Monday, June 20, 2011

The sins of the Fathers...

Good afternoon God,
I had always puzzled at how a loving God could, as Scripture so often tells us, visit the iniquity of the father onto the Children to the third and fourth generation.. sadly I now understand that what is meant is that the consequences of the initial 'sin' will reverberate and enslave subsequent generations.
It is in that light that I have come to view our current ecumenical situation.

I fully understand the origin of the dreams of ecumenism that once fired the young ministers of the Methodist and Anglican Churches during the 1960's and 70's - especially following the 'death of God debate'. I appreciate all that they managed to achieve with their zeal and enthusiasm.. but I have also come to believe you gave your answer - firmly and emphatically.  You have made it clear that your 'broken body' is not ours to try and lump together again by our petty politics and power games. It is broken - to serve your purposes, not ours.

But the next generation of ministers, and those that have followed have nonetheless had to pay the price of those dreams. The amount of energy and money that has been spent on seeking so called 'Church unity' - ie on Church order, instead of on evangelism, social justice and pastoral care is - quite simply - frightening - and sinful.

And no - I do not understand it.

I am repeatedly told that full organic unity will better serve the mission of your Church - but the fastest growing churches in the world, both historically, and currently are those interested in mission and ministry, not those obsessed with bishops and clerics.  They are those with people and salvation in mind, not Church order and interchangability of ministry. They are focused on worship and discipleship, not with whether a service of the Eucharist is 'proper' or 'authorized'.
The Pentecostal Church today is not interested in whether the world thinks it is 'orthodox' or 'respectable' it IS interested in saving souls. In Asia and Africa the Methodist Church is not concerned with whether it is part of the apostolic succession or not,  it IS concerned with saving souls..

I am tired of being told that the Methodist Church once claimed that it was willing to take the historic episcope into its system - we once claimed a lot of things! Wesley believed in Witches, and thought tea was the devil's brew - we no longer do. British Methodists were once almost all members of the Temperance society - few are today, we once thought Roman Catholics were not even Christian - we no longer think so today - we MAKE MISTAKES in our discernment!
At the start of this century, we made it clear that we were no longer so willing to take the historic episcope into our system when Conference and the Methodist people declared that NONE of the possible options presented (including that of the president of Conference being made a Bishop) was acceptable.

Surprisingly God, you have shared with us some crucial revelations: You have shown us that that there is no difference in your eyes between laity and clergy, and that the Church really does not need bishops to engage in mission and ministry. You have revealed to us that the diaconate is a separate unique and complementary form of ordained ministry; that the laity can baptise and preside over the Lord's table without either acts losing their sacramentality or efficacy before You. That discipline and discipleship belong together. That Christian perfection is the goal you set before us, and most of all - that predestination in any form is not part of your Gospel of love and grace.

The longing of some Methodist men to be Bishops was/is I believe, another sickness and a sin in our church that some in this generation are growing a little tired of paying for.  I believe you have made it clear that churches can work together without denying the gifts of grace that you have given to each. It should be possible for any church seriously committed to your gospel, to work for your glory without being made to adopt Bishops first!

So - yes, I am appalled at the re-writing of Methodist History in the JIC report coming before our Conference - Methodism divided after Wesley's death over church structure - and in particular over the doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers - ie over the equality before you, God of the laity and the clergy.  Once again, our history is paraded as something shameful, when the truth is quite the opposite.
Lay and clerical equality is not an event in our past, but in our present. We have only recently finished restructuring our own Conference so that there is parity of representation between clergy and laity.

And where in the report is the recent Anglican history over this same period ? What of the flying bishops from other parts of the Anglican world brought in by London Churches to ordain the homophobic, or the success of the ordinariate and the dissent against women bishops -
The JIC report dares to suggest that the Covenant is a plan for greater Church unity but the Anglican Church has demonstrated a frightening inability to maintain its own internal unity.

A large part of what distresses me is the ignorance that has been perpetrated by our ecumenical work leading to the lie that there is little difference between Methodists and Anglicans. Most Methodists and Anglicans have no idea that the Church of England does not recognise Methodist orders. They have no idea that the Church of England will only allow a Methodist minister to conduct a 'Methodist' service in an Anglican Church - that we are not deemed worthy or 'holy' or 'ordained' enough to lead an Anglican rite - even though we train with Anglicans, share in various mission and social justice programs with Anglicans. And few will know - especially if these new ecumenical areas are implemented - that the difference is based not just on canon law - but on theology and doctrine.

I suspect that the proposed 'ecumenical areas' or 'local covenants' are intended to lead still more people to believe that there is no difference really - even though the actual difference cripples Methodist ministry and mission, further erodes Methodist identity and negates the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and the revelation Methodism has received of the equality of lay and ordained. (To say nothing of gender equality)

I do not want to be a part of a church where so called 'unity' is more important than equality before you God. Please God, is there no way you can persuade the Anglican Church to focus on sorting out its own divisions and schisms and let this be the last generation required to wrestle with the consequences of the 1972 debacle?

Can we not just get on with the task of saving souls?


  1. The recommendations of the report that Conference adopted in 2007 said:

    4.7.1 The Conference does not at this point take any steps towards embracing the historic episcopate.
    4.7.2 No major discussion on this is entered into at the 2007 Conference.
    4.7.3 It be recognised that it is inappropriate, in the light both of the Methodist Church’s Covenant relationship with the Church of England and its ongoing discussions with other ecumenical partners, not to envisage taking up this discussion again at some point in the future.
    4.7.4 The Joint Implementation Commission be encouraged to continue its discussions in relation to episcopacy and to bring recommendations to the Conference at a future date.
    4.7.5 Discussions undertaken within the Joint Implementation Commission continue to bear in mind other Anglican Churches in Britain, and their current relations with the British Methodist Connexion.

    My emphasis

    I, of course, recognise the Conference's liberty to decide that a decision made previously was incorrect and to reverse it. However, it would seem somewhat surprising to reverse a position it had affirmed several times with only a minor discussion. If the Conference had decided that Methodism would never embrace episcopacy that it would have been odd to adopt recommendations 3 and 4. Clearly, episcopacy is always going to be controversial - to put it mildly - but I don't think with a fair view of the history you can claim its rejection is a done deal and the settled mind of the Conference.

  2. Thanks for this Angela, I'll put a link on Methodist Ecumenical News.

    The key date for me was 1989 when the Swanwick Declaration put an end to dreams of full visible unity. The problem is it seems to me we have not found an approach to replace fvu and so some traditions carry on with it. Reconciled diversity and receptive ecumenism have been attempts to fill this void but don't seem to have captured imagination. I think we have to recognise fvu is not possible simply because some very significant traditions don't subscribe to it (RC, Orthodox, Baptist, Quaker, some if not all black majority churches, Pentecostals ...)- so the most those who pursue it can realistically hope for is limited visible unity - which is where your arguments come into play.

    My point is ecumenism is important but we have lost any sort of consensus about its aims. This is to some extent concealed by good will between the traditions in this country but we need a new paradigm. Those who oppose ecumenism seem to think it equates to fvu. It does not and I don't think shared ministry equates to fvu either. What it does is take us a step nearer to completing the easy collaboration. I think fvu will loosen its grip as people realise structures have loosened enough to enable collaboration but further steps will be too expensive and difficult.

  3. Thank you Angela. My mind has been on other things tonight (see my blog) but I would have written exactly this post had I been able.

    I hope many more read it.

  4. Where I find it difficult to square the circle is that I cannot for the life of me see the point of bishops, and the policies of the Church of England on many things drive me to even more distraction than the policies of the Methodist Church. However, in our local situation the sharing of resources and traditions across denominations is a real driver of mission and community involvement. With Anglicans and URC we jointly employ a youth worker, we jointly sponsor a Church school, we jointly employ a family and children's worker, we pray together every day, we worship together regularly, and two of our three churches are growing.

    We are talking of an ecumenical parish, (or something of the same idea with a less Anglican name!), which seems the only logical and Godly way forward in our town, and the only moral way to use our resources, but when we look at the national scene, I wonder whether I am leading our people into a dead end, that assumes issues have been resolved that have not been, but can we for that reason step back from the mission opportunities God seems to be presenting to us as we work together?

  5. Mark,
    Thank you for your comments, and I note your emphasis. I was present at that Conference, but perhaps more importantly was a member of the two working parties that produced the two major reports on Episcope and episcopacy and 'What sort of Bishops'. Chris is correct, there is no consensus in the Church on this issue but, as the responses from circuits and Districts showed, when the ordinary membership did respond to the question 'what sort of Bishops' they generally did so negatively. I remember the row about the notice of motion which added the option 'None of the above' to the report - it is worth reflecting on the fact that originally, the membership were not going to be given any means of saying that they did not want any form of Bishop. That Conference agreed to its inclusion and the fact that so many of the responses referred to it justifies my claim that we are not so convinced that we will take historic episcope into our system. For many of us it is an anachronism, a last desperate grasp for power rather than a real mechanism for mission.
    I agree with Chris that collaboration, where each church is enabled to bring its gifts and graces to the table to use as necessary to achieve Kingdom goals is undoubtedly the best model of ecumenism for our age. Ian's story supports that too. But for that to happen honestly - I believe we first need to expose the lie that Methodists are really just unordained Anglicans.

    Some of our greatest work for the Kingdom, and certainly our time of greatest growth happened when Methodists were only virtually ordained! We have never needed to be episcopally ordained to be effective in mission!

  6. Presumably then you had a hand in recommending that we return to the discussion at some point?! :) I had very little hand in any of it - my view on What Sort of Bishops was "I don't mind where you put them, so long as we have them!"

    I've just followed this as an ordinary Methodist. I'm a sacramentalist and as I began to discern a vocation to ordained ministry, I had to do some quite serious thinking about whether I could pursue that within the Methodist tradition which had always been my home. Yes, it's all there in Wesley but it's often very obscured in Methodism today. Some of what tipped the balance were our commitments on episcopacy, the worship book and one or two other things. Now that we seem to want to head back into our own little Methodist world, I wonder what the future will hold. But sufficient unto the day are the worries thereof, and I'll continue to follow where I believe God has called so I remain as a rabidly sacramental Methodist who never seems quite to fit anywhere (maybe I'll become a hermit?). For a brief portion of the early 20th century, there was a glimpse of something more, but it's gone and we're busy jumping on it.

    I'm just back from leading prayers for the Methodist pupils at the local Anglican secondary school ("Methodist" prayers!!)... I was in a conversation with two of the Anglican clergy before we went to our various rooms who brought up the new situation between Methodists and Anglicans in Ireland. I think they're an example to both sides that we would do well to emulate.

    Incidentally, approaching ordination, I don't believe that there is no difference in God's eyes between whether I stayed as a lay person or whether I followed God's call to ordination. I don't for a moment believe that ordained people are more holy, better, more precious in God's sight or any of the rest of it. But I have to believe that it made a difference to God that I followed God's call, otherwise what has all the discernment, training, work of this roller-coaster of a journey been for? I believe I am called - as I'm sure you and all other Methodist presbyters believe - to be a Minister of the Word and Sacraments in the universal Church and that that call comes from God and matters in God's eyes.

  7. Angela - I think the problem was in the paper 'What Sort of Bishops?' - it did not do justice to the arguments for Bishops, which didn't really help either side of the debate. If the case for had been clearly made and it had been turned down, we would have a decision. But the case wasn't made in the paper and so the negative response was to a poorly stated case. So, we did not arrive at a definitive decision either way. The question then becomes, where do we go from here?

    Shared ministry will not satisfy those who seek interchangeability and visible unity but it will meet the needs of many situations like the one Ian describes. I support it because it is a practical step to support what's happening on the ground, not because it is a step towards anything else.

  8. Hi Angela,

    Thanks for your fascinating and challenging post.

    I was intrigued by your by this sentence:

    "...that the laity can baptise and preside over the Lord's table without either acts losing their sacramentality or efficacy before You. "

    I am a local preacher and I was under the impression that I was not able to lead communion, is this right?


  9. Angela, my own thoughts on this issue echo yours. I too am "tired of being told that the Methodist Church once claimed that it was willing to take the historic episcope into its system." Considering the problems some of my UMC friends in the US and Philippines have with their bishops, I am increasingly convinced this is not a direction we ought to go.

  10. Chris
    I am happy to accept your point about the 'what sort of Bishops' report - but a fuller more positive slant was provided in its precursor, episcope and episcopacy. The 'What sort of Bishops' report ended up being hijacked by two other reports - 'what is a Superintendent' and 'the nature of oversight'. in the end I suspect it just had too many agendas to be clear and meaningful.

    Hi Adam,
    You are correct - you are not able to take a service of Holy Communion UNLESS you are granted a dispensation from conference. Such a dispensation would be based on the sacramental needs of the Circuit. We were once much 'freer' in issuing such dispensations than we currently are - for ecumenical reasons.

    I am aware of many of the drawbacks of Bishops - but would want to say that I am not against them in principle- particularly now the role of Conference has been so diminished with regard to oversight. I am against being required to adopt them simply so that we could be deemed 'properly' ordained!
    I have not yet been convinced by the argument that personal episcope is superior to corporate episcope. I suspect that the opposite is true and that corporate episcope is a significant improvement on personal episcope.

  11. Angela, two things...

    Thank you for your comment:

    "...that the laity can baptise and preside over the Lord's table without either acts losing their sacramentality or efficacy before You. "

    and your response to Adam.

    It seems bizarre that ecumenical reasons linked to a denomination that has frequent availability of eucharistic worship should be responsible for the limited availability of communion in many churches - I recently went 6 months without being able to attend a Methodist communion.


    I know little of the detail regarding types of bishops, however from a mission perspective would be pleased to see mission bishops similar to those that set out from monasteries in earlier centuries. Perhaps on occasion they could be under the authority of an abbess as in that time.

    These bishops might spearhead the planting of small missional communities in neighbourhoods that presently lack vibrant mission activity which includes many poorer parts of our country, both urban and rural.