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Anglican-Methodist Ecumenism, edited by Jane Platt and Martin Wellings

by
05 August 2022

Paul Avis considers the Anglican-Methodist efforts towards reunion

WHO is the best-known, the most famous, Anglican priest of all time? Surely John Wesley, because his name is frequently on the lips of the more than 70 million Methodists around the world when they talk about their Church. He also gives his name to many Methodist chapels; and innumerable Christians of other traditions, including Anglicans, are at least vaguely aware of him and his work.

But who is the most frequently quoted Anglican priest of all time, whose words are still constantly repeated long after his death? Surely, John Wesley’s younger brother, Charles: Christians of all stripes in many lands sing a selection of his thousands of hymns continually, because they are among the very best. Since the decline in use of the Book of Common Prayer (1662), Charles Wesley’s words must have a claim to be the most quoted Christian source after the Bible.

This double phenomenon of Anglican fame, if I am not wide of the mark, raises two huge perplexing questions. The first question is “How did it happen that two Anglican clergymen of the 18th century gave the impetus to a movement that, beginning in Britain and America, became independent of its mother Church, now spans the globe, and, as a family of Churches, rivals the Anglican Communion in size?” While this is mainly a question of historical research, the issue is still shot through with a sense of irony and tragedy.

The second question is, of course, “What has been done until now and what is being done today to reconcile these two world Communions, with their common origin in the reformed Church of England, and to seek to draw them into some kind of accord and unity?” A century after the beginnings of the organised ecumenical movement, how do relations currently stand between the Anglican and Methodist Churches? The answer has to be a mixture of hope, endeavour. and theological convergence, followed by disillusionment and — as it seems at present — stasis (I don’t want to say “failure”).

The volume of essays here under review has its centre of gravity in the unity conversations of the 1960s between the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain. But it inevitably looks back to the earlier history and particularly the impact of the “Appeal to All Christian People” issued by the 1920 Lambeth Conference, which eventually stimulated the first national conversations. And it naturally includes analysis and reflection on the joint work that led to the Anglican-Methodist Covenant of 2003 and its follow-up by the Joint Implementation Commission and its successors, which have produced much helpful and constructive material over the past nearly 20 years.

The collection does not attempt to cover developments involving Methodists and Anglicans which led to the United Churches of South Asia in the mid-20th century, or the long-running dialogue between the Episcopal Church in the United States and the very much larger United Methodist Church (UMC) there. Nor does it engage with the international Anglican-Methodist conversations, with the friendly name AMICUM, which led to the report Into All The World, of 2014, with its wealth of background information and constructive suggestions for good practice in the future.

These essays are of consistently good quality, combining sound research with sharp theological assessment. John Lenton provides concise pen-portraits of the leading actors on both sides from 1956 to 1963. George Bell’s leadership stands out in the first phase. The somewhat fuzzy concept of the “historic episcopate” is probed by Mark D. Chapman. There is a compare-and-contrast essay by Peter Webster on the differing approaches to Anglican-Methodist unity of the two leading Anglo-Catholics of the day, Michael Ramsey and E. L. Mascall.

alamyThe Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams (left), and the President of the Methodist Conference, Dr Neil Richardson (right), sign the Anglican-Methodist Covenant, in the Methodist Central Hall, London, in 2013

The proposed liturgy of reconciliation and the seminal Anglican-Methodist Ordinal, which would have brought the ministries of the two Churches together sacramentally in the early 1970s, is analysed by Philip Tovey, while developments from then to the present day are evaluated by the Methodist ecclesiologist David M. Chapman. The Methodist historian with an eye for the ironic, Martin Wellings, provides both broad-brush and detailed historical essays.

Jane Platt explores the tension between Methodist “grass-roots” opinion and the central leadership during the 1960s, drawing on archival material. The ill-matched alliance of Mascall and Graham Leonard with J. I. Packer and Colin Buchanan, which produced the dissenting report Growing Into Union in 1970, and helped to ditch the union scheme, is analysed by Andrew Atherstone.

The long essay by Pippa Catterall on order, authority, and ambiguity in the 1960s conversations is full of fascinating material. Aspects of militant Methodist opposition to the 1960s proposals are addressed by Claire Surrey, while the de facto sacramental unity that is unavoidable in active military service is brought forward, by way of challenge, by Peter Howson, who deservedly rebukes those of us involved in the preparation of the Covenant for overlooking Methodist-Anglican collaboration within army chaplaincies.

The union scheme of half a century ago was endorsed by the Methodist Conference, but narrowly failed in the Church Assembly in 1969 and in the General Synod in 1972. Michael Ramsey made no attempt to conceal his distress and anger. Methodists understandably felt jilted at the altar. The dialogue between the US Episcopal Church and the UMC has recently been suspended because the UMC is riven by disputes about same-sex relations. Further progress under the British Covenant is currently stalled because the two Churches cannot find an agreed method of incorporating presbyterally ordained Methodist presbyters into a united episcopally ordered Church.

When I bowed out of ecumenical relations and theological dialogue on behalf of the Church of England a decade ago, I felt that Methodists and Anglicans were on the cusp of unity and that our joint work had offered a model for the reconciliation of our two Churches — which were not divided by theology — into one sacramental Communion. In fact, we had not addressed all the questions, and there was further work to be done.

I still believe that there is a viable way ahead, in spite of the fact that the interests and energies of the two Churches’ governing structures have moved elsewhere. But the prayer of Jesus in John 17 that “his own” may be visibly one, so that the world can see that the Father has sent the Son, still remains to be fulfilled.


The Revd Dr Paul Avis is an Hon. Professor in the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, Hon. Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Exeter, and editor-in-chief of
Ecclesiology.

 

Anglican-Methodist Ecumenism: The Search for Church Unity, 1920-2020
Jane Platt and Martin Wellings, editors
Routledge £120
(978-0-367-62815-4)
Church Times Bookshop £108

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