My engagement with questions of Christian ecumenism has been a hugely significant part of my faith journey for many years, but it is, I recently realised, something I have rarely written about here. Although as this blog post has turned out to be rather longer than intended, perhaps you could say I'm making up for it now!
Engaging with the church in all its beautiful diversity has been something which has been hugely inspiring: I know I am extremely privileged to have experienced such a variety of Christian traditions and am grateful to all those, of many different traditions and backgrounds who have shared in my journey.
Engaging with the church in all of its division is something which has often proved intensely painful: I have wept my way through many a church service and struggled to remain faithfully part of a family which will not sit down and eat together at the same table.
As my journey has continued, describing my Christian identity has become increasingly complex, as has answering the oft asked question "what denomination are you?" or "Are you Catholic / Anglican /Methodist/ insert other denomination*?" (*delete as appropriate)
While on one level I could perhaps describe myself as "just a Christian", I remain hesitant to do so knowing that to do so risks denying the complexity and pain of the very real divisions in the church. Christianity, at least in my understanding of it, is something which is intended to be lived out as part of a community: The church's divisions, then, are also mine and I feel a deep responsibility to accept my identity as part of that family, complete with all its flaws (and there are many) and to acknowledge and share in the pain and guilt of our divided family.
But I cannot, either, in all honesty, describe myself as a member of one denomination, not even as a member of one denomination with an ecumenical outlook towards others. I have done so in the past, but it has become an unhelpful over-simplification of who I now am. And so, lately I have taken to describing myself as "A Christian who holds my denominational identity very lightly" or "Someone whose Christian life draws on a variety of different traditions"
It is rarely the easy answer that others seek but it is the closest I have currently come to finding a label that matches where I feel I am on my journey.
We have a natural desire for boxes, for ourselves and for others. Defined labels which we know and at least think we understand are a source of security and we all need to feel safe. There are times, many of them, when I would prefer to curl up inside a snug box where I, and everyone around me, knows what the rules are. Choosing an identity which doesn't fit into the preconceived boxes isn't always easy and certainly provokes challenges in certain settings. But then again, I guess I do mostly quite like not fitting neatly in the box too.
This identity of drawing on and welcoming the gifts of many traditions is something to which we have also aspired as a community. From the beginning, ecumenism was one of the core values we sought to embody in our life here and we were very happy that the church here embraced that desire. I am certain there are times when it has offered us fantastic opportunities of encounter. I am equally sure it has created additional challenges, or at least different ones, to those we would have met if we had a clear denominational identity.
I suspect, both in terms of engaging with the institutional churches, and with individuals intrigued by who we are and what we are doing, there are times when our desire not to put up barriers by stepping outside the standard definitions has in fact unwittingly created a barrier with those who don't quite know how to respond to what we are trying to be. For many, it is much easier to engage with something if you can safely say yes you are one of us we sit in the same box; or even, no, you are not one of us, you are in a box distinct and different from our own but which we can identify and respect, and we will engage with you on those terms.
But we are trying to ask something different: we want people to engage with us as being simultaneously "one of us" and "one of them", we want people to accept us as part of "us" while also acknowledging our identity as part of something we have defined as "not us" and we know it can be a very big ask ... thank you to all those who have answered.
If whatever the inherent challenges, I have no regrets about placing myself in this place; and if I am proud that as a community we have tried to do so: it is because ultimately I believe that this place, the outside-the-box, on-the-edge place is a place where something of the gospel can be found.