Look, no mitres!


Since I wrote the original post, the Church of England General Synod have discussed and voted on the report. It has passed, albiet with much less than unanimity. Having listened to the debate, here are some additional thoughts:

1. Any language about unity that talks about the Methodists 'coming home' is patronising and ignores the two centuries of traditions that have grown in the time since separation. It also implies that the Church of England is not in need of any correction.

2. The term 'bearable anomaly', though it might be technically correct, is highly offensive; a more inclusive term is desperately needed.

3. A lot has been said about what the Methodists 'lost' in separation. What did the Church of England lose and what is it gaining by full communion with the Methodists now?

4. Any agreement about presbyteral ministry (inclusing the office of bishop) affects a tiny proportion of the Churches. Unless there is significant work on lay ministries, including the office of Vice-President, and the Diaconate, the scheme is seriosly flawed.

5. There is no mention of how relationships with other Methodist Conferences will be affected by this move and this needs to be addressed.

6. Any moves that seek to dilute the Catholic Evangelical Arminian Theology is a selling of our birthright and must be resisted at all costs.

Written on 7th February:

Mission and Ministry in Covenant is the latest report that arises from the Anglican-Methodist Covenant signed nearly fifteen years ago. Yes, fifteen years! It is hard to believe that it was so long ago and that so little progress has been made in that time. Despite all the attempts to talk up what the covenant has achieved, there has been little in the way of tanglible progress. To my mind, what MMIC (as it has become known) does is simply highlight the fundamental flaws in the process that have been there from the outset.

Firstly, the use of the term 'covenant'. For Methodists, this immediately brings the annual Covenant Service to mind and the level of commitment and sacrifice demanded of a disciple of Jesus Christ. For Angicans, there is no such resonance and, indeed, we have to wonder whether this word was used in order to avoid the term 'communion' which is about mutual respect, recognition and connection.

In 2003, we both committed ourselves to recognise and 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.

AND 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.

For Methodists, this had been a relatively easy affirmation to make, as there has never been any doubt that Anglicans are true Christians and that the Church of Engand is a true part of the Church. Indeed, the form of words used is particularly Angican and were used to make sure, no doubt, that there was no ambiguity in what Angicans were saying about the Methodists.

What we have discovered in the decade and a half since is that, whatever the Church of England was signing up to in 2003, it wasn't what the Methodists were led to believe it was. The responses of some Anglicans in recent days to MMIC is disappointing but not unexpected.

The original Covenant was, for Methodists, a statement of reality, and for Anglicans, a set of aspirations. Now we have come to the crunch point, where those original statements are finding their way into legislative form in both our Churches: 'because of A, therefore B', and I have a strong feeling that Anglican aspirations will not be fulfilled. It will cause more upset among some Anglicans, though, because their picture of their own Church is less than realistic.

We have been down this track more than once and have not done the real groundwork of understanding why it failed in the past. The main reason why I believe this scheme will fail is a basic lack of trust between the two Churches. For Methodists, there is not just the reality of twice before being left at the altar by the Church of England and having an ecumenical bishop scheme rejected by the Church in Wales after we had compromised our position on women's ministry for the sake of unity. Even conversation with Anglican friends will reveal their belief in Methodism's imminent demise and our profound need of whatever lifeline they throw us. Despite the grandiose language of the Covenant signed fourteen years ago, it has become clear that the recognition of the Methodist Church outlined there was conditional and partial. Methodists rightly fear the kind of takeover that happened in the Church of South India, where giving an inch results in the taking of a mile. It is not that Methodists don't like Anglicans, simply we don't want to become Anglicans in the same way Anglicans don't want to be Methodists.

For Anglicans, there remains a deep suspicion of the way Methodists do things, that we don't really have any theology or order and, at its worst, the Holy Spirit will depart because some clergy have been ordained without the so-called historic succession. The 'liberal' stance on women and LGBT+ people, and the status given to lay ministry simply will not do. (I also wonder hether there is a fear that some of the episcopal candidates proposed by the Methodists won't have been to the right public schools or know how to act around royality?) Taking on the Methodists is to acquire a failing business at a time when the Anglicans have their own issues with branch closures and reducing assets.

For me, it is right that this Covenant, well-intentioned perhaps, be allowed quietly to die. It has achieved all that it was ever going to and we need to find new models of relating. In other parts of the world, there are signs that things can be done differently which might prove more fruitful. The relationships in Ireland have gone further (https://www.irishmethodist.org/covenant-between-methodist-church-ireland-and-church-ireland) and there is much excitement over A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness, the proposals for full communion between the Episcopal Church in the US and The United Methodist Church.

In Britain, there is scope to work more closely at a local level, and in common mission in workplaces and institutions. We could formalise our full communion relationships with the URC, Church of Scotland and Presbyterian Church in Wales using the agreements already achieved in our world-level dialogues (Together in God's Grace (1987); Uniting Church's Basis of Union) and do the same with our Lutheran sisters and brothers using agreements from Norway or the United States. We could initiate conversations with Pentecostals and Independents. And we could strengthen the relationships we enjoy with other Methodists and Wesleyans in Europe using the Community Agreement signed in London.

It is also clear that we desperately need to get our own house in order about leadership. For the past fifteen Methodist Conferences, we have had explicit references to our crisis of leadership virtually every year. It is time we found a way to have a proper conversation about this in every part of the Church in order to find a way forward. To my own mind, this does not rule out adopting the office of bishop, but it does mean learning what a Methodist bishop is and is for. It also means a serious reflection on what it is to be led.

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