So, I've been ordained and inducted and am now undertaking my first official week as minister at Edgeside Baptist Church. And lo and behold I've found myself a bit of a local celebrity. Being the only woman in ministry in town, and apparently, wearing sparkly high heels a lot, gets you noticed round here. Needless to say, I'm being watched. Closely.
This doesn't bother me whole lot, except for the fact that it seems people are holding their breath to find out how I'm going to 'deal' with the other ministers in the area. Most especially the local Anglican vicar, who I met with a couple of days ago. He's a good guy, clearly passionate about the estate, and certainly doing a lot for it. He's a man with a deep commitment to live out the mission of God. Talking to him, I got a real sense that between us there could spring a fruitful partnership - we seemed to be on the same wavelength a lot of the time, and there seems to be a lot of opportunities for us to work together on initiatives for the good of the community.
'Well that's dandy,' I hear you say, 'what's the problem?' I hear you ask. Well it seems that such Ecumenical Partnerships are not the norm here. Not too unusual, I thought to myself, and decided that I would attempt to get to the bottom of why this has been - what exactly has been getting in the way of getting along. After all, there are several extremely important issues which sometimes make ecumenical work difficult. Our commitment to Believers Baptism, for example, being a non-negotiable for us, presents clear difficulties in trying to reach agreement about the meaning and practice of the sacrament within the life of the church, and what it's place in mission and church membership is.
There is the issue of ecclesiology. Being part of a union of churches, associations and colleges who covenant together, means that each Baptist church has freedom to order its own life and ministry. This has a knock on effect in several areas, not least that in Baptist Churches it generally takes a long time to get anything done - decisions go to deacons meetings to be agreed, then the church meetings to be discussed and agreed upon before anything can be started.
So yes, there are many reasons which ecumenical work becomes difficult, or simply falls to the bottom of the list of priorities, and so I decided to ask around to find out what it was that was stopping us from working together. The answer I received from 100% of the people I asked was not the one I expected. It seems that the Baptist Church here in Edgeside stopped working with their Anglican neighbours, because the Anglican Church was 'poaching all our recruits'.
And this is where I get confused. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact I haven't grown up in the church, or if its because I'm a relatively new Christian. The thing I don't understand is why mission is about bums on seats, rather than about building the kingdom. Am I the only one who doesn't care where people go to church? Does this make me disloyal? If the churches ecumenical mission was getting new people to ask questions about God, to want to belong to a fellowship of Christians, doesn't that mean it was a success? I didn't get into ministry to win any competition about who can get the most people into church, or to strike up rivalries with other ministers. I got into ministry to share the love and grace of God with the world. Am I a failure if they don't choose to worship at my church?
Because if that's the case, this is me, embracing being a failure. I don't think God takes much notice of ecumenical differences and so it doesn't seem to matter, as far as I'm concerned, where people choose to worship. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'll be the downfall of the church in Edgeside, but it seems to me that if we're worried about people not coming to "our" church, giving up engaging in mission with the local churches is only going to exacerbate the problem.