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Unity progress with Methodists ‘too slow’

THERE WERE repeated expressions of impatience during the General Synod debate on the progress report on the Anglican/Methodist Covenant.

The Joint Implementation Group had produced a report which had been debated at the Methodist Conference two weeks ago. Methodists had also expressed dissatisfaction with the slow rate of progress, but they had commended the report to churches for study. The General Synod did the same, but not before numerous complaints about the lack of a radical vision.

The Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Ian Cundy, described the first report of the Joint Implementation Commission as intentionally a record of work in progress, of unfinished business. It began by exploring the biblical theology and the spirituality of covenant, and went on to highlight examples of good practice. “Much is already happening, and more could be done if we followed the lead some are taking,” he said.

Three faith and order issues requiring further work had been identified in the Common Statement. The difference of practice with regard to the symbolism of the eucharistic elements and their reverent disposal after communion might seem a minor or trivial issue to some, but in fact “cut deep into the psyche of many of us, and the fault lines run within as well as between our Churches”, the Bishop acknowledged.

Eucharistic presidency was a live issue for both Churches, and the report provided two discussion papers on this issue. Progress towards the interchangeability of ordained ministries was affected by the nature of the diaconate, the role of women in senior positions of oversight, and the exercise of personal episcope.

Significant progress had been made in what was “sessions engagement with our colleagues”, the Bishop said. He hoped that the Synod would strongly commend the report, and that it would be studied by the clergy and laity.

The Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, expressed his disappointment with a report which, he had hoped, would move on from revisiting ground that had been already negotiated towards practical realities and the offer of specific guidance. The Covenant seemed to be a Covenant without content, and there had been an expectation that the Joint Implementation Committee would provide it.

There was a need to go further faster, said Dr Saxbee.

Elizabeth Fisher (Birmingham) said, in the words that her childen would use when travelling with her and her husband on a long car journey, “Are we nearly there?” Parents, as well as children, felt the same impatience for the journey to end to be reunited with friends and families. The end for the Anglican-Methodist journey towards unity “has been a long-time coming. It is nearly-but-not-quite.”

Some were saying, Could we not go faster? “But the journey to unity cannot by-pass the time and care it takes.”

The Archdeacon of Oakham, the Ven. David Painter (Peterborough), said: “We had so much to learn from the Methodist Church that had grappled more successfully with the things we were grappling with. But we behaved as though we were conferring a favour on them, when in many ways the opposite was the case.” The C of E needed to ask hard questions about itself, but two-thirds of the report was taken up with debates about the eucharist.

The Revd Rod Thomas (Exeter) said that he was disappointed the report had not dealt with a greater range of doctrinal issues, such as the meaning of “being chosen”. He was “creeping up on these issues” rather than laying them out for the Church to study. “We appear to be embarked on a roadshow that does not deal with these issues,” he said.

A number of speakers referred to past failures to unite the two Churches. The Revd Brunel James (Ripon & Leeds) said that he was a “considerably irritated young man”. As a child, “before I could walk and talk”, there had been an opportunity for Methodists and the Church of England to unite. It was a “high point of ecumenism”, but the Church of England had failed to grasp the opportunity. Its failure had left the Methodist Church in an inviduous position, and. if it had declined in numbers subsequently, it was the Church of England’s fault. “They were there, standing at the altar, 30 years ago, and we failed to turn up,” he said.

Dudley Coates (Methodist Church) said that the tenor and tone of the debate at the Methodist Conference had been similar, and similar frustrations had been expressed about not going further faster. But it had adopted a resolution sending the report out for study and recommending joint discussion.

The Methodists had also had a “serious and significant” debate that the Church might in the future take bishops into its system, and he “warmly welcomed” the C of E decision on women bishops.

On doctrinal matters, Mr Coates asked of the C of E that it did not “require of us more than you require of yourselves”: he was aware of a range of views within the C of E on some of these, and suggested that the views of most Methodists came within those parameters.

An amendment tabled by the Revd Dr John Hartley (Bradford) attempted to commend the “good practice publicised and the issues raised in” the report, rather than the report itself. The report represented the “lowest common denominator of ecumenism”, he said, with an expectation of being able to solve all the problems in one particular way. His amendment was rejected.

The Synod voted overwhelmingly to commend the report for study in the Church of England.

THE JULY SESSIONS of the General Synod ended with farewells to a long list of members who would not be standing for election in the autumn of 2005. Members participated in a final eucharist before leaving for home.

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