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This is the first post in a new sequence about formation. I suppose I better start by defining terms and then explain why I have chosen this theme.
Formation is one of the main aims of any church. Different traditions will have different names for it, I suppose formation is a term favoured in the Catholic tradition but I think we all do it. It is the means by which each tradition helps its members become familiar with God. We do it by reading the Bible, by participating in worship, praying alone and together, through listening to sermons and reading texts from our tradition. Sometimes it is possible to attend courses; obligatory for those who are selected to enter into ministry.
I intend to explore formation in its widest sense and so I will not restrict what I say to ordained ministry. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue the formation of the ordained is less important than formation of lay people, although the former tends to be more formal and intentional.
For example, it was fairly recently that I realised the extent to which my faith has been formed by Methodist hymns. I can't claim to have ever particularly liked them or paid much attention to them. But I must have sung thousands of them and now I appreciate how much they formed my faith.
So, why formation? I have been involved with national ecumenism in England since 2003. During that period there have been three strands to ecumenism. Two of them I find increasingly difficult and the third underdeveloped.
Full visible unity died in 1982 with the failure of the English Covenant. In 1989 it was formally superseded by the new ecumenical instruments but persisted through institutions such as Local Ecumenical Partnerships. It is a Protestant objective and the idea was developed when ecumenism was a Protestant project in this country. Whilst we might see visible unity between a few traditions in the foreseeable future, I don't think even that limited aim is terribly likely. However, the idea of full visible unity has been extremely productive and has brought all the churches closer together. It is hard to envisage a more effective approach to grinding down ecclesiological differences.
The second strand is more recent and possibly dates back to Mission Shaped Church (or at least that report made the case most effectively). This is a pragmatic approach to ecumenism. The argument is that unity is essential if mission is to be effective. Now, I certainly believe the organisational structures we have for local collaboration help with mission and therefore this is a dimension to ecumenical work. However, it simply isn't true that unity is essential to mission. Many churches manage mission without paying any attention whatsoever to other churches. They might be arrogant but what they're doing seems to work.
The third strand is the approach agreed by all the churches in 1989. The Swanwick Agreement clearly shows ecumenism as churches acting together. It is a significant departure from full visible unity. This alternative is sometimes called reconciled diversity. The odd thing is few Protestant theologians seem to take it seriously. I have often written of the reconciliation of all things to God - but does this really mean all things are to lose their integrity?
It seems to me formation underlies the Swanwick Agreement and through this sequence of posts I will explore this further.