This week, the Church of England General Synod is discussing union with the Methodists. One of my favourite jokes ever is the ‘guy on a bridge‘ one, which is all about church divisions and micro-divisions. Union, or separation? Is reunion possible? Thinking about this, and reading something Jayne Ozanne posted about whether there should be a real effort to make sure the Church of England sends LGBTQI+ delegates to other bodies, reminded me about something from my own history. Halfway through my life so far, I went to the 1986 Assembly of the Conference of European Churches (CEC). It was quite enough of a shock to the system to be young and female there – I can’t imagine what it would have been like as a lesbian. I’ve been reflecting on that pretty intense experience and, whatever my effect on CEC may have been (not much at all), I’ve concluded that it had a lasting effect on me.
Why was I there? Well, I was put forward because as well as being on General Synod at that time (a year after my PhD was awarded; it seems like another world) I was also on the British Council of Churches (BCC), a body which ceased to exist in 1990 when ecumenical structures changed. Even before I was elected to General Synod, I was already an enthusiastic ecumenist, having been on the steering group of my local Council of Churches for a while, so the invitation to represent the Church of England on the BCC was not too much of a leap, and meant that I was involved in some really interesting meetings. In terms of learning life skills, it was through BCC that I learned how to clap without exhausting my arms, instructed by one of the Pentecostal church delegates.
I was one of the youngest people on BCC, so it was probably a no-brainer to ask me if I would represent the Church of England at the CEC Assembly. ‘Europe’ – that sounded like it could involve travel! I found out that the previous meeting of CEC Assembly had been in Crete; as an ancient historian, and at that point in my life pretty untravelled, this sounded wonderful. But it turned out that this meeting wasn’t going to be so far away: the venue was Stirling. I was disappointed, but hey, I was still delighted to be asked and so I agreed to go.
Being young (relatively!)
It was all pretty eye-opening. It was very intense, very word-heavy. Every day we sat in an enormous hall listening to long addresses and presentations, taking part in debates, and voting. We had simultaneous translation through headphones, which proved to be an exhausting way to listen. There was some small group work, but not much; however, there seemed to be a lot of voting. We weren’t issued by the Church of England with instructions on which way to vote, so we used our initiative as well as chatting among ourselves. We were issued with red and green cards to hold up for ‘no’ and ‘yes’, but not long into the Assembly I lost them and so made do with a Kit-Kat wrapper and a Polo Mints wrapper; I think my votes still counted.
The balance between different sorts of church was, of course, quite unlike what I was used to in suburban Surrey! On arrival in the hall, a delegation from the Old Catholics ran up to hug the Church of England group. At that point I didn’t even know what an Old Catholic was, but apparently we were brothers and sisters, so that was fine, probably. Many delegates were from Orthodox churches. Even without this contingent, the event was very much dominated by older men. The youngest people there were the volunteer stewards, and I spent time with them because we were closer in age and often had more in common. They met in the evenings to recover from the day, which often seemed to include them being treated as slaves by some of the delegates. With other younger delegates, I went along to chill out with them.
Conversations with this unofficial ‘young’ grouping meant that I was put forward by the younger delegates for membership of the central committee because they thought as a member of the Church of England I had a chance – that this could somehow disguise the fact that I was under 30 (!) and female. I wonder now why people took/still take one look at me and reckon I should be put on the committee? Maybe I behave too well (other than losing the red and green cards). It didn’t work out, and I was very glad it didn’t. I found the processes of CEC opaque and I didn’t find the members of their central committee very welcoming.
Challenging and changing
Being part of the Assembly was significant for my own faith in two ways, neither of them part of the meetings in that vast hall.
It was the first time I ever spoke from a pulpit. On the Sunday morning, we were all sent out to different churches in the wider area. I had thought this was just about worshipping together but on arrival I was asked to talk about my faith in the sermon slot. Only when I was leaving the building did the incumbent tell me I was the first woman to speak from that pulpit… In later life I explored the possibility of preaching regularly, and am now an authorised lay preacher.
The Assembly was also one of my first experiences of seeing and hearing ordained women, from the Lutheran tradition. On the flight back, I had a long conversation with an ordained male member of the Church of England delegation where he asked me whether I had a vocation to priesthood (this was of course one year after General Synod voted in favour of ordaining women deacons, but before 1992 when General Synod passed the motion in favour of ordaining women priests). I appreciated the direct approach which helped me in thinking this question through. I found that my answer was simply that I couldn’t say. Until it became a real possibility, this was like asking me if I had a vocation to be a rock; it wasn’t something open to me, so how could I consider it seriously? Only some years after it had become real was I able to think about it, alongside a spiritual director, and we came to the conclusion that I am called to be lay.
And am I still as ecumenical today as I was then? At my core, yes. My impression, now far away from these centres of power, is that some of the fire of ecumenism has gone out in the wider church. For myself, I’m currently co-leading a course with a Baptist minister-in-training; I am a street pastor in a town where the vast majority are from a community church which was an offshoot of the Baptists; I’ve been to local Churches Together Lent groups; and I try to attend the local Churches Together shared worship events where possible. But to me, it feels like there is just a hard core of ecumenists, maybe a couple from each church, who are the Usual Suspects, and that they are the older members of the congregations. We seem to be more interested in doing our own thing rather than doing as much as we can together.
I don’t know whether current disagreements around women’s roles and sexuality play a role in keeping us apart, but I confess here that I often take the easy route, not bringing up these topics with Christians from other churches. Mea culpa?