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Is There A Future For The Free Churches?

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I have been able during the past 16 years to witness at close hand the state of church relations in the United Kingdom, and for the past four years as moderator of the Free Churches Group have enjoyed an even closer encounter with the inner workings of the ecumenical scene.

My first agenda item contends that the Free Churches have failed to contend for the principle that life always precedes organization. In recent days the ecumenical vision has been suffocated by a pragmatism which has reversed this order.

British churches were given a kairos moment in the 1980’s for a new beginning in church relations for the sake of God’s mission, and this opportune time has passed us by because we have bowed to the pressure of those who did not birth the original vision.

Historians will ponder what happened to the energizing ecumenical vision of the 1980s. They may conclude it was nullified by organization. We chose to give our best energies to structures, and ecumenical relations were reduced to what was affordable. My prayers are with those who now struggle to work with what remains.

My second agenda item is to suggest that the big issues of the day require theological debate, and we need to do this as churches together, not churches apart. Our ecumenical friendships have masked our ecumenical diversity.

I recall one conference where time was set aside to explore the diversity of approach to The Mass /Eucharist/Holy Communion/Lord’s Supper. It was structured in such a way that no one would be offended–and there was the offense.

The free churches should be leading the way in calling for house where difference can be debated. Strong covenant friendship can survive challenging debates.

There is an urgent need for such forum where all Christians can gather. We convene our denominational gatherings, our synods, our assemblies, our conferences, our councils, but as yet we have found no common home for shared wisdom. There are important debates taking place in wider society which are shaping our cultures for generations to come.

We need to create the opportunity for Christians Together to publicly debate such areas as freedom of conscience, the nature of liberty in a pluralistic society and the proper role of government. When the state proposes its laws, how should the church react to the challenge of a liberal vision of society? It has been said we can’t leave the state to decide what is moral. And the free churches can’t leave the other churches to speak for all of us.

Let’s call for the 21st equivalent of a Jerusalem Council for all the churches and be prepared for the careful reasoning, the deep listening and the common search for the wisdom of God.

The third agenda item is the nonconformist conscience. Keith Clements asks where all the prophets have gone who could alarm people with a new nonconformist conscience. The answer is they have channeled their energies into single-issue movements which often gather into a coalition of pro-belligerents people from all faith traditions and all backgrounds.

Campaigning for trade justice, combating AIDS in Africa, stopping the trafficking of people, calling for the troops to come home from Iraq–the front-line prophets for these movements are the likes of Bob Geldof, Bono, Bill Gates and Jim Wallis.

The central issue is not to bemoan the loss of free-church prophets–but to ask where the new nonconformist conscience is to be found. The old order of dissent was the free churches over against the state church and the Church of Rome. The new coalition for dissent is led by all who are concerned by the erosion of religious liberty.

The fourth agenda item is the recovery of evangelistic zeal. We don’t have to make the gospel relevant to the strange new world we now inhabit, but we are called to demonstrate its relevance.

We do this best by remembering that it is one thing to know the gospel script–but we fail in the task when we neglect to learn any new lines. Our knowledge of the gospel story has to be matched with an equal understanding of how to apply the story for today.

So is there a future for the free churches as a group? Some suggest that to aim for the renewal of the church is to be lured into a snare and distraction.

Others say we have entered into our equivalent of a Babylonian exile–that this is a new dark age for our cultures and the church has to adopt the posture of the weeping exile.

We may continue to see a decline in our denominational structures and identity, but for the company of the committed there is always a future. I am confident that whatever futures await us, the enduring testimony from the hard and painful experience of the people of God is summed up in the words of Jesus, “Do not be like them.”

The call to be different is the value that will last. This call to be different is sustained and nourished through spirituality, community and a commitment to the mission of God. These three are inseparable. This is the unstoppable force that goes with the natural grain of God’s universe.

David Coffey is president of the Baptist World Alliance. These remarks are condensed from his farewell speech as moderator to the Free Churches Group, April 25 in London.