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General Synod digest: Anglican-Methodist Covenant moves ahead despite sexuality concerns

16 July 2021
YouTube/Church of England

The Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Revd Jonathan Baker, addresses the General Synod on Monday afternoon

The Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Revd Jonathan Baker, addresses the General Synod on Monday afternoon

THE General Synod has voted overwhelmingly to move ahead with the Anglican-Methodist Covenant, despite concerns from some members about the Methodist Church’s decision to allow same-sex weddings in its churches (News, 2 July).

On Monday afternoon, the Synod voted by 218 votes to 73 to approve the creation of a body, Life in Covenant, to oversee the next stage of the Covenant. There were 19 abstentions.

Speaking to the motion, moved in his name, the Bishop of Fulham, the Rt Revd Jonathan Baker, reminded the Synod that the Covenant between the Church of England and the Methodists had first been signed on 1 November 2003: All Saints’ Day.

“All Saints was and remains a very good day to have entered into a solemn ecumenical covenant, at the heart of which stands that affirmation by both the Methodist Church and the Church of England that both are true Churches belonging to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, both truly participating in the apostolic mission of the whole people of God,” he said.

During the past 18 years, he said, there had been “a great deal to celebrate” in the relationship between the two Churches, as well as some “difficulties”, and “unresolved challenges which remained”.

The new body would emphasise “receptive ecumenism . . . the recognition of the distinctive gifts which each partner brings to the relationship and to the life of the whole Church”; “co-operation in witness and mission”; and “the priority which must be given to the relational — that relationships among Christians of different traditions and denominations are spiritual and personal, rather than theoretical, still less bureaucratic.”

The new body would not duck “hard theological and ecclesiological issues”, he said.

“On the specific and profoundly testing question of the recognition of ministries, more work is needed, more work will be done. And speaking from a Church of England perspective, what is required is a long and deep look of our whole approach to the related questions of the recognition of churches and the recognition of ministries.”

The recent decision of the Methodist Conference to permit same-sex marriages in its churches would have been welcomed by some Synod members, and prompted dismay in others, Bishop Baker acknowledged. He said, however: “Whatever the Methodist Church does or does not decide does not change the doctrine or discipline of the Church of England.”

Bishop Baker concluded: “What is before you this afternoon is in one sense a modest proposal: a means of keeping on with the patient, sometimes painful, but always necessary work of ecumenical endeavour which is a gospel imperative. But in another it is much more than that. It is about life, life in Christ, which is shared by all the saints, by all those baptised into the Church of Jesus Christ, which is one, but whose visible unity is occluded from our sight.”

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, spoke in support of the motion. “The paths of our different histories and ecclesiologies and pastoral decisions have not always coincided — and partly for that very reason they have produced richness to share and richness to receive,” he said. “The journey together, as with so many of the journeys of the Christian people, demands clarity and forbearance and sometimes proclamation and sometimes repentance, and always perseverance.”

The Revd Danny Penny (Manchester) was also supportive: “We need more than ever these days to galvanise the momentum of working together and keeping our relationship with one another moving forward.”

Canon Jonathan Alderton-Ford (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich), who has worked in an ecumenical parish for more than 30 years, said that he was supportive of the process of closer union with the Methodists. He called for the process to be delayed, however, because of the recent decision about same-sex marriage, which, “although they don’t directly affect our doctrine and polity, has erected a new barrier”.

The Methodist Conference’s decision “means now that Anglicans working in Methodists churches that want to do gay marriage cannot do them, and, equally, Methodist ministers wanting to do gay marriage working in Anglican churches cannot do them, and this obviously puts a strain on the process”.

The Methodist Church’s representative on the Synod, Susan Howdle, said that the Conference had voted to “explicitly affirm that within our Church there are two different understandings about who can enter into a marriage, and that those holding either of those views have a respected place among us”. This was “not a grudging putting up with each other, but a commitment to being the body of Christ seeking to discern God’s will in and for the other”.

Surely such a quest to live well together in spite of differences of conviction should characterise “our covenant journey in the next phase, which this motion is designed to assist,” she said. “There is still so much more that unites than divides us.”

Chris Gill (Lichfield) then moved an amendment which, he said, was intended to prompt Anglicans and Methodists “to stop, pray, and reflect on the way ahead”. The amendment was not supported by Bishop Baker.

The Methodists’ decision on same-sex marriages represented “a major change to the position of the two Churches . . . and one which goes against the formal position of the Church of England on marriage and sexual relationships”, he said.

The Conference’s decision had “caused a significant element of division” in the Methodist Church, he said. “If a new group is established, who would it be talking to and to what end? Perhaps a time for healing is needed.”

During a debate on the amendment, Robin Lunn (Worcester) spoke against, saying that “what we need is dynamic energy into this [process], rather than stopping and pausing”.

Andrea Williams (Chichester) spoke in favour of the amendment. She disagreed with Ms Howdle’s assertion that those who held a traditional position on marriage were being respected. “Many of those holding to an orthodox position unable to remain within the Methodist Church [are] losing their homes and losing their ministries,” Ms Williams said.

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, urged members to resist the amendment. “I absolutely agree with Chris Gill that we should pray and reflect, but I don’t believe this is the time to stop,” he said. “If we appoint this new body, what we are doing is continuing the conversation, and it’s a conversation that the gospel requires of us to seek unity with our sisters and brothers.

“Yes, that might have got a bit more complicated recently, we see that and we acknowledge that; but I then draw the conclusion it makes it even more important, particularly bearing in mind issues within the Anglican Communion and within the Church of England, that these conversations continue.”

The amendment was put to a vote: 116 voted in favour; 174 against; and 14 abstained.

The amendment was put to the vote and lost by 174-116, with 14 recorded abstentions.

Returning to a debate on the original, un­­amended motion, Penny Allen (Lichfield) said that Anglicans and Methodists had become too fixated on issues that divided rather than “the things that we can do well together”. She continued: “We do need to present a united front to our nation, and we should be hand in hand with those of us who partner in belief in Jesus Christ.”

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) wel­comed the motion. “One of the things about a covenant is it binds you and it binds you openly for the way ahead. . . It’s not a way which has an exit — and that’s because it’s the way to that unity which Christ wills. . .

“It’s when things are difficult, when your friend, your friend in Christ, does something you disapprove of or think is bizarre or wrong, that then you should walk more faithfully and more closely together. So we need to vote for this and to vote, confident that the Lord will show us the way.”

The Revd Michael Read (Manchester) also endorsed the motion, and called for more boldness in Anglican-Methodist relations.

The Revd Andrew Dotchin (St Edmunds­bury & Ipswich) noted that within both the Anglican Communion and the C of E “we have many differences wider than the ones we have with the Methodist Church. . . Please, Synod, let’s go ahead with the journey.”

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, also spoke in favour of the motion “because I think it’s right that the conversation continues. And the fact that there are other issues that need to be discussed is another reason for having this new Life in Covenant group.”

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