While praying and sharing together in January 2001, my homegroup decided that one of the important things they wanted to see God do was for the churches in Sea Mills to start working together in a much more united way. Very soon after, we received an invitation to a meeting at the St Edyth's Vicarage. A shared prayer meeting and March of Witness were planned, and the present group and our various activities developed from there.
The group partly formed around a deep commitment to church unity, and partly around a shared enthusiastic response to the 'Transformations' video: we believe that God can act to transform our community beyond recognition, we believe He is capable of this and desires to do it, and we believe that for this to happen, we (the Christians and the churches in the area) must learn to pray together and work together in unity.
Since then, we have been a mixture of a prayer group and a church unity project group. I believe that God has used the group in a variety of ways, and that this group or something similar will continue to be an important part of our process of discovering God's will for His people in Sea Mills.
I am deeply committed to the belief that there is only one Church, and all Christians are members of God's family. If we do not live in a way that demonstrates this, then we are being disobedient and denying God's truth through our actions.
I believe that Christian unity matters deeply to God: the importance of unity among His people is emphasised throughout the Bible. The original meaning of 'heretic' is not someone who believes the wrong things, but someone who divides the Church. Unity must matter to us, because it matters so much to our Father.
I also believe that there is a deep power to be found in Christian unity. Unity is the starting point for our evangelism and witness ("By this shall all men know you are My disciples, if you have love one for another."), and unity releases God's blessings in a special way ("Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity… for there the Lord bestows his blessing" - Psalm 133).
The other side of the coin is that we experience a dreadful loss of power and authority if we remain disobedient and divided. The whole purpose of the cross was to unite those who had previously been divided (Ephesians 2:16), and if we appear to the world to be divided, we not only open ourselves to ridicule, but also deny the gospel and the entire basis of our existence.
Unity does not mean uniformity: no two blades of grass produced by the hand of God are the same (although God is clearly not against uniformity when it suits Him, as every electron is identical to every other one!), so it is good that there are several congregations. We can each bring some distinctive contribution to the Christian life of the area.
I have worked for the realisation and outworking of Christian unity for the past thirty years, and unless God tells me to lay it aside, I will continue to treat this as a high priority for as long as I am given. I do not find this easy, as alongside my commitment to Christian unity I also have a strong commitment to understand and communicate Christian truth.
I would love us to explore both the truths we hold in common, and also the doctrines which divide us. But I am aware that most Christians are not interested in considering the theological content of their faith, and would not expect this to be a significant part of the group's activity. But if we could get a local group together to explore Christian truth, I would be delighted!
In summary: we are united, whether we like it or not, so let's learn how to live accordingly; and disunity is a sin which weakens us as individuals and as a body.
There are some obvious problems with the way the group is constituted (or not constituted!) and operates. I see the main problems as being, to a large extent, inter-related.
Representation. We want to function (or enable the churches to function) as the 'Churches Together in Sea Mills' but there is no active representation from Sea Mills Methodist Church.
Membership. The present group is largely self-selected: we have no democratic or delegated authority, simply a shared vision (or closely-related group of visions?) and a shared availability (we can make time for the group during the working day).
Identity. Mainly because of the previous point, the identity of the group is ambiguous. We do not fit any of the usual categories, and we do not fit neatly within the structure of any of the churches. We are not a committee, and we are not just a prayer group, so what are we?
Focus. The confusion about identity creates a difficulty of focus. Are we a prayer group that sometimes organises events, or a planning group that spends a good deal of time in prayer?
Authority. The fact that we sometimes organise events raises the problem of authority. Why should anyone listen to us, anyway?
I don't believe the problems identified above are too serious.
Representation. Since Sandy Williams is too busy for this group, we need to find one or two people from the membership of Sea Mills Methodist who can become part of the group. This could only work if Sandy was happy with the arrangement, but we have no reason to believe she would object.
Membership. The present arrangement is a pragmatic compromise: people who are available and share a common (enough) vision can get together to pursue that vision. Concerning membership, there are only two questions we need to concern ourselves about.
The first question is whether we are excluding anyone who could share the vision and the work with us. I believe the answer here is to make sure we publicise who we are and what we do clearly enough for everything to be done 'in the light' - if anyone else should join us, this should become clear. There didn't seem to be a problem when Pam joined us.
The second question is whether the membership is suitably balanced: it is up to us to put in the work to encourage someone suitable from Sea Mills Methodist to join us.
Identity. I see our meeting as a grass-roots counterpoint to the ministers' fraternal (or whatever we should call it). We meet in order to make ourselves open to hear what God wants to do in Sea Mills in and through His people as a whole. He does not have to speak to us about this (at least, not directly) but we do have to be open to His voice. We meet to discover how we can be obedient to what He has said. We meet to make real the unity of the Body of Christ in Sea Mills.
Focus. We do not have a single focus. This is fine, as long as we keep a reasonable balance between the various elements of our time together. If we are to see our community transformed by the power of Christ, we will need to do many things - and we will probably be called to become involved with things we cannot yet imagine. So far, we have seen much of our activity focus around the two poles of prayer and unity. I believe social action will also become a major focus.
Authority. We have no authority - no constitutional or organisational authority - which seems fine to me. We can do nothing in and with the churches unless we can get the leadership and membership of the churches to join us. If God is on our side (if we are on His side!), how can we fail?
The practical expression of our unity in Christ grows through our shared activity. There are some things we can share more easily and effectively than others:
Prayer. Nothing can (or should) stop us praying together: for each other, for Sea Mills, and for the wider world. I believe we need to focus less on the numbers attending prayer meetings, and more on the spiritual dynamics of the meetings. I believe if people discover they encounter God in a prayer meeting, they will make it a priority; and if they experience the prayer meeting as a waste of time, they should not make it a priority.
Evangelism. There is an additional spiritual dynamic at work when we are united in evangelism. The message is no longer heard as "Get saved because I want you to join my church" - we are clearly inviting people to follow Jesus because (a) He is worth it, and (b) they need Him - and we don't mind which church they go to at the end of the day.
Events. Like the Barn Dance: one-off or irregular activities that don't need any specific Christian focus. If lots of people are planning to attend the third 'Lord of the Rings' film when it is released in December, why not book to see it together?
Projects. Ongoing activities, like an annual 'March of Witness' or the coffee shop on the square - we can initiate projects the churches can do together, and then pass them on to others to run with.
Social action. The church needs to become more effective at serving the community in the name of Christ. We cannot with integrity tell people 'God loves you' if we as His people sit back and ignore the ways in which they are hurting, and the reasons why their lives are falling apart.
Pastoral care. It is my belief that God distributes the gifts we need in a way that forces us to depend on each other. No individual Christian has all the gifts, no homegroup has all the gifts, and probably no congregation has either. So each church will sometimes discover that needs within the congregation can best be met by people outside the congregation. Church leaders are typically very slow to recognise when this is the case, so we need to be constantly open to this possibility.
Variety. We can explore the different characters of the three churches and encourage each to develop in different ways, reaching different people, exercising different ministries and helping Christian grow as disciples in different ways.
Communication. We can articulate what we believe ('the vision'), both on paper and in meetings - meetings of the three churches and joint meetings. We can continually state and re-affirm that we may do different things much of the time, and worship God in different ways, but we are one, and we are committed to work together in harmony whenever possible.
Networking. Networking is a vital role for some group within Sea Mills, and it might as well be ours. Where can the ordinary church members get to hear what is happening in the different congregations? Where can they get a personal invitation to take part in something outside their own structures?
I don't believe we need a carefully defined or highly balanced membership. But I think we need to ask whether it would be appropriate to make a covenant with each other? I am not suggesting some deep commitment to future activity or union between our organisations, but a simple statement of what brings and hold us together - something along these lines:
"We are committed to each other because God has called us together to serve Him in Sea Mills, not because we agree with each other or find it convenient to work together. We are committed to each other because God tells us there is only one Body of Christ in Sea Mills, no matter how many different congregations there may be. We are committed to each other because we will spend eternity together in God's presence."
We can make a pragmatic decision to meet at a certain time. Some people who would want to share this covenant with us may not be able to join us. We would then need to communicate with them what we have been praying and how we feel God is leading us. This would involve more work, but would make the group more open.