Jesus prayed that his followers may be one, that the world may believe. We take this dominical call to unity seriously, and pray for it. We welcome the desire to work towards a fuller unity with the Methodist Church. The report Mission and Ministry in Covenant (MMiC) was proposed as part of that. Concerns raised in early 2018, however, over that report and its recommendations, have not, we regret, been allayed by the further work done by the Faith and Order Commission in collaboration with members of the Methodist Church. Rather than serving the greater unity of the Church, we fear that the proposals in their current form will divide the Church yet further.
This further report comes before General Synod this week (as paper GS 2135). Anglican Catholic Future is glad to see that it picks up—or seems to pick up—a range of concerns raised in 2018 including:
- whether a partial development such as this—with interchangeability of ministry between two churches that remain distinct—aids or hinders the goal of full visible unity (section A1);
- whether the change in ecclesial life of the Methodist Church proposed in MMiC constitutes a recognisable form of the historic episcopate (section B);
- the relation between Eucharistic presidency and episcopal ordination (section A3).
The working group has done important work in relation to the first of those questions, concerning the unity of the churches, which we welcome. When it comes to the other two questions that caused concern in early 2018, however, the document placed before Synod this week is far more problematic.
Over what is to be received by the Methodist Church, the report by no means allays fears that the proposed Methodist President-Bishop does not resemble episcopacy as the episcopally ordered churches have known it. We recognise that it is not necessary for the precise details of how the Church of England has held the historic episcopate to be replicated. It is important, however, that an episcopal church, in conferring the episcopate, should do so in a form that bears a family resemblance to how it has been known across the episcopal churches, down their history. The report before Synod serves to underline our conviction that what is proposed lies a long way far from that.
One of our principal concerns with MMiC was that the personal, historic episcopate was presented there stripped down simply to a power to ordain. The more recent report further clarifies this point: the only thing what would be changed by episcopal ordination for the President of the Methodist Conference would be to limit the authority to ordain to her, or him, and to episcopally ordained predecessors. Beyond that, the role of those consecrated to the role of President-Bishop becomes personally episcopal in no other way. In taking about the future ministry of a past President-Bishop, for instance, the report only details roles that either already belong to a presbyter, or which could be undertaken by either a President or a Vice-President (a lay role).
Authority to ordain is, indeed, integral to the historic episcopacy, but possessing the historic, personal episcopate has also meant far more than that. In contrast to a vision of episcopacy focused solely on ordination, we must insist that the personal episcopacy is not simply about the transfer of what has sometimes, disparagingly, been described as a ‘magic hands’ understanding of the episcopal role.
The historical episcopate is a structural principle: episcopacy takes in an entire way in which the church is ordered in relation to bishops. The Methodist Church is currently ordered significantly differently from the churches with the historic episcopate, with the Conference bearing ultimate authority. Limiting to a small group of people those who can lay hands on those who are to be ordained does not by itself represent the acceptance of historical episcopal order.
The Church of England embodies the historical episcopate in a particular way: it is episcopally led (as it must be, to be episcopal) and synodically governed. In contrast, MMiC and the report before Synod this week present us with a church that remains both synodically governed and led. The Methodist Church would remain ordered around the Conference, of which the President-Bishop is a servant or emissary (§58 and 86).
In short, the working group has undertaken significant further work on whether what it is proposed that the Methodist Church will receive is, indeed, the historic episcopate. That further work has served to underline that it is not.
The third of the three issues to which we are drawing attention concerns ‘the relationship between episcopal ordination and eucharistic presidency, as this touches on the full visible unity of our two churches’. This is what the Synod most explicitly asked the commission ‘to explore and elucidate’ in 2018. That relationship, we should remember, is definitive for episcopally ordered churches, including the Church of England: it resides at the heart of the settlement of 1662. Strikingly, the commission’s report hardly considerers that question at all, nor the criticisms that were raised about MMiC on that score: asked to consider ‘the relationship between episcopal ordination and eucharistic presidency’, the commission has not done so; it has concentrated instead on how that relationship might be abrogated.
The commission knew at least two specific criticisms of MMiC on this front. The first was that MMC worked with a model of ecumenism, and of the relation of Eucharistic minister to bishop, which might have precedents in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, but which is alien to the Western tradition to which the Church of England belongs. MMiC presented us with a model whereby recognition of presbyteral orders would be determined by the terms of the relationship between bishops to whom those priests were under a relation of oversight. Reconciliation of orders between overseeing ministers (bishops and Presidents) would somehow automatically recast the orders of presbyters in their churches. That, however, is simply not how our ecclesiology operates. The Church of England has held that the orders of a presbyter are not fundamentally changed simply because the bishop to whom she or he relates comes into closer, or less close, communion with another church. Anglican polity does not suppose that a change to the status of the bishop who ordained a priest, or in relation to whom the priest serves, changes the orders of that priest. Such an approach, with all its problems, was integral to the argument of MMiC. Its oddity was widely accepted in early 2018, and seen as a serious weakness to the report. In their further work, the commission, in its report before Synod, has not considered this at all.
The alternative criticism of the ecclesiology of MMiC, in relating Eucharist to episcopacy, was that it was in a certain sense too ‘Papal’, again in a way that is unrecognisable as a part of Anglican ecclesiology. Given the turn to collegiality in the Roman Catholic Church in the past century, it would be unfair to describe this approach as characteristic of the contemporary Papacy. Nonetheless, one could discern a sense, in the past, that the Pope could effect far-reaching changes within his church simply by fiat. Something of that proposal was to be found in MMiC, as was pointed out a year and a half ago. It is alien to the ecclesiology of our church, but nothing further is said about that here. Rather, an act of episcopal fiat is envisaged whereby a bishops’ prayer for a fresh anointing of the Spirit will effect the same grace the Church of England has consistently held that ordination confers, accompanied by the laying on of hands.
The contents page of the report, then, would seem to suggest that it will address the three concerns that were prominent around the time of the discussion of MMiC in February 2018. Over the first, namely whether the half-way house of interchangeability of ministers (if otherwise justifiable) would impede the journey to full-visible unity, GS 2135 has made significant progress. Over the second, whether what it is proposed that the Methodist Church will receive is the historic episcopate, in a historically recognisable form, the report illustrates that it is not. Over the third, on ‘the relationship between episcopal ordination and eucharistic presidency, as this touches on the full visible unity of our two churches’, it is necessary to be doubly critical: first, in that the ways in which MMiC departed markedly from Anglican ecclesiology remain, and secondly, in that the commission has seen fit simply hardly to address these matters at all, discussing pragmatic departures from that ecclesiology instead. On those grounds, the report does not pave the way for taking further steps towards implementing the proposed plan. Proceeding to draw up legislation cannot be justified.
Other significant work is also needed on further fronts, as the report acknowledges, particularly in relation to the Methodist ordinal and matters of church discipline and oversight. That second element deserves particularly to be stressed, and needs to be discussed in far more detail than it is in the document before us, which simply admits that these are open and unresolved issues, even in terms of broad principles. We ask Synod to undertake further work on how accountability and discipline could function, as a necessary step before we can proceed further along any proposed road. With issues of safeguarding now rightly prominent in the mind of the Church, not least in Synod, questions of accountability and discipline cannot be matters that we hope we can work out later on. Moreover, the fault lines that pass through our own church, and through the Methodist Church, over the blessing of same-sex marriage, and over the status of clergy in same-sex relationships, mean that complications around accountability and discipline could easily become highly fractious.
We draw towards a close by highlighting the need for further attention to the ecumenical consequences of this report. Relaxing our requirement for episcopal ordination would be a moment of the greatest significance in our relationship with other episcopally ordered churches. Synod cannot be a position to take these proposals further until it is presented with an analysis of how they square, or not, with our existing ecumenical agreements, and until the proposals are discussed in the ecumenical bodies that exist for that purpose, such as the English Anglican – Roman Catholic Committee (English ARC). The significance of suspending section 10 of the Act of Uniformity of 1662 for these ecumenical relationships, and for our own self-understanding, cannot be diminished simply by stating that the anomaly would last only for perhaps half a century. We would have fundamentally changed our polity: a church that can imagine any number of its priestly minsters as sometimes having been ordained by a bishop, and sometimes not, is simply no longer committed to the principle of episcopal order as the basis for priestly or presbyteral ministry.
Anglican Catholic Future was founded to support and enliven the Anglo-Catholic strand of our church, from a perspective which enthusiastically embraces the ordination of women to the three-fold ministry of the church. We look forward to the day when that step will be taken by other episcopal churches, in which women cannot currently be deacons, priests, or bishops. We see the proposal to suspend the requirement of episcopal ordination, and to allow minsters to serve as priests who have not been episcopally ordained, as highly detrimental to the acceptance of the ordained ministry of women in these churches where it is currently impossible. Anglican Catholic Future would make the case that the ordination of women is not a departure from the tradition of the church, as we and other episcopal churches have inherited it; it is a natural development and fulfilment of that tradition. We are joined in that desire, and in those arguments, by many in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Such arguments and such progress will be seriously undercut, however, if opponents to the ordination of women can say—as they will—as a matter of simple fact, that within decades of the ordination of women to the priesthood, and a decade of the consecration of women as bishops, the Church of England took the step of undoing the absolute association of priestly ministry and Eucharistic presidency from episcopal ordination.
A further weakness, running through the report before synod, as through MMiC, is a tendency to argue back from the intended end. Interchangeability of ministers is the goal: the feeling is that anything that would stand in the way must be, and therefore can be, argued around. Something similar is to be found in the way that the word ‘presbyter’ is used: the Church of England has presbyters, and so does the Methodist Church, so interchangeability follows. That, however, elides the differences. Difficult though it may be to say, the Church of England simply does not hold that a Methodist presbyter is entirely equivalent to one in our own church. Our practice makes that clear. If we are to change our policy and say that presbyters in the Church of England and in the Methodist Church are simply the same, that would need to be argued to, not to be argued from.
Important here is the report’s discussion of the 2003 Covenant between the Church of England and the Methodist Church. There we made warm affirmations about the life of God and work of the Holy Spirit in one another’s churches, and we were right to do so. When speaking about another church, and the workings of grace within it, we do well not to be parsimonious. We wish to insist, however, that what one says, in a properly generous spirit, about another church in such a statement, and about its internal life, is not directly equivalent to what one says about how that bears upon one’s own polity. It is one thing not to deny the work of grace in the life of church that is differently ordered from our own; it is another to say that we can therefore embrace interchangeability on that basis. In speaking about the internal life of another church, it is good to be generous; in upholding those principles by which we have sought to safeguard our own fidelity to apostolic faith and order, it is proper to show caution.
The report recognises the degree of disagreement that exists over the proposals set out in MMiC. This was reflected within the membership of the working group which produced the report. We read in the report that ‘The Faith and Order Commission remains conscious that this diversity includes a wide spectrum from enthusiastic support to deep reservation. Moreover, for different people there are different and not necessarily convergent concerns about the proposals’ (§3). Indeed, in a highly unusual way, the report placed before Synod begins by saying that ‘There was not a consensus within the House of Bishops on whether to go forward with the proposals. A majority agreed, however, that it was now right to test the mind of the General Synod on this matter in formal debate’ (§5).
We live in deeply fractious times in the life of the Church of England: over matters of human sexuality, certainly, but also beyond. Little that once bound us together still serves that role: we no longer subscribe to anything like the common sense of doctrine, embodied historically, for instance, in Pearson’s Commentary on the Creed; we are no longer bound together by the degree of common practice in worship found in uniform use of the Book of Common Prayer. We are still bound together, however, by the Settlement of 1662 and by episcopal order. Now is an inopportune time to suspend the law and principle that has been so definitive of what members of the Church of England have in common.
Of the proposal that we should break from our commitment, held since 1662, that priests must be episcopally ordained, the authors of the report write that
While the exception would constitute a temporary ‘anomaly’ in terms of the Anglican understanding of catholic order, it could nonetheless be gladly borne on this basis for the sake of enabling another church to share more fully in that order and thereby making the unity of the church also more fully visible (§35).
Much rests upon how this anomaly is to be ‘borne’, and by whom. The laity and clergy of the Church of England hold a variety of views about church order. For some, our episcopal polity is one they can live within, but our commitment to episcopal ordination is not of great consequence: they could live without it; some, indeed, would do so gladly. For others in the Church of England, however, that order is integral to why they are Anglicans. Those who belong to the first group, for whom the proposed departure is a light matter, should only warily, and with great charity, ask those in the second group to bear this anomaly, for whom it is a grave matter.
Bearing burdens for one another comes as a strong Biblical injunction; placing burdens upon others does not. In judging which burdens can gladly be born, attention should particularly be given to those for whom it will be most burdensome.
The report asks for clear language (§36). For us, the historic episcopate belongs to the fullness of the Church. The Act of Uniformity and the Ordinal both make clear the Church of England’s commitment to the inseparability of Eucharistic Presidency from episcopal ordination, as a matter not simply of convenience or good order, but of doctrine: to which, up to the present time, all Church of England clergy must assent. We cannot agree that the way forward, towards the unity for which Christ prayed, is to divide the Church of England yet further by taking away something so integral to the Church of England’s understanding of itself as Anglican, and as part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
1 July 2019