What has happened to the Free Churches?

By Keith Clements
15 Mar 2007

The English Free Churches have virtually no recognised place in public life at national level today, and the same is true of the main ecumenical bodies. That is my conclusion just over twelve months after returning from eight years in Geneva as general secretary of the Conference of European Churches.

First, on the place of the Free Churches. The public perception of ‘religious leaders’ in England today is that they comprise the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and the Chief Rabbi, together with whoever can be found to represent the Muslim and other world religions. Other Christian Churches and leaders are just not in the picture.

This repeatedly comes out in public statements and media presentations on religion in England. Typically, a recent article in the Times described what it saw as the end of ‘the English religion’ in face of assertive American-style evangelicalism in the wake of 9/11. But by ‘English’ it meant only the Anglican establishment and its cool variety of civil religion. No mention whatever of the history and continuing significance of nonconformist Christianity in England.

Archbishop Rowan Williams has ‘doubts’ about the renewal of Trident and this becomes headline news. The Baptist Union Council has a full-scale debate on Trident and calls for its rejection – and virtually no-one notices. These are only symptoms, perhaps relatively minor ones, of an assumed Anglican monopoly in the public sphere.

‘What’s new?’ we might feel. What is new is that it’s getting worse. A specific factor in this is that we are now in a situation where, understandably, the chief public attention is on inter-faith, especially Christian-Muslim, relations rather than inter-church relations.

But this is squeezing out any remaining interest in the non-Anglican churches apart from the Roman Catholics. It is evidently assumed that if the Free Churches are on the scene at all, they will have nothing significant to say compared with, or in addition to, the Church of England leadership.

The issue is more important than publicity for ourselves. In a context where debate is all about ‘diversity’ in religion and society it is a matter of recognition of what already is, and has long been, an inherent and creative diversity in the English religious scene in its Christian expressions.

Moreover there is emerging a debate about the whole question of the role of religion in society and public life. There is a danger that the terms of this debate are going to be set purely by the question of the state, law and religion as they pertain to the present establishment of the Church of England.

On the one hand we shall have ‘traditionalists’ spouting the usual nonsense that if the Church of England ceases to be a state church it will be reduced to being a ‘sect’. On the other hand vociferous secularists will be targeting all religion as a menace to public life.

That religion can be non-established without being ‘sectarian’, and oriented towards the good of the whole body politic without being privileged by the state, will have to be made clear by those who represent the Free Church tradition and its long experience.

Whether the Free Churches still have the capacity or willingness to do this, or whether they have been too neglectful of their prophetic role in recent years, is open to question. We must hope that the new Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Joint Public Issues team can meet the challenge.

But the major issue in all this is the overall state of ecumenism. Concomitant with Free Church invisibility is the invisibility of ecumenism itself at national level today. The Free Churches have suffered in the severe downgrading of the status of the ecumenical bodies to which they committed themselves and which they have seen as prime instruments of their work.

In this downgrading the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church have taken a major share, certainly as far as Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) is concerned, preferring to resource Churches Together in England (CTE), the body in which they naturally are far more dominant. CTBI is now destined to be only an ‘agency’ of the four national bodies.

So what of CTE? It has done well out of the ecumenical re-jigging process and is doing many excellent things. But even here there seems to be an invisibility of ecumenism itself. There has already been much comment on the pre-Christmas visit to Bethlehem by CTE’s four presidents, and the fact that in the media this was presented largely as a visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster ‘and other church leaders’ with no actual mention of CTE. It was made to appear as the Archbishop’s own initiative accompanied of course by the Cardinal Archbishop. David Coffey as English Free Church Moderator was hardly seen or heard at all during the visit itself.

Did the Anglican and Catholic leaders (or their staff), aware that so much of the media attention would inevitably full upon them, do enough to emphasise that this was a truly ecumenical initiative and not just one of a collection of individual church leaders, and to ensure that all four delegates would be seen and heard, during the visit and afterwards? That they were not just ‘dignitaries’ but corporately representing an ecumenical fellowship of churches?

CTE has strenuously denied that this imbalance was its own intention, and asserts that it took place despite the ‘best efforts’ of the two Archbishops themselves. Well, those best efforts were not enough to do visible justice to ecumenical integrity.

Of course it will be said that in an increasingly ‘celeb’ culture it is only inevitable that the Church’s public witness is going to be personalised by the secular media and reduced to the statements of one or two leading figures. But if this is not to result in trivialisation, even more responsibility is placed on such figures to make clear that they are there to express not just their own opinion but to reflect the insights, experience and considered analysis of the corporate fellowship they represent.

It was, I am sure, absolutely right that at local level from the 1960s Free Church councils largely subsumed themselves under the more inclusive councils of churches, and that the Free Church Federal Council itself eventually did likewise with CTE.

After all, by the 1960s and 70s most ecumenically active Free Church people were already putting their main energies into local councils of churches and the British Council of Churches as the places where the real action was. But with this preference for the wider ecumenism went a clear assumption: that such councils, and the ecumenical instruments that succeeded them at national and four-nation level in 1990, would be fellowships of churches on an equal footing and providing means of common visible witness.

Having wholeheartedly got on board the ecumenical ship the Free Churches might be justified in feeling a sense of betrayal that the larger churches are now leaving the vessel adrift and cruising as they wish elsewhere.

Matters cannot of course be left here. The Free Churches need to ask if they have been accomplices in their own marginalisation, which cannot be accounted for purely by their numerical decline. Where have all the prophets gone, who could alarm people with a new nonconformist conscience? Or why is there now so little talk of actual visible unity except on Anglican or Roman Catholic terms?

The most challenging and promising vocation for the Free Churches would be for them to lift up again the banner of the ecumenical vision as it was expressed for the British Isles twenty years ago this year and specify what they think it means in practice and what it should lead to. The ‘new’ ecumenical instruments set up in 1990 were based on the 1987 Swanwick Declaration and its affirmation of going beyond cooperation to mutual commitment - ‘to commit ourselves to each other and to God’ - in the search for the unity for which Christ prayed.

That put an enormous onus on church leaders, of all the traditions, to be affirmative and inclusive of each other and equally of the entire ecumenical fellowships and the instruments that serve them. This has simply not happened.

Yes, we are ‘together’ but so what? At the end of the day, it is still the entrenched denominational structures that call the tune, protecting their mutually recognised no-go areas. Church leaders exhibit a cheerful friendliness towards each other, and that is partly the trouble. They should also be arguing, at times fiercely (as I have seen more often at European level), about what they really believe is the nature and purpose of the church and its role in modern Britain.

And if the Free Churches really want a future, they must themselves be prepared to campaign with renewed ferocity for the genuinely ecumenical movement, not letting the agenda always be set by the larger churches but developing and presenting their own theology, priorities and strategy.

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© The author. The Rev Dr Keith Clements was until recently general secretary of the Conference of European Churches and is a Baptist minister. He has written extensively on the life and theology of Bonhoeffer and other theological themes, and he was formerly international affairs secretary for the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland, which later became CTBI.

With additional thanks to The Baptist Times

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