THE Secretary of the Methodist Conference, Canon Gareth Powell, delivered a presentation to the Governing Body on the progress of ecumenical discussions with the Church of England.
A new report that proposed the interchangeability of ministers, and the creation of a President-Bishop of the Conference for the first time, had been supported by the Church of England’s General Synod earlier this year (News, 16 February). Now it was time for the Church in Wales to consider whether it, too, wanted to progress along a similar path, he said.
The Bishop of St Asaph, the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, recounted the ups and downs of the history of ecumenism in the 20th century. One of the most notable failures had been the unity scheme between the Methodists and the C of E, which broke down in the 1970s.
In Wales, too, efforts to pursue “structural unity” with other Churches had repeatedly broken down. Many ecumenical leaders today saw such unity as the “Holy Grail”, and unlikely to ever occur, but something new was happening in England, he said.
If Anglican-Methodist relations were changing elsewhere in these islands, it would not do for the Church in Wales to be playing “catch-up”, he said.
Canon Powell began by explaining that, unlike Anglican Churches, the Methodist Church in Great Britain was a single entity covering England, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands, and even Malta and Gibraltar, too.
Anglicans and Methodists needed to remember, however painful it might be, that they shared a common history: “One of unity, and subsequently of separation and disunity.” The current proposals did not require each Church to abandon its distinct polity, but required them to make two public commitments: the Methodists would see the President of the Conference ordained into the historic episcopate, while the Church of England would accept all Methodist presbyters as eligible to serve, and vice versa.
Therefore, any future Methodist minister ordained priest by the Conference would also be episcopally ordained. But the Church of England would make an exception for current presbyters of the Methodist Church — this was one of the “bearable anomalies” that ecumenists often spoke of, he explained.
“Both governing bodies have affirmed a confident hope that the proposals will be considered as quickly and urgently as possible,” he said. Methodists had always held that its conversations with the C of E were taking place in the broader context of Wales and Scotland also.
Denominational identity only went so far, he said. Methodists were currently wrestling with the same issues as Anglicans in Wales. “I would have to admit that it does appear we have an all-too-easy acceptance of the scandal of our disunity,” Canon Powell said.
Greater unity would also make both Churches more effective in mission, and would mean less duplication of their efforts. But that was not why unity was being pursued. “It’s not to keep the treasurer happy: it’s about more than church ordering; it’s about faithfulness to Christ.”
Members of the Governing Body then questioned Canon Powell on the specifics of the ecumenical proposals. Dr Robert Wilkinson (St Davids) asked if existing combined ministry teams of Anglicans and Methodists could serve as a forerunner of these broader plans, while the Archdeacon of Newport, the Ven. Jonathan Williams, asked if this scheme would peter out like all the others, once enthusiasm waned.
Dr Heather Payne (Llandaff) spoke of her excitement, and asked whether the model of the Church of Ireland’s communion with Irish Methodists could be relevant in these discussions. Canon Martin Snellgrove (St Asaph) asked whether the reaction from ordinary Methodists to the latest discussions had changed. Last time, he recalled that many had decried similar proposals as forcing them to become Anglicans.
The Revd Sally Thomas (ecumenical representative from the United Reformed Church) asked how the energy and enthusiasm for ecumenism could be maintained and carried forward as people moved on and retired.
Responding to the questions, Canon Powell said that, yes, local ecumenical partnership schemes were informing the theological discussions that were under way, and had been the “lifeblood” of many communities for years. As for enthusiasm, that varied widely from place to place, he said. But, at the very least, both the General Synod and the Conference had voted to continue progressing these discussions.
In Ireland, similar proposals for interchangeability of ministers and a President Bishop were already in place, but Canon Powell could not say how effective they had been. Referring to Methodists’ being forced to become Anglicans, he noted that, in many Methodist Churches across the world, there were already plenty of bishops — indeed, the British Church was quite unusual in not having any. “I do not believe the totality of the Kingdom of God will be in the Methodist Conference, any more than I believe it to be reflected in any ministry of oversight.”
If these proposals did gain further traction, the Governing Body needed to consider quickly whether it too wanted to sign up to them, he said. “For me, it seems to be ecumenical nonsense that there will be Methodist ministers in Wales able to serve in the Church of England, but still barred from the Church in Wales or the Scottish Episcopal Church.”