by Ian Howarth.
Reading Israel Selvanayagam’s recent history of the Church of South India, ‘The Greatest Act of Faith,’ with his passionate advocacy of the importance of organic union if the church is to have any credibility in a secular world, I am led to reflect on the ecumenical journey as I have seen it over my lifetime.
Dr Selvanayagam finishes his book with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., ‘who at the heart of his struggle with the nexus of evil forces, declared: “We, the Roman Catholics, Orthodox and the Protestants, either come together as brothers and sisters or die as fools”,’ and I am left almost with a feeling of guilt that I cannot generate the enthusiasm for pursuing the goal of organic union between God’s people that I had in the early days of my Christian faith. Dr Selvanayagam is adamant that coming together ultimately must mean organic union, but his book also outlines the danger of dominant partners using organic union as a means to assimilate smaller units into the larger, for which he cites the assimilation of the CSI into a province of the Anglican Communion, without discussion with the other partners as an example.
When I was confirmed in 1969, it was at one of the first joint Anglican/Methodist confirmation services, even if the school where it happened did have to import a retired bishop of a diocese in the Middle East, and we were actually confirmed in two queues one going to the bishop and the other to the Methodist school chaplain, who was standing in for the President of Conference whose train had been cancelled! It was the comments that it was a good job it was the President’s train that had been cancelled and not the bishop’s, that gave me one of my first insights into a key difference in our ecclesiology!
I began my presbyteral training at the ecumenical Queen’s College, in 1982, and our first guest lecture was from David Edwards, the Anglican lead for the proposed English Covenant, which despite support from the Methodist Church and URC, had recently been voted down in the house of clergy of the Church of England, thus effectively bringing to an end the processes that might lead to an organic union between the churches. There was much wringing of hands and a sense that a dream had died.
Throughout my ministry the quest for organic union has gradually slipped off the table, and the Covenant with the Church of England was seen by many as an end of the process. On the ground ecumenical co-operation has been patchy. Some flexibility in Anglican Ecumenical Canons has allowed joint work and worship in LEPs and across particular areas. Yet, I have become acutely conscious that ecumenical working at a local level relies far too much on the personalities and outlook of local church leaders – usually the ordained ones!
As I approach the end of my ministry, I have to say that I react to the current proposals of ‘Mission and Ministry in Covenant’ with a deep sense of tiredness. I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that I think this is at the top of the list of our priorities. The sense of banging a head on a brick wall is too strong.
As I look back over the story I have told above, I am conscious of how church based it all is. For all the talk of mission the discussions have become increasingly institutional, and the issues seem to resemble arguing about the number of angels you can get on a pin head. The things I thought important and exciting forty years ago, now seem echoes of a past age. They also speak of a world where the church was a much more powerful influence in society and the thought of coming together organically could have made a significant difference to the Christian voice.
So what do we do with that statement of Martin Luther King? And perhaps more important, what do we make of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, that ‘they may be one as you, Father and I are one, and they may be one in us?’
We can argue that that does not mean organic union but another sense of oneness, but meanwhile the church becomes more divided. The issues around sexuality threaten our oneness in a very different way from questions of episcopacy and church governance. The rise of independent churches with a congregationalist form of governance has in many ways sidelined the smaller denominations like Methodism.
The question of whether we can be in unity with those with whom we profoundly disagree with theologically is a pressing one, that Methodism is currently struggling with on its own, let alone across denominations.
If I am honest, I think that organic unity will probably have to wait for the eschaton. However, I believe we have to find a new way of demonstrating our oneness across our divisions, and that can be a key witness to a divided nation.
That starts within Methodism. If we can show we truly can express what it is to be one in Christ with contradictory convictions around marriage, then we can have something to say to our fellow Christians in other traditions facing similar challenges, but above all, we can offer a witness to a world that sees disagreement as inherently leading to division, and we can truly preach a Christ, in whom there is ‘no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’
 The Greatest Act of Faith: The First Organic Union of the Church of South India, by Rev Dr Israel Selvanayagam, Christian World Imprints
 Ibid p 246
 Galatians 3: 28