Thomas Seville CR discusses reconciliation with the Methodist Church

The path to the re-union of churches can be compared to going up a mountain—I think of that lovely beauty, Helvellyn; the lower slopes are steady going, calling for much effort to be sure, but basically a large area of ground is covered and the view of the higher slopes soon becomes exciting. There is not a great distance to go but as one nears the summit, one has to tackle a tricky ridge with steep drops on either side, and one slows down.

With our Methodist brothers and sisters, the ascent of those lower slopes has been accomplished happily since the signing of A Covenant between the Methodist Church in Great Britain and the Church of England on All Saints’ 2003, and then after reflection on issues where practices differ and much shared experience, a resolution was made to take up the delicate question of ordained ministries or, as the recent report Mission and Ministry in Covenant puts it, ‘a new step towards full visible unity in a relationship of communion with one another…’ Such a step involves the Methodist Church in GB adopting an episcopal ordering in which their president is ordained bishop in the historic succession and all future ordinations to the presbyterate would be ordained by the president or by the president bishop. Part of the ecumenical strategy adopted by those entrusted to steering the work of the Covenant process (the Joint Implementation Commission) has been to ensure that entering into the historic episcopate is something that ‘fits’ the way the Methodist Church has ordered herself. Given that the Church of England has recognized that the Methodist Church is a true church ‘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,’ celebrating the sacraments of the eucharist and baptism and having an ordained ministry given by God and an instrument of grace, it can be no part of a responsible view of their ministry to suggest that it is something utterly different from what the Church of England has been given in the Catholic ordering of ministry. Rather the contrary, because we have welcomed the covenant and in line with much ecumenical reflection recognized that the sacramental celebrations of Methodists and the ministry of their presbyters are those of the Church of Christ, fruitful, blessed and faithful. Methodists, however, certainly in this country, moved away from an ordering of the ministry which depended on bishops in historic succession in the eighteenth century, controversially, but in the light of what was felt to be a missionary imperative. It has left a deep and painful memory of bishops in Methodism in this country which makes their way to receive that ministry into their system all the more worthy of respect. Should it not be possible to do something quickly and simply, a service of reconciliation and a bit of legal business and then it would be sorted?

Well, not so fast. This is where the way up is littered with rocks and care is needed; as older readers may remember, we have slipped badly here in the past and had to turn back; falling off the ridge three times should make us sure to keep our balance this time. One thing is clear that there can be no room for services of reconciliation which look like an ordination. Although such an approach—whether conditional or absolute ordination—may be pleasing to some Anglicans, at the very least it is in conflict with the recognition of Methodist ministry. Indeed such an approach was excluded in 2014 when the General Synod and the Methodist Conference asked the Faith and Order bodies to ‘address the question of reconciling, with integrity, the existing presbyteral… ministries of our two churches, which would lead to the interchangeability of ministries.’ [My emphasis.]

So how do we regard those presbyters not ordained by a bishop, the vast majority of Methodist ministers in Great Britain? What does this mean for our commitment to the apostolic succession of bishops?

This is a sensitive question; if a church can be seen to live by the tradition of the apostles, in her faith and sacramental practice, then what can be said about a ministry which is conferred by prayer and the laying on of hands, successively, but is not conferred through the ministry of a bishop in historic succession? The Church of England has followed the practice of ordaining presbyters by bishops, with a few exceptions, both before and after the Reformation, in England; but making exceptions in England has not been possible since 1662.

I argue that this is a question which is best asked by starting with the question of the church rather than the question of ministry. One might say that one of the results of a century of ecumenical work has been to move from an idea that the reality of ministry determines whether you have a church to whether you have a church determines whether you have a ministry. Formerly, certainly among catholics, there was a tendency to ask first about the reality of a ministry—a pedigree of bishops as it were—and then to suppose that if that was answered adequately, you could look kindly on whatever churchliness you could find. Frankly, this is simply not viable as a piece of catholic ecclesiology—it is why the Church of England does not recognize the orders of one ordained by a bishop who has no more church than his ailing aunt and housekeeper. One is better beginning with the reality of a church life continuing through time; if that is there, then a real ministry must be there; indeed there is a case for saying that to recognize a church as a church is to recognize ministries. There is, however, the problem from the Anglican perspective of how to integrate the ministries—the real ministries—of those who have not been ordained by a bishop but are now to be in communion with a bishop in historic succession. Is this a rock on the ridge where we find we cannot go further?

It is proposed to reconcile ‘with integrity’ the ministries of the Church of England and the Methodist Church in Great Britain, a proceeding which will allow Methodist ministers to serve as priests in the Church of England, legally and sacramentally in communion with a bishop, as well as with the connexion of the Methodist Church, where all future ordinations will be by a bishop. This means that no ordination is envisaged other than that of the Methodist bishop; no rite which puts the ordination of Methodists in question. On the other hand neither is one envisaging two classes of Methodist presbyters but one, interchangeable with Church of England priests, all other things being equal.

As I have noted, this will be a big change for the Church of England, although some other provinces of the Anglican communion have proceeded on similar lines. There is also the example of the 1992 Porvoo Agreement with Lutheran churches, some of which had preserved the historic succession and others which had recovered it after having lost it; all were recognized as being in the historic succession of bishops. Such a recognition arises out of the perception that apostolicity is a feature of the church as a whole—ministers and people together, called as a people, chosen and sent, hearing and passing on the Word of God: ‘the continuity of the ministry of oversight is to be understood within the continuity of the apostolic life and mission of the whole Church’ (Porvoo Agreement, §46). It follows from this that if something is not there in the customary form, the basic reality of the church is not lost.

The Porvoo churches—there are now fifteen, nine Lutheran—are all episcopally ordered; the Methodist Church in Great Britain will be. What however to make of Methodist presbyters who are not? This is a problem which faces the practice and teaching of all churches sharing the way to the visible unity of the church, when one form of ministry is not episcopal in the way understood by another. The reconciliation of episcopally ordered ministries and those which are not has been described as ‘the obstacle that defies resolution.’

If re-ordination is out of the question, how about ordaining them all conditionally? Setting aside the question of legality, it is clear that the visible difference between conditional and normal ordination is slight and, as I noted earlier, there can be no question of introducing something which looks like ordination. The church quite rightly recognizes that there is a ministry here, a true and fruitful one, and what one would be doing with conditional ordination would look like putting that under doubt. One of the reasons for why this issue presents such a problem is that it looks to many in churches without bishops in historic succession as if their ministry is being devalued when something seems to be ‘added’ to their ministry.

What about ‘validity’? Is not this not part of our ‘catholic inheritance’? Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The issue of the ‘validity’ of orders is a touchy one for many Anglicans and was made particularly so when Leo XIII ruled that Anglian orders were ‘absolutely and utterly void.’What was done then was largely done in juridical terms and not done very well; moreover ‘validity’ is not the only way of approaching the reality of an ordained ministry; indeed when the ARCIC report on Ministry was being prepared, so it is said, the issue of the ‘validity’ of orders was not treated as there was no consensus on how helpful concept of ‘validity’ was.

In short, ‘validity’ is originally something which was used to apply to the sacrament of marriage, a legal term, which was not consistently applied by theologians to sacraments in the R.C. Church until after the Protestant Reformation. However, important as validity may be, it is not the key to unlock what makes a rite faithful or real. More important is the reality of the church in which the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered, as I noted in my earlier piece; are these rites celebrated in and by a community confessing the God of Our Lord Jesus Christ, one in dependence through time on the faith and church of the apostles? The question is one of how the sacraments are seen related essentially to the mystery of the church, not whether they satisfy criteria for isolated performance.

We have already recognized that the Methodist Church of GB is theologically a church. It is because of that recognition as church indeed that it becomes possible to recognize their ministries (there is a case to be made for the view that when you recognize a church as a church, then you recognize the ministries of that church (ipso facto)). Because we can see in the understanding of faith and of the church by the Methodist Church of GB, there is good reason for recognizing that their ordained ministries are the same as ours and that legal measures to allow them to exercise them in the Church of England may be taken.

An exception is being made, and this is termed an anomaly. Personally, I regret the use of the term anomaly, which suggests to me that all those Methodist ministers will be out of kilter, anomalous. There is surely a more adequate treatment of their ministries. I would suggest that it is more to the point to see something new arising for the ministries of both churches. In the case of the Methodist ministries, there will be a difference in that they will not be a presbyter and moreover in communion with a church with individual bishops. Their ministry will be the same but crucially different in terms of new relations which have opened up. It will be a new relation for Methodist presbyters who will become presbyters in a relationship to a bishop in historic succession. That change in relationship is what makes the difference.

How might such a new set of relations be inaugurated? It is proper to see that this needs to find expression in that place where both churches obey the word of God and make remembrance of Christ, namely in the Eucharist. This is to act in the Spirit, for in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, the nature of the church and therefore her ministry is made both effective and explicit.

There are proper ways of expressing an exception in order to honour better a rule. Some would no doubt argue that a linear run of episcopal ordinations is close to being an absolute; as I noted earlier I do not think this is viable. Rather I would note that, for the sake of unity, for communion, the church can draw on the Spirit which God has given her so as to set aside certain laws or apply them in new ways for the sake of what the mercy and love of God demands, in this case the unity of His church, for reconciliation and the mending of what Bishop Jonathan Baker terms ‘a tear in the fabric of the Body of Christ.’  This lies behind the practice in many churches of making exceptions which as it were prove the rule. What is proposed is an exception made for a greater good; there is no abandonment of episcopal order, there is no recession from dogma or from Catholic order. Indeed, one of the key effects of the proposal is that presbyters who have not been in communion with a church led by a bishop, will not be so. The form, the public face of their ministry will be different in a small but significant way. Though they will not have been actually ordained by a bishop, because of the new relation of churches their ministry will have in effect been regularized.

Such an approach has not been advanced in this context before as far as I am aware. However it is worth noting that in an agreed statement between the Roman Catholic Church in Australia and the Lutheran church in that country, a challenge is made to Roman Catholic members of the dialogue to ask their church authorities to consider that the Spirit of God might be leading them to recognize the authenticity of the Lutheran ministry and of eucharistic celebrations of the Lutheran Church.

From a slightly different tack, there is the report of International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue Commission where it notes that the mutual recognition of ministry will depend on ‘a fresh creative act of reconciliation which acknowledges the manifold yet unified activity of the Holy Spirit throughout the ages.’ The report adds that this will involve a joint act of obedience to the word of God.’

This is clearly intended to leave open the question of how the reconciliation of ministries will be effected, if neither re-ordination or abandoning the commitment to the succession of bishops in the community of the church is envisaged.

   A fresh act, a charismatic act (as befits the commissioning of ministry, not an administrative act), a joint act of obedience, crucially based on having reached doctrinal consensus, which reconciles churches not just ministers.

This seems to be a statement of theological requirement, not a practical suggestion; the way it might be expressed remains unclear. The purpose however is clear, namely to set ‘Methodist ministry within a more recognisable framework of apostolic succession.’

Of course this is exactly what these proposals before us seek to do.

These proposals will not bring about the union of two churches; it will advance it, however, and for this reason, the Methodist Covenant and the motion in 2014 were warmly welcomed in synod and not least by Anglo-Catholics. Moreover, there are practical and legal issues, to which I have made no reference and issues which touch other areas such as who presides at the Eucharist and the elements of the Eucharist (why, in the age of nice boxes of Pinot Grigio do we still use communion wine?). Such are not issues on which to withhold recognition of ministry. In short, I do not think that the proposal to receive the ordained ministries of the Methodist Church of Great Britain in the way proposed leads either to two classes of Methodist ministers or qualifies the commitment to ordination by bishop in the Church of England. What is being proposed is something in accordance with the Christian calling to be merciful, to allow that mercy to make up for what through human sin has been obscured, putting together what should never have parted. I began on an edge going up Helvellyn; let us not fall off this time, let us make the summit.

Thomas Seville is a member of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield. He represents the Religious Communities on the General Synod.