Leaders of the Church of England and the Methodist Church have been urged to work more closely in the future in order to strengthen Christian unity.
A statement issued by the Church of England's communications office on June 16 said the Joint Implementation Commission (JIC) set up under the Anglican-Methodist Covenant of 2003 to enhance unity is recommending the two churches share their mission and their ministry more widely.
A new JIC report, "Moving Forward in Covenant," is due to be considered by the Methodist Conference and the Church of England's General Synod, both taking place this summer. The JIC's role is "to monitor and promote the implementation of the covenant."
Cooperation between the two churches in different parts of the U.K. has met with varying degrees of success. "Looking back to 2003, there is no doubt in my mind that the relationship between the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain is closer and that our covenant has been a positive influence on ecumenism in the U.K.," said JIC co-chair Professor Peter Howdle.
"Anything that enlivens our ecumenical spirit is good and excellent but the union between the two churches will never be what I envisage it to be until the ministry of ordained Methodists is fully recognized by the Anglican church," said the Rev. Hugh-Nigel Sheehan, a Methodist minister from Kent. "As long as there are Anglicans who do not see me as a legitimate minister, there will never be the kind of union that was in the mind of Archbishop [of Canterbury Michael] Ramsey and the Methodist church almost 40 years ago."
When Ramsey was archbishop of Canterbury, noted Sheehan, he worked and prayed for full Anglican-Methodist unity. "Dr. Ramsey looked on our church at Sturry as an example of what he hoped and prayed would be the norm after Anglicans and Methodists came together." Sheehan's congregation of 80 sees itself "as both Anglican and Methodist. We have a fully integrated sacramental life together but I cannot conduct an Anglican marriage."
For the Church of England an interchangeable ordained ministry is only possible on the basis of episcopal ordination and oversight. Sheehan said the JIC report was welcome, and comes at a time when both churches are losing members. He is praying for a return of the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s, when support for ecumenism was strong. "As far as I can see, all that has gone. The fire has gone out. Although covenants are made, there is never 100 percent support in seeing them through."