Methodism: don’t over-look the invisible unity

by
17 February 2010

Christopher Cocksworth and Peter Howdle defend the Covenant

THE Anglican-Methodist Covenant was signed at the end of 2003. Six years later, the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain have not united. Nor have they achieved a single ordained ministry. So what is going on? Has the Covenant fizzled out?

Of course there are frustrations, and impatience is understandable, but Bishop Colin Buchanan (Com­ment, 5 February) thinks that the fact that the two Churches have not “merged” discredits the Covenant and reveals it as “a gutless enter­prise”. But he mis­understands both the purpose of the Covenant and the process of imple­mentation.

Good things are springing up under the Covenant. Both Churches are contemplating important de­cisions about episcopacy which would bring an interchangeable or­dained ministry a major step closer.

The Covenant enabled our two Churches to take a significant step towards the full visible unity of the one Church of Jesus Christ: the method of seeking unity by stages was agreed by both Churches. In the Covenant, we have taken the mo­mentous step of affirming each other as Churches with authentic minis­tries of word, sacrament, and pas­toral oversight, working together in every way we can to remove the re­maining obstacles to greater unity.

The latest report of the Joint Implementation Commission (JIC), Embracing the Covenant (Methodist Publishing House, 2008), talks the language of “full visible commun­ion” — a visible unity that affirms the distinctive characteristics of our two traditions rather than absorbing one into the other.

The Covenant gathered up all that was already starting to happen between our Churches and authen­ticated and strengthened it. No ecu­menical agreement can start with a blank sheet, but must build on what is already developing. It is no criti­cism of the Covenant to say that things were beginning to happen any­way. The Covenant pushed the relationship forward by giving a theological basis for deeper unity, and an analysis of the issues that needed to be tackled — especially the ministry of bishops within the threefold ministry (the Methodist Church currently has two orders of ministry: presbyters and deacons).

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The Covenant was premised on agreement on episcopacy. The Methodist Conference has said many times during the past 40 years that the Methodist Church is willing, in principle, to become a Church ordered in the historic epis­copate if that will increase the whole Church’s effectiveness in mission. It has not, however, yet taken that step.

The JIC believes that its sugges­tion that the Presidents of the Methodist Conference should be ordained as bishops of the Methodist Church is faithful to Methodist ec­clesiology and polity. The Com­mission is saying to the Methodist Church: “Become what you are. Take this step on the basis of a Conference that exercises ‘episcopal’ respon­sibilities, a President who presides at the Conference and at its eucharist and ordinations, and a Connexion that is a single sphere of oversight. The ordinations of both our Churches will from then on be within a shared framework of his­torical continuity, and our ministries will be on a converging path.”

THE Commission’s proposals are going through a process of discern­ment in both Churches. Dioceses are generally responding well to the General Synod’s request for bishops’ councils to consider and respond to Embracing the Covenant and then to respond to the Council for Christian Unity. Meanwhile, from a Methodist point of view, until the Church of England has achieved an equality of men and women at every level of ordained ministry, the Covenant cannot reach its full po­tential.

Both Churches need time, and cannot be pressured into taking far-reaching decisions that require the formation of consensus. Bishop Bu­chanan overlooks the catastro-phic effect that the General Synod’s re­jection of the 1972 unity pro-posals had on many Methodists. It was 22 years before the Methodist Church felt able to make a further approach to the Church of England. A failure like that must not be allowed to happen again.

WE CANNOT mention here all the initiatives in shared ministry, joint mission, and collaborative working which are springing up as a result of the Covenant. Nationally, regionally, and locally Methodists and Ang­licans are consulting, planning, and acting together, sometimes with other partners.

The Archbishop of Canterbury will address the Methodist Con­ference in June. On the ground, it is often fresh expressions that provide a flexible, creative opportunity for joint mission. Bishops’ Mission Orders can create further ecumenical opportunities.

One way in which the Covenant is being cashed in locally is through local covenant partnerships. Canon B 44 enables parishes to enter into a covenant partnership with Metho­dist (or other) local churches and to experience an advanced form of shared ministry and mission. The JIC believes that there is huge un­tapped potential here.

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WHEN the President and Vice-President of the Methodist Confer­ence addressed the Synod last week, they drew on a back­ground of Methodist experience and thinking that the desire to glorify God and to carry out God’s will is paramount. The demands of mission and the King­dom must take pre­cedence over all else, including, if necessary our cherished institutions and struc­tures. We must be willing to be trans­formed as we respond to the gospel of grace. That applies to both our Churches. When two parties form a good relationship, both are enriched and both are changed.

They ended by challenging both Churches to continue to live up to the commitments they have made. In both, there is a new missionary ur­gency and much imaginative think­ing about the shape of the Church: the Covenant is precisely on this wavelength. We should act as one in every possible way until, by God’s grace, we are one.

The Rt Revd Dr Christopher Cocksworth and Professor Peter Howdle co-chair the Joint Imple­mentation Commission under the Anglican-Methodist Covenant.

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