Actor turned ordinand discovers dynamic shifts in ecumenism during studies in Rome

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The more often we can hear other perspectives, the richer our own reflections become

Actor turned ordinand discovers dynamic shifts in ecumenism during studies in Rome

By Heather Walker

Simon Billington is an ordinand, training for parochial ministry in the Anglican Communion. For the past three years, he has been studying theology at St Stephen's House in Oxford, where he lives with his wife and two children. Billington began his theological formation after a 10-year career in theatre as an actor. He spoke with us about his journey to the seminary and his current study program, including what his six weeks in Rome as part of The Lay Centre Community has contributed to his formation.  

Why did you choose to come to Rome and to The Lay Centre in particular?

I’m approaching the very end of my time in college, doing my theological preparation for parish ministry. I became aware of the ecumenical placement scheme that the Church of England runs for ordinands through the Ministry Division. This involves going to a college in a different context from your own, living alongside another community, undertaking some academic studies, really immersing yourself in a slightly different Christian culture. I mused over this opportunity, decided to take it, and opted for Rome. Despite COVID rearing its head, I was fortunate to be able to make this trip.

Does this short stay give you enough time to explore Rome, the Catholic faith, become part of The Lay Centre community?

Obviously, it is not a long time, Rome isn’t a place you can conquer in six weeks. There’s so much here. But, I think I’ve had time to get used to the way of life, to breathe the spirituality of The Lay Centre, to see Rome. Let’s say, I have a good motive to come back.

What have you been doing?

My time has been split three ways really: I’ve been attending lectures at the Angelicum, looking at three aspects that we don’t cover hugely in my theological training including: Moral Reasoning and Case Studies (Casuistry), Spiritual Lessons from the Curé D'Ars, Emerging Relevance of Contemporary Ecumenism. I have established relationships with the Anglican Centre in Rome and All Saints, the Anglican Parish in Rome and, of course, I am involved in life at The Lay Centre. I was invited to organize an ecumenical prayer service. It was a privilege and I saw it as an opportunity to highlight the relationship that does exist particularly with the Catholic and Anglican communions. It gave me a chance to understand what I can offer from my own tradition to support the spiritual life of the community here.

Would you like to tell us a little about your vocation?

I wasn’t brought up in a church-going family — my grandmother is a very devout Anglican, so my only real experiences of going to church were when I visited her. But it was enough of a mustard seed to be planted and it wasn’t until I was in university that I started exploring that mustard seed. After training as an actor, I moved to London where I lived with my grandmother and from there the seed flourished. I was confirmed and that was the definitive moment. After three years as a youth worker for my parish church, I decided that I wanted to explore possibilities and started a formal process with the Church of England for discernment for the priesthood. Grandparents have an important role to play within evangelism.

What will you take back of the experience you have gained in Rome?

It has been an incredibly formative experience. Being from London, unlike other places in the UK, it is hugely diverse. In any parish, you will have people of no faith, as well as Muslim and Jewish communities, and other dominations as well. So there are opportunities for interreligious dialogue. My time here has concentrated on Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians, given the current situation. The principle about coming together to strengthen communities and offer what our own communions have is something I can apply to a parish context.

Would you like to talk about last week’s Prayer for Peace in Rome with Pope Francis and representatives of other faith traditions?

This particular meeting has lots of echoes of a shift in how we construct ecumenical dialogue in the 21st century. Where previously you would have dialogues between communions sitting round a table saying we need to find a point of unity to see where we can work together, what we saw last week is that active work for something like peace is about working together first, and this can carry us through to unity. It might sound like a subtle shift, but it really is dynamic in terms of mindset. This actually anchors itself around something that Pope Francis talks about in “Fratelli Tutti,” about encountering each other and allowing those encounters not just to shape our selves, but also to shape the relationships we have with other people.

If we look at Matthew 5:9, we can see the spiritual roots of this: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” So, before you are called children of God, you are a peacemaker. You are proactive and working alongside other people to achieve an end to which everyone in the Christian tradition is called. Really the Prayer for Peace encounter and “Fratelli Tutti” are calling us back to look at Scripture and at what fraternity looks like.

Ecumenical prayer in 2020 – what does it mean?

Prayer is absolutely essential for every Christian, regardless of what tradition you come from. In the Psalms, the Epistles, we are consistently called to pray, to offer God our prayers and thanksgiving. It’s different from sacramental worship, but it is something that can be shared.

We have to realize that it is a post-Christian society in the West. This is very true of the United Kingdom, where religious plurality and secularism is the religion of the day. We need to take time just to stop, to pause and share what we see around us. There is no barrier in doing that, for example, with somebody who is Orthodox. The more often we can hear other perspectives, the richer our own reflections become. Praying alongside other Christians ecumenically is no longer just a “nice thing to do” — I see it as a necessity.

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