By Mark Michael

The Church of England will continue to move toward full communion and interchangeability of ministers with the Methodist Church of Great Britain, but at a “more measured pace.”  On July 7, General Synod affirmed the process for establishing a form of the historic episcopate for British Methodism outlined in the ecumenical document Mission and Ministry in Covenant.  The resolution also commissioned work on a formal declaration and liturgical services that would mark the eventual establishment of the full communion arrangement.

However, the Synod also voted by a large majority to amend the initially proposed resolution, which would have called for the introduction of legislation preparing for the interchangeability of ministers by February, 2020.   The amendment removed all mention of legislation and any timeline for action.  Ven. Jane Steen, in moving the amendment, said, “We must proceed by the right words in the right time…Pilgrimages are not for rushing, they are for praying.”

Speaking in favor of Steen’s amendment, the Bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun noted that the House of Bishops had been unable to recommend action on the matter because there is “still no consensus in the House of Bishops for what has emerged.”  Chessun urged a rigorous process for evaluating unresolved issues, using the model of the widely admired Porvoo Agreement with Scandinavian Lutherans.  “More rigour and painstaking work will be required,” he added, “if rancour and division is to be avoided.”

The Rt. Rev. Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guilford, identified the most challenging issue as Mission and Ministry in Covenant’s allowance for Methodist ministers (who are not currently ordained by a bishop) to preside at Anglican Eucharists, a challenge that the document calls “an anomaly to be gladly borne” for the sake of unity.  “I can live with that,” Watson said, “but the same may not be true of my Catholic brothers and sisters.”

The Rev. Kevin Goss, a representative from St. Albans described the interchangeability of ministers issue as a “vital sticking point.” “The kindest and most loving thing is to be honest with ourselves and Methodist brothers and sisters to pause now, so together we can find a better way forward for Christian unity in the future.”

Evangelical delegate Andrew Atherstone, a tutor at Wycliffe Hall, celebrated the same possibility as “a huge leap forward.”  He said that evangelicals in the church had been hoping since 1662 for such clear proof that “bishops aren’t essential.”

Overall, the three hours of debate on the resolution was dominated by speakers who urged speedy progress toward deeper unity, with many citing the need for common witness to the 98% of unchurched English people.  Several speakers from the Diocese of Carlisle spoke of the long history of cooperation between Anglicans and Methodists in Cumbria as a source of renewal in mission.  “The anomaly for us is entirely bearable, and we should support it as soon as we can so it can become normal not exceptional,” said James Newcome, the Bishop of Carlisle.

The Archbishop of Canterbury also seemed to have little patience for a more hesitant course.  Relying on a common (if not undisputed) narrative that blames Anglicans for the schism, he said: “Not far short of three centuries ago, we caused Wesley to have to make his own arrangements…We put them out.  I think we have to be very, very hesitant about setting hurdles for us to get back together.  History is not on our side in the way we have acted in the past.”

While it was not widely referenced during General Synod debate, an important statement about the resolution had been issued by Anglican Catholic Future three days prior to the Synod’s opening.  The network of moderate Anglo-Catholics argued that “the proposals in their current form will divide the Church yet further by taking away something so integral to the Church of England’s understanding of itself as Anglican, and as part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” The statement was also firmly endorsed by the traditionalist group Forward in Faith.

The Anglican Catholic Future statement outlined a series of difficulties with the proposals outlined in Mission and Ministry in Covenant.  It criticizes the plan to ordain the Methodist Conference President as a bishop with sole ordination powers as a form of the episcopate that is “not historically recognisable.”

It says that the plan for interchangeability of ministers could undermine the Church of England’s ecumenical commitments to other episcopally ordered churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church.  The case for such a dramatic change, it says, has not be sufficiently argued, especially when it runs counter to centuries of established Anglican practice.  “Difficult though it may be to say, the Church of England does not hold that a Methodist presbyter is entirely equivalent to one in our own church.  Our practice makes that clear.”

The statement closes with a concern that the Methodist agreement could undermine the Church of England’s own fragile unity and drive Anglo-Catholics from it.  “The laity and clergy of the Church of England hold a variety of views about church order.  For some, our episcopal polity is one they can live within, but our commitment to episcopal ordination is not of great consequence: they could live without it; some indeed, would do so gladly.  For others in the Church of England, however, that order is integral to why they are Anglicans.  Those who belong to the first group, for whom the proposed departure is a light matter, should only warily, and with great charity, ask those in the second group to bear this anomaly, for whom it is a grave matter.”

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