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This article was published in the January 1998 issue of The Journal.

Young people and the Ecumenical Movement

At the Churches Together in England Forum held in July 1997, Beverley Hollins was asked to speak on how young people can be encouraged to participate in the ecumenical movement. We give extracts from her address below.

When you talk about young people 16-30, give or take a year or two - I'd like you to remember just where they are coming from, and what are the experiences that have shaped them.

A different generation

We're not a post-war, post-ration book generation. We are a post-cold-war, post-materialism and boom and recession generation. Our experience, and therefore our outlook on life, and what we ask of life, is different.

So it is not surprising that our experience of church, and what we want from church, is different. First of all, it is no longer a social requirement to go to church on Sundays. And because most of our parents did not go to church, we have little or no experience of Sunday worship. But sticking with those young people who do go to church, let me try to help you to see why young people's attitudes to church and ecumenism may differ from some of yours.

My first example: In 1972, the United Reformed Church was born out of the death of three other denominations. No offence, but I was three at the time, so for me that's history, just as it is for URC members of my age group. So I suggest that any Presbyterian, Congregational, or Church of Christ baggage or memories carried by older members of their church just don't exist for these young people.

My second example: As a young Anglican who started going to "grown-up" services only in the late 1970s, I have no experience of the Book of Common Prayer. I know some Church of England churches do use it, but for me the assumption that Anglicans love it and are familiar with it is a problem. I grew up with the Alternative Service Book. I love it and find its language rich and helpful. So for me and my peers a new prayer book in 2000 might be harder to accept than some people might imagine.

My third example: Young Roman Catholics in my age group were not born when the Second Vatican Council met. Many (most perhaps) will never have heard a Latin mass, girls will never have worn a veil to mass, and most will find it unusual to be offered communion in one kind only. These Catholics have always had the freedom to say the Lord's Prayer with other Christians, to go to school assembly with them, to go into their churches without asking permission. So some of the psychological and historical barriers between older Catholics (and other Christians whose churches imposed restrictions) and their fellow Christians just are not there.

Add to that the ecumenical chaplaincies, and the growing number of Local Ecumenical Partnerships, and you'll be less surprised that young people sit lightly to denominations. It's not just that we go for the local church that suits our temperament best (though for many that's true too), but that our experience tells us that in Christ we are all one, and we can move amongst our sisters and brothers in Christ without too much difficulty.

Ecumenical young people

To state the obvious, if young people are not committed to denominations, then when it comes to any talk of churches looking for unity (as opposed to Christians looking for unity), their hearts are not going to be in it. But don't believe that they don't care. They may not be thinking about ecumenism, but they certainly think ecumenically, and do ecumenically. If you want to find them, you'll have to go looking. You could start at Iona, or Spring Harvest, or Taize, or Greenbelt, or with the Jesuit Volunteers, or Time for God, or YWAM (Youth with a Mission), just to begin with. Left to their own devices, young people will look at the task, or the mission field, but rarely at the denomination And young people want to do, to share their faith, to feed the hungry. They're not normally all that interested in sitting around committee tables.

But if you ask nicely, explain the whys and wherefores, and offer suitable training, preparation and/or financial support, we will come to ecumenical meetings. There are a few of us here! Just ask! Thirty young people are preparing an Interchurch Forum for September with great enthusiasm. They do want to be a part of the ecumenical movement. Perhaps, though, with our background, we need a little more explanation of what it's all about.

Interchurch families

But I should like to suggest to you that these truly ecumenical young people that I have been describing, a vibrant part of the church of today, are a sign of unity. Some do sit lightly to denominations, and to them especially joint youth and Sunday school work must be addressed - denominational work may not hold them. Others are committed to their churches - I know, for I am one. But I am one part of an increasing breed - an interchurch family. My generation, remember, is free of many of the laws and prejudices that restricted marriages across churches in the past. So you'll find a lot of us about. Alongside us is a maturing second generation of interchurch families, the children of interchurch families. These young people are a sign and symbol of what church means, or should mean, to my generation, my sisters and brothers, and I hope yours. They are interested in their churches (otherwise they would not be interchurch), but they see no problem in holding two or more churches together in one person. They are a place of peace and reconciliation, a place of freedom. They are what ecumenism is about.

In Christ we are freed from the laws that men create - we have freedom to follow Christ and obey his command, which is to love. I refer you to Galatians, 5: 1-6, and remind you now of verse 6, because in it you can meet with young people, where their priorities are, and where we can work together. "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."

Beverley Hollins