To Move the Great Church Beyond its Divided Communions Lower Earley, England
In 1989 the Church of England promulgated Canon B44, authorizing and regulating "local ecumenical projects." This canon, like so many other canons in Church history, recognized an already existing situation. "Areas of ecumenical experiment" had begun to be formed in the 1960s, and in 1969 Parliament had helped them along by legislating the "Sharing of Church Buildings Act". With the failure of union talks between Anglicans and Methodists in 1972, the mainstream Christian communions in England began thinking less about national amalgamations and more about local cooperation. "Local ecumenical projects," as they began to be called in 1973, could save money for the parent church bodies without, it seemed, compromising their identity and independence. Dozens and then scores and then hundreds of these LEP's were created, each involving some combination of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church (URC), the Moravian Church, and the Baptist Union. By the end of 2002, the Church of England had signed into more than five hundred of them.
As the LEP's grew increasingly diverse, some celebrated their adaptability, while others fretted about their untidiness. Among the latter were the church lawyers who warned that the hybrid congregations might find themselves unrecognized by Inland Revenue and the Charities Commission, with dire financial consequences. The result in the thirty years since has been a raft of denominational and ecumenical commissions, committees, legal consultants, and working groups, and a small library of theological reflections, reports, policies, and codes. New administrative structures to supervise LEP's have been created by Churches Together in England, a descendant of the old British Council of Churches. LEP's no longer feel like "projects," and since 1995 "LEP" has stood for "local ecumenical partnership."
LEP's have been particularly appealing in new housing developments, of which Lower Earley is one of the best known in England. In 1971, Lower Earley was still an unpopulated green-belt south of Reading (about twenty-five miles west of Heathrow). In that fateful year the M4 motorway from London was completed through its south boundary, and the new highway corridor began attracting electronics and telecommunications companies. Soon the area was being called the "Silicon Valley of England." The pressure to develop good new housing could not be withstood. The secretary of state had already released the land for development in 1969; the master town plan was approved in 1972; new houses began to be erected in 1976. At the time, Lower Earley was reckoned to be the largest private-sector housing development in European history. In the course of the next twenty-five years, over six thousand new homes would be built on something over one thousand acres for twenty thousand new residents.
The first impulse of the English churches, as they found themselves facing this great new challenge, was to ignore it. Officers of the national churches had little spare cash for new church development. The Reading Council of Churches was inclined to think that Lower Earley Christians might well prefer house churches, which, according to a teaching of the 1960s, was the way of the future. The Church of England reasoned that the responsibility for the new community belonged to the people of the church within whose parish bounds it lay. The leaders of that church, which was called Earley St. Peter's, took the view that if any of these twenty thousand new parishioners should happen to want to attend an Anglican service on a Sunday morning, they could drive a few miles to the existing church where they would have no trouble finding available seating. As for the land developers, they remembered to set aside space for soccer fields, police stations, and supermarkets, but made no provision for churches. …