Bishops: yet another view!

Peter Pillinger

Stephen Booth and David Sharp have made contributions to the debate at present going on in Methodism about Bishops. I find myself agreeing with parts of what both have written. But I find myself wanting to ask four questions which have not been asked.


  • Why are we having this debate?
  • Is the Church of England examining their form of oversight in parallel to our examination of ours?
  • What will be the effect on ecumenical relations if we do have them?
  • How would our adopting of some form of historic episcopate affect our relations with our partner church overseas who do not have them?


Why are we having this debate?L~

The simple answer is that the Church of England will not fully accept us if we do not have bishops of a sort they can recognise. The fact that other Methodist Churches have bishops is not relevant here because they are not of a sort recognised by the Anglicans. The Methodist Bishops of the United Methodist tradition (American Methodism) originate from John Wesley’s consecration of Thomas Coke as ‘Superintendent’ for the Americas after the Church of England had withdrawn its clergy from the newly independent colonies. Wesley, who in my understanding, correctly believed himself to have episcope, was not authorised to do so as a bishop so these American Bishops are not ‘proper’ bishops. Among my ordaining ministers was a Bishop of the United Methodist Church who may well be able to trace a tactile succession to John Wesley himself – but that does not make me legally acceptable to our Covenant partners. (I am honoured to have a licence from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to preach throughout England, but cannot celebrate Holy Communion.) Wesley ordained ‘elders’ (presbyters) and consecrated ‘superintendents’ He knew his Greek and he knew that ‘episcope’ can be translated into English by both the words ‘Bishop’ and ‘Superintendent’. I believe he was fully aware of what he was doing, and so were the American Christians.


This raises the question of what a ‘proper’ bishop is. I recently asked a Roman Catholic Dean about this at an ecumenical gathering. “How do you relate to Methodist Ordained ministers?” He responded with an oblique comment that they did not even recognise Anglican orders. David Sharp points out that the majority of Christianity has bishops – but failed to point out that the Anglican form is not recognised by the majority of the church – the Roman Catholics. Do we want to accept a gift the validity of which is not accepted by the majority – David’s argument repeated in a different way.


Is the Church of England examining their form of oversight in parallel to our examination of ours?L~

It might be expected that in a Covenant relationship both partners would be examining the same matters and indeed the Church of England is debating the question of women bishops, a momentous matter for them. This has been raised for them by the Covenant as well as by processes in their own church. Would they have been debating it if the covenant did not exist? Probably ‘yes’ – the debate is a continuation of an earlier one on women in leadership in the church.


Are they doing any other examination? There is a ‘Pastoral Measure’ in process in the General synod which may affect the permeability of the Anglican geographical boundaries. There is however no debate on the fundamental nature of Anglican episcope.


Working in an ecumenical organisation I have had a steep learning curve about the Church of England. In many ways it does not exist! It is a federation of 43 independent dioceses. Challenging that structure is almost unthinkable. That is why I am so sad that Faith and Order Committee ruled out us continuing with out belief that our Superintendents are our natural focuses of personal episcope. They did this because it is ‘ecumenically insensitive’ – the Anglicans will not wear it! But an Anglican ecumenist said to me that he would have used the words ‘ecumenically challenging’ – and surely ecumenical relationships if taken seriously are just that – challenging – to both sides.


What will be the effect on ecumenical relations if we do have them?L~

It will certainly be a lot easier with the Anglicans – interchangability of ministries could have significant benefits in rural areas for example with a Methodist priest working with both churches in one village and an Anglican in another. I have deliberately used the term ‘Methodist priest’ because our adoption of Anglican ecclesiology – which will happen if we adopt Anglican style bishops - will be a significant shift in Methodist ecclesiology. We underestimate the differences at our peril. Conference is not General Synod, Diocese are not Districts, Deaneries are not Circuits, local churches are not parishes.


Relations with the Church of England are not our only ecumenical relationships. The Methodist church includes Scotland and Wales as well. Wales has its own Covenant – one which includes more denominations than ours. In Scotland however the adoption of Anglican style bishops would be an enormous stumbling block in relations with the Church of Scotland. We cannot proceed on an assumption that the Methodist Church can ignore our Scottish district.


What about other Christians who at present do not have bishops acceptable the Anglicans? Will we start to do to the Baptists, the URC and the Salvation Army what the Anglicans have done to us (and the Roman Catholics do to them)? (We effectively have a substandard ministry and are not a proper church). I’m not into ecclesiological pecking orders – the RC’s peck the Anglicans, who peck the Methodists, who peck the URC, who peck the Baptists who peck the Pentecostals – who turn round and tell us that the Holy Spirit is not with us anyway!! A Missionary church for the 21st century needs to be bigger than that. I long to see Christian denominations working in a true partnership of equals, accepting each other for who they are not for whom we want them to be.


What about our overseas partner churches?L~

How will adopting Anglican bishops affect our relationships with our Methodist brothers and sisters around the world? Will we be limiting our ecumenical relationships in world terms not enlarging them? We may be opening up ourselves to 60 million Anglicans and closing down on 70 million Methodists!


I am left with one fundamental question. Will our adoption of Anglican bishops further or impede the mission of God? David is certainly right that there is ‘no one evangelical way’ and that will remain true whether we change or not. I am with him in saying that I would not waste a lot of energy on the matter.


If adopting Anglican bishops will not make much difference to mission and will take up a lot of energy, now is the time to stop wasting our energy. The moment John Wesley started to ordain elders and consecrate superintendents was a God-given moment. We must honour our inheritance and honour the Anglican one – and we should expect our Covenant partners to do the same. After all they also have a period when they did not have bishops. We should accept what God has given us over the years of our own existence and get on with our calling to ‘spread scriptural holiness through the proclamation of the evangelical gospel. I for one will be voting for the ‘None of the above’ option when our circuit discusses the matter. I will also continue to work with Christians of all God’s marvellous flavours to see the establishment of His Kingdom.

The Revd Peter Pillinger is a member of the Methodist Church Connexional Team with responsibility for fresh Expressions of Church.

Headline Winter 2006/7 pp.20-21