Biddy Collyer makes a tour of the Diocese of Norwich, seeking out examples of ecumenism in action.
I was converted over 30 years ago by a couple called Janet and David. New Christians themselves, they had an amazing impact in our village, bringing many people to faith. Their enthusiasm was catching and soon a group of us were meeting regularly for Bible study, sharing our new-found excitement with others, and finding ways to reach out into our community. Our churchmanship expressed itself in Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Methodist and Free Church but it just didn’t seem important where we went on Sundays. What was important was what bound us together – the love of Jesus.
Since then, distinctions between different denominations have never been tightly drawn for me. As St Paul says, “We are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The analogy of being part of a body has always spoken to me, each muscle, limb or organ playing its specific role. I am not interested in what separates us, but in what binds us together.
For the past 12 years, I have been a core team member of Dreams and Visions, which focuses on investment in new projects. We only had two criteria that had to be met. The first was that it was bottom-up, not top-down; coming from someone’s dream of what God had put on their heart, not what they had been asked by another in authority to deliver. The second was that the application had to be supported by two different congregations, be they from the same denomination, or better still, two different denominations.
I remember a community church that joined with a high Anglican church to put on a wonderful all-day party in a deprived area of King’s Lynn. Those who had a great day out with their children were not interested in where the Christians worshipped. What they experienced was the heart of God, manifested through a loving community.
This example is not alone, thank goodness. Across the Diocese, there are Churches Together in most towns, where Christians work and pray as one.
Togetherness in Great Yarmouth
Anna Heydon is the Together Norfolk worker in the Great Yarmouth area. Last October she helped coordinate the first Celebrate evening there. Twelve different churches came together in a service of thanksgiving for the way that they are working together to meet the needs of the community, specifically through five projects, Food Bank, Christians against Poverty, the Living Room and the two youth organisations, East Norfolk Youth for Christ and Identity.
By focusing in this way on what unites, rather than on differences of theology and styles of worship, they can achieve so much more. Anna said that “Having a common vision is really important. This is what we are called to do and how we work most effectively.” Following the Celebrate evening, there was a call for this to be a regular event. “People sensed that something had been missing previously. It was a great opportunity to socialise around a common bond.”
What I found talking to people in these areas is that it has been a combination of top-down and bottom-up. Some initiatives have come from ministry leadership, with leaders of the churches in Gorleston meeting regularly for breakfast and praying together, while in Great Yarmouth they meet at lunchtime. These have led to the multi-church involvement in the annual Act of Remembrance and carol singing at Christmas. On the ground, the churches have coalesced around projects. Some providing volunteers, others financial resources or premises.
One Yarmouth story I heard was of someone who had come to faith following the support they had received from the debt centre at Park Baptist Church. His mentor picked him up and drove him to Park Baptist on Sundays. He soon realised that the new Christian actually lived next door to Mary Magdalen and suggested that, rather than being driven across town, he go to his local church. Once that happened, Mary Magdalen started exploring getting involved in the debt centre themselves.
What is also important is living in the area you feel called to serve. Anna Heydon has always done this and says that it opened her eyes to what the challenges are. “Unity is hard graft and not easily won but when it happens there is power in it.” Since they have been praying and working together, there has been a significant difference in the community and it is changing things beyond the churches.
Community in King’s Lynn
At the other end of the Diocese, in Kings Lynn, I spoke to the Revd Becca Rogers. She moved to the area three-and-a-half years ago with her husband Tim. Hers was a new role, combining a half-time post at St John’s with serving in the Minster parish, with responsibility for the housing estate of North Lynn. Most of this work is done through the North Lynn Methodist Church, so Becca has been licensed to serve there. The Anglicans and Methodists are now moving towards forming a Local Ecumenical Project.
The relationship between the Minster and the Methodist Church has been strong for a long time, and these developments are simply moving forward what is already happening.
In the past, there was an Anglican church, St Edmunds, which opened on the estate 20 years ago but never thrived. That church and the West Lynn Methodist chapel have been sold, and the money is going into redeveloping the North Lynn Methodist church building. Next door, the Diocese are building a new vicarage where Becca and Tim will live.
Currently, they host a weekly community meal, Coffee on the Couch, monthly Messy Church and a Start course, which is about exploring the Christian faith. In the New Year, they are forming a Wednesday morning group which is about developing people’s physical, spiritual and emotional health. The work on the estate is also being supported by Seabank Chapel, an independent reform church with whom they meet to pray, and who share in the Start Course.
Becca said, “The most important thing is that we all follow Christ. He is our focus, and so whatever tradition we are, we meet because of him. The people we are reaching out to care far more about what we are doing and who we are than what denomination we belong to. I think that spiritually, coming together across traditions allows God to work. He commands us to be united, so when we obey him, good things happen.”
The spiritual groundwork has been laid over a long time, not least by a local couple, Stephen and Jean, who met at Bible College. They initially thought God might be calling them to be missionaries overseas, then realised that God was calling them to return home to Stephen’s roots in North Lynn. Over 25 years they have served in many ways. Now they are, “Excited about having a church that is totally inclusive and having a vision for what it will be.”
Youth unites in Thetford
Over in Thetford, Churches Together form a strong Christian group with everyone coming to the table. The Revd Helen Jary came to the town seven years to serve with the Thetford Team ministry.
One of the initiatives has been several 24/7 prayer weeks hosted by Cloverfield Church. Helen explained: “Sustaining these weeks is too much for one church, but with people coming to cover the time from other congregations it is possible and what we should be doing together anyway.”
Recently, Thetford Churches Together have provided a night shelter over Christmas and New Year. Joining with members of the wider community, their meetings took place at the local Tesco’s. “It is fundamental that we work together,” said Helen.
One powerful expression of the unity in the town is the support given to the ministry of Integrate Youth for Christ. At the same time as individual youth work in the town was winding down for various reasons, Steph Richardson from Integrate Youth for Christ got in touch.
For a long time, the organisation had felt God’s nudge towards working there. Now nine churches are partnering with them in different ways by providing financial support, venues, prayer and volunteers.
From this, the Thetford Youth Project has emerged. They are running a weekly Youth Cafe and last October took a group to the Cathedral@Night event. On 31 October they ran a really successful Light Night at Cloverfield, with 150 plus children and parents attending. They have done some work with one primary school and plan to expand this to provide mentoring support for young people transitioning to High School in the future.
Steph said, “We have been really grateful for how the churches have responded to us. The general feeling is how good it is when we work together. Not about their church but about the Kingdom, and about getting the word out in Thetford.”
The Vatican newspaper L’ Osservatore Romano dubbed Norwich as the ‘ecumenical capital’ when the Archbishop of Canterbury began his visit to the Diocese last November with an unprecedented service at the Roman Catholic Cathedral. It seems clear that here, ecumenism is thriving.
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Articles in this issue...
The Anglican Centre in Rome: promoting Christian Unity in a divided world
Peter Doll and Alaric Lewis explain the purpose of the Anglican Centre in Rome, a place of worship, hospitality and learning.More
The impact of ecumenical youth ministry and some of its expressions in Norfolk.More
Walsingham’s new ecumenical covenant
On the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham last September, the Priest Administrator of the Anglican Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham, Fr Kevin Smith, and the Rector of the Roman Catholic National Shrine, Mgr John Armitage, signed an Ecumenical Covenant during Sung Vespers in the Anglican Shrine Church. Fr Kevin tells us more.More
Norwich Centre for Christian Learning: Learning ecumenically
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.More
Deaf Church – working together to worship together
Norwich Deaf Church is a joint initiative between Methodist Minister the Revd Anne Richardson and Anglican Priest the Revd Dominic Hubbock to enable and encourage the Christian Deaf Community to meet, worship and spend time together. Tim Rogers met with them to find out how they are working together in reaching out to Deaf people.More
That we may be one
One of the prayers the I find myself using in the intercessions offered at Evensong in the Cathedral when praying for Christian Unity is this:More
Dwelling together in unity
Anna Heydon shares her experience of churches working together across denominations in and with the local community of Great Yarmouth.More