The General Synod of the Church of England meets at the end of this week with a lot on its plate. Among the items they will discuss is a paper proposing closer ties – not quite union – between the Methodist Church and the Church of England. The predictable lines have been drawn well ahead of the debate: on the one hand it is important to take these steps to ‘heal a wound’ in the Body of Christ; and on the other hand, this small act would debase the currency of ‘apostolic order’. Both of these are wrong.
Both of these views rest on the assumption, variously articulated, that unity has something to do with agreeing on a few ideas either extrapolated from some passages in the New Testament or invented by the early church. The ideas extrapolated from the New Testament – from either Jesus or St Paul – centre on the ‘will’ of Jesus that his followers ‘should be one’ as Jesus and God are one, or the idea that we should all have ‘the mind of Christ’. Neither of these ideas, of course, mean that all Christians should agree with one another.
First of all, that’s not possible, as the same New Testament amply shows. Second, I’m afraid that those who claim to know the ‘mind of Christ’ most clearly are inevitably small groups of people who, from the beginning of Christianity, have always tried to impose their views on everyone else, claiming a kind of knowledge that none of the rest of us have. Never mind new knowledge or ideas, never mind how culturally conditioned those views might be, never mind that they were always invented by men, never mind how much pastoral reality cuts across intellectual purity – a form of ‘orthodoxy’ must be preserved, never compromised, because it is ‘the mind of Christ’.
But these tiny steps in allowing Christians of different sorts to minister to and with each other in pretty harmless ways, will not ‘heal the wounds in the Body of Christ’ either. That Methodists and Anglicans cannot minister in each other’s churches, that neither fully recognises the ministries of the other, or that they have different views on what ‘catholic order’ might mean, is not ‘the gaping wound’ the healing of which will make us more faithful to Christ.
The real ‘gaping wounds’ in the Body of Christ are those caused by our collective injustices against women, against those who don’t fulfil the social constructions of gender stereotypes, against those who have been abused (physically, mentally or spiritually) by our church institutions and their representatives, against those who think the church should not be exempt from even basic equality legislation, against those who even dare to think differently about the Christian faith: these are the wounds of injustice that will see the church – whether Anglican or Methodist – simply bleed away while the rest of the world moves on. These ‘gaping wounds’ are mostly self-inflicted, a form of institutional self-harm.
Until those major wounds of injustice and lack of love are healed, the minor cuts and abrasions caused by institutional division will remain insignificant. While the death-dealing wounds remain untreated, there will be no health – let alone unity – in the Body of Christ. The minor scratches on the institutional face of the church – so embarrassing to a church that seems more worried by ‘optics’ than justice – are not the mission threatening wounds that matter.
It will be a good thing if the Church of England decides to engage more formally with our Methodist sisters and brothers – we have a lot to learn from them, and I hope Synod can do the generous thing and agree it. But we mustn’t expect that to change the religious landscape in this country, or to suddenly make us more acceptable to the world we claim to serve. The message of the love of God in Christ is not served by forms of institutional agreement. As the Suffragettes, whose achievements we also celebrate on this day, put it, it is ‘actions not words’ that are needed: the actions that flow from doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God.
Jonathan Draper, General Secretary, Modern Church