Ministry, ecclesiology and theological tidiness: reflections on the history of Anglican-Methodist unity

This week the General Synod debates a report on Mission and Ministry in Covenant, on relations with the Methodist Church in England. Reading the report, and reactions to it from Anglican Catholic Future and from Richard Peers, I had a very strong sense of deja vu, since the parallels with the failure of the reunion scheme of 1969/1972 are striking. In both cases, there is a strong sense of the urgency of closer union between the two churches; in both cases, the Methodist church, although in a sense relatively indifferent about episcopacy in general, has expressed an historic willingness to take episcopacy into its system (at some cost); in both cases, the Church of England has to decide whether it can live with a short-term compromise in order to accept existing Methodist ministers; in both cases the CofE, if it were to reject the scheme, will be repudiating positions which it had already accepted, and told the Methodists that it had accepted – in the second case, the several statements in the 2003 report.

To provide some historical context, what follows is an adapted extract from my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey, in whose time as archbishop of Canterbury the events of 1969/72 occurred.

It may be that the most important ecumenical event in twentieth century Britain was the failure of the scheme for reunion between the Church of England and the Methodist Church in 1972. The achievement of unity had taken on immense national and international significance, and the authors of the Scheme were in no doubt as to why. Visible disunity among the churches placed constraints on co-operation at local level, leading to ‘frustration, impatience and the gradual cessation of effort.’ There was reason too to suppose that the decline in numbers in the churches and in new vocations to ordained ministry was also consequent on the same ‘pattern of incompetence which [the churches] present in which disunity is a main feature.’

The salient fact for Michael Ramsey was that, more than 30 years after the Church of England had invited the Methodist Church to enter into negotiations, it had been the Church of England that walked away from the table. Reflecting on the rejection of the scheme by the Church Assembly in July 1969, Ramsey thought it ‘an event in history of an almost incredible kind’ that one of the Free Churches should have agreed to enter into union on the basis of the historic episcopate. ‘That we Anglicans having already said that the principles of the union are sound, should now say “no” would seem to me to make our Church of England no longer credible.’ For the first time, leadership amongst the churches had, in a highly significant way, passed from the established church.

The sticking point was the nature of the ordained ministry, but to put this into context, our story begins a few years earlier, and with the broader issue of intercommunion.

Michael Ramsey’s The Church of England and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Why their unity is important (1946) tells us much about his vision of the whole ecumenical cause. Few in Britain really felt the tragedy of the schism between east and west in which ‘the seamless robe of Christ received its greatest rent’; the schism had been ‘the parent tragedy of many later tragedies of Christian division.’ All the churches of the West thus inherited a ‘maimed Christendom’ without true wholeness. What was to be done about it? The 1947 report Catholicity, of which Ramsey was the principal author, argued that all the churches would need to go beyond their own understandings of ecclesiology, bent out of shape as they were by the schisms that had brought the separate churches into being. Unity could not be achieved by a mere ‘fitting-together of broken pieces.’

Intercommunion

One of the solid achievements of the ecumenical movement before about 1960 had been the recognition of unity of Christians by reason of their common baptism. There remained, however, a single massive obstacle: the sharing of the Eucharist. In every local or national ecumenical initiative, sooner or later there loomed the impossibility of shared communion. As the 1968 report of the commission set up by the archbishops to consider the issue put it, ‘the eucharist, given to unite us to God and to each other, has become the place at which we are most conscious of our divisions.’

The Anglican Church was already in full communion with several churches overseas, allowing members of each to communicate in the other as a matter of course, and for the interchange of ministers. It was at home, however, that the barrier was most keenly felt. No clearly defined relationship existed between the Church of England and the Free Churches for such fellowship; and certainly none with the Catholic Church. And opinion was sharply divided as to what, if anything, should be done about it. For many Anglo-Catholics, no such intercommunion could be contemplated with churches the ministers of which had not been ordained by a bishop of the historic episcopate. For them, intercommunion was consequent on unity: get the ordering of the ministry right, and unity in the sacrament would follow. For others, this put the cart before the horse. Surely (went the argument) greater sharing of the sacrament would foster the unity of spirit that would lead to the organic union of the institutions. Every opportunity for deliberate intercommunion ought to be seized as a means to unity.

The issue pulled Ramsey in two directions. He had experienced the power of shared fellowship as a solvent of the barriers of heart and mind that perpetuated division, and none could accuse him of a lack of commitment to the goal of union. At the same time, Ramsey felt the importance of order. Unity was fundamentally an objective matter of church order, and the emotional effect of inter-denominational fellowship could carry one only so far. In 1961, Ramsey, the new archbishop, thought that ‘general intercommunion must wait until real unity is being brought about on the true principles in which we believe.’ Until that time, it needed to be infrequent, and carefully ordered. This was important not only in principle. Ramsey well knew that the longer-term cause of reunion would be damaged amongst Anglo-Catholics if the pace of change was too fast. As we shall see, he was to be proved right.

For many evangelicals, however, there was no such confusion. An extension of regular Eucharistic hospitality to members of the other Protestant churches did nothing but regularise a right already claimed by many. The rubric in the Book of Common Prayer stated that ‘there shall none be admitted to the holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed’; but this had been read as applying only to members of the Church of England, and not to occasional visitors. A good number in the other churches identified with the Church of England as the national church sufficiently strongly that any withdrawal of such a customary right was an important thing. It was important too to Anglican evangelicals, who thought that the profounder unity already existed between Christians by reason of common baptism, and that to erect such a barrier was a sectarian act.

A new commission was formed to consider intercommunion (alongside the group already considering Anglican-Methodist unity) which began work late in 1965. From this point on, despite the existence of two quite separate commissions, the issues were inextricably intertwined. By the time the intercommunion commission reported in 1968, within weeks of the report of the commission on unity, the two opposing approaches to the question were immovably entrenched. However, there was a third way, which appeared to offer a path through the no-man’s-land, in response to a unique moment in Christian history. The habit of regarding existing church structures as ends in themselves was (it was argued) to place the church ahead of the kingdom, which it was the church’s role to serve. The contemporary ecumenical movement was ‘a singular work of the Holy Spirit of God’, in a time of crisis in which all aspects of the churches’ lives were coming under divine judgment. As such, ‘certain concepts of valid ministry and sacraments which were once decisive can be transcended within a serious intention to unite.’

This was a position with which Ramsey had increasing sympathy. Attached to catholic order though he was, Ramsey’s attachment to it was always subject to the reality of divine action in the present age. In a situation of crisis in church relations, many things that had seemed certain to him before seemed mutable, dispensable. If the greater need of God’s church on earth demanded it, then there was little in the ordering of the church that could not and ought not to be overturned. What God had instituted, He could surely amend.

Anglican-Methodist Unity

Anglo-Catholics held tenaciously to the importance of episcopal ordination as a sine qua non of a valid sacrament. They were thus deeply concerned about accepting Methodist ministers into a united church without having been so ordained. Many Methodists, whilst ready to accept episcopacy as a convenient model for church government, were chary about accepting any such ordination for those who were already ministers, for the aspersions it cast about the apparently inferiority of their ministry hitherto. Conservative evangelicals in the Church of England, whilst episcopally ordained themselves, nonetheless were concerned about any implication that that ordination was in any way fundamental to their ministry.

In order to circumvent this obstacle, a Service of Reconciliation was devised, through which all ministers in the united church would pass at the beginning. It involved the laying on of hands, but did not define how the status, before God, of both the Anglican and the Methodist ministers changed during the Service. Indeed, its advocates had been explicit about this ambiguity, arguing that the important thing was neither the starting point, nor the journey, but the destination. This ambiguity was too much, however, for a significant minority of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, which were to keep up a vigorous campaign against the Scheme to the last.

Far from being a ‘pious subterfuge’ (the words of Ramsey’s predecessor Geoffrey Fisher), for Ramsey, the fact that the service allowed for divergent understandings of its precise operation was not merely acceptable, but in some ways positive. Pragmatically, he was certain that the opposition from both conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics risked throwing away the only realistic method of achieving union in their own best interests. If Anglo-Catholics were to reject the Scheme, which ‘conserves in essence the very things which the Catholic movement has borne witness to’ (episcopacy, mainly), it would expose them to trends in the wider international movement for intercommunion that were much less connected to historic order. Conservative evangelicals, perversely in Ramsey’s view, seemed content to pass up the prospect of full communion with evangelical Methodists for the sake of a single service which could be read to imply a view of priesthood which they did not share. ‘Hence the double tragedy of two sections of our Church being ready to throw away the things which they most care about through fear of losing their theological tidiness.’

There was more behind Ramsey’s acceptance of the Service than mere pragmatism, however. He knew that he himself was already a priest and bishop in the catholic church, and lacked nothing; and also that Methodist ministers did not possess ‘the commission and authority described in our Catholic ordinal’. However, they were clearly ‘ministers of the word and sacraments of a sort and I cannot regard them as laymen.’ The rite was ultimately not concerned to resolve the divergence, being concerned to define ‘what all those who receive it are when it is over, and it does not define the relative standing of what people are already.’ The new rite was to ask God to give both Anglicans and Methodists ‘whatever he knows them to need in authority and the gifts of the Spirit to make our ministries equal and identical as presbyters in the Church of God.’ Ramsey as a theologian was acutely aware of the gaps and the silences in all speaking about God, and it seems to have caused him no great discomfort to accept this method of avoiding the questions that many raised by asking a different and more important one.

This approach, perceived by some simply as either muddle or as calculated evasion, was not forced on Ramsey by inconvenient circumstance. Ramsey had always known that unity could never be achieved by means of the uncomfortable forcing together of existing churches, aided by some compromise over inessentials whilst leaving each intact: ‘a fitting-together of broken pieces’. The ecumenical task was not ‘like the reconstruction of a toy once made in its completeness and subsequently broken.’ To attempt merely to harmonise existing churches was, from the prophet Ezekiel, to daub untempered mortar on a cracked wall.

If Ramsey and his staff made any strategic errors, they were these. Some argued that the report of the intercommunion commission should have been delayed, since it risked alarming those Anglo-Catholics whom (with Ramsey’s help) were coming close to accepting the unity scheme. Others though it a mistake to press on to (a similarly unsuccessful) vote in the new General Synod in May 1972; and it is indeed hard in retrospect to see why the new governing arrangements for the church should have been thought more likely to produce a positive result. However, the Methodists had said ‘yes’, and that decision was now to go forward to the next stage in their processes; they had shown courageous leadership for which Ramsey was thankful; to take a second bite at the cherry seemed the logical course of action. To those who argued that to ignore the verdict of the Anglican assemblies was to ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit, Ramsey replied that to disregard the positive vote from the Methodist Conference might well amount to much the same: who was to know?

If there was a personal failure at all in the whole matter, it was perhaps Ramsey’s limitations in fully understanding the position of those opposing the Scheme. In the immediate aftermath of the first vote, he thought that the opposition had been due to ‘the psychology of fear of change deepening and becoming obsessive [..] once [that fear] became really obsessive it was, I think, beyond the power of argument to help the situation.’ This, for Ramsey, was akin to the ‘persecution and martyrdom complex’ he saw amongst some English Roman Catholics. This inchoate opposition to change may indeed account for some of the opposition to the Scheme. But it hardly accounts for the opposition of a figure such as Eric Mascall, Anglo-Catholic theologian and long-time friend of Ramsey’s, or James I. Packer, de facto theologian-in-chief amongst the conservative evangelicals. Much research remains to be done on the significance of the apparently unlikely ‘unholy alliance’ between the two extremes of the conventional spectrum of Anglican churchmanship, and the degree to which it began the formation of a conservative bloc of previously opposed groups: a reorientation of the church away from an evangelical-catholic alignment towards a liberal-conservative spectrum. The two poles were, however, close together in opposing a general trend towards greater indeterminacy in theology; for figures such as Packer or Mascall to be comfortable with the ambiguity in the Service of Reconciliation was simply asking too much. Central to the self-presentation of conservative theologians was ‘clarity’ and ‘certainty’, over against supposed liberal ambiguity and doubt. Theological ‘tidiness’ was not merely a fussy, unnecessary scruple, as Ramsey supposed, but fundamental to the conservative mind.

Ecumenical success and failure

In the end, the proponents of organic unity among the churches in Ramsey’s time had to settle for a single success. The new United Reformed Church, the joining of Presbyterians and Congregationalists in England, was inaugurated in October 1972. Ramsey received a ‘tumultuous welcome’ at the ceremony. Ultimately, however, the high hopes that had been raised by Fisher’s Cambridge sermon and by the Vatican Council were unfulfilled. Was the Church of England really ready for the radical choices with which it was faced? Few seemed to have been able to look beyond local and national circumstance – to think in terms other than of the jagged edges of their own particular piece of the broken toy. Ramsey’s vision from the 1940s, of individual churches of West and East changing shape and converging as they drew nearer to Christ in holiness and truth, seemed not to have the imaginative power to energise more than a few.

Even supposing Anglicans had been ready to embrace the wider vision, could the machinery of their church have allowed it? Much was made of the glacial pace at which decisions could be made within the Church Assembly, and Ramsey had limited patience with its detailed and sometimes partisan and ill-informed deliberations. But the intertwining of parallel commissions on each and every issue gave the impression of muddle. And archbishops, whilst their words were attended to, could not control the Church Assembly, or the independent-minded groups to whom they entrusted those commissions, or even rely on all their bishops for support. Given this context, to charge Ramsey, or any other archbishop with a lack of ‘leadership’ would be quite to misunderstand the role. All he could do was to set a tone of seriousness of intent, and hope to intervene only as much as was really necessary.

In the final analysis, it may be that by 1969 when the Anglican-Methodist scheme first faltered, the opportunity for ecumenical progress on the basis of organic union had passed. In the half-century since, the Church of England has only in 2018 come anywhere near as close to achieving such a union as it did then, and at the time some were suggesting that progress could be made in other ways. Lionel du Toit, moderate evangelical and one of the members of the commission on Anglican-Methodist union, had felt compelled to vote against the Scheme he had helped create, and wrote to explain his reasons. Had the times now changed again, he wondered, leading away from such organisational schemes? Vatican II had focussed on the existing unity of Christians in baptism, and on the real ecclesial standing of separated brethren. Could this leaven now not be allowed to work, through local action with controlled intercommunion? Perhaps, thought du Toit, the humiliation of 1969 had been necessary for God to point the churches in a different direction.

Ramsey did not accept, and could not have accepted, that the entire thrust of the ecumenical movement had been misdirected, but there were broader currents within the churches that were beginning to sweep organic union further out of reach. Hugh McLeod has pointed out a marked downturn in the mood within the Western churches in the late 1960s, and a loss of nerve amongst reformers as the churches’ vital statistics fell. This prompted a general move to shore up the fragments within each of the churches in the interests of the remaining faithful. Expansive schemes of reunion, first conceived in times of greater confidence, became less and less the priority. In retrospect, it seems that Ramsey’s opportunity to see his vision of unity realised simply came too late.

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Theology and crisis in the 60s: Michael Ramsey and E.L. Mascall

[Listen to the lecture in full, via the Pusey House website:

 

Title: Responses to theological crisis in the 1960s: Michael Ramsey and E.L. Mascall
Venue: Pusey House, St Giles, Oxford
Date and Time: Wednesday 17 May, 4pm (tea from 3.30)

Abstract: Rightly or wrongly, the long 1960s are often viewed in terms of religious crises. Responses to these pressures were many, and varied radically within churches, and indeed within constituencies within individual churches. This lecture outlines some of the contours of Anglican Catholic reactions by means of a comparison of two theologians and teachers; Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, and Eric Mascall. It focusses in particular on two themes: the impact of the theology of the ‘death of God’ most personified by John A.T. Robinson; and the ecumenical movement, particularly the unsuccessful Anglican-Methodist unity scheme. Although alike in background, Ramsey and Mascall dealt with these issues in radically different ways. The issues were of faith and certainty, ambiguity and precision, optimism and pessimism, and the relationship between theology, pastoral care and the workings of an institution.

The lecture draws on my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey.