Two factors that inhibit unity?
Joe Story writes:
My wife Catherine and I have a very broad Christian experience. We were involved in a range of churches before I was ordained as a Baptist minister in the early eighties. I later became manager of a large ecumenical Christian bookshop in Northampton, where I also organised cross-church events and, for nine years, I produced the local Churches Together newsletter.
In 2007 I had the opportunity of initiating and helping to form a Local Ecumenical Partnership between the small Baptist Church where I was part-time minister and a small Anglican Church, both located on a deprived housing estate on the edge of town. After uniting, we had one building, one bank account and one set of services. We concentrated exclusively on the estate where we were situated and gradually grew.
Following retirement, Catherine and I decided to address a question which concerned us. Northampton town, still not yet a city, hosted around sixty Christian denominations and it seemed to us that many of them operated in isolation from each other. We decided to try and learn why, by visiting as many of the different churches as we could.
To date we have been to about a quarter of the 140 or so churches in the town. These have included Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, U.R.C., and Salvation Army, as well as newer Churches like New Frontiers, and Vineyard. We have also been to a number of independent churches, some of the smaller denominations, and to renewed cults like Grace Communion (previously Worldwide Church of God) and the Jesus Army.
Our investigations have necessarily been superficial, and any findings and conclusions we have come to are obviously subjective and tentative, but it seems to us that two reasons for separation are becoming more prevalent. There have been a number of historic reasons for division between churches since the initial split between East and West. After the Reformation, divisions developed based around the nature of ministry and church government, and then came disagreements of doctrine in such matters as baptism, election, and the end times.
However, from our visit, it would seem that there are two more recent factors which may warrant some discussion. The first of these is the gathering of like with like, where church identities appear to be largely shaped by a cultural, social, musical or ethnic demographic make up. The second factor appears to be style of leadership, especially when it seeks to gather a congregation centred around one or two people. If these factors are increasing, might they by their nature, inherently limit future church unity or co-operation?
In spite of the fact that Jesus was obviously aware that His followers would be different racially, culturally and socially, and that there would be differences of personality, style and theology, it is noteworthy that His prayer, in John chapter 17, was for a unity that would overrule these differences.
Having worked in a local Ecumenical Partnership where there were differences of doctrine and church government, and, at one time, ten different nationalities in a congregation of three dozen, I know that it is possible to function creatively and spiritually where there is a mixture of people from different church, social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. From our experience of the ecumenical partnership, the shop, and Churches Together, we know that that there can be some real measure of co-operation between those who differ. We believe the prayer of Jesus will be answered, but might it perhaps involve a challenge to recent trends?
The Revd Joe Story is a retired Baptist Minister in Northampton.