An Anglican-Methodist Covenant - 4/4

One of the keys to ecumenical developments over the last century has been mission imperatives driven by situations around the world where it is clear that the dissemination of European and American denominations has been, at the least, unhelpful in the development of vigorous, indigenous Churches. Since Henry Venn there have been Christians who called for the planting of self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating churches. Most western mission organisations however, including the Methodist Missionary Society, planted not churches but mission stations; self-government was not on the agenda for 150 years! We learned many lessons, and at the beginning of the 20th century mission agencies started to use the prayer of Jesus 'that they may be one ... that the world might believe...' to support a movement which led to the united churches of South Asia.

The new Anglican-Methodist Covenant report is the latest attempt to move towards such organic union in the UK. However, unlike in South Asia, and partly because of the size of the Anglican and Methodist Churches in England, the talks have been substantially between two denominations. In India the negotiations included Reformed and Baptist Christians as equal partners.

There is little doubt in my mind that Christian disunity damages the witness of Christians and that unity enhances it. The Church in Nepal, grew from around hundreds of Christians in the 1970's to tens of thousands by the 90's, one of the world's fastest growing churches. For much of that time proselytism was illegal. Foreign Christian missions were there to do development work. The church which developed was locally governed and not riven by denominations. It is difficult to doubt that the unity of the church there was one factor in their growth.

BUT... Will denominational unity do the same for us in the UK? Harnessing two clapped out horses together will not produce a thoroughbred racehorse. Uniting two or more denominational structures with lots of problems and a declining membership is not a missions panacea. Indeed it could become a nightmare.

'In Australia in 1975 there were 980,000 Methodists, 960,000 Presbyterians & 78,000 Congregationalists. The continuing Presbyterian Church in 1980 had 150,000 people and the Continuing Congregational Fellowship 4,000. Thus the uniting church might have expected something like 2,018,000 adherents initially, minus the 154,000 continuants, or a total of 1,864,000. ... The uniting Church in 1980 only had 550,000 members, some 1,314,000 short!'

While it seems that some Methodists in Australia found other homes the total Christian community in Australia declined by 900,000 in between 1975 and 1980, most of whom can be accounted for by the losses of the Uniting Church!

Secondly the scriptural basis of the covenant and of the push for 'organic union' is based mainly on Jesus' prayer in John 17 and on the concept of koinonia. What do these have to do with the organisational unity which is the real meaning of 'organic union'? It has been said of Jesus that 'he went around preaching the Kingdom of God and got a church instead!' This may be simplistic but it does raise the question of whether Jesus ever envisaged an organisational church as we have it. Jesus prayed:

'for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me' (Jn 17:20f NIV)

Surely John 17 is about the relationships between his followers, not about organisations. The key is that he prayed that we might be one as he and the Father are one. This is about more than organisation. It is about unity of heart and unity of purpose. It is also about a unity in diversity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I would argue that developing the sort of unity Jesus prayed for is not about developing congruence of church government but about working together in mission. The mission we have is the misseo dei - the mission of God. We will discover, and are discovering, our unity with other Christians in numerous local situations as we share in God's mission. It is up to the national denominational organisation to equip this, not to hinder it, but this does not need organisational unity; rather it needs flexibility and a relaxation of the walls we have built around us. For example (and using an example at the heart of the report), rather than taking on board the 'historic succession' we need to allow the development of a diversity of local self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating churches - churches which can be shaped by the mission needs of their own localities. We can all be united with such churches in the bonds of fellowship and love, not the bonds of cannon law. If we dare to observe the trends in our localities over the last thirty years we will see that this is exactly what has been happening (dare I say what God has been doing) with the development of the 'new' churches.

The Anglican-Methodist Covenant document claims to be motivated by mission. Martin Wellings (Headway Spring 2002) claims a 'consistent emphasis on mission'. Were that really so I would have expected it to ask some fundamental questions about the nature of mission in our post-modern, 21st century society. For a mission-based church ecclesiology, church structures (which are the main focus of the report) would be secondary to mission. Mission imperatives rather than historical dogmas would govern the shape of such a church. For me the disappointment of the Covenant document is that it has not tackled the real mission questions which must shape today's church. It concentrates on matters internal to our denominations and, I suspect, of little interest to those outside the church. This may not be the fault of those who had the task of producing it; they were working to parameters set for them. The report may not, in its own terms be flawed, but in terms of the mission needs of the church it is deeply flawed. Discussion of ecclesiology makes few converts and, I suspect, has little relevance to the world in which we live.

My real fear is that in discussing this report we will not be equipping the church but missing the boat of mission. We will go the way of Australia rather than Nepal.. The Nepali church which grew so fast had neither historic succession nor superintendent ministers. What it did have was what Roland Allen prescribed for a missionary church:

'What is needed is the kind of faith which, uniting a man to Christ, sets him on fire. Such a man can believe that others finding Christ will be set on fire also.... Such a man can see that all that is required to consolidate and establish that expansion is the simple application of the simple organisation of the Church'

Like Martin I hope we will take this report seriously and carefully examine it. We should pray over it and its implications. But I am far from convinced that it is a recipe for the missionary church Britain needs. Some will see organic unity as a prerequisite for mission. I suspect instead that it is an irrelevance to the real task before us.

Pete Pillinger is a circuit minister in Lincoln and also serves as the Lincoln & Grimsby District Mission Enabler. He served for 6 years in Sri Lanka where he was Superintendent Minister of a circuit which tripled its size in that time. Pete is also one of the 'First Trustees' appointed by the Charity Commission for the recently reactivated Voice of Methodism Association.