The Church of England and closer union with Methodists

This week, the Church of England’s General Synod will debate something controversial other than sexuality (hurrah!): whether we should take a formal step towards closer union with the Methodist Church by means of mutual recognition of our respective presbyteral (local church leader) ministries. The proposals are set out in the report Ministry and Mission in Covenant from the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) in the C of E and its counterpart in the Methodist Church—and I confess to being pleasantly surprised by the clarity, coherence and persuasiveness of the case that it sets out, exploring in turn the historical context of the debate, the question of episcopal ministry, the meaning of ministry recognition, and the legislative requirements. For me, the nub of the issue (which has been the focus of much subsequent debate) is expressed in chapter two, in the paragraphs expressing the theological significance of Episcopal ministry. These paragraphs set out a number of important observations about the nature and understanding of episcopal ministry in the Church of England.

The comments firstly recognise the importance of episcopacy in the Church of England, and its nature:

It is worth noting three characteristics of the historic episcopate as understood by Anglicans. First, it is personal: ‘The historic episcopate is a particular expression of personal episkope. There is no substitute for person-to-person pastoral ministry – with all its risks and vulnerability’.11 Second, it is historic: ‘It is an expression of the visible historical continuity of the Church today with the Church of the apostles’, even though ‘it is not dependent on a hypothetical unbroken chain of hands on heads’.12 Third, it is received. The historic episcopate cannot be created de novo; a church cannot simply bring it into existence by and for itself, although it may have different expressions in different contexts. All our churches are debtors to the wider Church, the Church catholic, and our highest aspiration is simply ‘to do what the Church does’, not ‘our own thing’.13 (para 23)

But the report then goes on to note what might be called the provisionality of this vision—it does not (in contrast to Roman Catholic understandings) claim to be unique or defining of Christian ecclesiology:

Anglican ecumenical documents have repeatedly emphasised that the historic episcopate is not essential to being a true church.14 So why, then, is it necessary for the Methodist Church to receive it as an integral part of the framework that enables the interchangeability of presbyteral ministries with the Church of England? The answer is to be found in the ecumenical strategy of the Anglican Communion as this was articulated in the Lambeth Quadrilateral in 1888. Ever since, Anglicans have consistently maintained that establishing a relationship of communion with other churches rests on the presence of four elements: the Scriptures, the historic creeds, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the historic episcopate ‘locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church’.15 (para 24)

There then comes a rather important observation, which is made from the Methodist side of the discussion, but actually sheds further light on historic Anglican convictions:

The Methodist Church, in its formal statement on the nature of the Church, Called to Love and Praise (1999), accepts the ecumenical consensus in the landmark Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (WCC, 1982) that the historic episcopate is ‘a sign, though not a guarantee, of the continuity and unity of the Church’.20 At the same time, the Methodist Church does not accept that the historic episcopate is essential for the faithful exercise of ministry.21 (para 27)

I think this is absolutely crucial. Episcopacy points to the centrality of apostolic faith in the Church. But as an administrative structure, it cannot guarantee this—and it would not be hard to find examples to demonstrate this. We do not have an instrumentalist understanding of the sacraments, nor of ministry; both are signs of spiritual reality, but neither guarantee it unconditionally (and in the Church of England ordination is not a dominical sacrament). What matters is the thing that it points to—it is but a means (even if an important one) to this end of being part of ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic‘ church, and the report cites the ecumenical report Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry in its understanding of apostolicity:

Continuity in the permanent characteristics of the Church of the apostles: witness to the apostolic faith, proclamation and fresh interpretation of the gospel, celebration of baptism and the eucharist, the transmission of ministerial responsibility, communion in prayer, love, joy, and suffering, service to the sick and needy, unity among the local churches and sharing the gifts which the Lord has given to each.

It is this continuity which is the essence of the Church; the particular expression of personal episcopacy in the Church of England can function as an important means to this end, but is not in itself theological essential (though we might argue that it is its historic distinctive in comparison with some other denominations). It seems to me that this understanding coheres with the emphasis in the New Testament on the (corporate) ministry of the apostles (note the emphasis on continuity of witness in Acts 1.22 and elsewhere) to hand on the paradosis, the witnessing tradition of Jesus’ teaching, death and resurrection in 1 Cor 15.3 (‘what I received I passed on to you…’). The whole approach accords with the way the Book of Common Prayer introduces the Ordinal (on p 553), as a historical reality, but without any reference to theological necessity of this particular pattern. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of Church History in Oxford, makes exactly these points:

First, ‘the historic episcopate’ throughout the Christian world is a pragmatic, gradual creation of the second century CE, which links with the first apostles, but does not do so exclusively. There was no single bishop of Rome, for instance, until the 2nd century, and earlier lines of single succession there are benevolent fictions.

Second, the Church of England is a Church of the Reformation which just happened to keep bishops. It is actually a ‘Reformed’ Protestant Church, that is not Lutheran, but part of a family of European Churches, some of which kept bishops in their government, some not. So national Reformed Churches in England, Ireland, Hungary, Romania and Poland have bishops. Up to 1662, clergy from other Reformed Churches served regardless in the CofE when they came here: often they were placed in English cathedrals or universities, not to quarantine them in some way but simply because they didn’t speak much English, and there they could exercise a ministry in the learned language of Latin.

Steven Croft’s advocacy of the proposals in last week’s Church Times focussed on the pragmatic, rather than the theological. He notes both the historical connexion and the current question about ‘fresh expressions of church’. By contrast, Andrew Davison’s response is robustly theological in focus:

Our Church upholds ancient Catholic order: bishops in the his­­toric episcopate are the ministers of ordination; the eucharist is celeb­rated by them, and by the priests they ordain. This is central to what makes the Church of England Cath­o­­lic as well as reformed: not vest­­ments, nor genuflection, but order.

I very much respect Andrew, both personally and as a theologian, but I think he is seriously mistaken here. The Church of England is not ‘Catholic as well as reformed’, as if these are two strands in its identity; it is Reformed Catholic, expressing the faith that has been agreed in all places, but at every point scrutinised through the lens of the apostolic faith as set out in the Scriptures. And the Church is not ‘made’ by its ‘order’: it is constituted as the community of witness to the resurrection, faithful to the apostolic teaching about Jesus and breathed in to life by the Spirit of God. A particular ordering of the Church might enable this, and be historically common, but as MacCulloch points out, this has not been universal practice in other reformed Catholic Churches.

Richard Peers offers a critique of Davison’s approach from a more Catholic perspective on his blog. He brings to bear (without completely agreeing with) my earlier critique of some of the language of ‘priest’ as used in the Church of England, but locates his main argument in a properly theological understanding of sacraments and ministry.

It seems to me that discussion of ‘validity’ and ‘sacramental assurance’ are extremely unhelpful. We must be careful to avoid magical thinking about the sacraments. Such thinking leads to episcopi vagantes with apparently valid orders. Just no Church. Just as there is, for Christians, only one priest, Jesus, so there is only one sacrament, his sacrifice on the Cross. Baptism is the ‘Ur’-sacrament by which we participate in that sacrifice, Eucharist is the making present of that sacrifice and our participation in it through time and space. The other sacraments, likewise, are extensions of that sacrament.

The church (and the sacraments, therefore) are to some extent present in every baptised person. The sacrament of order is present in every Christian community as it orders its life for leadership and mission, and for Eucharist. The fullness, the Catholicity, of the Church is undivided, it is every baptised person in every time and place.

Andrew Davison responded to Richard Peers’ critique, but largely to reiterate the points he has made previously; I don’t think I saw an engagement with the theological question of why ‘order’ in itself should be given this constitutive importance, not least in the language of the BCP and subsequent Anglican statements. The strength of Richard’s arguments is shown by the weakness of some of the responses; also on Richard’s blog comes a piece by Dr Philip Murray, an ordinand at Westcott House.

While I’m grateful that Fr Richard does dive deeper into the theological issues raised by the report, I’m afraid I cannot agree with some of his conclusions. Surely Catholic Anglicans do believe that a priest, a presbyteros, in the Church of England is of the same type of priesthood that Roman Catholics (and Orthodox) profess — one that is quite distinct from more Protestant understandings of presbyteral ministry argued for by Ian Paul (cautiously cited by Fr Richard) and which, arguably, have greater similarities with Methodist understandings of that ministry.

I think that statement is extraordinary, and can only be made by ignoring both the theology and the historical context of the Prayer Book, the ongoing debates in the Church of England, both in ecumenical discussion and in the revision of Communion liturgy. It comes under the kind of ecclesial ‘wishful thinking’ that is given short shrift by another church historian, Alec Ryrie, as Peter Webster notes:

Might that unity be found by means to a recourse to a shared history? The editors rightly place a fine essay by Alec Ryrie at the very beginning, in which many of the misreadings of the sixteenth century history of the Church of England are neatly dissected. The formation of ‘Anglicanism’, as a distinctive set of attitudes and theological methods, dates from a hundred years after the foundation of the Church of England, in which process figures such as Richard Hooker – marginal in his day – were moved to the centre, and figures such as William Perkins or Thomas Cartwright were marginalised despite being highly influential at the time. (That some readers may need to look these two figures up is an indication of how occluded they have become; neither appears anywhere else in this volume, and Perkins is re-christened Thomas in the index). Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics have disagreed profoundly over the early years of the Church of England, which makes the appeal to a normative past a problematic one to make.

Take for instance the issue of episcopacy. Ryrie again shows that although the Church of England was founded as an episcopal church, views differed widely as to the precise importance of the fact. Was episcopacy of the essence of the church, without which it could not exist (the position which several Anglo-Catholics have taken)? It was this principle that derailed the single most significant ecumenical scheme of the twentieth century in England, to reunify Anglicans and Methodists. Or, was episcopacy merely a convenient model of organisation, symbolically useful even, but something without which under different circumstances the Church might live? Chapters from Mark Chapman on missionary bishops, Kevin Ward on mission and Robert Bruce Mullin on the church in colonial America all show that, as a matter of historical fact, Anglicans have at times managed quite well without a fully fledged episcopal system. But other chapters make what is a common rhetorical slide from the historical to the normative, in this as in other matters. To paraphrase: ‘many Anglicans in the past have done some particular thing, and I (for reasons of theology) think that was right; these others who now do not do this are therefore not fully Anglican.’

The difference in perspective here (between Anglo-Catholic theological construction and historical reality) is expressed rather nicely in comments on Facebook in the last week, in response to people posting Diarmaid MacCulloch’s assessment. Adrian Furse, an Anglo-Catholic, responds:

I don’t object to reconciliation, but I do demand that each and every Methodist minister is episcopally ordained before serving in an Anglican Church.

whilst John Barton, another Oxford professor, observes:

Hear, hear [to MacCulloch]. I remember the 1960s Anglican-Methodist scheme, which failed because of the same unhistorical fantasy about Anglican orders. I expect the same to happen again, alas.

For all these reasons, I will be voting in favour of the proposals set out in Ministry and Mission in Covenant. But I would want to add a couple of caveats. Steven Croft opens his piece with the assertion:

Any opportunity to take a sig­­nificant step towards visible Chris­tian unity needs to be grasped with both hands and explored fully.

I simply want to ask the question: ‘Why’? In these discussions, ‘visible’ has become a slippery term, and is usually taken to mean ‘institutional’. I am not clear that institutional, administrative and authoritative union is all that important. After all, the ekklesiai in the various cities in the early church operated much more as a loose confederation—but gathered around the apostolic witness. It is also worth noting that they had no kind of monarchical episcopacy—so that, ironically, the Methodist understanding of collective oversight actually takes us more closely to the apostolic era. And is not practical partnership in ministry and mission on the ground not ‘visible’? More importantly, what is the relation between unity and truth? As I have previously argued, it is a mistake to read Jesus’ so-called ‘high priestly prayer’ in John 17 as a eulogy to unity; Jesus is quite clear that unity is found by means of our agreeing on the apostolic message that he has entrusted to his followers and which we find in the gospels and letters of the New Testament.

I am also curious as to why this particular question has come back to us at a time when the Church of England still has not stemmed its decline, and when (arguably) Methodism is, tragically, in its dying days. If unity is so important, why are we not putting similar efforts into attaining ‘visible unity’ with the many ‘new churches’ which are growing, and from whom we are borrowing many of our strategies of church planting and growth?

(I have borrowed the picture from the Church Times, but I hope they will permit this as I am encouraging people to read their articles…)

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44 thoughts on “The Church of England and closer union with Methodists”

  1. Phillip Murray wrote “Surely Catholic Anglicans do believe that a priest, a presbyteros, in the Church of England is of the same type of priesthood that Roman Catholics (and Orthodox) profess,“ and Ian Paul replies, “I think that statement is extraordinary, and can only be made by ignoring both the theology and the historical context of the Prayer Book.”

    And yet by the teaching of the Prayer book ordinal and canons, to which current C of E practice is faithful, RC and Orthodox priests do *not* require ordination when they come to serve in our church. Such re-ordination would be forbidden (because, as Canon C2 reminds us, “No person who has been admitted to the order of bishop, priest, or deacon can ever be divested of the character of his order.”) Following the Prayer book, we recognise that RC and Orthodox priests have already been ordained priests.

    Methodist ministers and those from other non-episcopal churches on the other hand, in line with the Prayer book Ordinal and canons, must be ordained in the same manner as a lay person. That is the current teaching and practice of the Church of England.

    • But that is because up until now the C of E has simply operated with the assumption of the need for episcopal ordination. It says very little about the theology of ministry.

      If you are unsure of my comment, do just spend a few minutes reading either the respective communion liturgies, or the respective ordinals. The RC ones contain key elements which are explicitly rejected by the BCP. That is what it means to be a Reformed Catholic Church.

      I am genuinely baffled when people miss this. (And I speak as a former Roman Catholic who still knows the liturgy of the Mass by heart.)

      • No-one claims the liturgies and ordinals are identical. Yet the Church of England’s practice is to recognise RC and Orthodox ordinations as having conferred the character that cannot be repeated– their ordination is accepted– whereas non-episcopal churches’ ministers who come to us receive ordination in the same way as a lay person who is to be ordained. This practice is enshrined in the ordinal and canons and our ecumenical agreements and practices (e.g. Porvoo). I have always received the impression from your blog that you are very happy to derive from the liturgies and historic formularies an understanding what makes something Anglican. That’s why I too am genuinely baffled that you attach little importance to all of this in this instance, and suggest these matters are mere unexamined customs with no theological meaning.

        I’d be very interested to know your thoughts on the document Saepius Officio written by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in response to Roman Catholic claims about orders in our church.

        Thank you for always being thought-provoking, whether I agree with you or not!

  2. I have always been uneasy with the largely post-Vatican II idea that the Presbyter is somehow the bishop’s deputy, and merely presides because the bishop can’t be present himself.This idea wss pedalled at seminary by Bishop John Hind, the then principal, following a wave of contemporary writing on the subject.

    I am unsure if this is actually consistent with the BCP ordinal. There are promises of episcopal obedience certainly, but it might be argued that the Priest (Minister) receives his authority from God, and is not the mediator of the bishop.

    • Simon, I am sure you are right. This must be true given the constant tension over the exercise of power, demonstrated by the balance between canonical obedience on the one hand, and freehold and its successor on the other. I do not simply do what my bishop commands—if I am true to Anglican ordination.

  3. Thank you Ian, timely and thought provoking, especially in Cumbria where we have ‘God For All’ an ecumenical strategy. The challenge of inherited church structures on all sides, and how to square differing ecclesiologies does cause much angst. But given the sparse population density up here, it does make sense for churches to work more closely together and pool resources be they clergy, laity or buildings.

  4. Union between Methodists and Anglicans has been under discussion for all of my adult life and has foundered on every occasion on the rock of episcopy. Had Union been successful in the late 60s it might have been transformative for both denominations however it seems pointless to pursue this now. It is very unlikely that the Methodist Church will still be in existence in the UK in 10 years time. As a Methodist I would have thought that the last thing the CoE needs at the moment is an influx of geriatric Methodists.

  5. Thank you Ian for this admirable summary of the issues at stake. I’ve been pondering which way to go on this and I think you, broadly, are inviting us in the right direction. Those of us who serve in urban areas, where people can easily church-hop, can easily not understand the importance of ecumenical convergence. But this seems a modest, but significant, step.

  6. Helpful in some ways, Ian, but is high ecclesiology really the only factor at stake?

    MMIC is an involved technical document, but the ‘end product’ in all this will be an Anglican or Methodist minister in post having to manage life in – and lead effectively – a congregation or congregations of the other denomination. There are huge cultural factors to take into account, both formal and informal. The 2 churches have different formal polity and cultural heritage as well.

    One of my big concerns is that Anglican Formation, such a vital ingredient in a ‘vicar factory’, is in serious danger of being overlooked. (The converse applies for Methodists of course) Candidates, ordinands and curates do huge amounts of training and assessment around Anglican formation in different ways – formation groups at college & dioceses, placements in different churchmanships, etc etc. Much is assessed…..and yet the report seems to suggest it’s OK to parachute in a Methodist minister into roles without that (well, maybe a training course or two).

    There are a lot of ‘pinch points’ in Anglican formation (and no doubt the same could be said for Methodist formation as well) that need to be worked through. Usually these are spread out over the training period, but there could be a very big culture shock for Methodist minsters when they get in post, and they’ll be on their own without the years of relationships and support that Anglicans have received. It’s easy to see a lack of support from the congregation don’t ‘get it’, a Deanery Chapter who may have mixed feelings, and the hierarchy who may be sympathetic but too busy to provide any help (and re also torn by their need to make their Mission & Pastoral plans work). Even if they ‘survive’, will they actually be effective?

    This is utterly vital to the success of the project, but gets just 2 sentences in the report – paragraph 89.

    It’s so easy to see very high dropout rates, or ministers not being able to offer effective ministry – “the operation was successful but the patient died” – and that being the case is it wise to proceed?

  7. Forgive me, I haven’t read the documents and don’t understand what this means. Does it mean a Methodist minster could apply for CofE positions (and vice-versa)? What are the other practical implications? Will the Methodist minister have to swear the same oaths etc in taking up a CofE office?

  8. Ian writes: “Methodism is, tragically, in its dying days” Indeed. That of itself is no reason not to consider union. The question however is “why” is methodism dying? My perception of it is that it is barely orthodox in doctrine and evangelical in mission. I fear a union would merely accelerate the compromise in the CofE. The famed Methodist preacher Dr William Sangster once interviewed a young candidate for ministry. On exploring his faith & spirituality the candidate said “i’m not the sort of person to set the Thames on fire” to which Sangster responded, “ok, but what I want to know is, if I dropped you in it, would it sizzle?!” Unless Methodism will raise the spiritual temperature of the CofE why on earth would we move forward on this.”

  9. It seems to me that the “received” episcopate, which presumably means Apostolic succession, hangs on a weak thread if it hangs at all. I am not sure the apostles would have recognised it. I would put this into the category of “vain things fondly imagined”.
    As for ecumenism, is the value of chocolate less because it comes in different packets from different suppliers? Surely what matters is mutual recognition of ministry and an end to questionable doctrine that prevents this.

        • I would suggest reading all his epistles (they’re not long) as his ecclesiology permeates all of them. But if you want a place to start, his Epistle to the Smyrneans, and particularly Chapter 8, with its insistence that “where the bishop is… we have the Catholic Church.” Coming from someone who knew and was formed by the Apostles, this pretty much undermines the idea that the historic episcopate is something far removed from the Apostles.

          • Thanks. I have read that often, and recently, and what he says there is very hard to square with the teaching of the NT—not simply in terms of the evidence of organisation, but in the much more fundamental question of what constitutes the Church.

            It is for this reason (amongst others) that the C of E, as a Reformed part of the Catholic church, insists only on those things that can be proved ‘by sure warrant of scripture’. Other things (in the Fathers and elsewhere) might be helpful, but they cannot be seen as central or compelling.

            Monarchical episcopacy as expounded by Ignatius contradicts all of Paul’s practice as an apostle, so (ironically) the Methodists might be closer to this than the older historic denominations.

          • Thank you – my blog is sadly neglected.

            With regard to the NT, I suspect that that depends on the interpretive lenses through which one reads it, Moreover, as Saint Basil the Great pointed out in the fourth century, not everything that was passed down was done so through writing. To insist on only admitting the “sure warrant of scripture” as evidence of what was going on strikes me as a particularly modern (okay, sixteenth century) reading of the evidence. Personally, I find it extremely difficult to believe that the Church suddenly went rogue after the death of the last Apostle. Which is not to deny that there may have been a certain plurality of practices that developed and became clarified. But to discount the witness of someone like Saint Ignatius simply because it contradicts what one thinks Scripture is saying suggests, to me, that one should perhaps reconsider how one reads Scripture.

          • Thanks Macrina. This is of course a massive issue in Christian theology. But there are several things to note.

            First, I think it is quite difficult to deny that what Ignatius says really is at basic odds with NT ecclesiology and eschatology. I think some people do avoid this, and mostly do so by simply not paying careful attention to the NT data, and projecting Ignatius onto it. But careful reading means that we really are left with a difficult choice between the one viewpoint and the other.

            Second, there is actually quite a lot of evidence that the church ‘went rogue’ a generation later on some important issues. I would include on this the attitude to women, attitudes to the Jews, eschatology and the interpretation of Revelation. There are plenty of explanations for this in terms of persecution and the social setting.

            But the theological issue is the meaning of the closure of the canon. For whatever reason, there was an early concern both to add to the Jewish Scriptures an account of God’s final revelation of himself in Jesus, but at the same time a concern to limit what could be added. This says something important about what it means to be ‘apostolic’ and includes within it the strong implicit assumption that subsequent discussion must be tethered to these texts—which was in fact the case for the development of understandings of Christology and Trinity.

          • The Didache, which predates the letters of Ignatius, seems to indicate practices other than monarchical bishops (and oddly no mention of presbyters):

            Chapter 15. Bishops and Deacons; Christian Reproof. Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Therefore do not despise them, for they are your honoured ones, together with the prophets and teachers.


          • Ian, if you really think that the Church went rogue within a generation of the Apostles – and that the teaching of the martyrs is at odds with that of the Apostles – then I don’t think I have anything more to say. I was not aware that Anglicans held such views.

            Will, I don’t really get your point as the Didache text you cite clearly refers to bishops and there is nothing in it that contradicts what Saint Ignatius writes. In fact, their requirements for bishops seem to have a great deal in common. Also, from what I remember, bishops and deacons precede the development of presbyters, although I acknowledge that the development of this varied from place to place.

          • Macrina, it all depends on what you mean by ‘Anglicans hold such views’. Some Anglicans, in some contexts do. It would probably be truer to say that ‘some English Anglicans’, since the C of E has retained its ‘evangelical’ commitment to the Articles and historic formularies in a way that some other members of the Anglican Communion (including in the US, Canada and New Zealand) have not.

            But those of us who do take that view are simply taking seriously the closure of the canon, but are also only following Cranmer’s rejection of the sacerdotal understanding of ministry which developed in the second and third centuries—as was characteristic of Reformation churches.

            I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: the C of E is not ‘reformed and Catholic’ as if two conflicting traditions simply jostle. We are ‘reformed catholic’—accepting only things which have been believed by Christians in every place AND which have the sure warrant of Scripture.

          • I haven’t commented here before, but having done some reading in this area I thought it was worth pointing out that Clement’s letter, from a similar time period to Ignatius indicates that both Rome and Corinth seemed to have a plural leadership – and it seems that (in a similar way to the NT letters of Timothy and Titus, it is possible to refer to this plural leadership as both elders/presbyters and overseers/bishops). This differs from Ignatius’ letters written to the churches in Asia Minor, who all seem to have a bishop (singular) who has a standing above the rest of the leadership (elders/presbyters & deacons).

            From my reading of Ignatius it seems that, while Paul in the pastorals has a strong emphasis on the need for the church to hold fast to the apostolic teaching, Ignatius has shifted from this to an emphasis on loyalty to the bishop as the focus of unity. I think it is relatively easy to see how that could have happened under pressure (a person is much easier to follow than a set of teachings and a way of life), and then easy to see why a doctrine of apostolic succession could develop – although I don’t think (I could be wrong) there is anywhere where Ignatius refers to himself as a successor to the apostles.

          • On this topic, I came across this today in a review in First Things:

            ‘Collins and Walls offer no formal criteria by which Christians can recognize binding authority. In fact, an oft-repeated claim of their book is that apostolic succession and the Petrine office are myths. Here is their argument: The doctrine of apostolic succession says that the apostles were succeeded by bishops. However, in the early Church, “bishops” were not clearly distinguished from “presbyters” (elders), and the monarchical episcopate did not emerge until the second century, especially not in Rome. In many cases, Christian communities were governed by groups of presbyters rather than by solitary bishops. Therefore, apostolic succession is a myth.

            The authors might be surprised to learn that Joseph Ratzinger agrees with the historical premises of this argument. During his tenure as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he pointed out that the ecclesiastical offices “do not yet possess a permanently established form or fixed names” in the time of the New Testament. This is not a problem for Catholic doctrine. If the apostles authorized some people to succeed them as leaders and gave them a mandate to authorize their own successors, what we have is apostolic succession. It does not matter if some of those who were authorized by the apostles were called “presbyters” rather than “bishops.” Nor does it matter if the apostles passed along their authority not to “bishops ruling their flocks as monarchs,” but to bodies of elders. Catholics do not view the apostolic office as immune to historical development.’


  10. As someone who currently worships in a Methodist church (note the careful phrasing there), and very aware of the graphs of declining attendance, some of the comments here are rather along the lines of “O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!”

  11. A methodist colleague has written to me in response to the current document as follows:

    “Methodism was originally a ‘fresh expression’ of church within the Anglican church and remained so for the first 50 years of its existence, until it grew to the point when it could no longer be contained within the structures of Anglicanism. John and Charles Wesley died as Anglican clergymen. We only became a church in 1793, two years after John Wesley’s death. But John caused ructions in 1784 when he ordained bishops before sending them out to minister in the USA—this disturbed both the Church of England and his own followers. And our distaste of bishops has continued ever since!

    I agree that in some haste to bring our two denominations closer together the writers of this document seem to advocating uniformity instead of valuing our diversity, and the issue of the historic episcopate is the key stumbling block for Methodists. Methodism I think struggles to give such power to one individual–we are ordained by Conference and are under the discipline of Conference.
    In the post-Christendom world we find ourselves in, I personally would value any measures that would enable us to work more closely together to maintain a Christian presence, both in area of high deprivation in multi-ethnic inner cities and in a more rural context. I think the secular world is quite bewildered and loses patience with us when we hive off into our denominational huddles. Now that the C of E has finally got its act together with women in ministry ( and is now doing rather well at it!) we are somewhat closer than we were 25 years ago, but I am still aggrieved that my ordination is not accepted or acceptable to Anglicans and I really resent being seen as an anomaly, as this document suggests! I think Methodism has much to share with the Anglican Church, in terms of mission and social justice, and we have things to gain from you in terms of your place in the public square.

    I think this document, with its emphasis on ‘fudging’ the historic episcopate is heading for failure, and I couldn’t vote for it, but I hope both denominations would work wholeheartedly on finding a way forward in sharing our ministry as far as is possible without shaking our basic foundations, because while we argue about bishops or presidents, alcoholic or non-alcoholic communion wine, vestments or a smart suit, incense or no incense, there are souls that need saving, and there is good news that God has called us to proclaim. I hope that both denominations can focus on that, and find better ways of working together rather than focussing on that which divides us. When the closer working relationships are secure, we will be in a better position to explore with grace what divides us. I don’t think we are at that place just yet.”


    “I have done some more thinking and reading since my last message. I think I am troubled by the fear that many Anglican and Methodist clergy will not accept this, though some will, so there may be schism within our two denominations. So these proposals may not tear down the barriers between us, they might simply move them to another place–i.e. division within the Anglican Church between those in favour of interchangeability, and those against— a bit like the unfortunate arrangement you have had to make with the Forward in Faith brigade over women’s ordination, and division within Methodism as we had in the bad old days of Prims and Wesleyans. Such a schismatic arrangement would leave us all in a worse state than we are now.

    Wesley called the historic episcopate a vain myth. I think he was right. If I thought it was correct, i would be an Anglican—except the ‘dressing up’ doesn’t do much for me!!

    I think I could accept bishops if they could be defined within Methodist ecclesiology. But the articles I have read in the Church Times suggest that some Anglicans would really struggle with this.

    However, I believe passionately in ecumenism. I think our divisions–man-made divisions–frustrate the workings of the Holy Spirit in our churches and in our communities. I would support moves for a closer working relationship, but the document goes too far for me, and. I suspect, too far for many clergy of both denominations at this time.”

    I find this a really helpful and gracious viewpoint which helps me to my view that in our desire to heal the body of Christ we may be going too far to impose a sort of creeping uniformity. The apostle Paul tells us about the Body of Christ the eye cannot say to the hand, I don’t need you…” but equally that we are one Body with many parts. We are now organically linked by the Spirit and have different specialist callings in the ways we discern needs, community and structure. My view is that we are far more effective continuing working warmly together than imposing schemes which may diminish us both.

  12. I was quite shocked by this;

    “Surely Catholic Anglicans do believe that a priest, a presbyteros, in the Church of England is of the same type of priesthood that Roman Catholics ”

    I’m not sure how anyone in the CofE looking back at theological trysts over the decades could come to this conclusion. Are our ‘orders’ suddenly valid or is it that we are merely using the right words? The ASB (I think it was that and not Series 3) titled the ordination service of priests as ‘also called presbyters’.

    I’m ‘for’ the proposal in general terms but am concerned about a merely unity exercise for appearances sake as well as the near ignoring of newer denominations in (only some?) diocesan thinking. Is it that diocesan bishops can’t always think outside the box of titles or old forms of order?

    I’d also be concerned that parts of Methodism are rather liberal, aged and failing. Some of the CofE isn’t any different but past unity schemes might be viewed as speeding up death not breathing in new life. Re-organisation is no substitute for being alive in Jesus. ‘Deck chairs on the titanic’ come to mind.

    With prayer about the decision…

  13. Paul Bayes elsewhere writes, ‘Here is a non-Episcopal church, the Methodist Church, that is prepared to consider taking into itself the Episcopal order’. Is this true? I understand Methodism to have episcopacy already – it resides corporately in the Conference. Not only is this a valid expression of episcopal oversight, it might have something to teach the CofE. Among other things it might well less prone to the present anxious focus on individual personalities and gifts that drives the CofE approach to episcopal leadership. If the ‘learning community’, with its pool of future church leaders, is focusing as much on what ‘community’ means as on ‘leadership’ we might be in for something genuinely new and renewing.

  14. I write as a Methodist presbyter who did his first Theology degree at an Anglican theological college (Trinity Bristol) and who spent thirteen years working in LEPs with Anglicans. Where to begin?

    1. It’s about time some (particularly Anglo-Catholics) understood how insulting and patronising it is to hear that we would have to be ordained as if we were currently laypeople. Don’t call this church order, call it denying what the Holy Spirit has already done in and through us.

    2. Is the Methodist Church liberal? In places, yes. It is a theologically diverse denomination. I think you Anglicans know something about this, too … 🙂 However, we evangelicals are certainly present, and Methodist Evangelicals Together has the largest membership of all the ginger groups within Methodism, we just may not be so visible because one weakness of the circuit system (despite its other strengths) is that it makes theological distinctives less clear.

    3. Do we have episkopé? Yes: David Runcorn above is correct. What we’re nervous about is episkopé always concentrated in one person, having seen that abused not only in Anglicanism but also in Methodist history. You can argue we’ve gone too far the other way (the President of Conference only serving for one year, and so on), but that is our concern.

    4. Geriatric Methodists? Yes, tragically, our demographic profile is alarming. But this is not an organic union scheme, so what is the concern? Perhaps I’ve missed something.

    5. Peter Kay and I have been involved in a helpful discussion on a closed Facebook group for Trinity College people past and present, where he also rightly raised the issue of formation and culture. If MMIC goes through both churches, I would still be ambivalent about, say, applying for a position equivalent to an Anglican incumbency, because other things go with it. (Personally, I have theological doubts about the appropriateness of a State Church, for example, and the consequent ramifications.) There certainly would be points where Anglicans coming into a Methodist appointment would trip up – parish versus membership, for example.

    6. So why on balance and despite certain questions would I overall support MMIC, especially when – like Wesley – I regard the ‘historic episcopate’ as a ‘vain myth’ that cannot be justified from the New Testament? Well, our ecclesiology is pretty imperfect, too. I don’t like being described in the report as an ‘anomaly’, and I don’t see a President-Bishop as essential, but for the modest reason that it would help local co-operation, MMIC would help. In the LEPs where I served, the local Anglican clergy didn’t treat me as second class, but the system (and the bishops) did. MMIC would deal with that, I hope and pray. I have no designs on juicy Anglican appointments, just a desire to serve together as an equal. At present, that’s not the case.

    • Thanks, Dave, for that really helpful comment. For my part, I am sorry for the way that the C of E has made you feel second class. I don’t think that is a theologically defensible position.

    • Hi Dave,

      As an Anglican Presbyter/priest (now active/retired) one of the best working relationships I have had in nearly 30 years was with a local Methodist minister. The whole area benefitted from his clear and energetic commitment to mission. Ecumenical partnership was essentially project based on a foundation of shared prayer and fellowship across the church leaders. The ‘free churches’ almost all joined on. Anglican response was not uniformly good and sometimes cold even when their parishes benefitted from some of the projects. I’d work with such a Methodist any day.

      I’m afraid that ‘episcopy’ didn’t come into it beyond thinking that a leader of an area or of several churches was exercising it in biblical and practical reality. I’m afraid some Anglican hierarchies are clueless about the reality of mission on the ground and see no have zero deep experience.

    • As a lay person, it is worrying that self selection is the qualification for leading a church service.
      I personally think that clergy should have their status raised; why should their vocation be paid less than a doctor, for example?

      • That is an interesting question, and of course has been the situation in the past.

        Two simple answers: a. the Church could not afford it; and b. we would return to a time where people put themselves forward out of ambition.

        • I don’t want to be rude but the Bishops grabbed most of the money from the quota system for their own schemes and purposes. In Bristol there was over a million pounds spent on the Bishop’s evangelistic mission to the youth. Meanwhile local vicarages and churches were sold off to pay for it. The selection for these vicarages was based on the Bishop’s antipathy to their churchmanship. Holy Nativity in Bristol is Anglo Catholic and is well attended. The part time Vicar now lives miles outside the Parish.

  15. I don’t think that it is true that John Wesley ordained the first Methodist bishop sent to N. America, I understand that he used the services of an exiled Greek Orthodox Bishop; so the first Methodist bishop in N. America would have indeed been in the Apostolic succession.

    • Wesley ordained ‘Superintendents’ for North America. I don’t know the Greek Orthodox bishop story – you may be right – but he was on record as saying he had become convinced presbyters could ordain presbyters.

  16. Michael Lakey makes this helpful comment on Facebook: I entered the CofE from Methodism as a regular worshipper in 2000, when returning from the NW to the NE I found that all but one of the chapels in my circuit had effectively died out. I was sad at the time, and still am regretful, as the chapels were *the* working class religion of the 19th and 20th C. The void created by their demise has not been filled by the CofE, nor in my mind is it likely to be–except in a few areas.

    However, theologically, the move was very productive for me as I had been thinking about the practical deficiency of episcope in the local Methodist churches for a while. I know that the connexion and conference are supposed to provide episcopal functions, but they don’t really figure at a local level the way that a bishop does in a CofE parish. Certainly, since worshipping with Anglicans (2000) and eventually being received and confirmed (2012), and then ordained (2014), the practical difference is obvious to me–and that is even given that one of the churches in which I started out in back in 2000 was in impaired communion with their own bishop.

    As such, I think the discussion about the broad equivalence of the episcopal function in Methodism and Anglicanism is a bit of a canard. Yes, on paper, one might come up with an argument that suggests that they are functionally equivalent (I would not advance that argument). One might even confound objections by doing doctrine by means of the discipline of history (I would not). But this is to obscure the main difference at the level of community ethos, namely that though both Methodism and Anglicanism are practically congregationalist the connection between the latter and the universal church is symbolically maintained by bishops in a way that is not maintained in the former by the conference/connexion. This is a basic difference of religious habitus.

    All of this is complicated by the fact that the Church of England has managed internal dissent by becoming three (at the very least) quite separate religions. Historically, and on paper, the Church of England is a Reformed Protestant Church with Bishops, which became somewhat more monarchical and superficially catholic in flavour at the Restoration. But we all know that since the catholic revival in Anglicanism, the relationship between the catholic tradition in the Church of England and the formularies has become, shall we say, hermeneutically complicated. It was not Roland Barthes who first discovered the death of authorial intention–it was the Tractarians in their interpretation of the Articles! I say this with neither joy nor condemnation, since I belong to the tradition they founded (and I could not remain Anglican but for that doctrinal tradition). Hence, arguing about what *the* place of bishops might be in Anglicanism, as if Anglicanism had a single or even convergently-pluriform ecclesiology, is IMO to fail to reckon with the ecclesiological diversity that has not just been permitted but has been positively institutionalised over the past two centuries.

    And this is the rub: on paper, two quasi-congregationalist protestant denominations ought to be able to unify with a minimum of fuss, so on paper there is nothing to prevent this from occurring. But the CofE is not such a beast any more! And, the catholic tradition is ecclesiologically wide enough in the Church of England for some catholics to be able to make sense of this. But not all–or even most–I suspect! All in all, I agree with +Pete Broadbent in arguing that this is just another episcopal complication, in a period in which we are already creaking at the seams because of internal schism.

    • On reflection you may be correct that this is an unnecessary complication in the current climate. Might it also be more about appearances than practical outcomes? On the ground there is lots of co-operation where the local ministers see eye-to-eye and trust each other in significant ways. Where’s there is no trust the opposite is, obviously, true. Legislation canntot force or give reason to trust.

      But I wonder about the degree to which this is still correct:

      “But this is to obscure the main difference at the level of community ethos, namely that though both Methodism and Anglicanism are practically congregationalist the connection between the latter and the universal church is symbolically maintained by bishops in a way that is not maintained in the former by the conference/connexion.”

      My wondering is:

      1. whether the working definition of ‘universal church’ has changed. Are there plenty of smaller denominations and individual churches who don’t come on to the radar of the older groupings? We don’t see them, in a structural sense, and I suspect some of them have no wish or feel a need to see/interact with Bishops or anybody else beyond the local.

      2. Hence…in thinking ‘Universal Church’ might the networking of local church be, in depth, more ‘universal’ than that symbolised or engaged with by bishops?

      Of course ‘the universal church’ means every church as part of the one church of God but is that enough in practical (or biblical) theological thinking?

  17. may be best way forward would be to build on, what we have in common and not so much the differences, a broken church wont fix a broken world, how can we help people if we can not work together, unity is much needed, Jesus said that not division. many people saying Methodist on here it wont be around in ten years, same could be said of church of England but we will be around church is not a building but made of people, small or large. i am a Methodist our prayer books lords supper are church of England prayer books. church is stronger as one serving people and with costs moving forward. church of England is already many types of church in one high low catholic evangelical, already many joint Methodist and church of England and urc churches, our creed is one holy catholic church, why does church have to so complicated meeting after meeting and getting nowhere.

  18. Now Lady Bishops have joined the court of public opinion over Dominic Cummings.
    The persecution of Christians throughout the world, which is real fact and not an opinion, hasn’t been mentioned at all by them.
    Quite an omission don’t you agree?
    Frances Howard


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