Yesterday I attended the Service which marked the end of Scottish Churches House at Dunblane. Endings are always difficult – marked by sadness and regret – tinged with anger and blame – inviting us to search for new visions and new future. During the Service, we were asked to reflect together on our experiences of Scottish Churches House. I recalled my first visit there which was probably around 1981 when I was Youth Officer for the Church of Ireland and came for a meeting of the planning group for a British Council of Churches Youth Festival. I remember very clearly a visit from Bishop Alastair Haggart and my conversation with him. He opened my eyes to the concept of ‘adversarial churches’ – the idea that churches acquire some of their character and ethos in reaction/response to other churches which surround them. I also met one aspect of the life of Scottish Churches House which I think was not mentioned yesterday – the presence of the Sisters of the Holy Paraclete from Whitby. They provided an unobtrusive but distinct quality to the community life of the House.
So I sat in Dunblane Cathedral feeling sadness for many who were there – visionary people of a generation before mine who were entitled to ask what had happened to their ecumenical hopes. There is no single answer to that. Some of it is in changes to the way life is lived today. It has become difficult to persuade people to commit to residential experiences. They expect ever higher standards of accommodation – as do Health and Safety requirements. It’s important to remember also the extent to which the middle years of the twentieth century were times of ecumenical optimism. The history of Scottish Churches House mentions the celebration of the Jubilee of the Edinburgh World Missionary Congress in 1910. I suspect that even more influential was the Second Vatican Council and the way in which it opened up the Catholic Church to ecumenical contact and development. That change alone was transformative in the entire ecumenical area.
And now? Well, to be positive, we have come a long way. It is normative to expect good and warm ecumenical relationships at every level. My experience of everyday ministry in congregations here is that inter-church sharing in ministry is growing all the time. But all is not well. Declining churches tend to turn inwards rather than turn outwards towards one another and together towards the society which we serve and to which we carry our mission. We are not at all sure what kind of ecumenical structures will serve our needs – we are tending to enter into bilateral arrangements because that seems easier and more pragmatic. It requires less energy in the vision department.
But I think that there are some brave ecumenical dreams which are fit for our times. I was absolutely clear about that when I left the Cathedral – slightly less clear by the time I got home. I’ll do my best to recapture them and share them with you in a day or two.