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Synod will be asked whether it ‘gladly bears’ eucharistic presidency by Methodist presbyters as ‘temporary anomaly’

14 June 2019


The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, addresses General Synod in February 2018, when members voted to move forward with proposals for intercommunion

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, addresses General Synod in February 2018, when members voted to move forward with proposals for int...

THE thorny issue of episcopal ordination and eucharistic presidency will return to the General Synod next month, when members will be asked whether they want to continue the journey towards intercommunion with the Methodist Church.

Almost 50 years since the General Synod rejected proposals for union between the two Churches, members will debate whether eucharistic presidency by Methodist presbyters not ordained as priests by bishops in the historic episcopate can be “gladly borne” as a “temporary anomaly”.

This is the suggestion of a report from the faith-and-order bodies of the two Churches, published on Friday and containing four recommendations that the Synod will be asked to approve. They include “the episcopal commissioning of all ordained ministers in each church for readiness to serve in and with the other”.

The Church is now at a “cross-roads in the Covenant relationship”, writes the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, who chairs the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC). In his accompanying note, he continues: “Acceptance of the proposals would be a profound sign of reconciliation, a healing of wounds that go back to the origins of Methodism in the eighteenth century.”

The report warns that, if the Synod votes against taking the work forward, there would be far-reaching consequences: “if that door cannot be opened with our nearest number from that church family, it would appear to be very firmly bolted indeed when it comes to other members, despite what we have said about our desire to open it.”

The motion to be put before members welcomes the report, which was produced to address issues raised at the Methodist Conference and General Synod last year (News, 16 February 2018). It calls on the Archbishops’ Council to prepare legislation to be put forward for first consideration in February 2020, as set out in Mission and Ministry in Covenant (News, 30 June 2017).

Such a Measure would dispense Methodist presbyters for a limited period from the requirement to have received episcopal ordination before they can serve by invitation in the Church of England. It would also enable C of E bishops to participate in the consecration of a President-bishop in the Methodist Church.

The motion also asks the Faith and Order Commission to work on drafting texts, including guidelines for the reception of presbyters or priests from one Church to serve in the other. It recognises that “concerns about the proposals remain”.

The first recommendation in the joint report is that the formal declaration of communion include a commitment to “reconciliation of structures” to “enable our churches to act and speak as one church where this serves the mission of God”. This relates in particular, the report says, to “structures of oversight and authority”, meaning that “discernment and decision-making were always done together, either through communication between office-holders and formal bodies, or through bodies serving Anglicans and Methodists together”.

Such a commitment “signals clearly that we will continue to press for fuller unity that involves transformation of our structures, while also respecting the need to walk forward together one step at a time, giving space for the horizon to clear and for trust to grow along the way”.

The second recommendation is for the planning of an inaugural joint service of holy communion to take place after the acceptance of the proposals in both Churches, and the ordination of the first President-Bishop in the Methodist Church. This would include “repentance for past sins, for the welcoming of one another’s gifts and graces and for the commissioning of the churches for mission together, to include a specific episcopal commissioning of all ordained ministers in each church for readiness to serve in and with one another”.

It is here that concerns about episcopal ordination and eucharistic presidency are addressed, in response to an amendment to the motion approved in 2018 whereby the Synod asked the Faith and Order Commission, in consultation with the Methodist Church, to “explore and elucidate further the relationship between episcopal ordination and eucharistic presidency”.

The Methodist Church has expressed readiness to accept bishops. But, the report notes, “the question remains . . . of how those who were ordained in a church without the historic episcopate as a sign of apostolicity come into relationship with the episcopate when the church receives that sign. . . [and] how those already ordained in each church come into relationship with the episcopate in the other church in which they serve. . .

“A substantial number of Anglicans regard the historic commitment of the Church of England that all who preside at the eucharist should be ordained as priests by bishops in the historic episcopate as, on the face of things, simply incompatible with this core element of the Mission and Ministry in Covenant proposals.”

It goes on to explore, “whether it is a rule that permits of on conceivable exceptions” and argues that an exception could be made “on a temporary basis”:

“While the exception would constitute a temporary ‘anomaly’ in terms of the Anglican understanding of catholic order, it could nonetheless be gladly borne on this basis for the sake of enabling another church to share more fully in that order and thereby making the unity of the church also more fully visible.”

It acknowledges that “part of the difficulty for the Church of England is the way that Anglican ecumenism, as reflected in the 2003 Covenant, has sought to separate mutual recognition as churches in ecumenical dialogue from mutual receiving of one another’s ordained ministries”. But it asks: “if Anglicans cannot receive the ordained ministers of another church because of the absence of episcopal ordination, are they not also thereby implying that this church itself lacks something because of the absence of such episcopal ministry — and would it not be clearer and ultimately more truthful to say so to their ecumenical partners?”

The report states that it would not be appropriate for existing Methodist presbyters to be episcopally ordained at this point, given what both Churches affirmed about one another’s ordained ministries in the 2003 Covenant and the rejection in both churches of “re-ordination”.

It also asks: “Even if a way forward can be found that carries a majority of people in the Church of England, would it not inevitably leave behind a significant number of Anglicans?”

The solution proposed is for a “fresh creative act of reconciliation which acknowledges the manifold yet unified activity of the Holy Spirit throughout the ages”. There is a need, the report suggests, for “a properly episcopal action that calls down the Holy Spirit on those who are ordained and recognised as such, and contains a proper dimension of mutuality that does not single out one church as ‘full’ and the other as ‘lacking’”.

This could take place within the inaugural service, it suggests: “The focus would be on seeking fresh anointing from the Holy Spirit for the new situation that is just beginning and the new opportunities that will come with it for sharing in mission.”

The third recommendation is for a service of welcome when a minister ordained in one Church is accepted to serve in the other for the first time. The fourth is for a Council event to take place after the inaugural service, and the fifth for further exploration of diaconal ministry in the two Churches.

The report includes a long section on the President-Bishop in the Methodist Church, and how episcopal collegiality might be fostered between the two Churches.

It is important for both Churches to understand, it says, “that what the Church of England is asking of the Methodist Church is that it come to share in the historic episcopate as the gift of Christ to the whole church of Christ and part of what Anglicans would call ‘catholic order’. It is not a matter of the Methodist Church having bishops who function in the same way as Church of England bishops. There is therefore a need to distinguish which features of episcopacy belong to the historic episcopate as such, and which are open to local adaptation (to use the terminology of the Lambeth Quadrilateral).”

One of the suggestions from the House of Bishops is that it would be helpful for the Methodist Church to share with the Church of England a draft ordination service for bishops, before the legislative process is completed.

There is also a detailed section on how interchangeability of ministry might work in practice, and several scenarios are set out. The report emphasises that the C of E legislation “will need to ensure that parishes who would find themselves unable to make use of the new possibilities for interchangeability of ministry are free not to do so. . . Welcoming one another’s priests and presbyters by invitation is permissive, opening up the potential for new things to happen where there is the desire for this, but it does not create either the right or obligation for anyone to serve in the other church; it should always be a matter of shared discernment.”

It acknowledges that a “wide spectrum of views” exists about the direction of travel, “from enthusiastic support to deep reservation” and notes that there is not consensus within the House of Bishops about whether to go forward with the proposals.

“The envisaged process of receptive ecumenical learning is not about becoming less Methodist, or less Anglican . . . but about becoming more deeply, more richly, more fully Methodist and Anglican, and thereby more fully and truly catholic in the credal sense of that term,” the report suggests.

The 2003 Anglican-Methodist Covenant committed the Churches to working “to overcome the remaining obstacles to the organic unity of our two churches, on the way to the full visible unity of Christ’s Church. In particular, we look forward to the time when the fuller visible unity of our churches makes possible a united, interchangeable ministry.”

The report was produced by a joint sub-group appointed by the two faith-and-order bodies. The co-chairs were the Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Revd Michael Ipgrave, and the Revd Ruth Gee, a former President of the Methodist Conference. The other members from the Church of England were the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley; the Bishop of Stockport, the Rt Revd Libby Lane (now the Bishop of Derby); Canon James Hawkey, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey; and Lucy Moore, the founder of Messy Church.

An Anglican-Methodist union scheme fell in the Church of England’s Convocations in 1969, and in the General Synod, on a second attempt, in 1972. In 1980, the Methodist Church and the Church of England were part of multilateral covenanting-for-unity proposals that also included mutual recognition of ministries and Free Churches’ taking episcopacy into their system. These also failed to win the necessary approval of the Synod in 1980.

Two views, from the archive:

‘An intolerable departure from order’

‘C of E must make first move across the divide’ 

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