the Curate of Sudbury, St Gregory, in the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.