United Witnesses?

Edwin Barnes looks at the current Methodist reunion proposals

Twice in the last forty years there have been attempts at Anglican-Methodist reunion, and twice those attempts failed. Now there is another plan on the table, the result of the latest ‘Formal Conversations between the Methodist Church of Great Britain and the Church of England’.

Number crunching

First, we need to know what sort of Church each of the two parties is. Methodists in Great Britain, we are told, number ‘just over a million people’. But Great Britain, in this instance, includes not only England, Scotland and Wales, but also Gibraltar and Malta: so in England there are recorded 300,000. It is difficult to know just how realistic this figure may be, since in the section on the Church of England we are told ‘on a given Sunday nearly a million people attend Anglican places of worship’ – but ‘given changing patterns of church attendance’ the total number of people for whom worship in an Anglican church is ‘part of their way of life’ is ‘several times that figure’. Several times nearly a million, that is. Hmm. Forgive me if I turn a little cynical at this point – perhaps the ‘changing pattern of church attendance’ is meant to include those who visit a cathedral instead of a theme-park on a weekend, or whose children drag them along to a nativity play or a christingle. All we can be sure about is that the figures for Methodists and Anglicans are less than certain. But this is not the only place where there is a degree of confusion in the present report.

What’s on offer?

If you were joining forces with the Roman Catholics, now, you would have a clear idea what was being offered. Re-ordination, or at best conditional ordination, for the clergy, and the assurance of a ministry in the succession of the Apostles. There was a time when this apostolic ministry was what the Church of England claimed it had, and that was what we expected the Methodists to receive when they seemed ready, in the 1970s, to ‘take episcopacy into their system’. It was because we believed this was the case that, when a Methodist minister wanted to become an Anglican priest, he would be ordained. Whereas a Roman Catholic priest, becoming an Anglican, had no need of further ordination, nor did we offer it.

So what are we offering this time round? Well, certainly not becoming part of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; for that is the common starting point of the present document. In paragraph 194, setting out the proposed Covenant, we are to begin by saying ‘We affirm one another’s churches as true churches belonging to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ and as truly participating in the apostolic mission of the whole people of God.’

Now if that is the case, what is on offer from either of us to the other? Perhaps some fullness of the apostolic faith? No, because in the same Covenant ‘we affirm that both our churches confess in word and life the apostolic faith revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the ecumenical Creeds.’

Something to do with the sacraments, then? No again; since ‘We affirm that in both our churches the word of God is authentically preached, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are duly administered and celebrated.’

In nothing deficient

But in any case, to try to find some gift which the Methodists are offering to us, or which we have for the Methodists, is quite mistaken; for each Church already has everything it needs. Para 175 explains how each Church intends to provide what it believes to be an apostolic ministry of word and sacrament. Accordingly, ‘the process of integrating ministries cannot imply any deficiency peculiar to either Church that would be thereby remedied’.

Now in the Conversations back in the ’70s, there were plans for a re-unification of ministries which left this matter open. Methodists receiving the laying on of hands would not be required to believe they were thereby being ordained into the fullness of the apostolic ministry; but neither would Anglicans be required to believe that what they were doing was not ordination. Now, the Gordian knot is cut; nobody lacks anything, because we each think we are already perfect.

That being so, it is hard to know just what the fuss is about. Why do we need to integrate our ministries? After all, in many Local Ecumenical Projects (LEPs), no matter how restrictive the law may be, the reality is that Methodist ministers and Anglican priests behave as though they were already interchangeable.

It could be, of course (or is this terribly cynical?) that the CofE, rapidly becoming insolvent on account of huge pension bills, is looking at the mouth-watering prospect of the Methodists’ very healthy pension fund, and all the property which would be available for disposal now that the proceeds from the sale of so many Rectories and Vicarages are already spent. But no, it cannot be this; for the Report says almost nothing about property or money.

Practice makes perfect

Well, there just has to be something which a Covenant would achieve. Surely there are some little imperfections which we could iron out in the coming great Church? Yes, there are some ‘differences of practice’ concerning the Eucharist which, the report implies, might be smoothed over. For instance, Anglican are required to use the fermented juice of the grape at Holy Communion; whereas Methodists are required by standing order to use non-alcoholic wine. No hint that Scripture has anything to say about this; no notion that when the Lord took a cup of wine, and told us to do this, he did not take an array of small glasses filled with fruit-juice. The Report makes it clear that this is just ‘a difference of practice’, not anything theological at all. Equally, it is asserted that ‘any surplus of the consecrated elements is to be disposed of reverently … Methodists do not insist that it is to be consumed.’ But neither do the Methodists tell us how they dispose of the surplus. Scattering the crumbs for the birds might sound very Franciscan, but it evidences a very different theology from that which requires what remains to be reverently consumed.

After all this, the Report blithely asserts that ‘it does not appear … that there are fundamental differences of understanding between us.’ What is more, any differences over the sacraments are really just differences of emphasis (para 134) and so ‘mostly differences within rather than between our churches’. Now it may be – probably is – true that there are Anglican priests who use Ribena rather than wine, and who pour anything over back into the bottle; but in doing so they are disobeying the Canons, not simply making a ‘different emphasis’ from loyal Anglicans.

An oversight?

So, Methodists are to ‘take episcopacy into their system’. Not that they really need to do so, for already they have a ministry of oversight every bit as authentic and effective as Anglicans. ‘In the Church of England it is bishops in synod who exercise a ministry of oversight in intentional continuity with the ministry of the Apostle … The Methodist Church exercises oversight, in intentional continuity with the ministry of the Apostles, through the Conference and through those ministers delegated by specific appointment to do so by the Conference.’ So, once again we are really the same, and any differences between us are more apparent than real. However, the Methodist Church, in furtherance of the search for the visible unity of Christ’s Church, ‘would willingly receive the sign of episcopal succession’ – so long, that is, as everyone agrees this is just a sign, of no great significance or importance; for have we not already said that the process of integrating ministries cannot imply any deficiency? To make it even more clear, the Methodists agree to accept the sign of episcopal succession on the understanding that the CofE will: ‘a) acknowledge that the [Methodist Church] has been and is part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church and b) accept that different interpretations of the precise significance of the sign exist’ (para 158)

Oh, and there are just two other little matters to be dealt with. One concerns lay presidency at the Eucharist. ‘Decisions of Conference in 1994 and 1996 reaffirmed that lay presidency is permitted as a pastoral response in cases of deprivation.’ Once again, this is described simply as a little practical difference, nothing theological. It is called a ‘difference of polity’ (para 165) and we should note that once we were united there would be much less need for lay presidency; and in any case, we are reminded, ‘It is worth noting that some non-presbyteral presidency continues to exist within the communion of Porvoo churches.’

Indeed it does, and that is one of the reasons some of us resisted the Porvoo declaration – but it has been done, just as we have signed up to various other agreements with French Lutherans and Reformed (the Reuilly common statement), with German Evangelicals (Meissen) and with the Moravians (Fetter Lane). But this present document takes what it wants from those earlier statements, as it does from the Lima Statement on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, and uses these as the basis of present Anglican belief, rather than the ‘historic formularies’ – or even less the Final Report of ARCIC. This last is mentioned in passing, since whatever we do as Anglicans must ‘be consistent with what [we] have said over many decades to the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Old Catholic Churches’. How that circle is squared when we are saying in this Report that the Methodists lack nothing is simply ignored.

The Ladies

There is one other little matter which is to be put on one side for the present. ‘For many Methodists, any failure to recognize and accept the full ministry of women would constitute a serious theological obstacle to full visible unity.’ All credit to them, the Methodists do not see this as simply ‘a difference of polity’, but ‘a serious theological obstacle’. What we must say, and must continue to say, is that this obstacle is already there in the Church of England. It has resulted in our Church being no longer a Communion, only an ‘impaired communion’. No use here dragging in the women bishops in the Porvoo churches, or in other parts of the Anglican communion. The assumption of this Report is that this little local difficulty is going away. It speaks (para 162) of how ‘the Church of England is currently engaged in an open process of "reception … of the rightness of the decision to open the presbyterate to women."’ But this is less than the whole truth; the process of reception concerns the rightness or wrongness of admitting women to the priesthood. Elsewhere, too, the language used betrays a certainty that our time is numbered. ‘The Church of England restricts presidency at the Eucharist to those who have been ordained’… ‘It is not possible at present for women bishops to exercise an episcopal ministry in the Church of England.’

The juggernaut is under way, and may well prove unstoppable. The Methodists have made it perfectly clear that for them, women bishops are non-negotiable. For the sake of union with part of a Church of (at best) 300,000 members – and there are certainly some Methodists who will not go along with any proposal to receive episcopacy into Methodism – for the sake of that the C of E will probably bid a none-too-fond farewell to Catholics and Evangelicals who cannot accept that our Church has the power to open the episcopate to women.

One last little oddity. ‘Episcopacy’ is defined in many sections of the report as ‘pastoral oversight’ (for example, para 181, para 69). Strange, when most of the bishops I have met seem to talk rather more about their territorial rights, their power and authority; they are quite happy to depute pastoral oversight to ‘flying bishops’. If they think bishops are all about being pastoral, the Methodists are in for quite a shock.

Edwin Barnes was formerly Bishop of Richborough

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