Evangelical ecumenicity, networks, and denominations

A good day yesterday at the Scottish Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting, seeing lots of old friends, including our pastor-elect and his wife, speaking on ‘Evangelical doctrine: basis for unity or cause of division?’ and listening to Fred Drummond, of EA Scotland, talking about the various ‘magnets’ for evangelical unity emerging around the country, mostly focused on prayer or mission. (The theme of the conference was ‘Evangelical Ecumenicity: can evangelicals really work together?’)

Fred gave a very hopeful account of the Scottish scene, with many emerging missional networks providing real evidence that people are working together, thinking strategically, and praying unitedly much more than has been the case for a generation or so in Scotland. Notably absent from his description and analysis, however, and picked up in the conversation afterwards, was the place of the various Scottish denominations within all this. The overwhelming sense was that those who are truly missionally engaged regard (rightly or wrongly) their denominational structures (in whichever denomination) as bureaucratic, obstructive, and deadening.

I reflected afterwards: there is a necessary bureaucracy in denominational structures: property must be owned; child-protection legislation complied with; and pension funds administered. (The list could be expanded, of course.) Denominations do all this for us, and, in the case of UK Baptist denominations, then tend to recede a little into the background. We don’t fund our central denominations enough for them to have the resources to be too proactive/interfering; and a Baptist ecclesiology with the local church meeting as the primary authority means the only effective power of the denomination is soft, the power to influence or inform. A Presbyterian denomination might delay or even derail a proposed church plant (say); a British Baptist denomination just doesn’t have that power.

Two thoughts followed: Baptist denominations are thus at least less of a problem for missional congregations; if a Baptist denomination is going to move from being perceived as a problem to being perceived as part of the solution, it will perhaps need to continue doing the necessary bureaucracy well, but more quietly, and then to become a credible and valued missional network itself (or a partner in a series of such networks). After all, the power of Alpha Scotland or the Crieff Fellowship (two of Fred’s examples) is only soft, but people want to align, to involve, to join, because the soft power is perceived as being a (softly) potent aid to mission. I think that the senior people in both BUS and BUGB are well aware of this dynamic, and that the two denominations are trying hard to make this transition; in part I think they (perhaps particularly BUGB) have actually succeeded, but that some or most of the churches have not noticed yet. (When Neil asks ‘what is [the southern] Assembly for?’ the answer is surely in part ‘it is intended to be a major point of encouragement, influence, and information for missional churches, and churches that are trying to transition to being missional’ – an example of BUGB, with more than a nudge from BMS over the years, acting like a voluntary missional network.)

Second, however, I reflect that perhaps there is an ideal situation here, a Coleridgean ideal of a union of the opposites of permanence and progression. A church might look in one direction – here its denomination – for certain necessary points of stability and groundedness, and in another – here its missional network – for a fast-moving, evolving, even liquid, organisation that is fluid enough and fleet enough of foot to always be on the pulse of culturally-relevant action (‘Ancient-Future ecclesiastical structures’!). Part of a denomination’s job in the context of genuinely missional churches might be to act as a slight brake, to say from time to time, ‘in your pursuit of relevant and effective mission, remember your deep roots and your communal story, and pause for reflection before you do anything not true to them.’

Now, I am very well aware that the big problem in Scotland – and across the UK – is not the number of churches that are so missional that they need such brakes applied, which might be why missional networks are presently regarded as attractive, and denominations as dull, but imagining how to plan for a better future is not an irrelevant task. (And is a lot more interesting than marking.)

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