Christopher Smith considers the matter of covenant, from Noah to the Methodists

It’s that time of year again, and I hope your Lent has begun well. Being a parish priest, of course, I trust you are availing yourself of some of the ‘extras’ in your parish, as well as keeping the less public disciplines of Lent. But do keep your ears pricked up in the course of our normal Sunday liturgy too. This year, listen carefully for the Old Testament readings, which in year B relate to the concept of the covenant: the covenant as a pledge on the part of both God and his people. It is fundamental not just to the religion of the Old Testament, but also to the Christian faith, the new covenant in the blood of Christ. Indeed, we often use the words testament and covenant interchangeably.

So we hear expressions of the covenant in the relationship with Abraham, in the Passover from Egypt, in the Law given through Moses, in the covenant with the House of David, and Jeremiah too foretold a new covenant after the destruction of Jerusalem as the people of Israel were entering their period of exile.

And we started on the first Sunday of Lent with the story of the covenant with Noah after the flood, a sign of the universality of God, for the covenant here is not made by God with his own people only, but with the whole world. The context for this covenant is human sin. Indeed, according to Genesis, God became so angry with the sinful ways of mankind that he determined to destroy his creation, saving the one good man he could find, Noah, and his family. That man will become the foundation on which human history can be rebuilt, and of course the symbolism of the man who saves mankind was not lost on the early Church. Jesus is the one who gathers God’s people into the ark of the Church, and whilst the wood of the ark could only save eight, the wood of the cross saves an infinite number of souls.

Now, having noted that thing of cosmic significance, I wonder whether any of our readers remember the declaration of a rather humbler covenant in 2003, between the Church of England and the Methodist Church. I certainly didn’t, but, at the time, we affirmed some things and committed ourselves to others, and the document might then have been put in a drawer and forgotten about, but we did ‘look forward to the time when the fuller visible unity of our churches makes possible a united, interchangeable ministry.’ Note the order of things in that statement: the second thing is made possible by the first.

Last month, rocking up for General Synod, I learned that the previous Synod had, by some mysterious process, reversed the order. In 2014, Synod asked the Faith and Order Commission to bring forth ‘proposals that would enable ordained ministers from one church also to serve in the other.’ So the matter of interchangeability of ministries was the cart which Synod asked them to put before the horse of the organic unity of the two churches. Do it that way round, and perhaps we can avoid the trauma of the failed attempts at unity in the late 60s and early 70s.

At the time of the 1969 debate, four theologians, two catholic, two evangelical, met to offer a response and an alternative to the proposals then on the table. They were Eric Mascall, whom you may remember I wrote about last month, Graham Leonard, then Bishop of Willesden, Colin Buchanan, and James Packer. Before the Convocations met in July 1969, they expressed anxiety about the way the proposed scheme ‘did not proceed from any convictions about the nature of the Church,’ and that it ‘postponed’ the questions of ‘reform of church structures and patterns of life’ which ought logically to be antecedent to a proper focus on ‘the sort of unity it hoped to achieve.’ ‘The oneness sought,’ they said, ‘should be organic, visible and sacramental. We firmly believe that the sacraments and the ordained ministry are in principle related to the structures of the Church.’

I imagine that the Faith and Order Commission would agree with that, and I would have suggested (had I been called to speak!) that we need to free them to put the horse back where it needs to be, in front of the cart. It seems to me, as it seemed to Mascall and co., that the idea of uniting ministries without uniting churches is dubious, suggesting that priests and bishops have an existence independent of their ecclesial context. I’d also like to see the abandonment of some of the fuzzy terms of Anglican ecu-speak, like ‘historic episcopate’ (given that episcopate may be ancient, but it matters because it is apostolic), and open up some concepts that really bite, and which we have negligently skirted round for half a century, like ‘validity.’ We will then have to let go of the dangerously fuzzy term ‘recognize,’ as in ‘the Church of England already recognizes the ordained ministries of the Methodist Church and its means of oversight.’ Do we believe that Methodist ministers are validly priests as we understand the term or not? Somehow, the Synod needs to be clearer with the Faith and Order Commission about what we want in the end, and so enable them to get horse and cart in their necessary order.

The development of human understanding of our covenantal relationship with God is hot stuff. We’re not here because we’re in some kind of social engineering project; we’re here because God entered into a covenant with our Jewish forefathers, and he has entered into a new covenant with us. The horse is always before the cart on that journey, from the primitive human desire to bargain with the gods, through the covenant made and renewed with Noah, Abraham and Moses, to the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah and by Ezekiel, a covenant that can never be broken. And if we subsequently make covenants with each other, it is not hard-hearted to want to get them right.