This week in the Church of England Synod there will be a discussion relating to this document:
MISSION AND MINISTRY IN COVENANT. It provides some detail in how the Church of England and the Methodist Church may be allowed to grow closer in unity in the years ahead. Following on from decades of prior discussion it seeks an interchangeability of ministers. Initially through the interchangability of Anglican priests and Methodist presbyters, and then, without noted timescale, possibly the diaconate.
It appears to be the bringing together of two organisations which separated centuries ago due to different ways of seeking out the lost and lonely. The focus upon unity is hugely significant and one that should not be dismissed; however, with any intermeshing of such large organisations, the small print may be a stumbling block. The episcopate, the oversight of the church, which should be linked back to Christ through the laying on of hands, is seen by many as critical. How one defines that linkage is now getting heated, as seen in one report in this week’s Church Times where Andrew Davison states that the Report’s proposals:
“compromises the faith and identity of the Church of England”.
The traditional understanding of the episcopate stands to be possibly jeopardised by this interchangeability of presbyters as they will not have been ordained by those who have been themselves ordained in that episcopal line. As Davison comments:
“This is central to what makes the Church of England Catholic as well as reformed”.
What strikes me is how much of an influence for this aspired unity results from the continual decline in church membership. Data does show that the ‘membership’ of the Church of England has reduced over the last few decades, and strikingly suggested by some scholars that it could come to extinction. There are two points here. Firstly, membership is very difficult to define for the Anglicans given that all within their parishes are members. Adherents or those in regular attendance would be a better statistical measure, also seasonally adjusted so that marked increases for Christmas and Easter do not affect the overall efficacy of the results. Secondly, I’m sure that there was no real suggestion that the then current rate of decline would continue in such a manner. The ‘Renewal and Reform’ process undertaken by the Church of England has started to impact upon attendance figures, which may have stabilised.
The membership of the Methodist Church continues to decline, as mentioned in the President of the Methodist Conference speech last June; however, galvanised by the reaction to that speech and her inspirational discussions across the Connexion, some of the media have also highlighted some distinct positivity.
The interchangeability of presbyters would undeniably permit ecumenical partnerships to exist, as they of course do so now. They would allow services to continue in parishes and circuits where ministers are currently responsible for between 3-9 separate churches. Of course the parish demarcation is not aligned to circuit boundaries, hence this would make entirely good sense to merge staff, to ensure that the witness to the community in these churches may continue. But surely with reducing parishioners, we might also see falling weekly donations. How will we be able to keep up the costly upkeep of these wonderful historic buildings, pinnacles of the building fabric of our communities?
We seem to focus upon “reaching out” and “bringing in” to the churches with our evangelism. Our focus, traditionally, is to make the church building that focus. Wesley saw that although people were attending church (was there much of a choice then?) through his band of itinerant preachers a new message could be given after church, outside of the church building. This inspirational message instigated a movement, we now know as Methodism. The focus upon social holiness, that transformation of our lives towards one that of Christ, was so important. It was in that personal relationship with Jesus where Wesley saw that vital ‘spark’ (to borrow a word from Gnosticism) which would bring light to our lives.
I find these words by Rev Stephen Lindridge, Chair of the Newcastle Upon Tyne Methodist District, so encouraging:
“Twenty years ago every Methodist church was the same but that’s not the case any more,” “There’s a huge variety of stuff happening as people respond to the Methodist idea of going where they are needed most. It is partly because it’s so much easier to engage people on the street about matters of faith and what happens to us when we die than it was 20 years ago. People are more open spiritually.”
I applaud unity between the Church of England and Methodist Churches. Nevertheless, the focus towards interchangeability of priests and presbyters calls again to emphasise church buildings as the way forward: one I would seek to critique. This isn’t about numbers or the proverbial “bums on seats” but about people coming to the knowledge of Christ and living their life in such a way, as to have that life in abundance.
Methodism started as a movement, and, in my opinion, should hold on to these ideals. If membership numbers continue to decline perhaps we are asking the wrong questions in our surveys. Possibly consider how many people are visiting Methodist facilities and seeing the love of Christ? and how many house groups, such as seen in the early chapters of Acts, are emerging without the need to bring them back to church? Moreover, is our definition of ‘church’ requiring further consideration?
This is a time of great excitement and anticipation as we prepare for ministry. Not for ministry within one church but as the church of Christ, wherever the people are.