The Churches Together in England Forum 2022 was held this past week. Usually held every three years (unless a pandemic gets in the way) this is a gathering of 51 member churches (the ELCE became a member in 2011), ecumenical county bodies, and 71 Bodies in Association (charities and organisations working in the community and the churches in all sorts of ways). It really is a cornucopia of Christianity in England.
The theme was ‘Reconciling Hope – a broken Church for a broken World’ and I liked that disciples of Jesus are confident and hopeful despite brokenness and troubles. The presentations and discussions were very much on how broken the Church and the World are and it is obvious that there is disparity and unevenness among us – when we look at COVID-19, Ukraine (in focus now but conflict, war, and terrorist acts globally), racism, increasing church decline and fragmentation, and the environment. One could quickly despair at the misery evident and feel impotent to help (where does one begin?). There are differing views about causation and response but an acknowledgement that we must do something. If someone is need in front of us, hopefully we help but if that person is in another part of the country or the world, how should we help?
The ‘Marketplace’ at Forum where the Members in Association had stands and stalls revealed a variety of ways of helping people – sharing God’s Word; medical work; reconciliation work; justice work; taxation, the economy, and poverty work; helping children; environmental work; working in special places (eg. the Holy Land); supporting the persecuted, and much more. There are many opportunities for service!
In one of the workshops I attended – talking about the theology as seen in the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere – I commented on and applauded all the opportunities to serve but asked what was unique about what the disciples of Jesus bring to the world in their service – and the answer, for me, is the love of God in Christ Jesus and the forgiveness of sins (in summary! 😉 ). Any person, Christian or not, can support organised service and advocacy and the like – and please do! – nevertheless if the disciples of Jesus don’t share Law and Gospel in word and deed then who will?
Of course I don’t want to play off ‘church’ against ‘ways of serving’! It is not one or the other. It is one (the Gospel) and how will we practically serve those around us – even the world? Groups of people like people to be the same – or same-ish – and they want everyone to get on board with whatever the group is doing. Translated into congregations, this can be seen as everyone should support this or that project, service, crisis, or auxiliary that the congregation supports. I understand this nevertheless a Christian congregation should be one place marked by a unity and variety. The unity is the Gospel and Jesus unites us in his grace through Baptism. The variety is how we serve. Some want to help the poor, others the unborn, others the persecuted, others the environment. Some want to raise funds, others want to write to their MPs, some want to march, others to visit, some want much more prayer, and more. I think congregations should encourage members to be active as they see the need but resist pressuring all the other members to ‘join in’. And that can be hard. Social conformity is a pressure that congregations should recognise so that we conform to the Gospel and we are creative in living out our discipleship in the world. I think Luther’s teaching on Vocation – think Table of Duties in the Small Catechism – leads us similarly.
I did enjoy the CTE Forum 2022. Yes, there is a tapestry of Christian teachings – and yes, we don’t all agree – and there are so many avenues to serve. I glimpse each Sunday and I glimpsed at Forum the ‘una sancta’ – the one, holy (Church) of our time and place. We know what we teach and believe and can encourage each other in our discipleship. At Forum, I had a moment to learn how other disciples of Jesus think, talk, and walk – and the local and the ecumenical are part of our Church living today. GS