IT IS difficult to avoid travel metaphors when writing about church unity. Different traditions and denominations journey separately, sometimes in the same direction. Lanes converge or diverge. Fellow pilgrims can walk together, or at a certain distance. Sadly, they can also experience car crashes. Veterans of Anglican-Methodist relations still carry whiplash injuries from when the wheels came off earlier unity schemes.
The General Synod on Sunday chose to change down to a slower gear in its covenantal journey with the Methodists. Reservations existed already among Catholic Anglicans about the proposal to allow Methodist ministers to preside at Anglican eucharists without episcopal ordination (mirroring the reservations some Methodists have about adopting episcopacy at all). To this has been added the anxiety in some quarters after the Methodist Conference last week approved a report that supports the marriage of same-sex couples in church.
In short, people in the Church of England are at last getting an inkling of the disorientation that other Churches feel when they come into an Anglican orbit. Contradictory and confusing patterns of authority, multiple understandings of priesthood and episcopacy, wildly differing regional policies — it is no wonder that the Archbishop of York devoted his Synod address to divisions within Anglicanism. And awkwardly, but predictably, the greatest differences are attached to the holiest acts. Roman Catholics are not the only ones who struggle with an Anglican ecclesiology that keeps a far greater control over those who administer the sacraments than over most of those who receive them.
Fortunately, the Synod rejected a suggestion that the two Churches drive around in circles for a while. Although reporting back “in the next quinquennium” has an ageless feel to it, the delay may be no more than a year. The important thing is to use this time wisely. Support for the general principle of unity has been assumed to include the particulars of this deal. This must be tested now rather than at the end of the process. The Synod heard not only of the experience of working fruitfully with Methodists, but also of a desire to retreat from the norm set up in the 1662 settlement. The Methodist rank and file, for their part, want reassurance that this is not an Establishment takeover.
Useful counsel for this stage of the conversations is contained in the latest document from another set of dialogues, those between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. The 2017 agreed statement of ARCIC III, Walking Together on the Way, begins: “Dialogue within our respective traditions about such difficult matters as the proper place for decisions on questions of ministry and human sexuality should be welcomed rather than feared. At all times in the Church, from its earliest days to the present, controversy, debate, dialogue and synodal processes have led — eventually and often not quickly — to clarification and ultimately a more precise articulation of ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’.” It is good that divided Christendom feels a compulsion to unite. But better to proceed with caution than race ahead, only to have a stinger thrown across the road by one faction or another.