Jane Gore-Booth on the Anglican Methodist Covenant

Readers of New Directions will have read the excellent article by Bishop Edwin Barnes in the May 2002 issue. Since then General Synod has decided to refer the matter for discussion in the dioceses. Most diocesan synods will have the proposed Anglican-Methodist covenant on their agendas this autumn, and members will have to decide when they vote whether or not they ‘approve the Anglican-Methodist Covenant, consisting of a pre-amble and mutual Affirmations and Commitments, set out in paragraph 194 of the Common Statement.’ Voting figures will be reported back to General Synod which will then itself vote on whether or not to accept the Covenant.

Diocesan Synod members will need to read the Common Statement and I hope that the booklet will be circulated with Diocesan Synod agendas. If you are only sent the text of paragraph 194, please ask your diocesan secretary for the full text: it is impossible to discuss paragraph 194 properly without having read paragraphs 1–193. It would be useful too to re-read Bishop Edwin’s article.

Unity and truth

Church unity matters – we all know that Our Lord prayed for it the night before he died – but so does the truth. Most Anglicans know Methodists whom they admire personally and there are undoubtedly many opportunities for mission together. However, that does not mean that there are no differences between us on important matters of doctrine, and I regret to say that I do not think An Anglican-Methodist Covenant is an honest report. The pre-amble in paragraph 194 talks about ‘our full agreement in the apostolic faith, our shared theological understandings of the nature and mission of the Church and of its ministry and oversight, and our agreement on the goal of full visible unity.’ Is it true to say that we are in full agreement in the apostolic faith when we have differing understandings of what is meant by the apostolic succession? Do we really have a shared theological understanding of either the nature of the Church or of its oversight?

A ‘true church’?

In the first Affirmation we are asked to ‘affirm one another’s churches as true churches belonging to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ and as truly participating in the apostolic mission of the whole people of God.’ What do we mean by a true church? When the Roman Catholics published Dominus Iesus, Anglicans could claim that the Church of England was a ‘true and particular church’ which had kept the apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist and not just one of the ‘ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the eucharistic mystery’ and which are not therefore ‘churches in the proper sense’. I have to say that no-one has yet explained to me satisfactorily what is meant by a ‘true church’. If the Methodist church is a true church, why does the Church of England require a Methodist minister becoming an Anglican priest to be episcopally ordained, something that is not required of a Roman Catholic priest becoming an Anglican; and why does a lay Methodist wishing to be ordained in the Church of England or licensed as a reader have to be episcopally confirmed first?

The Eucharist ‘duly administered and celebrated’?

Is it honest to say as the report does in paragraph 138 on the Eucharist that ‘it does not appear, however, that there are fundamental differences of understanding between us’ when Methodists allow lay celebration; when, contrary to scripture, they do not use wine or a single cup for their Eucharist; and when the surplus of the consecrated elements is not consumed? Diocesan Synod members will be asked to ‘affirm that in both our churches the word of God is authentically preached, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are duly administered and celebrated’. Of course we gladly accept our common baptism but a quick reading of the words in italics above would suggest to the ordinary person in the pew that the Church of England believed that a Methodist Eucharist was the same as our own. Perhaps it depends on what one understands by the word ‘duly’.

‘Eucharistic sharing’

Diocesan Synods will be asked too in number 4 of the Commitments to ‘commit ourselves to encourage forms of eucharistic sharing’. I do not see how those who do not accept women priests or the validity of the sacraments they celebrate can vote to encourage people to receive Holy Communion in a Methodist church where the service will be conducted either by a non-episcopally ordained minister or by a layperson.

The Church of England has in recent years entered into agreements with other churches which are not ordered in the historic episcopal succession. However, two wrongs don’t make a right, and, whilst it may not matter very much that many Anglicans have never heard of Porvoo, Meissen, Fetter Lane and Reuilly, since most of them will never come across a minister from any of those churches, any convergence with the Methodists will affect parish life in England. The Anglican–Methodist Covenant is not a unity scheme as such, we are told, just the first stage in a process, and both the Anglican and the Methodist participants accept that there are differences between us, for instance on Confirmation (paragraphs 126–128) and women bishops (160), that will have to be worked out at the next stage.

Telling the same truth

It is important in ecumenical discussions, as in everyday life, that we should tell the truth and tell the same truth to everyone. There cannot after all be more than one truth. We cannot with integrity say one thing to the Methodists and another to the Roman Catholics. We may desire unity among Christians but that does not mean either that it is easy or that we can paper over the cracks where there are differences in theological understanding. I cannot believe ARCIC will be helped if we agree the Anglican-Methodist covenant. Can church unity without the Roman Catholic Church (which is larger than any other church, whatever we understand by that term) really make sense?

There is much still to be discussed and anyone concerned about the sad differences between us must surely be prepared to stand up and say so when the matter is discussed at diocesan synods, at deanery synods and by PCCs. It is not good enough to be a private Christian – we are always being told nowadays about the importance of lay ministry and mission – but serious Christians have to be prepared to stand alone for what is right. Lowest common denominator niceness is not an option.

Whatever we say or do and in whatever ways we disagree, we must not cease praying for unity among Christians. By prayer we become closer to God, and if all Christians become closer to God they will necessarily become closer too to each other.

Jane Gore-Booth is a member of General Synod.