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The role of the Sponsoring Body and its relationship to Local Ecumenical Partnerships

Sponsoring Function - this is an important function of an Intermediate or County Body. As well as its primary responsibility to support and encourage local ecumenism generally, the Churches work through the Intermediate Body to encourage, endorse, monitor and review LEPs. Don't let the Intermediate Body shirk its Sponsoring function and don't separat this function from Church Leaders (Bishop, Chair of District, Synod Moderator etc). Churches need exposure to their LEPs, and LEPs need oversight. In the early days the Sponsoring Body was seen as 'a buffer and a bridge'", to stop the anti-ecumenical flak and to bridge the gulf between denominations and build increasing understanding and trust. The basic definition of what constitutes an LEP was re-clarified at the Consultation on the future of LEPs in March 1994 and now reads:
A Local Ecumenical Partnership is defined as existing 'where there is a formal written agreement affecting the ministry, congregational life, buildings and or mission projects of more than one denomination; and a recognition of that agreement by the Sponsoring Body, and by the appropriate denominational authorities.
That Consultation recommended a change of name of LEPs from Local Ecumenical Projects to Local Ecumenical Partnerships, recognising that they were here to stay. The Churches have endorsed this, and 'Partnership' should now be used in each case. (In the early days they were called Areas of Ecumenical Experiment.)
The Definition of LEPs
From the beginning it has been clear that there are different kinds of LEPs. In the blue-covered register compiled by CTE in 1992 the categories used were:
            B:  Shared building
            C:  Shared congregational life
            M:  Shared sacramental ministry
            LC: Local covenant
            S:  Special (e.g. hospital chaplaincy, education chaplaincy, industrial mission)
            I:  Informal (without the endorsement of the Sponsoring Body).
The 1994 Consultation suggested a new categorising, with neat alliteration: Church Partnerships, Covenant Partnerships, Chaplaincy Partnerships and Community Partnerships. This was subsequently felt to be inadequate on a number of counts. After further work the Group for Local Unity at its February 1996 meeting agreed the following categorisation, which was endorsed by the member Churches of CTE:
  1. Single Congregational Partnerships
  2. Congregations in Covenant Partnerships, with a substantial sharing in worship, church life, mission and ministry
  3. Shared Building Partnerships, with a Sharing Agreement under The Sharing of Church Buildings Act, 1969
  4. Chaplaincy Partnerships, e.g. higher and further education, prisons, health care
  5. Mission Partnerships, e.g. industry, commerce, broadcasting
  6. Education Partnerships, e.g. lay training, ministerial training, joint schools.
This is the basis for the LEP Register which is held by Churches Together in England. It is important to note that a particular LEP may fall within several categories at once! It might be helpful to add that category 1, Single Congregation Partnerships, includes partnerships with a variety of histories, eg:
  1. Union Churches or Free Churches (Bapt/Cong or Bapt/Presbyt.) Dating from late 19th/early 20th centuries. Affiliated to Baptist Union and either United Reformed Church or Congregational Federation. Often set up in a new neighbourhood as single free church congregation with one minister (sometimes alternating between denominations).
  2. New churches in new areas set up on a broader front especially in new towns and new housing developments from mid '60s ("Areas of Ecumenical Experiment"). Usually a combination of Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, URC. Often with team ministry, one shared building, one congregation with common purse, joint confirmation. Sometimes Roman Catholics are involved using the same building, although with separate sacramental worship.
  3. Methodist/URC joint churches mainly from late '60s onwards. Usually an amalgamation of existing Methodist and URC churches; a united congregation; occasionally two ministers but now more often one minister; shared building and common purse; confirmation/membership of both denominations; extended membership allowable because of very similar understanding of membership. (Some Intermediate Bodies don't regard these as LEPs. They are, but perhaps need to be reviewed in a different and lighter way, with their agreement. There are a growing number of Methodist/URC Areas (simultaneously a Methodist Circuit and a URC District.)
With reference to category 2, Congregations in Covenant Partnerships, there is still a tendency to talk about LEPs and Covenants as though they are two separate categories. The fact is that there are some local covenants which are LEPs (under the definition above) and some that are not; and they may look similar in practice. Some people also talk about "real LEPs", usually referring to category I above, as compared with the others. Admittedly some examples of category 2 are little further forward than a good local Churches Together grouping, and may be further back in some cases. But it would be helpful if we could hold the line at the above categories, and try to make it clear, that local covenants which have been brought into being with the recognition and the agreement of the Sponsoring Body and the denominational authorities are LEPs. They can tend to 'get stuck' after achieving a modest amount of sharing of life; perhaps this suggests that they need more (careful) reviewing, not less, so as to help them forward. The remainder, categories 3 to 6, largely speak for themselves.
Category 3 implies a shared building but distinct denominational congregations, with some united services and, one hopes, a growing common life; and usually no joint confirmation. They can be very disparate traditions, e.g. CofE/Black-majority or Methodist/Assembly of God, which fact raises good questions about ultimate unity. In the meantime they represent the best use of resources.
Within category 4, the Intermediate Body's relationship to a hospital chaplaincy covenant is delicate. There is need for clarity and sensitivity here, because of the method of appointment of chaplains through the appropriate NHS Trust, methods of authorisation through the Churches - Church of England, Roman Catholic and the Free Churches Council. The Churches Committee for Hospital Chaplaincy agrees that hospital chaplaincy partnerships should be understood as LEPs with Intermediate Bodies providing authorisation and review.
How does the Intermediate Body exercise its Sponsoring function?
Possible models:
  1. The whole Intermediate Body membership advised by CEO and DEOS
  2. A committee for LEPs comprising CEO, DEOs and at least one other person from each denomination
  3. CEOs and DEOs as a working group plus link persons or one person from each advisory group.
However much the responsibility is devolved, the Intermediate Body remains the Sponsoring Body. (It is important that Church leaders are involved corporately on the Sponsoring Body.)
Setting up LEPs (principally 1 & 2 above) - technical advice - drill to follow with each denomination.
This is where DEOs are vital. Key documents include Methodists and LEPs and CofE Canons B43 and B44. There is a requirement for central vetting of constitutions by Methodists and Baptists. The Church of England & Roman Catholic Church require diocesan level approval; the United Reformed Church requires District and Provincial level approval.
Maintaining good links with LEPs: two way - with a Local Advisory Group or a Liaison Group or a Link Person; - different styles may be appropriate with different kinds and maturity of LEPs. There is evidence that some Local Advisory Groups seem to lose their way and almost get in the way. Some are now preferring the link to be via a person rather than a group, as being less 'heavy'.
Input on Ministerial Appointments - A Staffing Consultative Group appointed by the Sponsoring Body should meet when there is a change in staffing or if a variation in the level of staffing is mooted. It remains the responsibility of the denominations to appoint in their appropriate way (with as much ecumenical consultation as possible) - so it is necessary to decide which denomination will appoint. With a growing shortage of clergy in some traditions, it is becoming more difficult for them to hold to the agreed principle of 'ecumenical consultation'. In practice, we are finding many appointments are made without it, particularly in local covenants, where some in leadership may even forget that there is a covenant.
Equitable Financial Arrangements - These are the responsibility of the Sponsoring Body. It is not obvious how they are to be arrived at. The Churches Group for Local Unity has commissioned a study to arrive at nationally recommended guidelines. This has been completed by Steve Potts, former Ecumenical Officer for Dorset, and is currently being "road-tested".
Review - See the booklet Guidelines for Reviewing Local Ecumenical Partnerships, published in July 1999.
Reviews need to be done with great care and sensitivity if they are not to do more harm than good; but at their best they can be a crucial element in helping an LEP forward. There are many questions that need asking:
  • Is the LEP living up to its Aims and Objects? Is it growing?
  • Is it moving out in mission and service?
  • Are there opportunities for lay leadership to develop? How about work with young people?
  • What about the building and finance arrangements
  • Are the worship styles satisfactory to the different traditions?
  • etc. etc.
Implementing the Review - This is almost the hardest aspect to get right. It is one thing to produce a good report, another to get it implemented. Who is responsible? The Sponsoring Body? The LEP? The parent denominations? It is certainly not the responsibility of the review group, whose work essentially ends when the report is presented. Since the Sponsoring Body initiates the review, it is therefore its responsibility to see that it is implemented; but this will naturally involve consultation with the LEP and the parent denominations. Plenty of work here for the CEO and DEOs, to follow things through.
The Theology of the Future of LEPs - Behind many of the above issues may lie a deeper question - how do we understand the LEPs theologically? In the wake of the 1997 CTE forum, the Enabling Group said that one of the issues requiring positive discussion and reflection was - Local ecumenical partnerships: the theology of their future. A working party was set up by the Churches’ Group for Local Unity, and submitted a four-page report in April 1998. It mapped out the areas that are problematical, and attempted to address them; but concluded that “the time may be right for a long-term project on the theology of LEPs”. CTE's Theology and Unity Group is now struggling with this concern.
Another area of concern about LEPs and their oversight has been expressed by Stephanie Rybak, Ecumenical Officer for West Yorkshire, who wrote an initial article in Pilgrim Post no.52, July 1999, "Whither ecumenism - spirit or law?", expressing concern at the amount of bureaucracy needed to give oversight to LEPs and pleading for a less legalistic approach. This evoked considerable interest, and a group of ecumenical officers produced a further discussion paper for the Conference of Ecumenical Officers in March 2000, "Serving the Kingdom or just Servicing the Church?" The discussion continues.


Roger Nunn, 01/09/2000
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