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'Unity for Mission'  -  where are we now?

Reflections on recent church leader interviews (Jan 09)
by Jim Currin
When Jesus prayed that we might be one, what did he mean? How does His prayer from John 17, ‘that the world might believe’, work out in England today? We know that we should work together as we follow the same Lord, but we often more concerned with our own trivial pursuits. Here I want to reflect on what some of our national church leaders have said, and celebrate that on the whole there is a great deal of unity for mission today. It is something to celebrate.

Now most Christians I know in ‘our church’ (there we go again, sounding separatist!) are not really interested in backroom discussions about ‘church unity’. These conversations go on, like the Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission just discussed in the Church of England General Synod this week (what a mouthful!), but that is not of great interest to many Christians. Thankfully our theological differences, even in the gay debate, are more for discussion than division. No, what really excites people and gets them on the street however, is the passion to share the Gospel of Jesus and making the message relevant to people outside church. Hope08 illustrated that well.

Though the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster shared in the friendly Synod Debate, both Rowan Williams and Cormac Murphy-OConnor agree that ‘unity’ is not ‘high level agreement’ and ‘organizational’ so much as what we do together. It is not about becoming one denomination. Unity is really what happens on the ground – and here they see a great deal of work done with enthusiasm. It is an observation experienced by their Methodist, Baptist and URC counterparts. In our own church we do not have theological discussion groups, but some of us literally go out on the street to meet teenagers and share Jesus at the chip shop.

In an example of Christians working together, the editors of the Church Times, Baptist Times, Methodist Recorder and URC Reform, asked their denominational leaders and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, some question at the start of the recent Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. As the person with the brief for evangelisation at Churches Together in England, I was greatly encouraged by their replies. In particular, I have reflected on their views in relation to ‘unity for mission’ which comes from Jesus prayer.

They each had four questions. The first was about ‘enthusiasm’ for unity, either personal, or in their own or partner churches. The second question was regarding the Bilateral talks and whether there is a better way to have discussions. The third question was about denominational structures, and the fourth was ‘what should be the goals of the ecumenical movement?’ Here are some headlines from them and reflections from me. They are based on the text provided by the Church Times which is here reproduced with permission:

Enthusiasm for unity? They all said ‘yes to this, but with some qualification observed above. The enthusiasm is on the ground and at local level. In fact they all seem to say that it is taken for granted and assumed as normal practice. This is great news indeed and I am sure it is just what Jesus was praying for. The picture is not universal of course, but the enthusiasm is there, and that is where it matters most and we thank God for it. From Street Pastors to Festivals, and Alpha courses to Luncheon Clubs, Christians work together without question.

Bilateral talks? Our leaders seemed to say that this was a good thing to do, but as already said with less enthusiasm than at the local level. Rowan Williams (CofE), comments ‘I don’t want to see us abandoning this model’. This says it all. The work of discussing our differences has gone a long way down the road, some would even say as far as they can go, but they must continue even if distant from the local scene. Different views on issues like Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, need further comparative work like the Synod debate, but we can be thankful that these theological issues are not breaking up the body.

Denominational structures? Some divergent views were expressed here, as you might expect, but all the church leaders were generally saying ‘keep them .. they usefully organize what we are and what we do’. None of the leaders suggested that the road to unity now meant disbanding their denomination, as some have hoped might happen in the past. This may disappoint some ecumenists, but I think the national church leaders are realists. One comment was made that if we did not have CTE/CTBI ‘would we not have to invent something like them?’ (Rowan Williams again). My thought is the same regarding denominations. Generally they are a gift.

The Goal of Unity? I was excited to read that our church leaders basically see their denominations s serving a greater purpose like prayer, evangelism and witness to the world. ‘The chief goal of ecumenism is the unity of the Church for the sake of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, said Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor. It ‘should never change. It should put Jesus first .. I believe that obeying Jesus’ Great Commission is the key to making effective progress’ said Jonathan Edwards, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. The headline attributed to Roberta Rominger of the United Reformed Church illustrates where we are today: ‘ I can’t imagine life without partnerships’. Martyn Atkins for the Methodist Church was quite clear that evangelism is our goal and ‘relationships are the key’.

Although the leaders did not represent all the churches in England, I do think we can say that we are in a good place and generally on solid ground. Nothing this side of heaven is perfect of course, but these church leaders of our historic denominations observe that churches want to get on with other in serving Jesus Christ. This is part of the good news in itself and to be celebrated .. just like the natural ecumenical action illustrated by several of our denominational newspaper editors who did not need or rely on the good offices of Churches Together in England to conduct their questions. Like many of our local churches, they naturally ‘just got on with it’. Hallelujah.

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