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History of TUG to 1996-2016 

The Theology and Unity Group of CTE was created in 1992, soon after CTE’s foundation in 1990. Following the principles on which the latter had been founded, its specific purpose was stated to be to respond to requests from the member churches for theological reflection on work that they brought before it, partly in order to gauge the reaction of partner churches to proposed initiatives, in particular those that might affect their relationships with one or more of their partners.

The first chair of TUG, David Calvert  stressed strongly that TUG was the servant of the churches,  acting at their direction rather than independently. However, from quite early on it was found that member churches did not always let TUG know of their current theological work. In 1997, TUG asked me, as secretary, to draft a letter to the churches mentioning, tactfully, our desire to have an overview of their work, including comments of such aspects of it as they thought might affect their relationship with others. Throughout our subsequent history, we were to find that some churches were much quicker to share work in order to help identify its effect on ecumenical partners and their reactions to it. For much of the time, we also sought to share some of the work done at TUG at the successive Forums. In 1999, for example, we held a special interest group session, at which the question of how our work should be disseminated was raised. Some felt it should be sent out to County Ecumenical Officers for possible use in their bulletins and committees. Generally, TUG has expected denominational representatives to communicate any relevant insights to the ecumenical and/or faith and order committees of their denomination. The extent to which they have done so has varied.

Since the mid-90’s, TUG has  taken more independent initiative, less through any deliberate decision and more through the very logic of the ecclesiology of pilgrim Church which had undergirded the Not Strangers But Pilgrims Process and which influenced, albeit with some variation in emphasis, the ecumenical strategy of all the member churches. It also became clear that CTE and its agencies and  bodies in association were in a mediating role, looking to explore the implications of developments, at local, regional and inter-denominational level, not just in England, but in terms of the wider oikoumene. All the partner churches needed to look at documents and initiatives coming down from the WCC or CEC. Some of these had important lessons for inter-church co-operation, Charta Oecumenica, which we examined in 2000, being such an example. It was also important, at each stage, to follow the process that led, in 2013, to the publication of World Council of Churches document The Church: Towards a Common Vision, an attempt at a convergence statement in ecclesiology. This was done, very thoroughly, both in 1999- 2000 and in 2008, at the time of the publication of two successive draft interim reports from the WCC. On the first occasion, Donald Norwood played a leading role in producing a TUG response to the first interim statement. On the second occasion, at their suggestion, we held a combined consultation with CTBI on the second statement. In 2013, we looked at the final document with the help of Bishop John Hind.

However, as I pointed out in a report in 1999, it was also important for us to reflect on local and regional ecumenism in England. In November 1998, we looked at the theology of LEPs under the guidance of Flora Winfield, then engaged (with Elizabeth Welch) in a study of their position. In 2016, we  looked at some new proposals for the future of local ecumenism, under the guidance of Neil Stubbens, the Methodist Ecumenical Officer, work which we are committed to taking further in the near future. The LEPs continue to be a challenge and a conundrum, though also a legacy in many cases to be highly celebrated.

We have also been concerned to look at the progress of such international bilateral dialogues as affect our member churches. In 1999, we looked at the ARCIC report, The Gift of Authority, with varying Roman Catholic views being given of it by Brian Davies , our then Cafod representative, speaking to an extent as representative of English Catholic lay opinion, and Sr. Cecily Boulding, as well as opinions from members of other denominations. I have particularly commended the study of the dialogues which tend to be far too little known in this country beyond a very narrow range of the cognsocenti.

There is much in the dialogues that needs to be celebrated and received. There are welcome signs in the most recent reports of the Methodist-Catholic and Anglican-Orthodox dialogues of the need to address popular reception, whether in the style in which the reports are set out or in the provision of study guides and material suitable for use at the local level.
All partner churches are invited to send a regular member to TUG (a few smaller churches, in the evangelical free church constituency, send us one joint representative). The members thus delegated have usually been of one of two types, either members of the national administration of the church concerned, often those directly responsible for ecumenical affairs, or other members of the denomination with particular interest, experience and expertise in ecclesiology and ecumenism. Thus, the Church of England has usually sent people from the Committee for Christian Unity and/ or its Faith and Order staff. The URC and the Baptist Union have sent people with particular ecumenical expertise, such as Donald Norwood, well known as an ecumenical journalist and researcher, and Andrew Kleissner, minister of a joint URC-Baptist church. The Roman Catholic Church has sent both Bishops’ Conference office staff, such as Bernard Longley and John O’Toole, and theologians like Sr. Cecily Boulding.

In a sense the ideal denominational representative is someone who combines ecumenical enthusiasm with a sound theological knowledge of their particular tradition and has a close link with the central organs of the church concerned. I add the latter since it is always helpful to have someone who is au fait with current thinking in such bodies as the Methodist Connexional Team and its equivalents in other churches.
The successive General Secretaries of CTE and the officer(s) responsible for local ecumenism have usually come to TUG. Bodies in Association with particular theological interests can also be represented; currently two, the Society for Ecumenical Studies and the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, are. For a time, we had representatives from Christian Aid and Cafod. For many years Fr. Colin Carr OP, theological adviser to the North East churches, the only person employed as such by a regional body, was with us.
Until relatively recently, we also had representatives from CTE’s sister organisations, ACTS (Scotland) and Cytun (Wales). Elizabeth Templeton, in particular, gave us outstanding service. Finally, there is a Chairman and secretary, the Chair, until 2011 being chosen from amongst existing TUG members, a secretary being first appointed in 1995 by Martin Reardon.

The pattern of meetings was set from the beginning, two day meetings, usually one in the early Spring and one in late autumn, and a residential overnight meeting in the summer. This pattern has usually allowed us at the two day meetings to give two sessions of an hour and a half each to one or two big topics, the time usually being divided between an introduction, sometimes by a member of TUG with relevant expertise, sometimes by a guest speaker or speakers, and general questions and discussion. At the residential, we have usually been able to have five sessions of about an hour and a half, sometimes devoted to different topics, but, increasingly, over the last few years to particular themes, as will be illustrated later in this paper. At all meetings, we have usually made time for news items from the churches, part of our attempt to take account of as wide a spectrum of developments across the range of our member churches as possible.

The successive General Secretaries of CTE have all played key roles in TUG. CTE has been fortunate in having throughout its career to date the right the right General Secretary for each stage of its life. We began with Canon Martin Reardon, a former leader of the Board of Mission and Unity of the Church of England, a man well equipped to help both the Roman Catholics and the black led churches, which had not been members of the former British Council of Churches, bed themselves into the new ecumenical structures alongside the more traditional partners, the Church of England and the larger free churches. Moreover, Martin was also man of international ecumenical experience, having played a key role in the discussions that led to the formation of the Porvoo Communion, involving the British and Irish Anglican churches and most of the Baltic and Scandinavian Lutheran churches.

Martin’s first key task from the theological point of view was to orchestrate the Called To Be One Process, intended as a follow up to the Not Strangers But Pilgrims Process of the 1980’s and as an occasion for the churches to reflect on their own bonds of communion and share their understanding of these with each other in order to facilitate the search for closer unity. The Process, in which a committee representative of the then main spectrum of member denominations was involved, looked at contrasting perspectives on unity, mission and evangelisation/evangelism. The Process, whilst not directed by TUG, resulted in quite a lot of subsequent work for it. In 2002, Bill Snelson had a slightly revised version of CTBO issued. In 2009, at the beginning of David Cornick’s General  Secretaryship of CTE,  I produced for TUG a summary of key points from CTBO which might be revisited in the light of developments since 1997.

Martin was succeeded in 1998 by Bill Snelson, previously County Ecumenical Officer of West Yorkshire. His appointment testified to the important influence of County Ecumenical Officers at that point. It was right that one of the ablest of such officers should bring his experience and skills to CTE as a whole. It took time to get to know Bill, but when one did there was no doubt of two things, first his own intense commitment to unity, secondly the way in which he played down in public appearances his own relatively conservative high Anglicanism, so determined was he to affirm the free churches and, in particular, the newer black church members of CTE. As far as the agenda for TUG was concerned, Bill worked particularly closely with both his successive chairs and myself as secretary. With his knowledge of local needs and quandaries, Bill instituted some very useful pieces of work. First came the very useful Quotes, Words and Dates on which we did a considerable amount of work in TUG and to which several members contributed particular items. The aim was to give people in the pew a potted history of the Ecumenical Movement and also to explain the meaning of key words and expressions frequently used in that context and avoid any popular misunderstandings. Later, Bill was also to address sensitivities about the eucharist and issue a very helpful flysheet, Together in a Common Life, illustrating what could be done in local ecumenism.

Bill resigned in 2008. He was suceeded by David Cornick, previously General Secretary of the URC and also a man with a foot in the worlds of academic life and ministerial training alike, having been Principal of Westminster College and also being a fellow of Robinson College, Cambridge. That a person with such experience, particularly as leader of a member denomination, should have thought it right to move from that position to the General Secretaryship of CTE is tribute to his immense commitment to the Ecumenical Movement. David brought with him great wisdom, combined with amiability. He has also had to face a period of testing and demanding change, both for CTE and for TUG, to which I shall refer later in this essay. 

The first chair of TUG in the nineties was David Calvert, Chair of a Methodist District. In 1999, he was succeeded by Bernard Longley, then Catholic national ecumenical officer. Bernard brought both natural charm and skill to the job. A Roman Catholic Chair was particularly appropriate at this point when some moves in Catholic ecumenism, both from the Vatican and the English Bishops’ Conference alike, needed careful unpacking for members of other churches. Bernard, in combination with the redoubtable Cecily Boulding, did an excellent job for us in helping us understand One Bread, One Body and Dominus Iesus, both documents, particularly the latter, having touched some raw ecumenical nerves.

In 2003, Bernard became an auxiliary bishop and resigned as chair of TUG, being succeeded by Tom Bruch, a Lutheran minister and secretary of the Lutheran Council of Great Britain. I had been delighted when, a few years earlier, Tom had come to represent the Lutheran Council churches. Previous attempts to get them to send someone to TUG had failed, but Tom, an American by birth, had seized the opportunity. Lutherans are few in England, but globally they are a force comparable to world Methodism, the Anglican Communion or the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and it is important that English Christians and their churches are aware of their distinctive contribution. Tom was an excellent chairman up to the point of leaving his Lutheran Council appointment in 2011.

David Cornick then approached David Thompson, a supposedly retired URC minister and emeritus Cambridge professor of Church History, to take over. It would have been difficult to find anyone, apart from Dame Mary Tanner, with wider ecumenical experience at every level. David was able to use that experience, not simply to guide our discussion effectively, but also to recall for us all sorts of points on the ecumenical journey which we might have forgotten or even been unaware of previously.

Many members have contributed very significantly to our work. Sister Cecily Boulding had perhaps the sharpest mind of all. If she could occasionally sound a little sharp, she was also generous in praise of anything she felt really well thought out. Faith Bowers, a Baptist laywoman and church historian, was very effective in clarifying Baptist ecclesiology and ethos for us, whilst Colin Price of the Congregational Federation did the same for the independent position in general. Fr. Ephrem Lash of the Greek Orthodox Church served us well up to a few days before his death, using both humour and delightful visual material to get across the Orthodox approach. Paul Avis and Martin Davie contributed enormous learning from the Church of England. Bill Gabb of the Independent Methodists has served TUG virtually from the beginning and is undoubtedly our longest serving member. Andrew Kleissner, who succeeded Faith Bowers as Baptist Union representative, had an admirable ability to pose acute and awkward questions on a wide range of subjects.

Some significant pieces of work.

Over the last twenty years, we have looked at four sorts of pieces of work, documents brought to us by particular denominations or combinations thereof, documents that have aroused particular ecumenical sensitivities, documents coming to us from the wider oikoumene, principally of a dialogue nature, and , especially since 2010, particular themes of ecumenical relevance, such as the eucharist and the social justice teaching of the churches.

In 1998, The Baptist Union brought us their Core Values document with its very strong stress on personal discipleship of Jesus and on radical concern for the marginalised in society. This was subjected to a wide critique which generally commended the ‘commitment to justice and peace issues’, but questioned the lack of stress on evangelism (seen as a strange omission for Baptists to make), queried what it meant to be ‘an inclusive community and a separate gathered community at the same time’ and questioned whether there was too much stress on ‘following Jesus and too little on worship as a pre-eminent’ activity.

The Roman Catholic document on the eucharist, One Bread, One Body, came to us from the Bishops’ Conference office but also at the wish of other members. The discussion of this in March 2001 saw careful noting by our Catholic representatives  of initial official reactions from other churches, a consideration of pleas from particular Catholic and interdenominational groupings for more generous concessions on Eucharistic hospitality in special circumstances, and comments from Martin Davie and David Carter on the consistency of the basic eucharistic theology of the document , as opposed to some disciplinary decisions, with that of their churches (Church of England and Methodist).

Baptists and Anglicans together brought us two very significant documents, the first Pushing at the Boundaries of Unity (2005) being particularly significant for wider relationships between paedo-Baptist and believers’ Baptist churches in its suggestion that it might be possible to recognise alternative processes of Christian initiation, the stress being on the patterns as processes of initiation and ongoing growth. The second document, Sharing the Faith at the Boundaries of Unity, presented to TUG in March 2016, was important for its stress on a new style of bilateral ecumenical dialogue, one which was more conversational, less concerned with convergence statements as such but more concerned with mutual understanding and learning from each other’s strengths. A key area of basic agreement on the primary authority of scripture was shown to co-exist with  differing attitudes as to the use and value of creeds and later doctrinal statements as encapsulating the central truths of the faith.

This new style of dialogue may well be relevant to developing dialogue between the Church of England and the older free churches with the new churches and the black led churches.

The study of the bilateral international dialogues has been important in terms both of harvesting some very real fruits (to use an expression of Cardinal Kasper), yet also in terms of assessing how far they represent the increasing pluralism that exists in the western churches. The ARCIC document,   Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ, was subject to very considerable criticism, particularly from Martin Davie, who felt that it contradicted both the Article and the Homilies as well as, at a key points, ignoring Scripture. Its sole complete defender was Tony Milner, as a Roman Catholic, though I felt I could affirm qualified approval, subject to the general line of the earlier British Catholic-Methodist work on Mary.

 In 2009, we looked at the Roman Catholic-Reformed dialogue report, The Church as Community of Common Witness to the Kingdom of God. Since then, we have looked at the Disciples-Catholic dialogue, at two Catholic-Methodist dialogue reports and the most recent international Baptist-Catholic dialogue. All three have been significant for the degree of convergence recorded. The Baptists and Catholics, in particular, underlined their joy at discovering how much they held in common and at how far Baptists had come in appreciating a creative role for Tradition and how also far Catholics had travelled since Vatican II in expressing the normativity of Scripture. Methodists and Catholics recorded a higher degree of convergence than previously on the eucharist, both being able to see its ultimate anchoring in the internal relationships of the persons of the Trinity and in the paschal mystery.

The dialogues reinforce the huge degree of basic Christian truth that the churches hold in common and also affirm the centrality of the ecclesiology of koinonia for the conversations . They spur us on to come even closer. The earlier MRCIC report of 2006, The Grace Given You in Christ, encapsulated a key challenge relevant to all dialogues in an age of receptive ecumenism. ‘It is time for us now to look each other in the eye and say what it is that we perceive in each other which is truly of the Gospel and thus of the Church’. That, one may add, is a duty for all of us in our relationships, both bilateral and multilateral.

Since 2001, we have done significant work on inter-faith relationships and dialogue, guided by experts such as Michael  Ipgrave and Guy Wilkinson. Most recently, Peter Colwell, an inter-faith specialist at CTBI, has, over the course of two separate meetings, guided us though three significant WCC reports which raise key questions about our Christian identity in a plural world and give clear guidelines about the conduct of inter-faith relationships. Earlier, in 2001, we discussed the issues of inter-faith worship and of the work of the Spirit in other religions.

In 2012, we majored on Christian witness and action for social justice. Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England provided us with an excellent paper on The Church of England and the Common Good Today. He also led an introductory session, illustrating the complexities of redistributive justice. Nick Townsend gave us a paper on Catholic social teaching, noting the significance of some teaching little known outside of that church but relevant to the current situation and consonant with the social teaching of other churches. In particular, he instanced  John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens, on the dignity of meaningful work, and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate, with its stress that ‘business should be seen as part of civil society, not as a separate sector in which everything is subject to profit maximalisation’. Frank Kantor led us on the work of the Free Church Public Issues Group.

All this helped us prepare for the 2013 residential, in which we looked at the prophetic role of the Church in Society, being led by Sam Randall, looking at Bonhoeffer on this, Francis Davis and Nick Sagovsky. Frank Kantor also explained the work of Eurodiakonia, an agency of the continental churches which seeks to influence the EU by stressing that ‘the economy is at the service of people rather than people at the service of the economy’.  We also, at another meeting, looked at the teaching of Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, ably led by Fr. Zampini-Davies, an Argentinian and personal acquaintance of the Pope.

 In 2015, we followed up concerns expressed by Keith Clements, former secretary of the Conference of European Churches, about both our relative lack of contact with the continental churches and lack of a clear witness concerning the issue of our relationship with Europe politically and economically. We invited Jane Stranz, a URC minister now serving the United Protestant Church in France, who spoke to us illuminatingly about the ecumenical position of that church.

Meanwhile, over the last few years we have continued to monitor ecumenical developments within England, within the Anglican-Methodist covenant and in the process leading to a service of mutual penitence for past hurts and mutual future recognition held by the Church of England and the URC in 2012. We have noted good developments elsewhere, including the Irish Anglican-Methodist agreement on inter-changeability of presbyteral ministry, a breakthrough of which so many English Anglicans and Methodists seem totally unaware.

All this recent excellent work has been accomplished amidst a declining attendance at our meetings, largely due to the increasing pressure on denominational representatives working in the central structures of their churches, who have had to take on additional responsibilities, thus making it les easy for them to give time to TUG. The Roman Catholics and Lutherans have kept their support at a consistently high level and we are now glad to record that George Semiec of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England ( a church affiliated with the International Lutheran Council rather than the Lutheran World Federation) is now a member of TUG, alongside the current representative of the LWF churches, Tjorborn Holt, a Norwegian pastor, who also brings a welcome continental perspective to our work.

The valuable work which has been done must not be forgotten. Much that has been shared at TUG should be shared with all those responsible for ecumenical theology and faith and order matters in all our member churches. Relevant parts of it need also to be shared with our social justice and public issues departments. At some point, work needs to be done on priorities for re-reception, particularly perhaps of Called To Be One, which remains a notable English contribution to ecumenical ecclesiology.

Some concluding thoughts.

David Cornick’s period of office a General Secretary sees both CTE in general, and TUG in particular, confronted with some serious challenges, some exhilarating, some, mainly financial, a cause for sadness. On the one hand, membership of CTE has expanded from the original 16 members to the current 44, many churches, primarily from two constituencies, the Oriental Orthodox and the evangelical charismatic independent wing of the Church, having joined recently. These churches have grown considerably in recent years, some primarily through immigration to Britain, some more by growth within this country. Their applications to join CTE show a desire to be in contact with the more traditional British churches and to explore possibilities for co-operation in mission and witness. However, they have not previously been part of the general ecumenical conversation in this country. The independent evangelical churches, in particular, have a differing concept of unity from most of our traditional member churches, not feeling any need to press for the traditional corporate unity that was so much at the centre of twentieth century English ecumenism.

Both the original 1990 partners and the newer partners of 2016 need to adjust to this situation, above all to understand where each is coming from and then to pray and work patiently to see where the Spirit wants to lead them together. There are encouraging signs that this process is beginning, both within TUG and elsewhere. Bishop Joe Aldred, a member of CTE staff, presented us in 2012 with an excellent paper outlining the approach of the black led churches. In 2014 James Glass of Elim Church gave us a helpful paper on Pentecostal theology. Hugh Osgood, a CTE President representing the new churches, has also been to speak to TUG, in 2015, about the priesthood of all believers. His paper was a particularly finely honed piece of theology, raising important questions both for the understanding of the royal priesthood of all the faithful in the Roman Catholic tradition and in the classic reformation and free church traditions.

The Church of England has recently begun conversations with Pentecostalists. Methodism is working is some situations with the Pioneer Network. It will take time for all these relationships to develop and to be subject to mature assessment and reflection.

Another challenge comes from the relative decline of many of the traditional 1990 partners. These have led to cuts in central staffs which  have affected TUG as so few denominations now have desk officers with specific Faith and Order briefs.

A third key problem is that the necessary context of theological study and learning is not as strong as formerly. Academic theology in England still prospers in some quarters, but often in a university context increasingly divorced from any roots in church life. It is much less the theologizandum in fide which the late Eric Mascall used to champion and which was once there in many university faculties when their staffs were mainly ministers of the mainstream churches plus a few equally committed lay scholars. The contrast with the situation on the near continent, with its many Catholic universities and confessional faculties, is disturbing. I recently went to an ecumenical conference, designed primarily for diocesan ecumenical officers and their equivalents. It was held at the School of Higher Ecumenical Studies in the Institut Catholique in Paris. The quality of the papers given was very high; even more impressive the fact that ordinary French Christians dedicated to the search for unity wanted to learn and dedicated a lot of their time to so doing.

We have nothing like that in England. Nor do we have  the sort of dialogue in depth that French Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed have in the Groupe des Dombes, an institution that is, to adopt an appropriate French phrase ‘sans pareil.’ TUG, for all its limitations, and the three national bilateral dialogues (ARC, RC/Methodist and RC/URC)are the most we have and both TUG and the national dialogues need to be better known and appreciated. CTBI has been even more savaged by cuts than CTE or most member churches. It has, however, done sterling work on responding to The Church: Towards a Common Vision, with a good meeting last autumn and a second one to come soon.
However, all this has not prevented us from benefitting from many papers of the highest calibre and also from quite acute criticism of them by our members, both in more purely theological terms and in terms of how they relate to the reality of what is actually believed and practised in our churches. Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, for all its deficiencies as just pointed out above, nevertheless has its value in terms of what we might call bifocal critique, both high theological and in terms of  perceived empirical reality.

We have one of the widest ecumenical constituencies of any country in the world, one in which there are partners old, going back over a hundred years, viz-the Church of England the traditional free churches, a powerful Roman Catholic ecumenical presence since Vatican II, an increasing, more recent, presence of new churches, Pentecostalists, black-led churches and Orthodox, both Byzantine and Oriental. Such a mix promises much for fruitful mutual reception of insights into the Gospel and the common mission. There are still delicate issues of mutual recognition at stake, but one may argue that the very willingness of such a huge range of partners to associate testifies to the fact that each sees something genuinely of the Gospel and thus of the Church in each other. We can all affirm that our catholicity is to some degree wounded by the fact of separation and that we need each other, even those others that cannot, as is the case with both Roman Catholics and Orthodox, yet  affirm the rest of us as being fully church in their sense.

As we look to the future, we need to explore how that rich and diverse experience can be built into solid theological reflection.  The work of TUG will surely be a solid foundation for that new thinking.
David Carter, secretary to TUG 1996-2016.

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