An Anglican-Methodist Covenant - 3/4

I am a traditional Methodist, of a family devoted to Methodism almost since the days of Wesley. I gave my heart to Christ in 1925, preached my first sermon in 1927, first appeared on the Plan as a Probationer in 1931, and in old age am not discouraged, filled with joy and peace in believing. I would not have been anything other than a Methodist. However, I have learned by long and happy experience to love the Church of England. In the early days of Methodism the 'Church Methodists' were the party which wished to keep to the original plan of the Wesleys, a society for spiritual discipline and evangelism within the body of the Church. These are my principles. I greatly appreciate the courtesy of the Editor in allowing me to make a contribution to the current discussion of the Anglican-Methodist Conversations, and to state a case which may be unacceptable to many fellow members of Headway.

The difficulty that arose in the former Conversations is bound to occur again in some form in the new round. There is no substantial difference in doctrine between the two Churches, if one considers their official formularies rather than the personal opinions of extremists. The essential difficulty is in polity and discipline. To bring the Anglican and Methodist ministries into a common Order requires some form of mutual recognition. This involves some procedure which theologically may well mean one thing to one participant and something different to another. This is repudiated by opponents as spiritual hypocrisy or intellectual fudge. One must try to address this difficulty.

If believers who hold different views of the theology of the ministry and sacraments wish to enjoy full Church fellowship they will have to agree in some matters all to do the same thing, even though they think differently as to its meaning. In a short article there is no space to adduce the evidence, but the Church of England and the Methodist Church both now hold together by this principle. Therefore to come together we both need to proceed further on the principle by which we now live. This is not a dubious betrayal of principle, but a sound spiritual and theological judgment upon the position in which we now are. If we Methodists do indeed wish to live not to ourselves alone, but as part of the historic Church of the centuries, we have to adopt the polity expressing continuity which goes back to the early formative days. If we wish to be part of the world Church we have to adopt the polity of the vast majority of believers. This is common sense!

It will be strongly urged by some that to adopt this historic polity of ordination by continuous episcopal succession is contrary to scripture. It is again not possible in a short article to give a detailed answer, yet one must seek to state the essential. There is in fact no 'scriptural church order', as is illustrated by the frustrated efforts of the post-Reformation Churches to find one. Church polity is determined by the experience and consensus of the Church, we trust under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In this it is like other matters of practical Christian procedure.

One fully agrees that scripture is our supreme rule of faith and practice. There is, however, a vast difference in the application of this rule to matters of faith and of practice. Regarding the essential foundations of the faith scripture does indeed give a clear answer. There are certain things witnessed to by scripture which if one does not accept one is not a Christian. However, when it comes to Christian practice, human nature and the human condition is so various that the Holy Spirit has all manner of leading in different ages and places. To illustrate from a few salient examples, there is no proof text requiring the church to move its worship from the seventh day to the first, or to require monogamy. The Bible allows slavery, which we abhor. The polity of the ancient Church was in this area.

In the New Testament we find that the travelling apostles appointed leaders in the local churches. We cannot be sure that this was everywhere exactly the same, or that the apostles intended a succession. However, the church assumed that this ministry was regular, and was to continue. These leaders are in some places in the New Testament called episcopoi (literally 'overseers', 'bishops') and in other places presbyteroi ('elders', 'presbyters'). There is apparently no difference here, though nothing is stated either way. By the beginning of the 2nd century we find that one of these officers is elevated as the 'chairman' of the others. We remember, of course, that this was long before the days of popular democracy. It was natural for a religious community to be ruled by a father-in-God. The election was not by representative vote, but by coming together in prayer in an exercise similar to a Quaker 'taking the sense of the meeting'. So the church has a ruling bishop, supported by presbyters and deacons.

This church order came into being first in Asia Minor, apparently somewhat later in conservative Rome, but swiftly throughout the whole church. Catholics, Anglo and otherwise, have gone beyond the historical evidence in affirming that there was a continuous succession of ruling bishops (as distinct from presbyters) everywhere, and right back to the apostles. This is what Wesley meant by his oft-quoted but much misunderstood statement that the continuous succession is a fable. This realisation enabled Wesley with a clear conscience under the pressure of events to proceed to presbyteral ordination for America, but he did not intend thereby to reject the Church of England or the authority of her bishops. This venerable Order of bishops, priests and deacons, signifying the authority and continuity of the Church, rests upon the authority of spiritual consensus. I feel that for useful ecumenical discussion it has to be accepted as such.

The Rev John Lawson, BSc, MA, BD is a supernumerary minister living in Exeter. He taught at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia from 1955 until his retirement in 1976.