Yet another attempt to formulate a union between the Church of England and English Methodists is due to be debated by next month’s General Synod. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, always maintained he was a loyal Anglican, but the path to re-unification has been fraught with difficulties.
Methodists were twice jilted at the altar by negative Anglican votes after their conference had given the go-ahead for union (1972 and 1980). In 2003, however, foundations for another unity plan were agreed, but negotiations have moved at snail’s pace.
There have long been two main sticking points. Could a way be found to recognise Methodist women ministers? And how were Methodist ministers to be recognised in a united church without insistence on their being re-ordained in the Anglican succession?
With acceptance of women priests and bishops, the first of these issues has melted away. It remains to be seen whether Anglo-Catholic rigorists have the needed synod votes to block a covenant proposal that envisions new Methodist clergy being episcopally ordained but with no such requirement for existing ministers. The proposals would mean Methodists having bishops for the first time.
William Nye, General Secretary of the General Synod, told a media briefing he believed the proposal of not insisting on Episcopal ordination for existing Methodist ministers was seen by the CofE bishops as “a bearable anomaly.” It remains to be seen, however, if clergy and lay synod members agree. The odds seem to be in favour. Acceptance of women bishops in 2014 by the CofE is an indicator of a new mood with the numbers of conservatives in synod now much reduced.
For their part Methodists carry a legacy of bitterness about Anglican treatment of earlier unity plans. It helps explain why they have adopted a cautious attitude to negotiations with the CofE.
Meanwhile Methodists face issues of their own: Methodist membership in England has slid to 180,000. There are frequent reports of Methodist congregations closing with their buildings being sold off. This is creating a curious situation where the Connexion has ample cash reserves but a shortage of people.
Some Methodist circuits are responding to loss of numbers by reverting to running Methodist “classes” in place of fully-fledged congregations. Wesley built the movement on small group “class” meetings, often in homes. Members met weekly for prayer, exhortation, and study, and the pattern included regular giving to support the Connexion and help the poor. Modern-day classes may prefigure a pattern in which small groups are part of combined Anglican-Methodist parishes.