Where Did the Covenant Council Come From?
by Gillian Kingston
As early as 1905, the Methodist and Presbyterian churches in Ireland established a joint committee to confer from time to time on ‘matters of common interest’. In the years following, the major Protestant churches met in a variety of ‘pairings’ for such dialogue. The Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist Churches entered into unity discussions, but, with the invitation extended to the Church of Ireland, the Congregationalists withdrew. The resulting three sets of bipartite conversations merged in 1968 to form the Tripartite Consultation.
For a variety of reasons, political, social and theological, the seventies and eighties saw the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) gradually withdrawing from a number of ecumenical bodies. Radical changes of personnel representing PCI on the Tripartite Consultation brought about a situation in 1988 where it felt wise to move from the model of unity consultation to that of theological working party. The governing bodies of the Methodist Church and the Church of Ireland approved this proposal, but the Presbyterian Church decided to withdraw from any theological discussion with either church. Ironically, however, the Final Report of the Tripartite Consultation affirmed, ‘In our common mission, we need one another.’
Joint Theological Working Party
In 1989, the General Synod and the Conference established a new body of six members from each church with the remit
- To consider the implications of the work of the Tripartite Consultation in the new bilateral context
- To relate the work of the proposed Anglican-Methodist International Commission to Anglican/Methodist relations in Ireland
- To explore opportunities for developing Church of Ireland – Methodist relationships and to make appropriate recommendations for the furtherance of the visible unity of the Church
- To report annually to the two churches
Nothing very radical there, but the feeling was very much one of retrenchment, not of progress. After a number of years seeking to discern the way forward, response to the Anglican Methodist International Commission (AMIC) documents gave the necessary impetus, and, in 1999, the governing bodies were invited to ratify new terms of reference. In doing so they endorsed the measure of agreement reached by JTWP and encouraged it ‘to hasten forward with its work’.
At a residential meeting, attended by the Primate of All–Ireland, Most Revd Dr Robin Eames, and the then-President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Revd Dr Kenneth Wilson, the perspective from which JTWP came to see its ongoing work was that of mission; clearly there was theological difference, but what was paramount in the ‘new’ Ireland was joint witness to the truths and relevance of the faith. This would be facilitated by a public and formal recognition of what the Archbishop of Armagh memorably referred to as ‘the special relationship between the two churches’. A Covenant text, based on the Fetter Lane Declaration of the Church of England and the Moravian Church of Great Britain, was drafted.
The Covenant (in both initial draft and final form) opens by affirming what each church can, in good conscience, say about the other in terms of
- unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity;
- the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion;
- the common faith set forth in scripture and summarised in the historic creeds;
- a common inheritance and an acceptable diversity in worship;
It affirms the belief that the churches are being called into a fuller relationship of commitment to common life and mission and a growing together in unity.
Ten steps are proposed towards that end, of which it might be said that
1 – 5 concern and should be implemented by local circuits and parishes
6 – 9 are more structural and should be implemented by the governing bodies at national level
10 relates to the ongoing theological dialogue and exploration.
Note that, in the text, mission – the apostolic mission of the whole people of God; a concern for continuity of mission; sharing a common mission; strengthening the mission of the Church; consultation on mission – features prominently.
The Covenant, in draft form, was presented to the General Synod and the Conference in summer 2000. JTWP asked that it be sent to circuits and parishes for response and comment. This was agreed, with the Conference asking that explanatory notes be included.
A total of sixty five responses were received, the majority of which came from Methodist circuits. This was disappointing, but, in part, reflects a difference in how the churches operate: Conference may ‘direct’, Synod ‘recommends’. A number of responses came from places where ministers and rectors had called joint meetings. There were also letters from individuals and interested groups, such as the theological students of Edgehill College (Methodist) and the District Home Mission secretaries.
In the light of these responses, small alterations were made in the text, primarily in the interests of clarification. A Revised Draft was presented to the General Synod and the Conference of 2001, urging that ‘the journey of exploration be continued’.
The Covenant was presented for a final vote to the General Synod and the Conference 2002. The Synod, after a very moving discussion, passed the resolution ‘to enter into a covenant relationship with the Methodist Church in Ireland’ unanimously. Three weeks later, the Methodist Conference passed the same resolution in respect of the Church of Ireland with an overwhelming majority.
The Covenant was formally signed in September 2002 and JTWP disbanded after the General Synod and the Conference of 2003, having taken a year to set in place the Covenant Council which is now responsible for its impementation.