An Anglican-Methodist Covenant - 2/4

An Anglican-Methodist Covenant (abbreviated to AMC from now on) is a solid document, covering 62 pages of closely argued text. It is not light or easy reading, although the promised study guides may help us to get to grips with it more effectively. A brief article like this cannot hope to review the whole report, so this will be a selective and entirely personal treatment of issues that are important to me and, I hope, to other evangelicals.

We need to start by taking careful note of what the 'Formal Conversations' group which wrote AMC was asked to do and how it has sought to fulfil its mandate, because this sheds a good deal of light on why AMC takes the form it does. The approach to Christian unity followed here proceeds via four stages. In the first stage 'full visible unity' is defined, using four headings: 'a common profession of the one apostolic faith grounded in Holy Scripture and set forth in the historic Creeds'; 'the sharing of one baptism and the celebrating of one eucharist'; 'a common ministry of word and sacrament'; and 'a common ministry of oversight (episkope)'. In the second stage, the official teachings of the two Churches are examined under these four headings to see whether there is sufficient 'convergence' to go further, or whether outstanding areas of doctrinal disagreement block progress. Having established convergence, stage three comprises a formal declaration by which the two denominations acknowledge one another as authentic parts of the one Catholic Church. Stage four consists of a commitment to take the process of unity further in various specific ways. The structure of the report is shaped by this approach.

Awareness of the group's mandate and method helps to explain a few points that may initially strike evangelical readers of AMC as puzzling. One is that there is no detailed exposition of the biblical case for Christian unity: this is largely taken as read. Another is that the heart of the document makes much more of the official statements of the two denominations than it does of the Bible. The group was not asked to argue the case for full visible unity from biblical first principles. Nor was it asked to settle doctrinal differences between the Churches. It compares Methodist and Anglican teachings with one another, rather than with scripture. Sometimes this may leave evangelicals with an uncomfortable feeling that the denominations agree with each other on a belief or practice which is not securely grounded in scripture! The prime example of this is in the convergence claimed on the 'historic episcopate', where the Methodist Conference's willingness to 'adopt the sign of the historic episcopate as a step towards visible unity' may be more welcome to AMC than it is to Methodists who share the views so trenchantly expressed by Professor Howard Marshall in the Autumn 2001 Headline.

There are certainly helpful, thought-provoking and challenging elements in this report. The 'common confession of faith' derived from the official teaching of the two denominations will be welcomed by many evangelicals as a sound statement of orthodox belief (although we may regret the absence of any reference to the authority of scripture). AMC contains biblically-based material on the church and its place in God's mission, and on Christ as the focus of mission and unity, and these sections will repay careful study. There is a consistent emphasis on mission and an insistence that mission and unity belong together. The report is also very honest in facing up to the legacy of past suspicions and in recognising the power of false stereotypes in our present understanding of Christians of other traditions. The historical sketch which introduces the report is broadly accurate and should help towards what the group calls 'the healing of memories'.

On a number of important issues, however, AMC is far less satisfactory. 'Two remaining tensions' are acknowledged in the section on a common profession of faith. Both are classic Methodist emphases, corresponding to two of the traditional 'four alls' affirmed by Headway: 'all can be saved' and 'all can be saved completely'. Taking the second first, AMC is not wholly comfortable with John Wesley's teaching on Christian Perfection, although it makes the fair point that Methodism has struggled to understand and interpret it as well. The report's concluding statement, 'There is no limit to what the Holy Spirit can accomplish in the lives of those who are totally consecrated to Christ' will probably satisfy Wesleyan theologians that our doctrine of holiness has been safeguarded.

The same cannot be said, however, of the crucial Methodist emphasis on free grace: that 'all can be saved'. The issue that divided the eighteenth century Revival - whether salvation in Christ is available to all, or just to those whom God has chosen to receive it - surfaces here, and it is handled in a way that should alarm and distress Methodists who believe with Charles Wesley that 'for all, for all my Saviour died'. AMC wriggles on this issue. It resorts to a legalistic reading of the official doctrinal statements of the denominations, gets into a logical contradiction over double predestination, and suggests that our Deed of Union makes Arminian theology optional for Methodists. Guidelines that were drafted to stop people elevating every word of John Wesley's Sermons and Notes on the New Testament into doctrinal norms for Methodism are used here to undermine the heart of Wesley's gospel. This may be politically expedient to conciliate the Calvinists in the Church of England, but Methodists should not accept it.

When the report turns to 'a common ministry of word and sacrament', further areas of tension emerge. AMC is confident that radically different understandings of the diaconate should not present problems, although this may sound like another example of breezy ecumenical optimism. The report is persuaded that the two denominations have achieved 'convergence' on the presbyterate, although I am far from convinced that the Anglican understanding of 'distinctive priestly ministry' (if indeed there is a single common position on this in the Church of England!) is reconcilable with the repudiation of 'exclusive' priesthood in our Deed of Union. The authorisation of people other than presbyters to preside at the Lord's Supper is acknowledged as a difficulty, but quickly dismissed (in a united Church there would be plenty of priests to go round, so probationer ministers and others would not need to be given authorisations on the grounds of sacramental deprivation). Here and elsewhere I have a slightly uneasy sense that the report tends to prefer 'order' to 'faith' and to set a higher store by Church rules than pastoral or mission imperatives.

The common ministry section of the report also acknowledges the continuing tensions over the role of women in the Church's leadership. The Methodist commitment to equality is stated clearly and unambiguously. AMC is rather less frank in recognising that the Church of England is currently still divided on the ordination of women, and that special provision has been made to accommodate those whose reject women priests and the bishops who have ordained them. What looks from outside like an internal schism is passed over.

The leadership of women occurs again in the section on 'a common ministry of oversight', because the Church of England is currently unwilling to allow women to be bishops. This is frankly recognised as an issue of principle on which the two denominations disagree, although the report is typically optimistic that it will be sorted out. We might wonder when, and how!

It is very likely that AMC will be commended for study by this year's Conference. I hope evangelicals will take it seriously, because the shape of our Church, and perhaps of Christianity in our nation, will be affected by what we decide. I believe that there are gospel issues at stake here, and that this is far too important to be left to the experts and the enthusiasts. Will Headway take a lead in helping ordinary Methodists to get to grips with the key questions? I hope so.

The Rev Dr Martin Wellings is a minister in the Oxford Circuit, Synod Secretary for the Oxford and Leicester District and a member of the Faith and Order Committee.