Proposals to “enable an interchange of presbyteral ministries” between the Church of England and the Methodist Church in Britain will be debated by the C of E’s General Synod tomorrow (Friday). The Synod is being asked to endorse further work on the proposals, which failed to reach unanimous support when they were debated by the House of Bishops. The Methodist Church grew as a separate denomination following splits from the Church of England in the late 18th century. There have been numerous proposals for closer communion between the two churches, but the sticking point continues to be the issue of ordination and the historic episcopate.
A joint report C of E – Methodist report, Mission and Ministry in Covenant, proposes to tackle this through the Episcopal consecration of future Presidents of the Methodist Conference “by bishops recognized by the Church of England as belonging within the historic episcopate.” The report says that as Methodist presbyters are ordained by the conference, over time all Methodist presbyters would have received episcopal ordination. In the meantime, the ministry of existing Methodist presbyters should be recognised, even though they have not been episcopally ordained – something the report describes as a “temporary anomaly”.
The effect of the report is that the Methodist Church would become “an episcopally ordered church, with which the Church of England is in communion.” It continues: “the anomaly here is not in the first place that an Anglican church accepts the ministry of presbyters not ordained episcopally, but that a church participating in the historic episcopate, with which an Anglican church may therefore come to be in communion, includes ministers who have not been ordained episcopally.
“That anomaly is, however, intrinsic to the process of any non-episcopal church responding to Anglicanism’s distinctive call to Christian unity, and any Anglicans who would like to avoid it altogether must consider whether they truly desire the unity of nonepiscopal churches with their own. As articulated in the historic ‘Appeal to all Christian People’ of the 1920 Lambeth Conference, an essential strand of Anglicanism’s contribution to the ecumenical movement has been to commend to non-episcopal churches the historic episcopate and the ‘well-being’ for the church that they believe flows from it.
“The more deeply Anglicans value the historic episcopate, therefore, the more greatly they should rejoice when a non-episcopal church is ready to consider receiving it with them, and the more highly they should value the effect on that church of becoming episcopally ordered.”
The report stresses that “the journey towards the unity of the church we confess in the creed can never be a direct or straightforward one for churches that have developed and grown in separation from one another. There may therefore be a need for churches moving deeper into unity with one another to be ready to endure certain temporary anomalies in their arrangements as part of the journey towards unity, without abandoning the norms with regard to which anomalies can be identified.
“In this case, accepting that the journey involves bearing a particular anomaly on the part of the Church of England affirms that there is no intention to undermine or dilute the Church of England’s commitment to the Anglican norm, shared with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, of episcopal ordination. What is proposed serves to maintain the Church of England’s commitment to the ordering of its ordained ministry, ordained in the historic episcopate.”
In a note to the Synod, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Chistopher Cocksworth, Chair of the province’s Faith and Order Commission, explained why the Synod is being asked to request further work on the proposals: “A diversity of views has been expressed about the proposals . . . in discussions at the House of Bishops,” he said. “Some members of the House do not accept the case made in the report for extending the welcome of ‘presbyters / priests serving in either church as eligible to serve in both churches’ to those ordained in the Methodist Church prior to its coming to share in the historic episcopate.”
He said that report was prepared in response to a request from both churches which specifically referenced “the reconciliation of ‘existing’ ministries.” And he said that “the Methodist Church would not support proposals if they included a rite that looked like episcopal ordination for its existing ministers, or envisaged different treatment of those ordained before and after the proposals are implemented.
“Bearing the anomaly together, for a limited period of time, as churches now both sharing in the historic episcopate, of some ministers being episcopally ordained and some not is therefore integral to the proposals as requested by Synod and Conference.”
Dr Cocksworth reminds the Synod that proposals for union between the church churches, worked on since the 1950s, were narrowly defeated by the General Synod in 1972. In 1979, formal conversations between the two churches recommenced, leading to the adoption of the Anglo-Methodist Covenant in 2003. Mission and Ministry in Covenant was prepared by the Joint Implementation Commission, set up by the two churches in response to the Covenant, to progress the journey towards visible unity.
Dr Cocksworth said that the C of E and Methodist Churches had consulted with the other Anglican provinces that share territory with the Methodist Church of Great Britain – the Church in Wales and the Scottish Episcopal Church. Representatives from the Anglican Churches in Wales and Scotland “expressed support for our churches in taking forward the proposals, and a number of ways in which the proposals might link into developments in their own relations with the Methodist Church were reviewed,” he said. “It was agreed that regular consultation would be important were General Synod to initiate the process of preparing relevant legislation.”
Tomorrow, the C of E’s General Synod will debate links with the Anglican Communion in a motion that calls on “parishes, deaneries and dioceses of the Church of England to make international links a central part of their strategy for mission and discipleship, drawing on the resources of the Diocesan Companion Links and the Mission and Development Agencies.”
The Anglican Communion News Service will stream this debate live on our Facebook page, from 10.30am GMT on Friday 9 February.