English Anglicans and Methodists move closer to unity

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July 9, 2002

Anglicans and Methodists in England took a key step towards unity when their governing bodies accepted a report proposing a covenant between the two churches. Each church agreed overwhelmingly to refer the report for grass-roots reactions before bringing it back to the national bodies next year.

The covenant proposal was debated by the Methodist Annual Conference on July 1 and the Church of England's General Synod on July 6.

Richard Thomas, a Church of England diocesan official and a General Synod member, told Ecumenical News Internation: 'It's likely to be a long process. Everyone is mindful of the previous attempt that failed [in 1972] because people were rushing it.'

The 1972 unity attempt failed because of Anglican opposition -although it had come 'within a whisker of establishing full, visible unity,' the archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, told US Methodists in 2000.

Thomas expected that next year a timetable for further work would be set out if grass-roots reactions to the covenant were favorable. The plan needed 'masses and masses of space.'

The covenant was proposed in a Common Statement published in December last year following formal conversations between the two churches.

The statement explored common ground, including the profession of the fundamental Christian faith grounded in Scripture and expressed in the ecumenical creeds of the Church; the sharing of one baptism and the celebrating of one Eucharist; a common ministry of word and sacraments; and a common ministry of oversight. If adopted, the covenant would still be several stages short of a scheme of unity. It has been likened to an engagement with both partners working at removing obstacles to the marriage.

Thomas said that on the Anglican side, the covenant would be referred to dioceses. He described the timetable as 'tight' but manageable.

The covenant would apply only to England, although the Methodist Church involved in the unity plan also covers Scotland and Wales. The Methodist Church is taking part in separate talks with Anglicans and other denominations in Scotland and Wales about church unity.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was an Anglican clergyman, and the two churches have long been conscious of their common roots. In 1946 the then archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, issued an ecumenical appeal to which the Methodists responded, starting the process that has led to the proposed covenant.