C of E must make first move across the divide

by
02 February 2018

Proposals to forge closer union with the Methodists present a historic opportunity, says Steven Croft

ANY opportunity to take a sig­­nificant step towards visible Chris­tian unity needs to be grasped with both hands and explored fully. I believe that that is especially the case in any step for­ward to closer union with the Meth­odist Church.

I am delighted, therefore, that the proposals in the report Ministry and Mission in Covenant are to be de­­bated the General Synod next week (News, 26 January). I support the proposals. I believe that they are worthy of serious debate and exploration across both Churches as we discern together what the Spirit is saying.

The proposals urge each Church to make a formal declaration that we are in communion with one another, to share in the ministry of the historic episcopate, and to welcome all pres­byters and priests serving in either Church as eligible to serve in both Churches. This closer working to­­gether will be a significant witness to the gospel, and a healing of past di­­visions, and will be of immense pra­­ctical benefit — particularly in rural and urban areas where re­­sources are stretched.

 

THE Methodist Church and the Methodist people are part of the family. Every time I preach in my cathedral church in Oxford, I stand for a moment on the way to the pulpit on the memorial stone to John and Charles Wesley, who were both ordained to Anglican orders in Christ Church. Last term, I visited the Chap­lain of Lincoln College, and was moved to learn that her room in college was John Wesley’s room when he was an undergraduate and Fellow there in the 1720s and 1730s.

The Holy Club, the root of Methodism, began in the city where I now serve, and was an integral part of the Anglican Church. From that small beginning, God brought forth a world­­wide discipleship movement shaped for mission, to the immense blessing of the whole Church and Kingdom.

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For 13 years of my ministry, it has been a privilege to work each day with Methodist colleagues. As Warden of Cranmer Hall, in Durham, I shared daily in the formation for ministry of Methodist ministers as well as Angl­ican ordinands. As the first team leader of Fresh Expressions, I had the brief to see fresh expressions of Church established across the Meth­­od­­­ist Church in Britain as well as in every diocese of the Church of England.

When I was first licensed as the team leader by Archbishop Rowan Williams, there was no team or strategy or plan. The support of the Methodist Church was invaluable for the whole venture. Ken Howcroft, then Assistant Secretary of the Meth­­od­ist Conference (and later Presid­ent), came to represent the Method­ist Church.

I have never forgotten his opening words to the congregation: “I stand here as a representative of a fresh expression of the Church which could not be contained within the stru­­ctures of the Church of England.” I have quoted him often, and came to see his words as an accurate de­­­scrip­­tion of what happened. Method­ism became a separate Church be­­­cause the Church of England, at the time, could not bend and stretch enough to accommodate the new thing that God was doing.

I feel deeply and passionately the imperative to find ways for the Methodist Church and the Church of England to work more closely together. There are very few significant differences of doctrine. There are significant differences in cul­ture.

This next step has now been discerned as mutual recognition of ministries, which, in my view, is long overdue. The proposals coming be­­fore the Synod and the Methodist Conference are imaginative, careful, and thoughtfully worked through. I do not know how they will be re­­­ceived in either Church. I think it is vital that they are debated care­fully, transparently, and lovingly, in the spirit of mutual friendship and joint discernment of what the Holy Spirit is saying to us.

 

FOR some Anglicans, some real theological concerns remain about enabling Methodist presbyters who are not themselves episcopally or­­­dained to serve in the Church of England once their Church is also ordered in the historic epis­­copate.

It is, of course, vital that we weigh these arguments carefully. Mission and Ministry in Covenant uses the concept of a bearable anomaly here: drawing our Churches back together will not be a neat process, but we will be able to go through it together because of what we have already recognised in one another’s min­istries, because our bishops will be in communion with one another and responsible for all future ordina­­tions, and because of the shared com­­­­­­mitment to deeper unity between our Churches. This ap­­proach builds on precedents from across the Anglican Communion, and also on the way in which we entered the Porvoo Agreement with Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches.

For some Methodists, on the other hand, there will be genuine con­­­cerns about developing epis­copacy in the ways proposed here. I hap­­pened to be present at the Meth­­od­ist Conference the last time some­­thing similar was raised. It was an honest, heated, and (for an An­­­glican) uncomfortable debate. The process has already been full and detailed, with some good pre­para­tory work. This is further work to be done; but now is the time for those con­­­versations to happen more widely if we are to make progress.

Because of our recent shared hi­s­tory of trying to come together, I believe that it is vital that the Church of England makes the first move at this attempt. But the deep prayer of my heart is that we will find a way to join again, more deeply, two streams of God’s Church, for the sake of God’s mission and because of the unity for which Jesus Christ prays and longs.

 

Dr Steven Croft is the Bishop of Oxford.

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