On Thursday 11 February, Revd David Gamble, President of Methodist Conference, addressed the General Synod of the Church of England. The impact of his speech certainly brought the Methodist Church to the attention of the media, even to the extent of an interview with John Humphreys on BBC Radio 4's Today programme!
The passage in his speech which sparked the controversy was this one:
Methodists approach the Covenant with the Church of England in the spirituality of that [Wesleyan] Covenant prayer. So when we say to God “let me have all things let me have nothing”, we say it by extension to our partners in the Church of England as well. We are prepared to go out of existence not because we are declining or failing in mission, but for the sake of mission. In other words we are prepared to be changed and even to cease having a separate existence as a Church if that will serve the needs of the Kingdom.
To get some measure of the media response, I recommend a post by Peter Phillips, Reflecting on metropolitan ecumenism and grassroots mission . Follow the links from this post and others around it, and you will find a number of blogs about the speech.
These comments seem to fall into three categories:
- Those who welcome the emphasis on the priority of mission for the Methodist Church.
- Those who question the possibility of Methodism going out of existence and consider the obstacles to unity with the Church of England.
- Those who question the commitment of the Church of England to unity with the Methodist Church.
So, what do I think?
It is worth considering the sentence which immediately follows the above quotation:
Are we willing to take our covenant that seriously? It’s quite a challenge – for both of our churches.
The 'we' is addressed to the General Synod and is really the point he is making. How do we take the Anglican Methodist Covenant more seriously?
I do not take too seriously the idea the Methodist Church might go out of existence. There are many Methodist Churches all over the world. They exist as a result of the Methodist commitment to mission. In some countries, the Methodist Church has joined a United or Uniting Church and they are still recognised as Methodist by the World Methodist Council. They have members who consider themselves as Methodists or subscribe to Methodist doctrinal emphases.
It is unfortunate so much attention has been given to the possibility of British Methodism going out of existence, for two reasons:
- Those Methodist Churches that have joined United or Uniting Churches have not gone out of existence. Just as Wesleyan and Primitive traditions are a part of modern Methodism in Britain, so any new church would be Methodist as well as Anglican.
- In the light of the history of the English Covenant to 1982, it is difficult to imagine a sequence of steps that would lead to a United or Uniting Church in Britain.
David Gamble's purpose was to challenge General Synod (and indeed the Methodist Church) to take the Covenant seriously, not to lead the Methodist Church into some sort of suicide pact.
Some commentators have suggested a better approach than top down unity would be for local churches to decide their futures together, for the sake of mission. I agree this has to be a better way, allowing each church or circuit to move at its own pace. To do this we need interchangeability of ministry. The lack of interchangeability is a significant barrier to local unity and it is an immediate goal of the Anglican Methodist Covenant . It is a challenging goal, because the Methodist Church would need to accept Bishops and the Church of England would need to accept women Bishops and resolve some of their outstanding issues about women in ministry generally. Methodists need to view this with a degree of humility, for the signs are the Church of England will resolve their issues before the Methodist Church tackles Methodist Bishops.
This is a first step and it is a daunting step. It is also a credible step, by which I mean it is possible and would be a significant, indeed essential, step towards facilitating local unity. However, the paradox is it may also be a step away from visible unity. Interchangeability of ministry does not mean the two churches would be united, just that they will recognise each other's ministries. If this were to be achieved it would change the ecumenical landscape, especially locally. It is possible this will be sufficient and the churches will find there is no need to move closer to visible unity.
It is difficult to predict what will happen until we experience the impact of interchangeability. The problem is to do with the way we pursue unity and I'll unpick this further in my next post.