General Synod: Mission and Ministry in Covenant

16 February 2018

Church of England moves a step closer towards union with the Methodists

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth

RESERVATIONS about details of plans to achieve closer communion with the Methodist Church did not dampen the General Synod’s enthusiasm, when it debated the scheme on Friday.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, reported that the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) was “confident that the proposals are faithful to the catholicity of the Church”.

They “allow Methodism to receive that which it lost — the precious gift of the historic episcopate — and both Churches to be reconciled in the new ecclesial reality of being in communion”. This was a “vital step towards full visible union”.

FAOC, he said, was conscious that these were “sensitive theological matters that require a common discernment and deep corporate understanding”. He proposed a “period of clarification” so that this proposal could be worked on by senior members of both Churches.

He called the embracing of episcopacy by the Methodist Church “a bold action of humility and expectation”. In its turn, C of E bishops would be able to receive Methodist ministers into “the orbit of their ministry”.

Dr Cocksworth then addressed what were termed “bearable anomalies”. The three anomalies, he said, were: the “biblical and dominical anomaly”; the “historical and theological anomaly”; and the “ecclesiological anomaly”.

He understood, he said, that some people had concerns that the move “undermines the episcopal order of the Church so fundamental to our identity”, but the report did not support this view. Nevertheless, he said, he recognised that “further clarification” was need to show why the proposals would strengthen episcopacy.

He urged the Synod to do three things in its debate. The first was “think church”, which would bring the two Churches towards “full visible unity”; the second was “think bishops”; and the third was “think of the Covenant”. This referred to the Covenant of 2003 that bound the two Churches towards “a united, interchangeable ministry”. He said that his motion was modest, and asked the Synod only to assent to keep moving in this way.

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Canon Cameron Butland (Carlisle) spoke about the work under way in Cumbria, where, in 2011, three denominations — the C of E, the Methodists, and the United Reformed Church — came together to “co-operate and make our priority mission”. Five years later, a covenant was signed, adding into the group the Salvation Army, and four other denominations, in which they agreed to “witness to the priority of telling everyone in Cumbria about the good news of Jesus Christ”.

The impact had been “incredible”. Work with teenagers had “grown colossally”, for example. He urged the Synod to support the motion.

The Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, drew attention to the third of the Five Guiding Principles that accompanied the women bishops Measure: “Since it continues to share the historic episcopate with other Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and those provinces of the Anglican Communion which continue to ordain only men as priests or bishops, the Church of England acknowledges that its own clear decision on ministry and gender is set within a broader process of discernment within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God.”

He noted the centrality of the Church’s understanding of the historic episcopate to “our very identity as a Church within the wider Church”, and that FAOC had noted that “any significant change in the way that episcopate finds expression must be in dialogue with those Churches with which it is shared.”

He feared that the current proposals “do not take that understanding sufficiently seriously or sufficiently ambitiously”. He continued: “We are part of a wider Church, and our prayer and ambition that all may be one carries both joy and cost.” His concern was not about being hostile or inhospitable, but had “everything to do with how we are to inhabit our understanding of what it means to be an episcopally ordered Church”.

The Archdeacon of Southwark, the Ven. Dr Jane Steen (Southwark), spoke in favour of the motion for three reasons. First, it requested further work, and she believed that “hard thinking may lead to fuller thinking”; second, the Covenant “already affirms our shared membership of one holy apostolic Church. If we move forward, and if we are faced with bearable anomalies, we do so with a high degree of ecclesiastical authenticity. The whole arrangement is permissive and not compulsive.”

Third, she talked of recognising “the episcopacy which the Methodists can recognise as authentically Methodist”. She concluded: “Let the attempt be made. If it is not of God, God will tell us. If it is: grace upon grace.”

Fenella Cannings-Jurd (Salisbury) spoke against the motion in its unamended form, “not because the intentions are bad, but because the suggestions and visions for the future of ordained ministry do need further thought”.

She was “all for unity, but there is a difference between working together in unity, honouring differences, and the notion of unity set out in this paper, which seems to see unity as needing to obliterate diversity in the name of stability”. Diversity was “joyful and part of our identity. . . To pass this would indelibly change this.”

It would “reject the Catholic understanding of the nature of episcopacy and priesthood that the Church has long honoured. It would say that our very identity as the Church of England is up for sale.” She concluded that it was possible to find a “better way of honouring the complex identity of both the Church of England and the Methodist Church, with a different vision of unity: one that better respects Catholic beliefs”.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that both Methodist and Anglican representatives had thought deeply about the Methodist tradition of connexionalism and the part played by the bishop in the Anglican tradition, “and have outlined the ways in which these conceptions of the order of the Church converge”. This could happen “without violence to what is importantly enshrined in each”.

He explained: “To speak of a personal ministry to the unity of the Church does not imply any separation of the bishop’s work from the institutions of the Church, local and central, the local communities that comprise it, and the ministries of leadership that takes its mission forward. It is precisely in enabling them to work well with one another, in ensuring communications among them, that the personal ministry of the bishop is realised.”

To speak of “connexions” was “not to rule out the work of a specially called leader, whose distinct ministry is to be a common point of reference for different ministries, referring them to the authoritative standards which they have in common”.

He thought that the report was “a little light in elaborating on how the role of a bishop will be practically interpreted in the Methodist Church after the year’s presidency of the Conference”. But he would “wholeheartedly support the direction of travel” indicated in the report.

“I believe that the time has come for our two church traditions to consult the people of God: the laos, the laity. A mute button must be switched off for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and the urgent need to reconnect our two church traditions with England.”

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Prebendary Simon Cawdell (Hereford) moved an amendment, to take note of the report rather than welcome it. He spoke of how his experiences of Methodism had taught him about the two Churches’ differing emphases in ministry, let alone the diaconate.

The differences that the two Churches had over episcope and bishops were not minimal, he warned, quoting a Methodist minister who said that his theology revolved around corporate authority, not individuals. “This document, with its emphasis on fudging the episcopate, is doomed to failure, and I won’t vote for it,” he said.

Dr Cocksworth responded that the historic episcopate would, indeed, not be an easy thing for the Methodist Church to absorb; it would be a momentous step to make. No Methodist minister was himself or herself an anomaly, but the interim period of non-episcopally ordained presbyters ministering within the Church of England would be unusual and anomalous. “I can’t quite see the point of lowering the temperature to ‘note’ rather than ‘welcome’,” he said.

The Archdeacon of the Meon, the Ven. Gavin Collins (Portsmouth), said that ecumenism was in his blood: his sister was a Methodist local preacher, and his twin brother was a Baptist missionary. He, too, began his ministry as a Methodist local preacher.

Anglicans had much to learn from their Methodist brothers and sisters. This was driven home to him particularly when singing a simple worship song “for the 25th time”, when he found himself longing to sing a Wesley hymn. Methodists had taken huge strides and made fundamental changes in Mission and Ministry in Covenant, and had walked “by far the greater part of the journey that separates us”.

Like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Church of England must not be stuck outside like the elder brother, refusing to celebrate the brother who had returned home. “There is a lot of work to be done, but resist this amendment and join the celebration in heaven as the prospect of family restored.”

The Revd Claire Potter (Methodist Church) praised the wisdom of the Covenant in 2003, which had not relied on one single decision of in or out, but had begun a journey instead. “That surely needs to be welcomed, not just noted.” She highlighted some of the “gifts” that Methodism brought to the table, including the theology of connexionalism.

“Relationships that matter are not always straightforward,” she said. “Does this one between our two Churches matter?” It would not be easy for Methodists to accept the new President Bishop; nor would it be easy for Anglicans to accept the anomaly of non-episcopally ordained ministers serving alongside them. “But we are all bearing another anomaly right now: that of our disunity. How long can we go on living with that?”

Prebendary Cawdell’s amendment was lost.

Moving his amendment, Dr Andrew Bell (Oxford) spoke of one of the factors in the breakaway of the Methodist Church: that lay people could become preachers. He said that there “still remain doctrinal differences”. He said that Methodism used Arminian theology, and the belief that one can reach perfect love in this life. “These aren’t trivial matters”, and could not just be dismissed.

It was clear, he said, that the direction was towards full unity. He applauded that aim, as long as it was “true unity of faith” which the two Churches were trying to achieve. It could not be achieved without addressing differences in theology.

The Bishop of Coventry, in response, said that he “loved talking about doctrine”. A huge amount of work had already gone into researching doctrinal issues, he said: it was all there “to be seen and engaged with”. He spoke of the “finely nuanced” theological work that had already taken place.

The Revd Angus MacLeay (Rochester), supporting the amendment, said that things were the wrong way round: the Churches were willing to be flexible on theology, but inflexible on their structures.

The Revd Dr Ian Paul (Southwell & Nottingham) said that, as a former Roman Catholic, he could not understand some parts of the debate, especially relating to the historic episcopate. He said that a historical awareness would create greater flexibility. “If we cannot work more closely with our Methodist brothers, what hope do we have for working together with newer churches?”

Dr Bell’s amendment was lost.

The Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, moved his amendment. He said that the proposals were grounded in Catholicism. “We are in touching distance, but a gap remains.” More work needed to be done, he said, and his amendment called for further work to establish unity. “We need to continue with clarity and with honesty.”

In response, Dr Cocksworth said that it was clear what work still needed to be done, and the Bishop of Portsmouth’s amendment provided direction for that work. He thus supported it. He agreed that there were gaps in the work, although “they may be gaps in perception. My own view is the gap is not that big.”

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities, Northern Province) said that he would be happy to vote on the original motion without any amendments. He said that the issue had been described as “a problem without a solution”. One proposal would be to regard Methodist ministers as lay ministers, which, he hoped, the Synod regarded as “absurd”. He said he did not think that it was a big issue, as “when a Church recognises a Church, it recognises its ministers.”

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Bishop Foster’s amendment was carried.

Canon Sharon Jones (Manchester) moved an amendment that looked forward optimistically to the day when “our ministries will be fully reconciled.” She agreed that further study was needed, not least because “we are generally woefully ignorant about the Methodist Church.” As it stood, however, she feared that the motion did not go far enough in dispelling the notion that the Synod was “deploying delaying tactics”.

There should not have been anything surprising in what was coming before the Synod, given what had already been agreed, she said. The problem was that it had not been “high on most people’s agenda for a very long time”, and this had become obvious “through some of the ill-informed and unfortunate statements being posted on social media”.

There was “deep concern” among many Methodists that the motion lacked enthusiasm and hope, and had “no sense of urgency”. She warned that “it really matters how our debate is received by the Methodist Church, among those who are our co-workers for the Kingdom of God. . .

”We are called to humble ourselves and acknowledge the grace of the Holy Spirit in those not of our tribe. . . Let’s study in expectation of learning that we are not ourselves the sole possessors of the truth.”

Canon Jones’s amendment was carried.

Lucy Moore (Winchester) spoke as part of the Messy Church network. There was already unity at grass-roots level “in huge communion with each other. . . This would be, in a way, theory catching up with practice.” Second, it was missional. When people who were new came to church, as they were “in their thousands” into “messy churches”, things needed to be as easy to understand as possible. Third, it was about discipleship. She wanted to see both sides “girding up their loins, purple or not, and galloping down the road towards each other”.

Keith Leslie (Salisbury) was married to a Methodist minister. She had told him: “You’d better get it right this time. . . It’s part of your history.” Working as a Street Pastor, he had been told by a young woman at two o’clock in the morning: “You Christians are too busy arguing to worry about God.” This debate mattered to those who were not a member of any Church at all.

The Archbishop of Canterbury commended the debate. He supported the motion “very strongly indeed”. There was a “clear command” in the scriptures to unity in diversity. “We respond to the Spirit who is already working in both our Churches to bring us together.” He agreed that there was “much to do” and “serious questions” recognised by the amendments; “but, if we don’t support this motion, that will not be done”.

The amended motion was carried in all three Houses: Bishops: 35 for, 2 against, no recorded abstentions; Clergy: 131 for, 23 against, 13 recorded abstentions; Laity: 124 for, 34 against, 11 recorded abstentions. It read:

That this Synod:

(a) welcome the report Mission and Ministry in Covenant (GS 2086), produced by the faith and order bodies of the Church of England and the Methodist Church in response to resolutions passed by the General Synod and the Methodist Conference in 2014; and

(b) call on the Faith and Order Commission to report back to the Synod at the next group of sessions on work carried out jointly with the Methodist Church to address the areas for further reflection outlined at paragraphs 26-29 of the covering note from the Faith and Order Commission to GS 2086.

(c) invite the Faith and Order Commission, in consultation with the Methodist Church, to explore and elucidate further the relationship between episcopal ordination and eucharistic presidency, as this touches on the full visible unity of our two churches.

(d) affirm its confident hope that any outstanding issues between our churches may be resolved quickly and satisfactorily and look forward to the day when, on the basis of work already completed and accepted, our ministries will be fully reconciled.

 

Former and present Presidents of the Methodist Conference back Covenant in guest speeches. 

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Revd Ruth Gee, a former President of the Methodist ConferenceBEFORE the Synod debated the proposals contained in Mission and Ministry in Covenant for closer relations with the Methodists, it was addressed by two Methodist speakers.

The Revd Ruth Gee, a former President of the Methodist Conference, spoke of her “deep sadness” that the two Churches were not in communion. “Wherever there are distinctions and divisions, that means we are less than we can be, and less than God intends us to be,” she said.

The proposals would mean that, for the first time, the Methodist Church in Britain would ordain the President of its Conference as a bishop. This was a “profound and challenging development for us”, Ms Gee said, but would be accepted by the Conference — provided that the Church of England also acknowledged that the Methodist Church had been, and was, “part of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church”.

Her Church did exercise episcope, albeit in a corporate sense, through the Conference rather than personal bishops. When she became President in 2013, she had been given a Bible carried first by John Wesley and handed down by one President to another ever since. It was a “powerful symbol of continuity”.

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The proposals of Mission and Ministry in Covenant would mean that the President of the Conference would be ordained into the historic episcopate, and thereafter all subsequent Methodist ordinations to the priesthood would be by a bishop, recognised by Anglican Churches.

But Conference Presidents did much more than ordain, Ms Gee said. They exercised a ministry of visitation, represented the Conference and the Methodist Church elsewhere, made public interventions, and were “chief pastor to the pastors”.

If establishing a President Bishop in the historic episcopate and the full interchangeability of ministers and priests were to become normative, “then I pray that we will be able to take this next step of our journey together.”

The Secretary of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Gareth Powell, then spoke further to the proposals, suggesting that both the Conference and the Synod “find themselves discussing something of our own nature and order, so as to be alert to the wider work of God in creation”.

But any ecumenical work had to enhance each Church’s witness. If John Wesley was to consider Mission and Ministry in Covenant, he would probably observe that the wider challenge was the same for both denominations. “He would see the parish system . . . and the Methodist circuit system that equally covers every community . . . and would puzzle at the inability to take that overlap of presence seriously so as to be more effective in the nurture of human souls.”

If he had to respond to Wesley, Mr Powell said, he would have to admit that they had become too quick to accept the “scandal of our disunity”. “Complacency in the face of our disunity hinders not only mission, but impairs our witness to Christ, our ability to live in the image of God, and to be effective channels of the Holy Spirit.”

He ended by quoting a hymn by Charles Wesley, which he urged as the prayer of both Churches: “Closer and closer let us cleave To his belov’d embrace; Expect his fullness to receive, And grace to answer grace.”

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