Thomas Seville CR  examines some of the issues to be resolved to enable fuller visible unity between the CofE and the Methodist Church in Great Britain  


At the November sessions of the General Synod, a report by the Council of Christian Unity recommended that two steps be taken towards fuller visible unity between the Church of England and the Methodist Church in Great Britain. This was the response to the Final Report from the Joint Implementation Commission on the Anglican–Methodist Covenant, the commission set up after the signing of the Covenant on All Saints’ Day in 2003. Its proposals, if realized, will lead to the interchangeability of ministries in the two churches. It recommended that two things needed to be done:

  1. the Methodist Church to consider afresh expressing the Conference’s ministry of oversight in a personal form of connexional, episcopal ministry and the Church of England to recognise that ministry in the Methodist Church as a sign of continuity in faith, worship and mission in a church that is in the apostolic succession.
  2. the Church of England and the Methodist Church to address the question of reconciling, with integrity, the existing presbyteral and diaconal ministries of our two churches, which would lead to the interchangeability of ministries.



It cannot be said that these two recommendations, now accepted by both churches, are put with clarity. In the background of the first, lies the use of the Greek and New Testament word, episkopé, from which the word bishop derives, customarily translated ‘oversight’. The use of the concept of oversight was one of the breakthroughs of the World Council of Churches text, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982); identified as something from God which was given to the churches, it was located in more than just one place in the life of the churches, both those which maintain the order of bishops in historic succession and those which do not. It presented oversight as exercised communally (by the whole church), collegially (by members, usually ordained, working together) and personally (by bishops or similar ministers). This means that when a reference is made to ‘the Conference’s ministry of oversight in a personal form of connexional, episcopal ministry’, it is referring to an office which the Church could recognize as having the function of a bishop. Although Methodist Conference has often said that it is open to receiving bishops in historic succession, the slow and often jerky pace of coming together has made some in that church hesitant.


Reasons for hesitancy

Some may be perplexed at such hesitancy. There are perhaps two principal reasons for this. The first is that on two occasions in the past half century, the Methodist Church did indeed take steps which would have led to her receiving episcopal ordering as an essential part of her regular life; on both occasions, the measures failed in General Synod and they understandably felt rebuffed as a consequence. If you have been left at the altar twice, then you are going to be very careful about a third time. The second reason is that what one might term the folk memory of bishops in the Methodist Church (similar to the folk memory of the Pope in the Church of England?) is informed by the experience of bishops in the eighteenth century, when the Methodist revival was met by much opposition from the bishops of the established church. Often what keeps Christians apart is not doctrine or order.

Together these contribute to a concern that to make such a significant change to Methodist polity it must be done in a way which Methodists can recognize as their own and which goes into their life as something which really fits. Most Methodist churches outside these islands do indeed have bishops, though not in the historic succession as Anglicans understand it. In the United States indeed, where John Wesley, unable to secure ordained ministers for the Methodists in that land, ordained presbyters himself, much to the annoyance of his brother Charles, there has been an unbroken succession of presbyterally ordained ministers since 1784. They are called bishops and are ordained according to an ordinal which deserves considerable respect. This is one of the two locks, tightly closed at present, which needs to be loosened. It is perhaps not just the key which needs to be found, but the solvents to set pin and plug free.



The other lock, also in need for some solvent as well as a key, is how to receive the ministers of the Methodist Church, their presbyters. The second recommendation amounts to recognizing the ordained ministers of the Methodist Church as such, without anything like a second ordination. This was one of the issues on which the unity scheme failed in Synod in 1972, for, although the common ordinal was clear, the reconciliation of the churches included a rite which was held to be ambivalent. In the Interim Report of 1959 the Methodists stated that ‘The one fatal objection to Church reunion would be any requirement of the reordination of its ministers, which would in fact be a denial of Methodism’s place in the Catholic Church.’

This remains a sensitive issue. It is worth noting that in other recent ecumenical agreements entered by Anglicans (in the US and Ireland in particular), while episcopal ordination in the historic succession is to be required in future, the ministers of the non-Anglican body do not require episcopal ordination for their ministers to be allowed to minister in the Anglican body and they can hold cures and be ordained to the episcopate. Interchangeability of ministers has been introduced without ordination of those not episcopally ordained.


‘Period of anomaly’

This is an application of a principle variously applied since the Church of South India scheme in 1947. In such recent agreements the intention has been to allow ‘a period of anomaly’ where those ordained as priests/presbyters and consecrated/installed as bishops, archbishops and presidents before the mutual participation of both churches in each other’s consecrations be fully recognized and accepted within both churches.

These are examples which the Church of England may choose to follow; although in the future Methodist presbyters/ministers ordained by the president of Conference, who would have been ordained episcopally, would be on the same footing with others not so ordained and able to serve in Church of England parishes.



All such schemes posed challenges. If the practice noted above were to be introduced, it could require a major change in the Act of Uniformity (1662) which requires episcopal ordination for anyone holding a cure in the Church of England. Indeed both after and before 1662, it has been the practice to require episcopal ordination to hold a cure and evidence to the contrary is thin indeed. It is effectively part of our self-definition. Furthermore, the Report of the Council for Christian Unity accepted by Synod states clearly that it ‘is of course essential that any proposal for reconciling ministries should be consistent with what the Church of England has agreed in other ecumenical dialogues, for example with the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches’(18).

There is a challenge here, for the Anglican Roman Catholic Commission in 1979 taught that ‘episcope must be exercised by ministers ordained in the apostolic succession’ (ARCIC Ministry: Elucidations 4). Reconciliation between this and recent moves in Ireland and the US may not be impossible, though to this writer a solvent is needed for this lock in addition to that offered by these schemes. In the end the ordained ministers would all be in the apostolic succession and the Methodist Church would have become very much like a church in the threefold order. Until then there would be what has been termed a ‘bearable anomaly’; the phrase was used of the Porvoo scheme which brought us into communion with the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia and the Baltic where in some churches, though bishops had continued in the sees, they had not been ordained by bishops with the laying on of hands. There had been a succession although the tactile succession had been lost.


Apostolic succession

This is an important point; on contemporary understanding, apostolic succession is not simply a matter of a properly ordained bishop doing the right thing with his hands on a presbyter/priest. Indeed that is one reason why the Church of England does not recognize orders conferred by bishops at large, bishops without a serious church. As the Anglican-Orthodox report of 2006 put it, apostolic ‘succession is best regarded as a succession of communities represented by their bishops, rather than as a succession of individuals with power and authority to confer grace apart from their communities’ (The Church of the Triune God: The Cyprus Agreed Statement, International Commission for Anglican–Orthodox Theological Dialogue , CHP 2006, 15). This is why the Church of England was able to recognize the Methodist Church as being a church belonging to the apostolic succession, though it lacks what the Anglican communion regards as a necessary condition for re-union, namely the historic episcopate, bishops in succession. The same report went on to echo Porvoo and see ‘the succession of bishops as a necessary aspect of ecclesial life’.

Methodists in their ecumenical statements with Anglicans and Roman Catholics express an appreciation of the understanding of the bishop as a sign of the Apostolicity and Catholicity of the church and a recognition that any reunited church of the future will be episcopally ordered. Yet they are reluctant to see it as yet as the sign willed by God. What is certain however is that Methodists have seen oversight as part of what God wills for his Church; I for one look to hear from our Methodist colleagues for their thoughts on how this will link with a personal embodiment of this in a particular church.


Recognition of church

Treating Methodist ministers as equivalent to Fr Cotter and Canon Northend may seem a challenge. Yet it needs to be remembered that it is good Catholic ecclesiology (and also that of the Church of England in all her ecumenical agreements whether with Protestants or Catholics or Orthodox) that the recognition of church is prior to the recognition of ministry. This is a vastly more important question than the validity of orders (and the concern with validity is much more recent than one might suspect). If it has been correct to recognize Methodists as being a church with ministers who are endowed with gifts given to those ordained, as having a succession of faith and the administration of baptism and the Eucharist, then there is a prima facie case for a warm welcome to their presbyters. If it is possible to see in their president of Conference one who exercises functions analogous to that of the bishop and there is agreement on role and permanence, then the question arises: can the Church of England act in such a way that affects all the other ministers in connexion such that they can be truly considered equivalent to ordained presbyters?


Need for confidence

The idea that such recognition can be made by a church which effects something which was not so before the recognition is not of course new. It has to be done liturgically because it is the church acting formally as herself in her reality as an instrument of Christ for the reconciliation of her estranged children (i.e. like baptism or the Eucharist or penance and other rites also). The idea of doing this liturgically got into some difficulties in earlier schemes such as the Methodist Unity Scheme (1972) and the sadly unsuccessful Covenanting scheme, supported by the late Eric Kemp among others; however, this needs to be done if interchangeability is to be real rather than possibly a fudge. My suggestion for the moment would be for this to be done in concelebrated Eucharists with the representatives of the two churches, archbishops and presidents.

There are outstanding issues; why has neither church acted on the recommendations made a few years ago about the elements used in the Eucharist? (The use of wine and wheaten bread have to be used in Anglican Eucharists and this is part of the famous Lambeth quadrilateral.) How are our diaconates to be related to each other? How do we regard the Methodist practice of allowing under certain circumstances those not ordained or preparing for ordination to preside at the Eucharist? These need to be pursued with a confidence that solutions, solvents can be found which will enable the unity of Christ’s church to find clearer expression and for a tear in his coat to be repaired, sinfully torn two centuries ago.