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General Synod: Methodist union legislation a bridge too far for now

12 July 2019

Process towards unity with Methodist Church continues, but Synod touches the brakes. Madeleine Davies, Adam Becket, and Tim Wyatt report from the General Synod in York


Synod members walk across a bridge to the Central Hall at the University of York

Synod members walk across a bridge to the Central Hall at the University of York

THE General Synod agreed to continue working on the plan for achieving interchangeability of ministries and intercommunion with the Methodist Church. But, in the face of concerns that had been raised, an amendment was carried to enable the process to move at “a more measured pace” than initially proposed.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, observed that “oneness is a mark of the Church . . . ‘that the world would believe’.” He said: “The great awakening of Christian faith during the 18th century 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.

“So, John Wesley, having exhausted his pleas to bishops for help made other — non-episcopal — arrangements for the succession of ministry.

“British Christianity — and the world Church — fractured further into denominationalism, its credibility weakened.”

Twenty years of work, he said, had been given to the Anglican-Methodist Unity Scheme rejected by the General Synod in 1972. Since the signing of the Anglican-Methodist Covenant in 2003, both Churches had “recognised each other as true Churches, with authentic Ministers of Word and Sacrament”. Work had since been under way towards “a united, interchangeable ministry”.

The Faith and Order Commission was “confident . . . that these proposals are consistent with global Anglican principles of ecumenism”. The Methodist Church would make “the bold and courageous step of receiving the sign and gift of the historic episcopate”. A national service would be held, replicated regionally, at which the Methodist bishop and Anglican bishops would “pray that the ordained clergy receive the gifts and grace needed to serve God . . . and commission them for the apostolic mission in which they will share together under the sign and gift of the historic episcopate”.

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 Agreement, the C of E was already in communion with churches who differed on this point. Second, clergy serving in a Church that was not their own would “minister according to the teaching and discipline of that Church”.

His prayer was for a “clear and well-informed decision, with full awareness of its implications not only for our relationship with the Methodist Church . . . but also for the credibility of the commitments the C of E and Anglican Communion have made for 100 years to restore the unity of the Body of Christ”. He prayed that healing would begin, “that we might better serve a country in need of healing and reconciliation”.

The Revd Dr Anderson Jeremiah (Universities and TEIs) spoke as a “living specimen of an anomaly”, as he had been ordained presbyter in the Church of South India (CSI) and was now part of the C of E. The Synod should be careful not to see “points of sharp difference . . simply as theological or doctrinal flashpoints”, but “remember that even within our Church we are still in the process of discovering the full meaning of episcopacy as a gift of God to God’s Church”.

These “theological incompatibilities articulate the power and privilege of an Established Church. . . The hesitancy is nothing but our unwillingness to share our special privileged place for the sake of Christian unity. We are not to be bogged down by top-down hierarchy model of Church, but nurture bottom-up grassroots flourishing of unity.”

The founders of the CSI knew that ecumenism “can only be lived and experienced, and not achieved through theological cartwheeling or ecclesial gymnastics. We need to begin the journey . . . so that perceived incompatible differences could be worked through along the way as barefoot pilgrims wounded by that experience but with a commitment to trust and obey a call from our God.”

He closed by quoting Bishop Azariah, the Anglican bishop who spoke to bishops at the Lambeth Conference in 1930: “The cost of union is penitence.”

SAM ATKINS/CHURCH TIMESThe Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, asked: “When is an anomaly bearable? We all live with anomalies of one kind or another. In the C of E we have even institutionalised it within our Five Guiding Principles.” But he was “genuinely concerned” about two anomalies related to the proposals.

The first was non-episcopally ordained ministers presiding at the eucharist (“I can live with that, but the same may not be true of my Catholic brothers and sisters”). Second, the “profound enthusiasm” for discussions about enabling same-sex marriages in Methodist churches “at just the point when we are wrestling with this”.

Was the vision “compelling enough to make anomalies bearable?” In some parts of the country, perhaps not. He spoke in favour of the Revd Paul Benfield’s amendment. 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.”

The Archdeacon of Dudley, the Ven. Nicky Groarke (Worcester), said that the proposals were “not perfect, but healthy and palatable enough fudge for me to support them. We are used to living with grace-enabled imperfections.” As an Evangelical woman in a diocesan role, “I navigate the consequences of other less than perfect legislation.”

She observed: “You only have to listen to any group of curates in the C of E talking about their ordination to realise that the spectrum of understanding on the significance of this is perhaps as wide within Anglicans as it is between us and the Methodists.” In her diocese, 98 per cent of people did not belong to any Church, “so let’s keep our internal differences with the Methodists in proportion.”

A Methodist friend had expressed concerns about importing hierarchy into the Methodist Church. Perhaps, given the concerns about deference aired in the safeguarding debate, there was something to learn here.

The Revd Kevin Goss (St Albans) said that he was torn between head and heart over these proposals. He had strong concerns about the move away from Catholic order and Anglican ecclesiology around the historic episcopate. Although the reforms that the Methodists had agreed were significant, it was not yet clear what form the historic episcopate would look like for them. The so-called “bearable anomaly” could last as long as 70 years. The changes since last year had not yet overcome this “vital sticking point”.

The rush to legislation in the motion also seemed premature. “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.”

Canon Cameron Butland (Carlisle), a member of the Council for Christian Unity, spoke to his amendment, which emphasised that the prime purpose of these reforms was mission. “Why should this Synod say yes to this amendment and this motion? It’s for all those people who don’t know Jesus yet.”

Research showed that when Churches did mission together, it was more effective, which was even more apparent in the growth seen in the ecumenical county of Cumbria. This motion was a test for the Synod’s warm words on evangelism at its last session in February: “Are you prepared to put your unease aside? Are you prepared to make mission the priority?”

Dr Cocksworth responded by saying he agreed this was first and foremost an exercise in mission. He was hopeful the reforms would lead to a renewal of apostolicity in both Churches. It’s all about the 98 per cent, as Archdeacon Groarke said. “I support this amendment and it helps to underlines what we’re looking for.”

Canon Joyce Jones (Leeds) spoke in favour of both the motion and amendment. In the villages where she worked, Anglican and Methodist churches were already working closely together and this continued unity was vital for mission. “If people see our two Churches separately, they won’t see Christ easily. If they see us loving one another and serving together they are more likely to be drawn to faith.”

The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, recalled how, when he was a junior officer in the Territorial Army, he had successfully completed a training exercise, moving an injured soldier quickly to the ground from a high tower. But his team was disqualified, because the assessor declared their particular method was “not possible”. “‘But it worked,’ I said. ‘That’s irrelevant: it was impossible, and that’s that.’” He felt the same when reading the papers for this debate: much of what they describe as possible future scenarios were already happening in Cumbria, and it worked, he said. “The anomaly for us is entirely bearable, and we should support it as soon as we can so it can become normal, not exceptional.”

Both Churches had a common calling to serve England, and they should be able to cross denominational boundaries to serve God’s call, Bishop Newcome concluded. The theological imperative for mission must outweigh the ecclesiological hesitations.

The amendment was carried.

The Revd Paul Benfield (Blackburn) spoke to his motion. He said that they should remove the paragraph that called on the Archbishops’ Council to introduce legislation as described in Mission and Ministry in Covenant “for first consideration at the February 2020 group of sessions”. This was because the House of Bishops was still divided on the way forward.

To test the mind of the Synod, the legislation needed to be removed, since so many could not support it. Members were not told about how concerns would be addressed; and the report suggested that this was a “permissive” proposal, and so was an “opt-in” system not needed, as well as an “opt-out”?

Where was the provision for those who were concerned about this move, Mr Benfield asked. He spoke of the episcopal ministry arrangements for Catholics in the Church, and said that this did not change the rules of episcopacy. He recalled the Synods in which debates over women bishops had failed to gain traction, and said that the same mistakes must not be made again. “We risk a repeat of the women-bishops fiasco,” he warned; and that would not be helpful for anyone, including the Methodist Church.

The Archdeacon of Southwark, the Ven. Jane Steen (Southwark), did not want to destroy the whole motion, as this would threaten Anglican-Methodist unity, but to alter it. “My amendment is to buy us time,” and allow this to be debated in the next quinquennium.

Her amendment, like Mr Benfield’s, removed references to legislation; but inserted a request to the House of Bishops to report during the next quinquennium (i.e. from 2020) “on the progress made on the work” of creating draft texts and liturgy, “together with proposals for implementation”.

She argued: “It may be that Methodism, too, might be glad of a bit more time. . . We must proceed by the right words in the right time.”

The Archbishop of York had spoken about patience. She wondered whether this concept had been forgotten. “Pilgrimages are not for rushing: they are for praying,” she said. European Churches needed to be involved in this dialogue, particularly at this time. “Let’s proceed at a more measured pace.”

Dr Cocksworth said that the motion made the judgement that the next phase of Faith and Order work was best done in tandem with legislative work. He said that this signalled to the Methodist Church that the Church of England was “serious about our intentions”. It signalled seriousness to the Church in Wales and the Scottish Episcopal Church, too, he argued. Bringing forward legislation kept it moving towards reconciliation, Dr Cocksworth said. The amendment left the “long road to reconciliation rambling into nowhere”, he argued.

He opposed Fr Benfield’s amendment, but could see the case for drafting liturgical work before legislation, and was inclined to accept Archdeacon Steen’s amendment.

The Revd Christopher Smith (London) referred to the 2003 Covenant. The matter of interchangeability of ministers was the cart, which was put before the “horse” of unity, he said. He spoke of ecclesiology as a branch of Christology. They were not one as the common members of one Church, he said, but united in the Father and the Son. There were “genuine differences” in these ideologies, and these should not just be swept under the carpet. He asked whether the anomaly was bearable. “Episcopacy is not important because it’s historic: it’s important because it’s apostolic.”

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, co-chair of the Methodist-Anglican Covenant working group, said that the Synod needed to consider legislation to travel down the road of unity. He urged the Synod to reject the amendment, and take a step towards interchangeability, a “step forward”. It would be a moment of “grace. . . Here is a Church, the Methodists, that has agreed to consider taking episcopal of order into its life.”

He said that the Synod was talking about whether it could corporately do what it talked about in pulpits, of taking a bold step and uniting with friends. “I hope today that we won’t embrace our own security so tightly that we will smother our moment of grace.”

Robin Lunn (Worcester) spoke enthusiastically in favour of the original motion. He had joined the Synod originally because he wanted to see unity between the Anglicans and Methodists. When he spoke to deanery synods, they asked: “What is keeping you?” Legislation needed to be brought before the Synod, and people could voice their opinions in legislative debates. “We can always come up with reasons as to why not to make the leap,” he said. Why would the Synod consider to discuss closer relations with other churches if it could not make this leap, he argued. “Let us put an end to the tortured creeping steps of the last 16 years.”

Penny Allen (Lichfield) said that the House of Laity’s voice was missing in this debate. She was involved ecumenical work, and belonged to the United Reformed Church as well. She saw the motion as a positive move forward.

“I hope that in a spirit of grace, and a spirit of reconciliation, we can acknowledge our friends in the Methodist Church.” People didn’t ask her whether she was an Anglican or a member of the URC, they asked her what she was, and would say that she was a Christian.

“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 snail’s pace isn’t useful.”

The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone (Oxford) said that he was on the Faith and Order board. What was proposed here was a “huge leap forward”, he said, “revolutionary” and “exciting”. Not since 1662 had ministers presided in the Anglican Church without ordination, he said, and they had been waiting 350 years for this. “Bishops aren’t essential” for the Church, Dr Atherstone said.

The definition of marriage, however, was now a “severe challenge” to the unity, and this was a fault. It was “highly disruptive” ecumenically that the Methodist Conference had voted to move towards allowing same-sex marriage. He said that it was “premature” to start drafting legislation. They needed to see guidelines for the integration of ministers.

Fr Benfield’s amendment was lost in an electronic vote by 224 to 118, with 13 recorded abstentions.

Dr Cocksworth thanked Archdeacon Steen for her amendment again, which, he said, offered a time frame. “Although I remain confident of the merits of the proposals . . . and I appreciate the people who say we need to keep this moving, I don’t want to stand in the way of process.” If this was the Synod’s view, this would increase the confidence of others in the motion.

The Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Revd Jonathan Baker (Southern Suffragans), said that he was the co-chair of the Mission and Ministry in Covenant group, and there were good Catholic reasons for supporting the motion. Repairing a tear in the body of Christ was one such reason. Catholics could rejoice in the acceptance of the historic episcopate by the Methodist Church in the proposals. He said that there would merely be a dispensation for some ministers coming to the Church rather than a change to ordination. There needed to be some “thinking and learning” over the reconciliation of Churches. He urged the Synod to unite around this amendment.

Canon Lisa Battye (Manchester) spoke from an Evangelical perspective and wanted to say “I really like Methodists.” They had “great things” that the C of E could learn from.

The Revd Peter Leonard (Portsmouth) found it “hard to believe that anyone could accuse us of rushing anything. . . If we don’t do anything, then we are not demonstrating mission of God or how imperative we think it is.” In the past, he had worked in an LEP on a housing estate. The people who came didn’t come to an Anglican church or a Methodist church, they came to St Michael’s.

A “temporary anomaly” was “probably a small price to play for moving forward in the mission of the Church”. He said: “Let’s also remember that when Jesus called his disciples together, he didn’t check their credentials or ask them to jump through hoops, but to follow him and they did. These are the saints on which the Church is built.”

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, spoke in favour of the amendment from Dr Steen. When the report had first come to Synod, the House of Bishops had been unable to make a collegial recommendation on how to proceed, “because a significant number of bishops believed that further work was needed”. There was “still no consensus in the House of Bishops for what has emerged.”

In his diocese, the Porvoo Agreement was lived out fruitfully as the result of “painstaking work” more than 20 years ago. “Something of that rigour is now required with these proposals, because legislation for proposals on the recognition of orders would need either two-thirds or three-quarters majority. . . More rigour and painstaking work will be required if rancour and division is to be avoided.”

Mary Durlacher (Chelmsford) said that the C of E had “some work in-house to do on mission. What gospel are we going out with? . . . Please delay, don’t be in a rush: we have got work to do on the gospel.”

Canon Rachel Mann (Manchester) spoke in favour of the unamended motion and quoted from the opening of the Methodist covenant prayer: “I am no longer my own but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.” This “draws our attention to the deep common call to humility, relationship, and trust at the heart of our faith”.

She noted that the C of E was already in covenant with the Methodists. The motion invited the C of E into “a further stage in that tender, patient negotiation of the implications of friendship, indwelling, and the Kingdom of love — in short, the implications of being ranked with whom God wilt. . . It is time for the next stage in healing.”

In a vote of the whole Synod, the Steen amendment was carried by 220 to 127 with 8 recorded abstentions.

Debate resumed on the amended motion. Susan Howdle (Methodist Church) said that she still recalled the “profound disappointment” of earlier votes. She still retained a “sense of excitement and hope. We are at a time of renewal.” If these proposals were brought to the Methodist Conference, “I cannot stress to Synod how momentous and permanent a step this will be, and not all members of Conference will find it easy. But I am hopeful that the same spirit will prevail as did in 2003.”

On the question of marriage, the Methodist Church had not “rushed”: it had been on a “pilgrimage of faith” for 26 years. The debate on it at the Conference had been “gracious and sensitive, paying deep attention to the scriptures”. It was an area “where we need to live together with contradictory convictions as well as making strong provision for conscience”.

On the question of the President Bishop, “I believe it does reflect properly Methodist understanding of the balance of personal and corporate episcope,” she said. No, he did not look like a diocesan bishop, but was not a cipher of the Conference.

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 Archbishop of Canterbury maintained that, “Not far short of three centuries ago, we caused Wesley to have to make his own arrangements. . . We put them out. I think 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.”

He was “profoundly committed to moving forward in this matter for sake of the gospel and for sake of the Church and world we are sent to serve. . . We need to repent and we need to turn and seek to walk in obedience to Christ together in the right way.”

Annika Matthews (Church of England Youth Council) said that anything that sought to work towards full unity should be applauded. Visible unity would “surely demonstrate this mutual belonging we share in Christ . . . It is imperative that as a church we try to be completely humble and gentle, bearing with one another in love.” Unity did not equal uniformity. “It is true that there are wounds and brokenness . . . but we also have the capacity to love one another.”

In a vote by Houses, the motion as amended was carried: Bishops 35-1 with 1 recorded abstention; Clergy 130-20 with 9 recorded abstentions; Laity: 123-29 with 10 recorded abstentions. It read:

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.

Read full coverage of the General Synod here

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