Norwich Centre for Christian Learning: Learning ecumenically

Published on: 1 January 2019

Gudrun Warren struggles with the term “ecumenism”, but has to in her job at the Norwich Centre for Christian Learning. The NCCL was set up in 2010 as an ecumenical educational project offering high quality learning opportunities in Christian theology.

From its inception it has sought representation from across the Christian denominations on its Steering Group, its pool of tutors, and among its attendees. We were warned at the outset that ecumenical activity can be a difficult balance; if Anglicans are numerically the largest grouping then the danger is that NCCL will be seen as essentially an Anglican enterprise, a perception no doubt strengthened by the fact that it operates from the Anglican cathedral.

The awareness of this tension constantly informs the work of NCCL. We have had some NCCL courses which deal overtly with ecumenism, most notably a series of three sessions which considered the document Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry. These were carefully constructed with a representative from each of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican viewpoints.

This is one way of dealing with learning ecumenically; more typically a tutor selects a topic and presents it from their own particular religious affiliation. Everyone teaches from within their own context, so no one is delivering material in a theological vacuum; but neither are they seeking to deliver a party line. What happens in practice is that the tutor explains their own background, and as the session proceeds anything that requires denominational clarification is dealt with as it arises, and in the process learning becomes a joint activity.

I believe that learning can assist with ecumenism by offering a forum in which to be honest and open about our differences, but in an atmosphere of respect; if we are to have genuine ecumenical dialogue through learning, we must be willing to hear other perspectives and not enclose ourselves yet further within a perceived mentality of a club within which we believe ourselves to be operating.

Seeking a common space for learning whatever each of us has to share offers potential for growth. It is more productive and challenging to be actively doing theology than it is to pre-package an argument and present it as “what this group of people believes”. It is during the discussion that you may come up against an alternative viewpoint that you had not even considered might be expressed differently.

By operating from within our own contexts, in a truly safe and open learning space, we should be better placed to question, to explore, to be taken into unknown or previously avoided areas of thought, and in doing so open ourselves to the truth of existence from another perspective. This is not about conversion, it is about increasing awareness.

I hope that what NCCL can offer is the opportunity to explore theologically in an arena that does not reinforce silos and walls, but opens spaces for meeting, acknowledging similarities and differences, and providing places for conversations to start that will in turn build greater respect and understanding.

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