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When is a church not a Church?


The death of Billy Graham, aged 99, was announced last week. It was reckoned that he preached to over 200 million people in his ministry. But the sad fact is that, in certain churches, his ministry as an ordained pastor is still not recognised and so he would not have been able to preside at the Eucharist.

As well as recent news from the Church of England's General Synod about Methodism, it appears that Salvation Army officers are also to be given permission to preach in Anglican Services for the first time. Why has it taken 150 years?

In all our debates about ecumenism and Church unity, there appears to be a huge confusion between two terms: apostolic succession and so-called historic succession. Whilst for some Churches, those terms might be used interchangeably, there has been great care taken in recent decades to differentiate, or at least nuance, the two. Put more simply, ecumenical dialogue has tried to separate the notion of being a 'real' part of the Church Catholic (apostolicity) from belief in an unbroken line of bishops from the apostles (historic succession). Some have gone further in discussion of their own understandings: some Lutheran Churches in Scandinavia talk about needing to break the historic succession in order to maintain the apostolic succession.

The case of Billy Graham's ordination and the status of Salvation Army officers go to the heart of the debate around apostolicity, or what makes a church, a Church? The Methodist Deed of Union's doctrinal clause begins:

The Methodist Church claims and cherishes its place in the Holy Catholic Church which is the Body of Christ. It rejoices in the inheritance of the apostolic faith ...

This is Methodism's claim to be a 'real' part of the Church. We have never claimed to be all of it or even just the bit that is right, but nevertheless, we are in it and of it. It is a worry then when recent discussions seem to have Methodist leaders questioning our claim and looking at methods of 'top up' to our apostolicity. If we are not careful, even if we still claim our place, we will appear to be doing little to cherish it.

... rejoices in the inheritance of the apostolic faith ...

This is at the heart of what defines a church - and it is about discipleship, not about order. It is about how and whether a Christian minister or community faithfully transmits the teaching and faith of the Apostles, in other words, do they make new Christians? At no point did Jesus talk about Church order and yet it has become the focus - some would say obsession - of ecumenical conversation. Normally it is a case of the ordained talking to the ordained about ordination. That may account for why so little of our conversation is based on discipleship - what makes a good disciple and how do we make sure we have the right structures to ensure better discipling?

Picasso once talked about tradition not as wearing your grandfather's hat, but as begetting a child. Surely the validity of a church should be measured in the same way: not how the apostolic faith has been received, but how it is transmitted? I, for one, believe that part of being Church for us includes an ordained ministry and sacramental worship. But it would be ludicrous to suggest that the Salvation Army is not a part of the Church Catholic because it refuses to embrace those aspects. Salvationist Christians are proper Christians so they must be part of the Holy Catholic Church which is the Body of Christ. The rest is what John Wesley called 'opinion'.

Is there a chance in modern ecumenical dialogue, that we will allow for different Church order? I am more than happy that Anglicans want to order their life in a particular way. Or Salvationists. Or Congregationalists. But I am concerned when endorsing one 'true' way becomes a precondition to mutual recognition.

Paul advises caution to the Church at Corinth when it comes to the Lord's Supper:

For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves

1 Cor 11:29

Perhaps this is also a word to those engaged in ecumenical conversation: the task set before us is not judgment or the erection of barriers, but a true discernment of the Body of Christ which is the Holy Catholic Church.

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