Putting Two Coffins Together?

A number of years ago when talk of a covenant between the Methodist Church in Ireland and the (Anglican/Episcopal) Church of Ireland was first mooted, a friend said on the floor of conference that we should remember that "Putting two coffins together doesn't automatically produce a resurrection." He was almost assaulted later by another colleague who believed that such a statement was "anti-ecumenical", although my friend has clearly demonstrated by his actions before and since that he is deeply commited to practical ecumenism.

His statement was by no means original (I read something similar written in a somewhat sneering fashion by "new church" leader Gerald Coates, at the height of an earlier frenzy of ecumenical endeavours), but it is true...

Personally I believe that there is one church (with many flavours), and agree with the ecumenical analysis first articulated 100 years ago at the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference and succinctly summed up later by David Watson when he described the fragmented nature of the church as “an insult to Christ, a denial of the gospel and the greatest hinderance to the extension of the kingdom of God.” However, I also believe that much that goes on under the title of ecumenism is a distraction from, rather than a means of, forwarding the mission of the church and extending the kingdom of God. At its worst it might be characterised as rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic, or simply a matter of consolidation during an ecclesiastical downturn, producing institutional mergers and acquisitions. Because of this I have generally avoided formal ecumenical discussions in favour of working together with my brothers and sisters in Christ from other local denominations.

Recently however, people have been sending me links referring to the recent speech of Rev. David Gamble, the President of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, at the recent Church of England Synod, suggesting that Methodism is about to commit ecclesiastical suicide for the sake of mission, by merging with the Anglicans. Many are extremely cynical about the whole thing. My regular correspondent Snauzer, in a comment on an earlier post, sees it as indicative of the general decline of churches. Ruth Gledhill, with an original pun on the name of David GAMBLE (I'll wager that he, as a Methodist minister hasn't heard that one at all) sees it all in the light of the CoE infighting between traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and those advocating the elevation of women to the episcopacy, with the valuable real estate of Methodism's Westminster Central Hall as a trump card.

Both could well be correct in their analysis. These discussions may not have gone as far as they have were it not for the parlous state of the churches in Britain, and I am sure there are those who see Methodism entering the Anglican communion through the front door while Anglo-Catholics scurry out the back as a "good deal". In my opinion neither would be good reasons for such moves, but no-one involved in those discussions is asking my opinion nor is ever likely to.

And it is partly because it is none of my business that I have resisted commenting so far (in the same way that I have resisted, on the whole, commenting on the affairs of other denominations on this island)... The relationship between the Methodist Church in Great Britain and the Church of England is their affair and will only have a tangential effect on the Methodist Church in Ireland. We have, as I stated earlier, our own Covenant relationship with the Church of Ireland, and I am currently involved in discussions on that... Ironically, I will not be commenting on that for a while precisely because it IS my affair, and it would be inappropriate to air half-baked thoughts on this blog (although that wouldn't be a first).

But in looking at the full address by David Gamble and his Vice-President Richard Vautry there is actually very little that I would disagree with. It is not a rose-tinted view of Methodist-Anglican relationships, but points to the problems as well as the positives. They are not suggesting that the Methodist turkeys are about to vote unanimously for Christmas, but the concluding section, which has gathered most of the comment is a relatively straight-forward exposition of the Methodist Covenant Service (as opposed to the Methodist-Anglican Covenant... I do wish we'd used different terms for this) where we pray
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

If we as Methodists are serious about that prayer (and there are times when I think we say it with our fingers crossed for fear that God will hold us to it) then we have to be prepared to lay down everything if it is truly for the sake of the Kingdom of God...

I echo again the words of my colleage that putting two coffins together does not produce a resurrection... And there are times when current ecclesiastical structures seem like very creaky coffins, or to use a more Biblical image, "old wine skins".

But the liturgical season that we are fast approaching affirms that we do believe in resurrection. And before there can be resurrection there must be death...


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