When Local Ecumenical Partnerships (LEPs) were first established (as Areas of Ecumenical Experiment), they each had a sponsoring body consisting of representatives of all the Churches in their area, not just of the participating denominations. The thinking then was that LEPs were a foretaste of the way unity would develop and were therefore accountable to the whole Christian community. These sponsoring bodies therefore had the dual role of oversight (supporting and helping to troubleshoot the LEP) and also of sharing its experience with the wider Christian Church.
As more LEPs were established, senior Church Leaders started to amalgamate these sponsoring bodies so that they looked after more than one LEP. In some areas this led to regional groupings of Church Leaders and Denominational Ecumenical Officers (DEOs) which also began to support and encourage all co-operation between local churches, not just LEPs. They also began, together, to appoint the person we know generically as the County Ecumenical Officer. It was this model which inspired the Swanwick Conference to recommend the establishment of Intermediate Bodies throughout England.
Over time, in an attempt to spare Church Leaders work, in many places the sponsoring body became another piece of bureaucracy, divorced from the Church Leaders, who delegated their place on it usually to their DEOs. This led to many LEPs becoming somewhat detached from the main body of their denominations. Still operative at this time was the idea that the LEP was accountable to all the Churches, not just those participating in it. A consequence of this theory was that even if an LEP ended up consisting of members belonging only to one denomination, it should still be considered an LEP. This theory became increasingly unsustainable.
With the publication of A Flexible Framework for Local Unity in Mission, which has been fully endorsed by all the Churches involved in LEPs, new clarity was established. By this time, no-one was trying to argue that a single-denomination congregation was still an LEP and, with appropriate pastoral sensitivity, most of these churches have now ended their status as LEPs.
The authors of A Flexible Framework went back to the origins of the function of sponsoring bodies – the oversight of LEPs. They also recognised the reality of the legal situation, that oversight is the responsibility of the partner Churches involved in the LEP and not of an ecumenical body – some might argue that the former theory of sponsoring bodies was a remnant of the Council of Churches model of ecumenism and not appropriate within the Churches Together model. Paradoxically, perhaps, this means that now there is more flexibility in how oversight is exercised.
In some Intermediate Bodies, the Sponsoring Body is working well. It has input from the senior Church Leaders, there are clear lines of accountability to them, and LEPs are feeling well supported. In these cases there is no need for any change, as long as the principles of A Flexible Framework are kept in mind, eg don’t create LEPs unless that’s the appropriate structure for what’s needed. In other places, the sponsoring body has lapsed or is another layer of responsibility, both for the church leaders and LEPs themselves. In these cases it can be a relief to all involved not to have to keep it up. It’s worth noting that the new 2021 constitutions for Single Congregation LEPs do not refer to Sponsoring Bodies.