Local Churches Together Groups and Covenanted Partnerships
John Bradley, was the Field officer (South) for Churches Together in England and Secretary of the Churches Group for Local Unity. John has written this as a personal paper. The text is below and you can download the paper here.
There are over two thousand local Churches Together groups in England and nearly three hundred Covenanted Local Ecumenical Partnerships (LEP’s). They are all local examples of different Churches working together locally but the differences between them are not always clear. They are each an expression of the conviction that the visible unity of the Church is the will and gift of Christ and are in obedience to ‘spare no effort to make fast with bonds of peace the unity which the Spirit gives’ (Ephesians 4.3).
However as Roger Nunn, the first Secretary of the Churches Group for Local Unity would often say, ‘A strong Churches Together group is better than a weak Covenanted Partnership’. Both kinds of relationship can vary over the years with the changes in leadership, both ordained and lay. A third kind is a Local Covenant where a group of churches have committed themselves to each other in a covenant but insist on not being regarded as a Local Ecumenical Partnership. Various reasons for this include past experience of a LEP being an administrative burden, difficulties with gaining approval for a LEP constitution and an unwillingness to take any step which may imply an exclusion of possible future partners. But if the Body of Christ is a living organism and not just an organisation then any significant change in one part affects the whole. So if a Local Covenant fits the definition of a Local Ecumenical Partnership, that is what it is and difficulties elsewhere should not be allowed to hinder it being so.
Some Churches make provisions for LEPs which are not available to informal groups. The Ecumenical Canons of the Church of England make provision for united acts of worship on an occasional basis (Canon B43) but to recognise a regular, ongoing relation where ministry is shared with another Church, it is necessary to form a Local Ecumenical Partnership/Project in order to invoke Canon B44. The Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church contains Standing Order 611 which allows the responsibilities of a Methodist Church Council to be subsumed under an Ecumenical Church Council where a LEP has been formed.
The conclusion of studies such as Local Churches in Covenant (1983) and A Developmental Framework for Local Churches Working Together (2010) is that the act of covenanting is more significant than the content of the covenant itself. ‘The commitment to God and to one another is the vital thing, and something that remains constant; whereas the content of what we covenant for must vary from place to place and perhaps at different times in the same place’ (Local Churches in Covenant).
Studies of the theological and biblical basis of covenanting have shown that ancient Hebrew covenants were ‘cut’ (Genesis 15.10), showing the seriousness of the commitment they involved. A covenant which leaves the divided state of the Church unchallenged and avoids the cost of the commitment is not a true covenant. The central seriousness of the concept of a covenant is seen at the Last Supper when Jesus says the cup is the blood of the covenant (Matthew 26.28). Some covenanted partnership LEPs which were inaugurated with the keen enthusiasm of earlier church leaders have had to accept that in reality they are now no more than a group of Churches Together. They may do the occasional ‘ecumenical things’ such as a united service but they are no longer genuinely ‘doing things ecumenically.’
An ecumenical covenant is not only about what different churches are committing themselves to do together but also about what they are no longer going to do separately. This will include the deployment and replacement of ordained ministers so the concurrence of leaders of the wider Church is essential. Every change in the local leadership of the covenanted churches is a crisis in the sense of a crossroads, a point of decision from which the ecumenical journey can fare better or worse, so the guidance of a Staffing Consultative Group is very important. The considering together of any erection of new and reordering or sale of existing church buildings is also essential to the life of the covenant. Church buildings often make visible the divisions of the Church rather than her unity; they can appear to be like different brands of supermarket each competing for their market share! Churches in a covenanted partnership will look at all their buildings when responding to a need or opportunity, deciding which is best at this moment rather than merely ‘whose turn it is.’ Covenanted churches which engage in children and youth work together instead of separately; will do so regardless of which congregation the young people may eventually join.
When a new minister comes to any of the partner churches, s/he should be invited to sign the covenant. This will normally be an opportunity for all the partner churches to renew their commitment to the covenant. In a Covenanted Partnership there is a presumption that the partner churches will respond together instead of separately to any challenge or opportunity. They will show the spiritual fruit of self-control (egkrateia Galatians 5.23) in not being each restricted to their own denominational network but including that of the whole Church.
How does this distinction between a Churches Together group and a Covenanted LEP appear in your area?
Are there examples of one which should really be the other?
How does this relate to the ecumenical journey, moving forward in unity rather than merely repeating the same steps?
Could ‘cutting’ a covenant, a costly commitment to no longer doing separately what should be done together, enhance the effectiveness of the local churches in mission?
John Bradley 13 March 2012
Note: a 'Personal Paper' on the CTE website may, or may not, represent the policy of Churches Together in England. It is provided for further discussion.