A Quick Guide to The Challenge of the Covenant
Download this page as a Word document
We are called to holiness and to be sent on mission in the world. Our unity is an essential part of that. When we are not one we are less than fully protected and sanctified, and our faith and mission are seriously compromised. See Uniting in Mission and Holiness - a Biblical Meditation
The Joint Implementation Commission (JIC)
The JIC was first established by resolution of the General Synod and Methodist Conference in 2003, and was charged to monitor the implementation of the Covenant and to undertake further work to remove obstacles to visible unity. The first five yearly report was published in 2008 ( Embracing the Covenant ). In its second phase the JIC has included Anglican and Methodist representatives from Wales and Scotland.
"We" are all the disciples of Jesus Christ, who make up his body, the Church. Amongst them, we are the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain. In 2003 we entered into a Covenant.
Ten years later the Joint Implementation Commission for the Covenant has published its second five yearly report called The Challenge of the Covenant: Uniting in Mission and Holiness . It is asking two questions, and asking them with some urgency. See Behold the Servants of the Lord - Assessing Ten Years of Living in Covenant
- What difference has the Covenant made to the relationship between our two churches?
- What are the next steps our churches need to take as we live and grow together in Covenant?
Consultation and working together - towards joint decision making See Joint Consultation and Decision Making
The answer to the first question depends on where we put the spotlight. What about consulting with one another? Discerning together our shared mission opportunities? Working together? In all these we can point to evidence that the Covenant has made a decisive difference.
Examples of working together at national and connexional level
eg opening joint schools and engaging with government policy
In ethical Investment
eg sharing information and analysis
In theological education
eg developing a set of common academic awards
In local unity in mission
eg developing lighter structures for working together in local partnerships
eg there is now a single liaison group and a joint appointment of a national and connexional safeguarding officer
In Fresh Expressions
eg planning and guiding new forms of community and new patterns of ministry
Much more could and should be done. But much progress has been made and, as a result of the Covenant, people have deliberately sought and found ways of working together.
What about relationships between national Church of England and connexional Methodist staff? Across many departments these are excellent. They enable a free flow of information and ideas.
Each church increasingly invites the other to provide someone who will participate at meetings of its boards, committees and other working groups.
This is creating a high level of understanding, and an improved exchange of ideas and information between us.
But there is much still to be done. In the JIC we have identified two steps which our churches should take.
They would open up new opportunities for collaboration. They would lead to the development of joint decision making. That would strengthen our relationships even further.
- We must structure more carefully the way our churches consult and collaborate . We need to establish processes and channels of communication between us. We need these to improve the relationships between our church leaders and staff at all levels, as well as members of our congregations.
- We must consult with each other at an early stage of any initiative, whether 'local' or 'national/connexional'. We need to avoid unnecessary conflict when new work or re-organisation is being planned. When people consult, they will also discover new ways of working together.
Our churches always need to keep three questions constantly in mind when thinking of their life, work and mission.
- Can we do this work with our Covenant partner (and indeed other partner churches)?
[This follows what is known as the Lund Principle from the World Council of Churches Third World Faith and Order Conference in Lund in 1952. It encouraged churches to ask themselves ".... whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately". ]
- Will our working together lead to a greater flourishing of the Kingdom?
- Will our working together lead to the greater visible unity of the Church? See Joint Consultation and Decision Making
Joint mission and sharing ministry and resources
What about the faith, worship and mission of our churches in dioceses and in circuits? There are exciting and innovative projects emerging. In 2011, the joint Methodist Anglican Panel for Unity in Mission put forward a proposal for a new type of covenant partnership.
These Covenant Partnerships in Extended Areas can include a number of parishes and local Methodist churches and circuits. The response to this proposal in dioceses and districts/circuits has been very encouraging. There are new schemes and new energy in lots of different places and contexts. In Leeds and Cumbria things are well under way. In Nottinghamshire, Durham, Sheffield, Cornwall and elsewhere they are in various stages of preparation.
The Challenge of the Covenant presents some examples of what has already been done. It also offers further reflection on theological and practical issues raised by the proposal. Our churches need and increasingly want to share ministry and other resources at local level.
They are looking for ways in which joint mission planning can take place. They want this to happen without new bureaucracy and legislation. The proposal for Covenant Partnerships in Extended Areas clearly resonates with all this. See Covenant Partnerships in Extended Areas
Our boundaries do not often match. Our churches have different cultures and structures. Yet excellent relationships are being developed and good work is being done together in many places. We affirm that and applaud the people concerned. We encourage other places to look carefully and positively at the immense opportunities this proposal provides for working together in an enhanced way.
The Covenant Statement - first commitment
We commit ourselves, as a priority, to work to overcome the remaining obstacles to the organic unity of our two churches, on the way to the full visible unity of Christ's Church. In particular, we look forward to the time when the fuller visible unity of our churches makes possible a united, interchangeable ministry.
The goal of visible unity
Jesus prayed for all his followers (who became his body, the Church) to be one so that the world might believe [John 17:21]. So how much more could we do together for the flourishing of God's mission and the greater unity of the Church?
The fundamental vision that we agreed in the Covenant statement ten years ago was that if we are to do what Jesus wants, we have to work for the visible unity of the whole of Christ's Church.
This vision is all embracing. It is about praying for God's kingdom to come, and God's will be done on earth as in heaven. It goes far beyond the unity of the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain. Our Covenant does not exclude a wider ecumenical vision, but is a step towards it.
As our two churches grow together, we shall be taking important and significant steps towards the realisation of the greater vision. See Overseeing the Way of Uniting in Mission
Sometimes, though, by concentrating on one aspect of unity, we may miss the promptings of the Spirit in another. For example, we know we need to make it possible for our ministers to serve each other's churches. In 2003 the General Synod and the Methodist Conference set this as a priority for our churches.
If we cannot exchange ministers we will not be able to unite and work together fully in mission. But being able to exchange ministers will not make much difference to our mission if the whole people of God in our two churches refuse to work together.
Sometimes the emphasis on ministry has obscured that wider call to unity and mission. We must re-affirm that call. We must strengthen the ties between our churches. In turn, that may open the way for the visible unity of our churches (and their ministries) to emerge.
In The Challenge of the Covenant , we dare to ask what that visible unity might look like. It is easier to say that we hope it will not involve:
- one church absorbing the other
- forcing our churches to become so much the same that we lose the distinctive gifts that we bring to each other
- having a complicated, pre-determined blue print for merging two very different systems.
Our two churches share the same faith, which goes back to the apostles. We have common roots and shared history. Yet we are very different culturally and structurally. We do not match each other in the ways we are organised.
These difficulties are sometimes the source of misunderstanding and frustration, but they can also be the source of much enrichment and rejoicing. So, what does it mean for us to grow together into visible unity? We need to make progress a step at a time.
We need to walk together and watch over each other in love. We need to exchange our gifts and allow ourselves to be transformed and renewed. We believe that this growth and transformation is a deeply spiritual process of dying and rising again into new life. In it our churches live in the pattern of Christ's own journey through death to new life.
Over the last five years, the JIC has been greatly helped by listening to voices from Wales and Scotland. They have shared fully in our work, and have changed the way we look at visible unity.
On one hand, the three Anglican churches are each autonomous churches in each of the three nations, bound together in communion.
On the other hand, the Methodist Church of Great Britain is one Connexion in the three nations. On our journey towards visible unity ways will need to be found which enable the Methodist Church to make progress in its partnerships in each of those nations without losing its connexional coherence. See Models for Uniting in Oversight
Developing Bonds of Communion - some examples
Anglican reassessment of confirmation in the Methodist Church to allow for a Methodist lay person to be licensed by a bishop to exercise a ministry in the Church of England, without the requirement of confirmation by the bishop;
Recognition by both churches of the Methodist Conference as having preserved the continuity of Methodism with the tradition from which it emerged and as having ensured the continuity of the Methodist Church in the apostolic faith and mission.
Developing the bonds of communion
So, what immediate steps can we take towards our visible unity?
The Challenge of the Covenant suggests some ways in which our churches could strengthen the bonds of communion that already exist between us, even before we are able to say we are fully 'in communion' with each other.
These suggestions would help our churches to begin to unite the ways they oversee their life of faith, worship and mission. If we take them a step at a time we shall be expressing our good intent, commitment and seriousness about the goal of visible unity. See Developing Bonds of Communion
Has progress stalled over bishops?
Much progress has been made. But difficulty remains. The Church of England has bishops to show that its life and work now are in continuity with the faith and mission of the earliest apostles. The Methodist Church does not - but its Conference fulfils the same role.
In the past the Conference has said that it will consider having bishops if it could be shown that our churches would actually become more united and more effective in worship and mission if it did. But progress seems to have stalled. We can point to a number of issues making things difficult. They include:
- the lengthy process for admitting women to the episcopate in the Church of England
- the tensions raised in the Methodist Church in the debate on 'What sort of Bishops?'
- the perception that Methodists are being asked to jump through Anglican hoops
- the challenge of imagining a model of episcopacy which will demonstrably enrich the life and mission of the Methodist Church; and
- the need to give convincing reasons that bishops are good for mission and unity.
These are great challenges as we go forward in Covenant. We make some suggestions, and believe that momentum can be gained as each of these issues is addressed.
Whatever shape our future visible unity will take, it will require both churches to embrace change and renewal. The stress must be on mutuality and reciprocity, on giving and receiving with a generous spirit. See Signs of Continuity in Faith, Worship and Mission
Questions for the Next Phase of Implementation
Our two churches need local Anglicans and Methodists to worship and work together more closely to make the Covenant 'real'. Can this be done? How can you help?
Church leaders and decision-making bodies need to make the Covenant a priority in order to bring our churches closer together in mission and holiness. Can this be done? How can we make this happen?
Into the next phase
We need to encourage each other, because we can see where genuine progress has been made. At the same time we need to be realistic and honest about the challenges ahead.
Over the next few months, the various national and connexional bodies of our churches will be reflecting on our report in order to discern how to move forward into the next phase of the Covenant journey.
Everybody is invited to join in and to send in comments by 31 January 2014 to:
The Revd Ken Howcroft
The Revd Dr Roger Paul
We shall then bring firm proposals for the next phase of implementation of the Covenant to the General Synod and the Methodist Conference in July 2014. See Let it be according to you will - the challenge to our churches
Jesus's prayer in John 17 means that we cannot remain as disciples and friends of Jesus who are separated from each other in churches that have little or nothing to do with each other. We have not so much chosen each other as been given to each other, whether we like each other or not. If we are faithful we cannot choose to remain as we are. See Uniting in Mission and Holiness - a Biblical Meditation