Edwin Barnes reflects on renewed talks with the Methodists

UNOFFICIAL TALKS between representatives of the Methodists in this country and the Church of England took place in ’95 and ’96, and the outcome was a Report, “Commitment to Mission and Unity”. Now, remembering the divisive nature of the old “Scheme” for Anglican/Methodist Unity, many of us might have misgivings about new moves in this direction. I am writing this to reassure you, and to show that new negotiations with the Methodists might actually help the cause of traditional Anglicans.

I was involved in those unofficial ‘talks about talks’, and “Commitment to Mission and Unity” records our concerns, and the equal concerns of some of the Methodists. In particular, para 46 says “The C of E, since it began to ordain women to the priesthood in 1994, has been involved in a process of discernment concerning this development … This process is seen as continuing until all the churches reach a common mind. The Church of England has retained space for those who are opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood. They are assured of an honoured place through the provision of episcopal oversight which supplements the diocesan system … any change in relationship between our two churches must honour this attempt at securing comprehensiveness and at living with differences during a process of discernment.”

That paragraph is referred to in the conclusion to the Report, where it recommends that formal conversations between our two churches should be established giving full weight to the proviso in para 47: that is, “Provided that our churches are prepared to take account of these complexities”. So, in any new scheme our place would be guaranteed not only by our own church but also by the Methodists. Nothing is more clearly spelled out in the Report than this.

This is not all, though. There was an equal and opposite insistence by the Methodists. The Report agreed that “the Methodist Church cannot contemplate limiting the ministry of oversight already exercised by women or excluding them from participating in the ordination of deacons and presbyters”. In the convoluted vocabulary of ecumenism, that is saying that if Methodists take Bishops on board, they will expect to have women bishops as well as men. Thus in one deft move all the fudge from our own General Synod about wanting women as priests, but not wanting them yet as bishops, will be exposed, and demolished. The ministry of oversight, that is the office of Bishop, will have to be available on equal terms for women as for men if we are to unite with the Methodists.

Yet at the same time, those of us who are opposed to the ordination of women will continue to be ensured an “honoured place”. Now this is a difficult trick to manage; but again, previous efforts at reunion might show the way.

You perhaps recall how the Church of England has frequently repented of driving the Methodists out of the church of their birth. If only, we have said, we had made space for them. They might then, under the inspired leadership of John Wesley, have remained with us, operating as something akin to a Religious Order within our church.

If that was true of the Methodists two hundred years ago, why might it not be achieved by our Traditionalist Constituency now? We would not then have to resort to the language of “third Provinces”. We could be a Religious Order within our own church.

The established church’s resistance to a third province has focused on a dislike for “parallel jurisdictions”; that is, for bishops who function outside the diocesan system. Yet by allowing Methodists to have their own ‘ministry of oversight’ (aka Methodist Bishops) that dual jurisdiction would have been conceded by the Church of England. The Methodist bishops (whether Chairmen of Districts or Secretaries of Conference) would operate alongside but separate from our Church of England bishops, although duly consecrated by those Anglican bishops, at least until some closer unity was achieved.

It is unthinkable, in view of the clearly stated Provisos of paras 46 and 47 of the Talks about Talks, that either the House of Bishops or the General Synod would be wanting, surreptitiously, to undermine the Act of Synod. To do so would be to drive from the Church of their baptism the entire traditionalist constituency numbering, I would guess, at least as many clergy and lay-people as might be gained by reunion with Methodism. Were that to happen we would be re-enacting the eviction of the Methodists in the eighteenth century. No, we must believe that everyone is acting honourably in desiring to initiate Formal Conversations with the Methodists. The majority of the C of E wants to unite with the Methodists, but not at the cost of losing us.

So we may look, at an early date, for the majority in our church to recognise our Traditionalist Constituency as something akin to Methodism within the C of E; a body of people bound to one another by common belief and commitment, something akin to a Religious Order. That is, there would be parishes, priests, individual lay people, congregations, cathedrals, churches which would operate outside the usual diocesan system. Within our Order (under the patronage, perhaps, of Ignatius Loyola?) we might seek to serve the whole church by witnessing to Scripture and Tradition, under our own episcopal leadership.

Religious Communities in our church, like the armed forces, already have their bishops who operate in parallel to the diocesan system without diocesan bishops feeling compromised. We would have the closest possible connection with the rest of the Church of England, and would work unstintingly for the ending of the impairment to communion which exists at present. All of us, ‘traditionalists’ and ‘liberals’ [to use very imprecise shorthand] would be able to get on with the business of the Gospel, without constantly having to fight rearguard actions concerning women’s ordination.

There could be no better reason than this for giving every encouragement to the setting up of Formal Conversations between Methodism and the Church of England.

Edwin Barnes is Bishop of Richborough