Soon after I was ordained in the early 1960s, there came the Anglican-Methodist Scheme for reunion. It had a first stage, with a Service of Reconciliation wherein a reciprocal laying on of hands would arguably ensure that all Methodist ministers would be episcopally ordained, and a fairly unspecific stage two, in which the two Churches were to merge their structures.
From the start of the joint Commission in 1956 to the final defeat of a retouched Scheme in General Synod in 1972 it was 16 years — and from 1963 onwards the published Scheme raised constant controversy. Its proponents groaned as those 16 years went by. And it was the Church of England that finally said no. History says that this was an irresponsible C of E leading an innocent Methodist Church up a rose-petalled garden-path, before abandoning her at the church door.
This quick glimpse of a long-gone event offers a striking contrast with a much-forgotten feature of the current ecclesiastical landscape: the present Anglican-Methodist special relationship. Startlingly, it is now almost 16 years since the Methodists officially proposed to the Church of England bilateral talks about union, and the process (garden path or not) is still running. The actual steps have been:
1995-96: Talks about talks, reported in Commitment to Mission and Unity (although mission is not mentioned).
1997-98: The Churches set up “Formal Conversations”. The terms of reference call for a Common Statement.
1999-2001: The statement comes in An Anglican-Methodist Covenant, proposing a Covenant, which requires no actual action in either Church differing from what each was doing already. It cobbles up jejune “Commitments”, such as: “We commit ourselves to listening to each other.”
2002-03: The two Churches send the proposed Covenant to the dioceses and Districts. After getting an overwhelmingly positive answer, they then vote to “implement” the Covenant. A Joint Implementation Commission is to report by 2008.
2003 onwards: The Joint Implementation Commission produces interim reports: In the Spirit of the Covenant (2005) and Living God’s Covenant (2007).
2008: The chartered report comes, Embracing the Covenant (2008).
Here I stop the clock.
A covenant is surely the inauguration of a new relationship between parties by their giving solemn mutual undertakings. It is because the proposed Covenant in the Anglican Communion entails costly changes (in exchange for greater bonding) that it has run into heavy weather. But the Anglican-Methodist Covenant, entered into wholeheartedly in 2003, is the first known covenant in church history that contains no undertakings of substance whatsoever.
How was it to be implemented, with no idea what it was? Motherhood and apple pie have generated a feast of vacuous language in these reports. Conference and Synod debates have culminated in resolutions to engage in study, dialogue, and action to further the Covenant. Synod members reiterate how important it is — still not knowing what it is.
The General Synod debate in July 2008 on Embracing the Covenant, while strong in hopes, still lacked any recommendations of actual changes to be adopted. The Synod asked Bishop’s Councils in the dioceses to consider the report and to respond by 31 December 2009. They may well report the actual convergence of the past 40 or more years, and that is entirely commendable — but it would have gone forward anyway.
Even the uniting in Fresh Expressions, which the report attributes to the Covenant, might well have occurred through imaginative and thrifty planning without it. Many Local Ecumenical Partnerships and much co-operation between Anglicans and Methodists were happening regularly before the Covenant came. They arose from local situations and local imaginative effort: they cannot be hailed as specifically fruits of the Covenant.
I was struck in Christian Unity Week last year that the Archbishop of Canterbury, when writing to commend the various ecumenical dialogues and agreements of the past two decades, emphasised how vital bilateral agreements could be. Yet he failed to mention this near-at-home bilateral Covenant.
It was not that it was unknown or unwelcome to him — no, it was simply below the threshold of visibility. It has caused no ripples whatsoever. Yet the Commission sits for another five years, till 20 years will have passed, and no one will have found anything to oppose. And that meaningful word “Covenant” has been cheapened almost beyond recovery.
The General Synod and the Methodist Conference should bid their Joint Implementation Commission either to propose a plan of actual union or to acknowledge that the Covenant signals nothing, provides nothing, and leads nowhere. Of course, it can just run on. It probably will.
In Southwark diocese in 2002, we attempted to give it content — and General Synod in 2003 accepted our proposal that Methodist ministers should be interchangeable with ours; but the Joint Implementation Commission somehow never addressed it.
It inhabits a conspiracy of pretence. Yes, the diocesan returns this time may just possibly propose something solid. But, without that, let an ultimatum to the Commission either address a truly historic union or end the pretence with the merciful expiry of this gutless enterprise.
Dr Colin Buchanan is a former Bishop of Woolwich.