Comments: Publication of Mission and Ministry in Covenant

This could also be of great interest across the pond. We have recently seen a document working toward full communion between the Episcopal Church based in the USA and the United Methodist Church in the USA. While most Episcopalians have worried about liturgical theology and historic episcopate, I have thought the biggest stumbling block would be the African conferences of the United Methodist Church. To have the Methodists in the UK in communion with Canterbury would give some additional opportunity to work toward full communion between TEC and UMC over here.

Posted by Marshall Scott at Tuesday, 27 June 2017 at 3:14pm BST

What's the point? Are there any Methodists left? I suppose it may be comforting to hold hands while you both sink out of sight.

Posted by Disgraced at Tuesday, 27 June 2017 at 6:38pm BST

This is actually (to me) a fairly modest proposal. The 1968 scheme for reunion floundered because Synod approved it only by a 69% majority in 1969 and a 65.81% majority in May 1972 (compared with a 77% approval in the Methodist Conference in 1969): a 75% majority was then required. I once discussed the venture on separate occasions with a couple of priests (both now dead, and one a moderate Anglo-Catholic) who were members of the house of clergy at the time, and - twenty years on - they were still bitter about the 1972 vote, specifically its lack of charity and insularity. The main blocker was the Anglo-Catholic party, so it is heartening to see the bishop of Fulham endorse this new project.

However, this is only communion with the Methodists, and not union. Geoffrey Fisher plotted to sink the reunion scheme on the grounds that union would give rise to unacceptable changes to Church structures and discipline; yet he was in favour of communion. The main objections to union in Synod in 1972 were that it would divide the Church of England (this was the argument most closely associated with bishop Cyril Easthaugh of Peterborough) or that it would frustrate closer association with the Roman catholics (this was the argument led by bishop John Moorman of Ripon, a scholar of the medieval Franciscans). Well, the Church is always divided amongst itself, so Easthaugh’s argument was for always doing nothing, whilst Moorman’s argument has been left redundant by Anglican acceptance of the ordained ministry of women. The paradox of the 1972 vote is that the same session of Synod endorsed full communion with the Church of North India, which included some (but not all) Methodists, amongst others.

So, we are nearly fifty years on, and we are still only discussing a possible communion (the Fisher agenda) with the protestant denomination closest to the Anglican tradition (granted that Anglicans established a covenant with the Methodists only in 2003), and despite the fact that there are a number of local ecumenical partnerships that have flourished with varying degrees of success. It is therefore a commendable, but underwhelming, proposal. In the meantime, of course, the Church of England has faltered, yet the Methodists have been gutted by decline.

Posted by Froghole at Tuesday, 27 June 2017 at 7:32pm BST

Note the careful wording of historic most evangelicals like Bishop Cocksworth don't believe it is of apostolic origin...but a later historic development not of the esse of the CHurch.

Posted by robert ian williams at Tuesday, 27 June 2017 at 11:22pm BST

Many of the arguments for 'old denominations' [not Old Dissent!] are being lost, and shrinkage is the driver. The Methodists have either missing bishops or see them/ it in the Conference and Chairs of districts. So they can make adjustments. The Church of England can do it now as well, because the traditionalist Anglo-Catholic position has effectively been defeated after full female ministry. But think also of the URC, spiralling downwards, and no idea of its longer term future, and yet it doesn't have three orders of ministry, and all of that, and so is rather stuck. With its own hybrid, and Methodism snuggling up to Anglicanism (prior to being absorbed, presumably) the URC is rather stuck. Interesting times these.

Posted by Pluralist at Wednesday, 28 June 2017 at 3:41am BST

Seems to me the Methodists are giving up more than the Anglicans. The Methodists accept that their church needs something from outside - the input of three validly ordained bishops from other churches to ordain the first Methodist President Bishop - to make it acceptable to Anglicans. So they are accepting that their church is currently deficient. The Anglicans, by contrast, merely have to accept for a transitional stage the ministry of presbyters who are not ordained by bishops in the apostolic succession, hardly radical when whole chunks of the CofE already don't regard some of their own priests (women) as valid, and other whole chunks probably only have a rather low-church view of priesthood anyway, seeing their priests in functional and representative terms pretty much as the Methodists do.

Mind you, the Methodists were willing to accept this in previous attempts at unity, so I doubt that they will baulk at it now.

Posted by John Swanson at Wednesday, 28 June 2017 at 12:20pm BST

"So they (Methodists) are accepting that their church is currently deficient".

No. They are recognising that their are some, who might be seen as weaker brethren, in the Church of England who believe that the Methodist Church is deficient; and they may be willing to change their practices so as not to wound the consciences of these weaker brethren. The Methodists are not accepting that bishops are essential, any more than many Anglicans, from the Queen down, do. They are merely agreeing to have bishops if that will permit others to accept their ministry.

One reason Methodists haven't had bishops is fear over their power which is particularly pertinent in the light of the report on Bishop Ball, although not addressed in the recommendations thereof.

Posted by T Pott at Wednesday, 28 June 2017 at 9:47pm BST

Sibling Pott, help a poor North American. You note that the "Methodists haven't had bishops...." Methodists over here have long used that title. Do they not in UK? Or, is this discussion of historic succession?

Posted by Marshall Scott at Friday, 30 June 2017 at 3:57pm BST

Marshall Scott: no, Methodists in Great Britain do not and never have had bishops, nor called any of their ministers "bishop".

I suspect that it's partly historically because of the ecclesiological point that bishops are appointed to specific sees, and that in Britain the Crown's authority was and is required to create a new see. Rome gives its bishops sees as well, but these sees don't have standing in English law (though there are no longer any penalties for their use).

Posted by Simon Kershaw at Friday, 30 June 2017 at 4:25pm BST

"[the methodists] are accepting that their church is currently deficient" - me
"they may be willing to change their practices so as not to wound the consciences of these weaker brethren." - T Pott

There are indeed things we believe in which we should be prepared to sacrifice so as not to cause problems for weaker brethren. And there are indeed things we believe in which we should not be prepared to sacrifice under any circumstances. The problem is, of course, working out which is which.

A certain strand of Methodist theology believes that God's grace is freely available to all, and to limit its operation to certain human structures (which is what episcopacy in the catholic sense can be viewed as doing) is fundamentally alien to the gospel. A certain strand of Anglican thinking thinks that the authenticity of the church and the validity of the sacraments lies in it apostolicity, assured by the apostolic succession of bishops, and churches that lack that assurance are deficient.

Both of those should I think logically reject this formula for closer unity if they hold their positions strongly enough. But I sense that rigid adherence to either position has diminished in both denominations since the agonised discussions over these issues in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Probably these days few people in either denomination would regard the theology of this proposal as something to be objected to on principle.

The cause of unity is far more likely to stumble over something this proposal doesn't even begin to address - how you reconcile the preferred worship styles of local congregations, and how you stop Anglicans unconsciously displaying such patronising superiority that they destroy any desire among nonconformists to make unity work! :)

Posted by John Swanson at Friday, 30 June 2017 at 9:09pm BST

John Swanson, I understand that some Anglicans feel the apostolic succession is essential, and that the Methodist Church is currently deficient, but the proposal is to remove that perceived deficiency, so then the Anglicans would have no longer have an objection, would they? The other way round, the Methodist belief that grace cannot be limited to the clergy does not seem to be in any way challenged by these proposals, does it? Or am I missing something?

Posted by T Pott at Saturday, 1 July 2017 at 7:33pm BST

(in two parts - apologies - it's too much like hard work to try to be concise...)

The Methodists are clearly giving up something – they are giving up their existing way of ordaining presbyters. The question, clearly, is not “are they giving something up?” but “Is the thing they are giving up important or not?”

The thing they are giving up is the belief, expressed in the practice, that the grace of God is freely available to all without any restrictions imposed by humans. They are being asked to accept that the full expression of the grace of God is available only when mediated from within a specific human structure, bishops within the apostolic succession.

That they are giving something up is, I think, indisputable. At the moment, in the Methodist Church, the Connexion – the assembly of representatives of the worshipping people – can recognise that a person is called by God to the role of presbyter and can thereby appoint them to that role. The authority of the Connexion is sufficient – no external validation is needed. Under these proposals, the Methodist connexion loses this ability. Future Methodist ordinations can take place only by the injection of an external authority – the three bishops, from outside the Methodist Connexion, required in order to bring something to the Methodist people that they currently lack.

One can argue that this is not in fact restricting the grace of God, because this is how God himself wants it to operate. That is not the traditional non-conformist view, and would be more convincing if, worldwide, God had made slightly clearer which particular version of the apostolic succession he had chosen to restrict himself to....

One can also argue that the Methodists don’t really have to believe this – they can just go along with it for the sake of keeping the Anglicans (the “weaker brethren” mentioned above) happy. But I don’t think the idea of saying things that you don’t believe just for the sake of keeping other people happy sits terribly well within Christianity.

Posted by John Swanson at Monday, 3 July 2017 at 9:20am BST

The parallel which those Methodists who worry about these things (a diminishing minority) often draw is with circumcision in the Acts of the Apostles. Circumcision is a human construct that many people found helpful as a visible sign of God’s presence, and some people believed is essential in order for the fullness of God’s presence. Some of the people who had been brought up with circumcision and who had found it helpful – for whom it had become integral in their understanding of how God works with humans – would have liked to insist that circumcision be required for all Christians. But the Apostles decided that circumcision should not be required of all Christians – and that this was a point of principle: God’s grace could not and must not be confined to a human structure or practice, however worthy, in that case, circumcision.

Clearly, the parallels between circumcision and the apostolic succession - indeed, the understanding of what circumcision really stands for - are rather more complex than that - but I think there's a truth there somewhere in that concept of never limiting God's grace to operating within human structures.

It is instructive to consider what would happen if this were a proposal for unity of Anglicans with the Roman Catholics. Suppose the Romans said “well, we’ll kind of accept all your existing priests as valid priests as a temporary measure. But from now on, all Anglican Bishops will lose their ability to ordain. From now on, there will be a new breed of Anglican bishops, those who have been ordained by Roman Bishops, and only ordinations performed by this new breed of Roman-ordained Anglican bishop will be valid.” Would there not be just a little bit of an outcry?

For what it's worth, I tend to think that life is made up of compromises, and that we can recognise that this is a compromise, which involves people accepting things they don't really agree with, but still ask: is the cause of Christian unity so important that it nonetheless justifies doing this?

Posted by John Swanson at Monday, 3 July 2017 at 9:35am BST
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