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Weighing the cost of positive steps

27 June 2014

Methodists hold a range of views on unity, but many are eager, says Peter Howdle

THE current report of the Joint Implementation Commission (JIC) sees many positive signs of our shared ministry and mission, but also recognises a sense of weariness with the Covenant process. Now is, however, an auspicious time, with a renewed sense of purpose for Christian unity internationally, and the JIC has challenged our Churches to embrace two bold initiatives.

The first initiative is seen to be in the hands of the Church of England. Essentially, it is being asked whether it could accept those Methodist ministers who are already ordained as being interchangeable with ordained Anglicans. It is envisaged that this would be for an interim period.

At the same time, the second initiative is asking the Methodist Church to agree to a personal form of episcopacy - to accept bishops within the historic episcopate. One consequence of this would be that, thereafter, Methodist ministers would be episcopally ordained.

It is these two initiatives that the JIC feels would allow the Covenant to flourish, and lead to deeper communion between the Churches. Clearly, Anglicans will have a diversity of responses to the Covenant and to these proposals, as have Methodists. I have been asked to reflecton some of the concerns that Methodists may have.

FIRST, some ask, why do we need to move closer together? Most committed Methodists are busy with the worship and witness of their local church and circuit, and have little energy to spend time in joint endeavours with local Anglicans (however well they may get on with them).

Second, there are some who fear a "takeover" by the Church of England, and a loss of the distinctive gifts of Methodism. This would be particularly so for a minority who are convinced Nonconformists, and do not want to be part of, or formally associated with, an Established Church. Allied to these are those who have a strong objection to bishops, perhaps retaining the image of prince bishops in palaces ruling the Church.

THERE is a diversity of views regarding bishops. There are those who genuinely believe that bishops are not essential for the Church, and point to the first Covenant affirmation of each other's Church as a true Church. There are, however, those who would be happy for such a development, but in the context of its being a means of furthering unity and mission.

Probably the majority of worshippers in local churches have no strong view either way, but would not object to such a development, if itwere decided connexionally by the Methodist Conference for the whole Church.

There are, of course, others who would wish for bishops in the historic episcopate per se, and look to previous Methodist Conference declarations of its willingness to receive the sign of episcopacy. The question is about what form of personal episcope should be developed. The JIC has previously encouraged that of a president bishop, building on the corporate episcope of the Methodist Conference.

One should also note that most autonomous Methodist Churches around the world have bishops (if not in the historic episcopate). More significantly, as already reported, the Methodist Church in Ireland has recently installed an episcopal president, with the collaboration of the Church of Ireland (News, 16 May, 20 June).

I THINK the Methodist Church has to be helped to see the value of moving into closer communion with the Church of England in terms of the joint mission to the people of our islands, and that closer union in itself is a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

That will mean both Churches' embracing the initiatives suggested, and change for them both. It would make an enormous difference to Methodists if the Church of England were to take these positive steps. The hope of the JIC is for the Churches to grasp the vision to which, it believes, the Holy Spirit is calling us.


Professor Peter Howdle has been the Methodist co-chair of the JIC since 2003. He was Vice-President of the Methodist Conference 2002-3. The views expressed here are personal ones.

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