PROPOSALS are before the General Synod for interchangeability of presbyteral ministry between the Church of England and the British Methodist Church (News, 21 June; Comment, 2 February 2018). These invite some very bold steps by both our Churches. For Methodists, these include the reception of the Order of Bishop into our Church; and, for Anglicans, the acceptance of the ministry of existing Methodist presbyters without re-ordination.
The crucial challenge in this debate is to recognise the value of steps that we might take not for our own sake, but for the sake of our partner, and our mutual enrichment in relationship.
So, bishops. The Methodist Church doesn’t need bishops. It has no deficit of apostolicity. We simply recognise apostolicity as transmitted corporately through the Methodist Conference, as opposed to being embodied in individuals (bishops). We don’t need episcopal succession to achieve what we already have.
The challenge is to see how we might, none the less, receive the gift of episcopacy as an opportunity. Key to this is that, in receiving the order of bishop into our Methodist life, we would, in turn, be bringing something of our Methodist life into the office of bishop. Identifying that office with the President of the Conference achieves this.
The June 2019 report notes: “A President-Bishop would exercise a collaborative ministry and responsibilities would be shared with the Vice-President . . . [which] models the collaborative ministry of lay and ordained in every part of the Methodist Church.” That principle is fundamentally important to Methodists. This proposal is, therefore, an opportunity for us to offer a distinctive, Methodist model of episcopacy as our gift to the wider Church.
DIFFERENTLY challenging is the language of “bearable anomaly”. It is a fact that for the C of E to declare full communion with existing, non-episcopally ordained Methodist presbyters would create an anomalous situation, relative to normal Anglican order. It is not a loaded or condescending thing to say that: it is just true. Moreover, the C of E would, by this same proposal, embrace this anomaly for the sake of our relationship together. Methodists struggle to see how, for some Anglicans, this is a really big step; but it is, and so to take it is a step of grace. Methodists should embrace that grace in return and celebrate it.
But it is more complicated than that. The “bearable anomaly” phrase unfortunately communicates to many Methodists a notion of Anglican pomposity, and triggers feelings and concerns about the C of E that extend beyond the substance of these proposals, and which, in turn, raise questions about whether we should be seeking such closer relationship at all.
There are genuine concerns here. One is the existence of systemic discrimination against women in parts of the Church of England. For most Methodists, the fact that the C of E entertains any possibility of alternative oversight for those who reject female ministry is beyond the pale. We recognise, though, that this is a source of real pain within the C of E itself.
The question, then, is whether Methodists, by pursuing deeper partnership with our C of E colleagues, can stand the better in solidarity with those who are equally scandalised, to support them in working towards a change of culture, and to shift the balance by our own participation. For me, God’s example in Jesus is to go and share the life of those who have problems, not to steer clear lest we be affected by them. I believe that this should be at the heart of our approach to our ecumenical siblings. But Methodists need to hear what our C of E colleagues think about this.
THE other big concern is the experience, familiar to Methodists, of a seemingly endemic attitude of paternalism and sheer ignorance, at the level of leadership in the C of E, about what Methodism is. As one colleague puts it: “It would be nice if Anglican clergy actually had some sort of a rough idea about Methodism. Most I meet here have never heard of the Covenant, and have absolutely no idea what a plan, a circuit, a superintendent is. For goodness’ sake! I know what canon law is, what an area dean is for. . . It drives me mad.”
Methodists need confidence that the Church of England gets what Methodism is, and values it. I had the pleasure of attending the General Synod when the report Ministry and Mission in Covenant came before it last year, and was deeply impressed by the genuine spirit of warmth and well-articulated recognition towards the Methodist Church that characterised that debate. Methodists need to see that.
I believe these proposals to be hugely promising; but, ultimately, for some Methodists, their experiences of the C of E predispose them to see Mission and Ministry in Covenant negatively. My prayer is that all Methodists will be helped to see it in terms of opportunities. The attitude of the General Synod this July may help us to do that.
The Revd Steven Cooper is a Methodist presbyter in Hertfordshire. He writes in an individual capacity.