“Can we, dare we, be faithful together?”
As the United Reformed and Methodist Churches continue exploring ways of working more closely together, David Cornick highlights challenges and interests common to both denominations
One of the common challenges facing the United Reformed and Methodist Churches concerns demographics. I’m 58, part of the baby boom generation. They had to expand school provision to cope with my generation, and build new universities. That was 40 years ago. Quite why government couldn’t see then that we’d all be retiring somewhere around 2019 and that financial planning should be directed towards pensions and an increase in medical care for the elderly is a mystery to me.
Or rather it’s not – governments don’t do the long-term. And neither, sadly, do the churches. Governments don’t do it because they know there are no votes in it next year. Churches don’t do it because they think it’s a vote of no confidence in the Holy Spirit. I sometimes wonder why God endowed us with brains! The first challenge we face is to grow up and be realistic about the numerical decline of our churches. A recent study of church growth in Britain points out that there is simultaneous growth and decline in British churches. The growth is found mainly but not exclusively in immigrant and “new” churches, and the decline mainly, but not exclusively, in mainstream churches.
If I’ve got my sums right, Methodist membership has fallen by just over 60 per cent since 1970 and URC membership by about 70 per cent. For all my ministerial life there has been a gentle decline of two to four per cent per year. I know all the caveats about statistics and what’s being counted and whether they are equivalents and all that. But I also know that I’m 58 and when I turn up to preach somewhere, I still get called “young man”.
Demography is an inexorable force. Robert Winston and his fellow medics haven’t found the formula for immortality yet, and until they do those congregations which are predominantly composed of those who are older than I am are going to shrink. And however brilliant our mission planning, however innovative our ways of creating and being church and doing fresh expressions, that simple fact cannot be escaped. It needs to determine a good deal of our planning for the next decade. I don’t pretend this will be easy, because a balance needs to be struck between preserving what has been given to us until a brighter day dawns, and being genuinely creative missionally, the better to serve the needs of society.
The centre and the regions
A second common challenge for these churches is rather like the first. Both denominations, and others besides, are trying to balance the regional against the central. What belongs where, and why? The URC struggles with the question of whether it is 13 dioceses or one church in three nations, and Methodism struggles with what should be resourced connexionally and what belongs to the districts.
Both the URC and the Methodist Church are in networks of relationships with ecumenical partners of many shapes and sizes, and that is how it should be. It is a matter for rejoicing that new black church and community church networks want to be in mission partnership with the historic churches of this country. We also both have a history of relationships with the Church of England, which have very different historical roots, and therefore need healing in different ways. But we have a common task, and that is to read the Church of England accurately. By and large, historically, our leaderships have failed to understand its complexity; let’s not continue that misreading.
Do not believe for a moment that when the Church of England begins to ordain women as bishops, it will open its arms to unity with fellow Protestants. Its long and venerable history is that of being a bridge church, coping with the difficult vocation of being (as its detractors said) a Protestant mind in a Catholic body. It will therefore quite properly stretch every sinew to strengthen its relationships with Rome and with the Orthodox, and it will do nothing to cause further damage to those relationships. I don’t mean to cast any aspersions on the Covenant or on the deepening relationship between the Anglican Church and the Reformed, but it is important that we appreciate the historic and unique vocation of the Church of England.
Let me add an ecumenical caveat. My day job is fascinating. The leaders of the historic denominations grumble all the time about how ecumenism drains energy and how much it costs. Let me suggest that when the final accounts are being drawn up for modern English Christianity, the great auditor in the sky will point not to the waste of ecumenism but to the expense of needless denominational duplication and pluralism. And frankly, it’s getting worse because our spiritual vision is confined by the need to shore up the pension fund. And it needs to be much more than that.
If I read the spirituality of my generation in the church and that of peers in theirs, there is a weight of guilt that it all went wrong on our watches. If historians are any pastoral use at all, it is because they can give an assurance that it hasn’t all gone wrong in our generations. Long-term patterns are working themselves out – the highest density figure for Christians as a percentage of the English population was in the 1840s.
The surprising thing about the 1851 religious census wasn’t that the free churches and the Anglicans were neck and neck, but that more people were not in church on Census Sunday – 51 per cent were elsewhere. Christian culture as an English national characteristic survived for another century, (Scotland and Wales present present subtly different pictures) but the most recent monograph on the subject puts forward a convincing case that it died somewhere between 1920 and 1960. This is why recruitment amongst the young dived catastrophically, and why our congregations have aged disproportionately. That a new, non-mainstream, largely immigrant-led Christian resurgence has emerged almost unnoticed in the last 30 years offers new hope, new perspectives.
Guilt-ridden Christians are not attractive. They suck others into their eddies of depression. Whatever John Wesley’s scriptural holiness was about, it wasn’t that. Whatever Reformed spirituality was about, it wasn’t that. Both were about a deep and profound relationship with God. If you like, both were workings out in different traditions of what it is to be in Christ, to be enfolded in a love that takes us mysteriously and wonderfully into the very life of the Trinity. We are enfolded in a love that lets the life of God into our space and time through prayer and action, works of piety and works of mercy.
In the final theological analysis, the church is God’s. And through history that body has taken many forms. Once the North African church of Tertullian and Augustine was central to the workings out of God’s purposes, but it is no more. That truth is hard to bear. We are called simply to be faithful – Wesley, as ever, saw to the heart of it –“let me be employed for you or laid aside for you… let me have all things, let me have nothing”. It is a prayer said, thankfully, but once a year.
We face a cultural landscape of need, a landscape that seems almost in a spiritual infancy, longing for the God that it dare no longer name. There is an ache where the Christian faith once was – an ache expressed in lengthening queues at art exhibitions, an unprecedented level of music downloads, soaring National Trust membership, and a reaching towards brand culture as a method of discovering who I am. Maybe that is why Orthodoxy is growing and cathedral worship is so popular. The ache of a society which has forgotten God. “I’m a confirmed atheist,” said Terry Pratchett in a radio interview last month, “but I have a little shrine downstairs to my lady the Muse.” And he went on to explain how stories and ideas appear unbidden in his mind. It would never have occurred to T S Eliot or Browning to do that, but now there is a void.
We’ve never done mystery well in nonconformity. Too many words, too much rationality. Not enough Isaac Watts, not enough Charles Wesley. They knew what it was to reach into the depths of God and come back with gifts of poetry that reached towards the mystery of the God who created all of this wonderful, perplexing, glorious cosmos, and found it within himself to be “contracted to a span/incomprehensibly made man”. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands our lives, our souls, our all” – not simply in the silver age when our pews were bursting and our preachers feted, but now when God’s people ache, and don’t know how to ask for the treasures that Christ has entrusted to his church. Can we, dare we, be faithful together?
The Revd Dr David Cornick is general secretary of Churches Together in England
This article is an edited extract of his address to a joint session of the United Reformed Church Mission Council and Methodist Council, meeting in Sutton Coldfield in October 2012
This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of Reform.