On being Methodical

I HAVE ALWAYS thought that ecumenism would be a congenial way to spend one’s time. It is a sedate, leisurely, well-remunerated occupation (often involving foreign travel) in the course of which, almost by definition, one meets only the nicest and most agreeable of people.

As an ex-Methodist I have a particular interest in the current round of talks between the Church of England and the Methodist Conference. And now that our Methodist friends have obligingly agreed to take episcopacy into their system (as Geoffrey Fisher once put it), I feel called to give them a little friendly advice.

The problem for Methodists, having taken this historic decision, is where to get their episcopacy from.

I advise against a supine dependency on the episcopate of the Church of England (which, after all, may or may not, condescendingly bestow its orders), and suggest instead a pre-emptive strike which will secure orders which Anglicans are obliged to respect, and at the same time allow the retention of that stratum of ecclesiological anarchism which is essential to the Methodist ethos. Methodists, in my view, would be well advised, before the reunion process goes any further, to seek episcopal consecrations from the Church of Norway.

Why Norway? I hear you ask.

The answer is simple. The Norwegians have an episcopate which is now functionally and theologically interchangeable (through the Porvoo Common Statement) with that of the Anglican Churches of the British Isles. It was, moreover, until recent times, wholly unsullied by any pretence to apostolic continuity. Not only have Norwegian bishops, until recently, been protected by their Danish heritage from unwelcome apostolic hands; but to this day ordinations to the priesthood in Norway can be conducted by presbyters alone (Cathedral Deans in the absence of the bishop), and the Holy Communion celebrated by lay people without ordination of any kind (usually theological students on placements or summer vacations).

There exists in Norway, in other words, a variety of ‘episcopacy’ conveniently in accord with present Methodist practice and yet completely acceptable to British Anglicans. Methodists (if they are serious about reunion with the Church of England) would be foolish, at this stage in the game, not to get their hands on it, and to negotiate with the Church of England in terms of it.

The Norwegians, it is true are now pledged to some form of convergence with churches which (unlike their own) have never explicitly rejected the historic succession. But the Porvoo Declaration, which obliges them (as most, but not all, of its signatories agree) to such convergence, does not oblige them to consultation and common agreement with their new partners about ecumenical relationships or developments.

Porvoo, which places its reliance for apostolic authenticity on the occupancy of ancient sees (the ‘bums on seats’ rather than ‘hands on heads’ view of episcopal continuity), seems at first unfair to Methodists – whose chairpersons of districts (whatever title they gave themselves) could never get their posteriors on the ancient thrones already occupied by establishment Anglicans. But consecration by Norwegians (to whom historical accident and political usurpation has made the ancient cathedra accessible, and who have already embraced a female episcopate) would be a witty retaliation. The Norwegians themselves might even see the joke!

Of course, as with the Norwegians, there is the certainty, over time, that these orders will be ‘tainted’ by the imposition of apostolic hands; and so there is a fair chance that some Methodists will feel betrayed. But judicious borrowing from the contemporary Church of England, I suggest, will deal with even that difficulty.

I propose the adoption of a principle of Alternative Non-Episcopal Oversight (or Extended Non-Episcopal Care, as bishops themselves will no doubt call it) whereby Methodists who in conscience cannot receive the ministry of those in the historic succession would instead come under the care of a squadron of Flying Non-Bishops, specially non-ordained for the purpose. By the enactment of a Non-Episcopal Ministry Act of Conference, Methodists would not only solve their own internal problems (as they move towards reunion with the Church of England) but would also demonstrate the extent to which they had understood and assimilated the undergirding concepts of contemporary Anglican ecclesiology.

Methodists would also do well, as I see it, in the course of current negotiations, to make use of the Third Party Rule (now so well established in ecumenical circles but, alas, not available to them last time round).

The Third Party Rule is based up on a unique syllogism, applying only in ecumenical circumstances.

Put in its crudest form it states that though Church A is in full communion with Church B, and Church B is in full communion with Church C, Church A is not necessarily in full communion with Church C.

As even the most casual observer will be aware, this opens a positive Pandora’s box of possibilities, the most useful of which is the Principle of Ecumenical Seepage.

Seepage (like so many inventive ecclesiological developments) was first pioneered within the Anglican Communion itself. In order to ordain women to the priesthood Anglicans claimed Provincial Autonomy (how else in such a ramshackle institution could it ever have been achieved? they asked). They then went on to claim that since (by the exercise of Provincial Autonomy) there were women priests in some provinces, there ought (in the interests of the unity, which Provincial Autonomy had so recently violated) to be women priests in all. (Quad erat demonstrandum – as we used to say.)

But Seepage operates equally well between uniting churches, as well as within existing Communions.

ECUSA (The Episcopal Church of the United Sates of America), for example, has recently combined with ELCA (The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America). One of the issues between them is the ordination of practising homosexuals and the blessing of same sex relationships. Would a positive decision in ECUSA to embrace both affect relations with ELCA (which does neither)? Happily not. ECLA is already in full communion with the United Churches of Christ, which, in the meantime, have embraced both novelties. So ECUSA can go ahead with its own radical agenda, without fear of jeopardising its new ecumenical agreement. Meanwhile ECLA will find itself under equivalent pressure from both the left and the right of the ecumenical spectrum to conform in what it has hitherto resisted.

Methodist radicals, if they take my advice, will already be identifying churches with whom Methodists are presently in full communion (the whole pan-Protestant cacophony, as I suspect) and whose enterprising notions and forward-looking policies can be encouraged to seep into the Church of England by this gentle ecumenical osmosis.

You never know what might be achieved

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.