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Chequered history of unity project

27 June 2014

JOHN WESLEY (1703-91) intended his movement to remain in the Established Church. Believing that a presbyter had the right to ordain, he held back from this until 1784, when he ordained ministers for the American colonies. Thereafter, Anglicanism and Methodism, itself internally dividing, grew apart.

The attempt to put them back together can be traced to various points in history; but in 1955, when Anglican-Methodist Conversations began, the Methodist Church was the only Free Church ready to enter into formal talks in response to Archbishop Fisher's 1946 sermon inviting the Free Churches to take episcopacy into their system.

Talks began on the understanding that the discussions were within the Body of Christ, and that the office and function of a priest would be safeguarded. An interim report, accepted in 1958 and 1959, recommended unification of ministries and intercommunion (stage one), then "organic unity" (stage two).

Four of the Methodist committee members dissented from the final report in 1963, and their objections (on episcopacy and priesthood) were taken up by a protest campaign, the Voice of Methodism. Objections began to be voiced by Anglicans, too: Fisher argued that intercommunion was enough, and feared for the Anglican Communion.

A second Anglican-Methodist commission (1965-68) included a common ordinal in its final report. In a service of reconciliation, laying on of hands was to be accompanied by prayer that the Holy Spirit be sent upon "each according to his need". Evangelical objectors focused on the possibility that this might be construed as ordination; Anglo-Catholics on its not being explicitly an ordination to the priesthood.

In May 1969, the Convocations provisionally agreed stage one; but the Laity's support was ambiguous; a clergy referendum found that more than a third would not take part in the reconciliation service; and diocesan voting was inconclusive. In July 1969, the Methodist Conference approved it by 76 per cent, but the clergy in the Convocations failed to reach the required 75 per cent (Canterbury 67, York 68). Leading Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical opponents then argued for unity to emerge from local agreement, and for a different method of reconciling ministries. A second attempt to get the scheme approved, by the new General Synod, in May 1972, achieved only 65.2 per cent (Clergy), and 62.82 per cent (Laity), despite Archbishop Ramsey's advocacy.

In 1964, the British Council of Churches' Faith and Order Conference had agreed to covenant for unity by 1980. Some Anglicans had hopes of this multilateral approach, and a Churches Unity Commission (1974-76) proposed a covenant with recognition of ministries and the Free Churches' taking episcopacy into their system. But the Anglican and United Reformed Churches set different conditions, three Anglo-Catholic commission members objected to pre-empting the C of E's own decisions on women's ordination, and synodical voting was not propitious. In 1982, the required two-thirds majorities in the Synod were lacking, and the plan fell.

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