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Division over Anglican-Methodist plan prompts Synod to decelerate process

07 July 2019


A statue of John Wesley in St Paul’s Cathedral churchyard 

A statue of John Wesley in St Paul’s Cathedral churchyard 

A PLEA for a “more measured pace” in the journey towards interchangeability of ministries and intercommunion with the Methodist Church met with the assent of the General Synod on Sunday.

Despite speeches that emphasised the imperative of mission and deplored the “snail’s space” of the Church of England’s legislative process, members voted strongly in favour of an amendment that put the brakes on developing legislation.

“We must proceed by the right words in the right time,” the Archdeacon of Southwark, the Ven. Jane Steen, said, while moving the amendment. “Pilgrimages are not for rushing: they are for praying.”

Unamended, the motion would have called on the Archbishops’ Council to introduce legislation for first consideration in February 2020, preparing the way for inter-changeability of ministers. Dr Steen’s amendment removed all reference to legislation and requested that the House of Bishops report during the next quinquennium on progress made by the Faith and Order commissions of the two Churches on drafting a series of texts, including a formal declaration of a new relationship of communion between the two Churches.

The Synod voted in favour of it by 220 to 127, with eight recorded abstentions.

The vote followed a warning from the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, that there was still no consensus in the House of Bishops on the proposals for intercommunion. “More rigour and painstaking work will be required if rancour and division is to be avoided,” he told members.

The division among the Bishops was evident in their speeches. The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, spoke in support of an unsuccessful amendment from the Revd Paul Benfield (Blackburn) which also removed all reference to legislation. While there was a danger of being accused of kicking the ball into the long grass, “the alternative might be to lose the ball altogether, which would be a real tragedy.”

But the Bishop of Liverpool, co-chair of the Methodist-Anglican Covenant working group, spoke strongly in favour of an unamended motion: “I hope today that we won’t embrace our own security so tightly that we will smother our moment of grace.”

The Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Revd Jonathan Baker (Southern Suffragans), the co-chair of Mission and Ministry in Covenant, argued that there were good Catholic reasons for supporting the motion. Repairing a tear in the body of Christ was one such reason, and Catholics could “rejoice” in the acceptance of the historic episcopate by the Methodist Church in the proposals.

Speeches from members revealed disagreement on the pace of change. The Revd Kevin Goss (St Albans) warned against the rush to legislation: “The kindest and most loving thing is to be honest with ourselves and Methodist brothers and sisters to pause now, so together we can find a better way forward for Christian unity in the future.”

But Robin Lunn (Worcester) called for “an end to the tortured creeping steps of the last 16 years”, arguing that “we can always come up with reasons as to why not to make the leap.” Penny Allen (Lichfield) was surprised that anyone believed that the Church of England produced legislation in a rush: “If you think this is going to happen in a hurry, I’m afraid that this doesn’t happen in the Church of England. Sometimes creeping along at a snails pace isn’t useful.”

The Revd Dr Anderson Jeremiah (TEIs), who had been ordained presbyter in the United Church of South India, suggested that, “the hesitancy is nothing but our unwillingness to share our special privileged place for the sake of Christian unity.”

Many speeches emphasised the imperative of reaching “the 98 per cent” who do not attend a church. Canon Cameron Butland (Carlisle), whose successful amendment affirmed the priority of mission, reported that there had been significant growth in the worshipping community in Cumbria since its ecumenical covenant had been signed. One out of every four members of the congreations in Cumbria had come since the declaration had been made.

Having warned that Fr Benfield’s amendment risked “the long road to reconciliation rambling into nowhere”, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, welcomed Dr Steen’s, which urged the Synod to “proceed at a more measured pace”. In his opening speech, he recalled the great awakening of the 18th century, which “caused many to believe in this land and in America. But it proved beyond the Church of England to hold all that new life within its own life here and there.”

The historical context was also picked up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who suggested that “we have to be very, very hesitant about setting hurdles for us to get back together. History is not on our side in the way we have acted in the past.”

The Faith and Order Commission was “confident . . . that these proposals are consistent with global Anglican principles of ecumenism”, Dr Cocksworth said. He was conscious that the decision of the Methodist Conference to consult on changing its definition of marriage had “raised new questions”. But he noted that, through the Porvoo Communion, the C of E was already in communion with Churches that differed on this point. Clergy serving in a Church that was not their own would “minister according to the teaching and discipline of that Church”.

The loudest applause was given to Susan Howdle (Methodist Church), a former Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, who recalled the “profound disappointment” of earlier votes. She concluded: “Whatever the result today, I want to assure you that we remain committed in our worshipping, witnessing, and working together, because we meant and still mean it.”

The motion as amended and carried by the General Synod states:


That this Synod:

(a) affirm the priority of doing mission together and welcome the work done by the faith and order bodies to respond to issues raised in the initial reception of Mission and Ministry in Covenant, while also recognising that, for some within the Church of England, concerns about the proposals remain;

(b) support the recommendations intended to address those issues that are listed in the final paragraph of the report on further work from the faith and order bodies regarding Mission and Ministry in Covenant;

(c) request the Faith and Order Commission to work with the Methodist Church’s Faith and Order Committee on drafting texts for the “formal declaration”, the inaugural service or services and the service of welcome referred to in the recommendations in the final paragraph of the report on further work, and for the guidelines for the practice of presbyters/priests from one church being received to serve in the other referred to in paragraph 142, with full draft texts being made available to the Synod; and

(d) request the House of Bishops to report during the next quinquennium on the progress made on the work described in the previous paragraph, together with proposals for implementation.

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