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An intolerable departure from order

02 February 2018

Proposals on Methodism compromise the C of E’s faith and identity, says Andrew Davison

diocese of worcester

An ordination of a priest in Worcester diocese

An ordination of a priest in Worcester diocese

I GREW up in an Anglican-Methodist family, and went to a Methodist Sunday school. I rejoice at the prospect of a closer relationship with the Methodist Church. The report before the General Synod, Ministry and Mission in Covenant, pursues that noble aim, which makes its failings all the more agonising. With a few adaptations, it could be a triumph; as it stands, it compromises the faith and identity of the Church of England.

Our Church upholds ancient Catholic order: bishops in the his­­toric episcopate are the ministers of ordination; the eucharist is celeb­rated by them, and by the priests they ordain. This is central to what makes the Church of England Cath­o­­lic as well as reformed: not vest­­ments, nor genuflection, but order.

The intolerable departure from that order, proposed in this report, would be to invite ministers who have not been ordained by bishops to serve in the place of Anglican priests. This would last beyond the lifetimes of those reading this article. Imple­mented as the report stands, Meth­od­ist presbyters who have not re­­ceived episcopal ordination will preside at the eucharist in parish churches, chaplaincies, and fresh ex­­­pres­­sions for decades to come. That would not be as ecumenical guests, but as the celebrants of C of E ser­vices.

For the C of E to accept that would be to say at least one of the following: (1) that nothing sig­­nificant distin­guishes ordination by a bishop from ordination with­out; (2) that nothing about the eucharist (or anointing or absolu­tion) is significant for the jour­ney of salva­­tion; (3) that orders are ir­­relevant in these cases, since means of grace depend only on the inner dis­position of each individual. Each of those arguments sells short the faith and practice of the C of E.


THE Synod documents show a lack of clarity about the word “presbyter” (or “priest”). Introducing the report, the Faith and Order Commission makes much of welcoming “presbyters/priests serving in either Church as eligible to serve in both Churches”. The suggestion is that there are Anglican presbyters and Methodist pres­­­­byters, and that they are basic­ally the same thing: wouldn’t it there­fore be ideal if they could serve in one another’s churches?

It would, all other things being equal, but they are not. As the polity and practice of the C of E makes clear, our tradition does not see those two groups of presbyters as equi­valent. As witness to that, Method­­­­ist ministers wanting to ex­­­ercise a priestly ministry in the Church of England have always had to receive episcopal ordination, simply because that is the criterion for everyone, including every Angl­ican.

No affront is meant, only an ac­­­know­­ledgement that, on the matter of orders (as with lay pre­­sidency), the belief and practice of the Church of England and of the Methodist Church differ funda­­mentally: we continue to follow the practice of the ancient Church; in contrast, since 1784, Methodists have ordained with­­out the involve­­ment of bishops. They are free to do so, but that departure prevents their presbyters’ being inter­­change­­able with ours.

If the Methodist Church embraces the historic episcopate, we can look forward to the day when Methodist presbyters, ordained subsequently, could serve in the Church of Eng­­land, without the necessity of any fur­ther rite of ordination. That, how­ever, would not change the situa­­tion for Methodist presbyters ordained previously, not by a bishop. If they were to offer to minister in the Church of England, we must re­­spect­fully ask them to receive ord­ina­tion from a bishop. That need not involve any repudiation of previous ministry — no ordination ever should. It simply follows from the fact that the Methodist Church has not, hitherto, upheld episcopal or­­dina­tion.

There are ways to respond to Methodist concerns here: perhaps the bishop in historic succession, conferring episcopal ordination on previously ordained Methodist min­isters, could be a Methodist bishop, and the ordination might be con­­ditional. For the Church of England not to insist on episcopal ordination, however, would be to abandon our own ecclesiology, and to abandon those who ask something not un­­reasonable: that the Church of Eng­land be Anglican.


A SECOND concern with the report is that, while it should delight us to see the Methodist Church in England choosing to receive the historic episco­­pate, it matters a good deal what that episcopacy means. As the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral has it, the historic episcopate can be “locally adapted”, but latitude stretches only so far. Again, there is a problem with words, in this case with episcope (oversight), eliding the fact that our two Churches mean something different by it.

The historic episcopate has a his­tory. In that history, as in the C of E today, episcopal authority is closely associated with a lifelong consecra­tion to a particular function in the Church, and with place, being the principal teacher and pastor to the pastors, and — in short — with being the person in whom respons­ibility for leading the Church ultim­ately dwells.

Here, the report presently leaves too much open and unsaid about what form a Methodist historic epis­copate might take. Without that sense of how the historic episcopate would be embodied in the Methodist Church, we risk reducing it to some sort of generic ordaining power, sug­­gesting an oddly magical, contextless account of ordination. As it stands, the report is simply too imprecise to set the running for future de­­­velop­ments credibly. If the Synod takes note of the report, that cannot be to endorse it as a settled road map for the way ahead.


THESE matters of substance are significant, but so is the question of how we discuss them: whether, in the days and months ahead, these matters will be debated with theo­­logical clarity about the nature of things, not the names we give them, nor with slights of hand, and with proper concern for those who despair at the prospect of the Church of England’s letting go of its sense of what makes a priest a priest.

Recently, the Synod discussed whether vestments should be optional (News, 14 July). Although symbolic, that changed nothing of the Church of England’s continuity with the Early Church. In contrast, seeing clergy who have not been ordained by a bishop presiding, anointing and absolving, as minsters in the Church of England, would be just such a fundamental departure. Almost nothing could provoke me to leave the Church of England, apart from witnessing it take leave of its own heritage and identity.


Canon Andrew Davison is a lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Corpus Christi College.

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