The Experience of the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands

By Stephens, Norbert | The Ecumenical Review, March 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Experience of the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands


Stephens, Norbert, The Ecumenical Review


Introduction

Two significant features are associated with the unions which constitute the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

Firstly, the formation of the church took place over two unions--1965 and 1992--and brought together three Reformed Denominations: the Congregational Union of Jamaica, the Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, and the Disciples of Christ in Jamaica. This is significant, as the missional identities of these churches were shaped within a dehumanizing environment controlled by European political and economic systems of colonialism and slavery.

Secondly, this union spans two nations: Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. At the time of the first union, Jamaica was an independent nation while Cayman was under British rule. The two antecedent traditions were established within the islands by British missionaries: the Presbyterians by the Church of Scotland, and the Congregationalists by the London Missionary Society.

This brief article seeks to answer two critical questions relating to mission and unity:

a) Was more effective mission the goal at the time of the church's union?

b) How far does the church's ecclesial identity serve its mission today and help it meet new mission challenges?

Mission and Union

It is worthwhile to make a distinction between unity and union. It is normal for one to expect unity within a union, but it is not necessary to have a union in order to achieve unity, nor do unions necessarily guarantee unity. Genuine union requires unity, but union is not the only way of experiencing unity; a working ecumenical partnership proves this theory. However, genuine and effective mission--namely, the pursuit of the demands of the gospel--gives rise to unity, a consensus of mind and action.

Was the first union between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists and the subsequent union with the Disciples of Christ merely a fusion of the old--a composite of the bankrupt or unviable--rather than a fashioning of something new? Were these unions merely exercises in "renewal without change"?

Contradiction

The evidence suggests that the union of the three Reformed denominations over two periods is marked by "socio-ecclesial contradiction". The accepted missional principle that mission gives rise to unity was certainly not the push factor which led The Presbyterian Church of Jamaica and The Congregational Union of Jamaica to form a union in 1965. The union was a classic case of contradictions:

* The churches which came into union were formed by missionaries. The union formed was organic rather than mission driven.

* The new church largely remained clergy centred, a significant factor in the de-skilling of the people for ministry and mission, whereas a missional church is essentially people centred.

* The new church did not fully consider the implications of what it meant to be an independent church as part of the design. The church was economically dependent on external sources, faithful to a model which did not include self-management and did not promote self-reliance.

The driving force which led the denominations to union was centred on survival issues on a number of levels.

Socio-ecclesial Factors

There were eight mission challenges facing the churches at the time the first union was being considered:

* the need for ministers from Europe;

* declining congregations;

* lack of funds;

* ministers in charge of multiple congregations and supervising others;

* overlapping denominations (churches competing for the same people);

* attraction of the middle class through the focus on education, which led to the absence of lower classes within the congregations (Presbyterian Church);

* emerging influence of mission churches from the United States;

* local and Afro-centric religions.

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