26 March 2003
Towards a pastoral strategy for the United Reformed Church and the Methodist Church
This article was written jointly by the Secretary of the Methodist Conference, the Rev Nigel Collinson, and the General Secretary of the United Reformed Church, the Rev David Cornick. It is published in the latest edition of the URC magazine, Reform.
What can Britain's churches do to respond to the winds of change that are blowing through Western culture? Are we going to miss the moment of opportunity because we are so tied to our buildings, structures and denominational ways of doing things? The Methodist and United Reformed Churches are issuing a bold and creative call to their congregations to step out of their traditional mind-sets and listen for God's voice.
We already share together in over 400 ecumenical partnerships of many kinds. It was only natural, therefore, that when the October meeting of the United Reformed Church's Mission Council decided that it must conduct a review of its priorities for the next decades that it should think first of its relationship with the Methodist Church. So, the Council sent greetings to the Methodist Council and enquired whether there was any way in which the two churches could build on and develop the considerable amount of work we already share. The Methodist Council received the enquiry with enthusiasm, and asked that more work be done. The end result is a pastoral strategy for the three nations we serve. We have now reached the point where we invite the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church to begin work towards an agreed pastoral strategy. We hope this conversation will take place in every part of both churches and throughout the three nations we serve.
The strategy process now beginning is intended to give permission for experiment, to help local churches, Methodist circuits and United Reformed Church district/area councils to respond to the missionary challenges around them by sharing their resources of people and buildings. In some places that might mean uniting congregations to form a better equipped centre for mission. In others it might mean planning to share our ministerial and personnel resources to enable better ministry to the communities we serve together. In yet other places it might mean pooling resources to bring new and exciting ways of being church into existence. We hope the active partnership of United Reformed Church Synod Moderators and Methodist Chairs of District, usually with other church leaders in their area, will help the process. We pledge ourselves, with our colleagues, to continue to explore ways of sharing work and resources where we are doing similar work to serve the Methodist Conference and the United Reformed Church General Assembly. We believe that there is no limit to the creativity of God's people, and we are committed to ensuring that our structures don't get in the way of God's will. That is what a pastoral strategy is really about.
It's not a closed shop, nor a veiled unity scheme. We know that in some places in our three nations other churches will be natural ecumenical partners for both of us in local enterprises. We rejoice in that. What matters is enabling the mission we all share. Both of us are partners in ecumenical conversation with other denominations in our three nations. We hope that the work we already share and encouragement of work towards a shared strategy will enrich those conversations, and in no way detract from their significance. This strategic thinking is but one way of recognising our responsibility under God to do all we can to co-operate to tell of God's transforming, transfiguring love in Jesus Christ.
In 1974 Bishop Leslie Newbigin returned to Britain from a life-time of service to the world church and the Church of South India in particular. He went to minister in inner city Birmingham. When he came to reflect on his experience there he suggested that modern Britain was the most difficult mission field he had ever encountered. Our churches know that only too well. It is not that our people have lacked in faithfulness. It is not that the gospel has been sold short in our pulpits and thinking. It is not that we have lacked creativity in service to the world for Christ's sake. But the currents of thought which have taken root in Western Europe in the last two or three centuries have pushed churches to the margins of society and made advocacy of the gospel very difficult.
Our society continues to change yet at times of tragedy and incomprehensible evil, the church is expected to help the nation handle its emotions and find a language to express the inexpressible. People feel in their deepest selves that life is more than buying and selling, getting and spending, and they seem to know instinctively that evil will not see goodness off. They reach for something more, but rarely cross the threshold of the church.
It is not true, therefore, to say that people nowadays are not interested in God or the deep things of life. In fact, one of the ways in which our society has changed is that in recent years, many people of other world faiths have settled among us bringing their own devotion and adding their own challenge to look at things through the lens of religious faith.
So still our God calls us to mission and engagement, to the age old but ever new task of letting the good news of Jesus be heard, so that the world can be touched and transformed by grace and men and women find their true being as children of God. It is because we are so called, and because we are under no illusions about the excitement and difficulties of our mission, that we commend this work towards a pastoral strategy to our two churches.
The Rev Dr Nigel Collinson, Secretary of the Methodist
The Rev Dr David Cornick, General Secretary of the United Reformed Church