I had a wonderful and unexpected experience of inter-denominational church unity last Sunday.
At one of our church services, a couple staying on holiday turned up to join in with the worship – which they did with enthusiasm. It turned out they were German – and, while their English was somewhat faltering, it was just about clear enough for us to communicate. At any rate, it was certainly better than my German, which is sadly non-existent.
As we grappled with understanding each other, it gradually emerged that the continental tourists had a real, living faith. They were interested to hear about our Alpha Course – as they were hoping to run one for the first time back home. And they laughed as they said they recognised some of the visual aids used to illustrate the sermon in the powerpoint slides which accompanied it.
The more we spoke, the more we realised we were having real, meaningful and moving Christian fellowship. They departed with my contact details and left me with an invitation to go and stay with them. It was all really rather uplifting.
And do you know what? They weren't even Anglican! Yes – even though they spoke a different language and were members of a wholly different denomination, we still found we were able to experience a real unity from the shared experience of knowing Christ.
I thought of all this as I read again the news – reported on this website – that the Church of England and Methodist Church have committed themselves to finding further ways of working together, a decade after the Anglican-Methodist Covenant was established.
All well and good, you might well think. And no doubt much of it really is. But I also wonder too. Because when I read the New Testament, the unity I find spoken of there is not some kind of institutional unity that comes through committees, paperwork, reviews and statements. It is not the unity that comes through being brought together into one inter-locking bureaucratic structure. Instead, it seems to me it is a unity that is organic – rather than organisational; relational – rather than structural; instinctive – rather than institutional.
I do not want to speak ill of the good-hearted endeavour of all the men and women seeking to bring Anglicanism and Methodism closer together; after all, these two denominations were originally one. May the Lord bless these labours! At the same time, I must admit I shudder to think of all the paperwork, the meetings, the committees – while all the time, most churchgoers (plus 99.9% of non-churchgoers) lead their lives blissfully unaware of this slow-moving leviathan inching towards some eventual destiny that may (I fear) make little practical difference.
When the New Testament calls Christians to unity, is the ideal in mind really that we should all get together in one huge, homogeneous organisation – as some seem to think? Controversially, I often wonder whether Jesus really minds that much about all the different denominations. I might be wrong (and am willing to be proved so), but isn't it rather inevitable – perhaps even desirable, actually – that in different times, cultures and places, Christians should organise themselves in radically different ways locally on the ground?
A cynic might liken Anglican-Methodist unity to two sinking ships being joined together, given their respective falls in attendance in recent decades. Let's pray that it isn't! But my fellowship with these two German Christian friends took just ten minutes to blossom – rather than ten years. And it involved no paperwork or committees – only the presence of Christ and his followers meeting under the authority of his Word. Did we really need anything else?