The churches signed a covenant 11 years ago committing themselves to working more closely together and seeking ‘visible unity’. While there are many good working relationships, a final report from the covenant’s Joint Implementation Committee (JIC) argues that progress on crucial theological issues has stalled and that the covenant is at a ‘decisive moment’.
It proposes that the Church of England follows the example of the Church of Ireland, which voted for the interchangeability of ministries early in May. In practice this would mean that Methodist ministers could serve in Church of England parishes and chaplaincies; Methodist rules already allow Church of England clergy to serve in Methodist settings. The Church of England’s difficulty is in regarding Methodist clergy as episcopally ordained, since Methodists in the UK do not appoint bishops.
The JIC challenge to Methodists is for them to rethink their opposition to episcopacy. At present Methodists hold that the Methodist Conference fulfils the role of a bishop. However, the report says: ‘The Methodist Church needs to address the question of expressing the Conference’s ministry of oversight in a personal form of connexional, episcopal ministry (such as a President Bishop) in such a way that it could be recognised by the Church of England.’
It adds: ‘It is as if we face a locked door, which can only be opened with two keys: each of our churches holds one of the keys which will open the way to a new stage of our Covenant journey.’
A statement by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Most Revs Justin Welby and John Sentamu, and the President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, the Rev Ruth Gee and Dr Daleep Mukarji, welcomed the report.
The joint statement does not specifically endorse the proposals, which are likely to prove difficult both for Anglicans and Methodists. Traditionalist Anglicans might find it difficult to regard Methodist ordination as within the apostolic succession, while Methodists will be wary of anything that seems to undermine the authority of the Conference.
Methodists will consider the proposals in July; the Church of England will do so in November.