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Methodists and unity

20 March 2015

IT IS a brave ecumenical Commission that admits in the preface to its latest report that "the Churches are . . . awash with ecumenical reports". This honestly acknowledged fact, together with a to-boldly-go title and the acronymic nature of the authors, mean that queues might not be forming for copies of Into All the World: Being and becoming apostolic Churches by the Anglican-Methodist International Commission for Unity in Mission (AMICUM). This would be a pity, since the report is intelligent and well informed, outlining the progress towards unity that has been made by the two denominations, mapping the ground still to be covered, and detailing ways in which different manifestations of the two Churches around the world have approached the matter.

As the Commission suggests, no more introductions are needed to bring the two Churches together. Each has long exercised eucharistic hospitality, joint working on ethical and political matters is now the norm, and there are many more formal agreements in parishes around the country. The commitment made a few years ago not to do apart what could be done together has borne fruit. As a result, one of the final hurdles, the interchangeability of ministers, is once again the focus of debate.

The apostolic-succession question has sent the Methodists back down the garden path on more than one occasion, to their justifiable annoyance. In this report, however, the Anglican understanding of succession, and the problem it poses for the interchangeability of ministers, is explained fully and sympathetically. "Anglicans believe that the historic episcopate is a precious aspect of the fullness and wholeness of the Church, of catholicity." More challengingly, it states: "The historic episcopate does not require that there should be an empirically verifiable manual transmission of ordination, going back to the apostles, in every case. The emphasis is on the formal intention of a Church not to make a new church . . . but to preserve the visible historical continuity of the Church from the beginning." Seen in this light, there is an equivalence in the ordaining of ministers and superintendents in the Methodist Church, made more overt in countries such as the United States. Just how equivalent these are needs to be teased out further.

The value of such reports rests entirely on how they are received, and this depends on how accurately their readers see themselves represented. It is impossible to read sentences that begin "Anglicans believe" or "Methodists believe" without being aware of the range of doctrinal views encompassed by each tradition. This is a weakness that has thwarted unity attempts in the past; but it is also a strength. A Church that can hold together divergent views on every aspect of Christian belief and practice ought to be better able to tolerate that diversity in another.

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