Andrew Burnham concludes that you cannot vote against unity

AS A MEMBER of the Formal Conversations between the Methodist Church of Great Britain and the Church of England, I took part with a heightened sense of what had gone before. The previous Conversations took place in the 1960s whilst I was a schoolboy. I had nonetheless taken a keen interest and disagreed with the great Catholic champions, Michael Ramsey and Eric Kemp, siding instead with Graham Leonard. Like Leonard, I believed that the proposed Service of Reconciliation was a fudge.

The views of ‘traditionalists’ on the Anglican-Methodist Covenant now proposed depend greatly on what we see as the future of English Anglicanism. The Anglo-Catholic heyday has come and gone. Amongst possible futures there are two upon which many of us spend a good deal of our time reflecting.

Unfolding futures

One ‘future’ is that, somehow, Anglicanism will emerge from its present confusions and be seen once more as the most authentic expression of the Catholic Church in England. Certainly that was how Anglo-Catholics in my childhood regarded the Church of England.

A second ‘future’ – one that fits the evidence a bit more convincingly – sees Anglicanism as a federation of groups and traditions. Amongst those groups and traditions will be what historically were other Protestant denominations – Methodist and URC, for instance. Despite losing many evangelicals over the homosexual issue and many Anglo-Catholics over women’s ordination, Anglicanism in this ‘future’ continues to flourish. The Anglo-Catholic ecclesiology, developed during the late nineteenth century to counter Apostolicae Curae, had seemed very useful in twentieth century discussions with Roman Catholics and Orthodox. Yet, in the end, that ecclesiology failed to deliver. For one thing, Liberals and Evangelicals would not own that ecclesiology. For another, Anglicans had grafted on a new doctrine of development to their faith, for instance permitting the ordination of women. There were those – Liberal Catholics -who were convinced by this reworked ecclesiology but most had no need of anything quite so inventive.

The Scenario of submission

Given these two ‘futures’ – and, as I have said, there are other possible ‘futures’ – the second is a good deal more likely than the first. The first ‘future’ would require that Methodists, and other Christian denominations seeking to be united with Anglicans, should become episcopally ordered. Not only that – and Methodists have agreed with that happening – but that they would need to acknowledge that hitherto their life and doctrine, their orders and their sacramental life, have been defective. Every Methodist minister would need to be episcopally ordained. Every full member of the Methodist Church would need to be episcopally confirmed. Every bottle of communion wine, as it were, would need to be re-intoxicated. After nearly three hundred years of rebellion the Methodists would be welcomed home as the Prodigal. The Archbishop of Canterbury would run to greet them with the robe and ring of freedom in his hand. Of course, it would all be done in the nicest possible way…

There are, of course, deep problems with this scenario. Most obviously, we would be talking the language of victory and subjection. Looking for the speck in the Methodist eye, the Anglicans would be blinded by the proverbial plank. Would we see the gift of holiness being offered? Would we notice the authenticity of Christian living, the refusal to dance to the dubious tunes of the establishment? Or, as April’s New Directions mischievously suggests (‘Thirty Days’ page 22) would we notice only the ‘overflowing pension fund’ and the ‘lovely real estate’?

Concessions past

The first ‘future’, of course, is a fantasy. We already have in place a set of ecumenical canons and a series of ecumenical agreements which make An Anglican-Methodist Covenant seem very cautious indeed. Much of this went through General Synod whilst the Catholic Group was out in the tea-room, licking its wounds after 1992. There are absolutely no ‘concessions’ made to British Methodists that have not already been made to German Protestants in the Meissen Agreement (1992), English Moravians in the Fetter Lane Common Statement (1996) and French Protestants in the Reuilly Common Statement (1999). And then there is Porvoo. As is well known, the Church of England is in full communion with most Scandinavian Lutherans even though practices of lay celebration and non-episcopal ordination persist episodically.

It is not the case, moreover, that An Anglican-Methodist Covenant abandons our concerns. The report recognises that episcopacy, the equality of women in ministry and what it calls ‘non-presbyteral presidency’ remain unresolved issues. Resolving these issues is a task for the implementation group. (Critics of the Conversations have remarked that, surely, these were tasks for the Conversations. Many are impatient that so little progress has been made on these substantive issues).

If the second ‘future’ – one where Anglicanism continues as a federation of groups, ideas and traditions – is the more likely future, it remains for us to ask what that future has in store for us ‘traditionalists’. That, of course, is the most preoccupying question of all. In such a federation we may – or may not – find that we continue to have a temporary home. Certainly there will be no abiding city.

Ut Unum Sint

It is a ‘future’ in which the Lord’s imperative ‘that they all may be one’ remains paramount. We should welcome, then, the bringing together of Christians. Meanwhile we ourselves shall continue to seek for reunion and reconciliation with the Catholic Church. Not, I think, by continuing to insist that other Anglicans obey the Anglo-Catholic ecclesiology we invented for them. Nor by doing anything to weaken the Church of England. As Cardinal Hume memorably reminded the Society of the Holy Cross, the Catholic cause is not furthered by the weakening of the Church of England. To adapt Cardinal Hume’s sentiments slightly, my own belief is that the Catholic cause is not furthered by opposing Anglican-Methodist unity. As we ourselves continue to seek for reunion and reconciliation with the Catholic Church, we should welcome this report wholeheartedly. We are not signing up to an ambiguous Service of Reconciliation and we are not pretending that unresolved theological disagreements do not exist. As the Bishop of Fulham said to me, when we both abstained in General Synod on the Porvoo vote, ‘you can’t vote against Church Unity’.

Staying on

As we work for the unity of the Church, not least by praying and working for the gathering up of the Protestant fragments of the Body of Christ, we must insist no less wholeheartedly on our own ecclesiological framework as we endeavour to live the Catholic life in the Church of England. One of my firmest ecclesiological convictions is that, since the Reformation, Catholicism in England has itself been in fragments. God is calling us to help with the gathering up of the Catholic fragments too. The vocation of all the baptised, as we Catholics see it, is reconciliation with the Holy See. We could hurry along and do it one by one or we could wait and, in God’s good time, find the fullness of communion together. We must wait a while but not, I think, for ever.

Andrew Burnham is Bishop of Ebbsfleet.