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British Methodists say 'yes' to closer ties with Anglicans

7/2/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By Kathleen LaCamera*

LLANDUDNO, Wales (UMNS) - British Methodists have voted "yes" to a partnership with Anglicans that will pave the way for the two denominations to mutually recognize each other's ministers and liturgical practice as well as share resources, facilities and decision-making structures.

The July 1 vote at the annual British Methodist Conference is the latest milestone in a process dubbed the "Anglican/Methodist Covenant." It reflects the results of a churchwide canvas of individual congregations in Wales and England, in which 75 percent of those responding voiced support for the covenant. The Church of England officially votes to accept or reject the covenant on July 13, but already a similar canvas of Anglicans shows that nine out of 10 favor closer ties with Methodists.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive signs for a move toward "deepening the relationship between our two churches," some still voice caution about the danger of glossing over areas where Anglicans and Methodists do not see eye to eye. For example, British Methodist policy allows clergywomen to take part in all levels of the life and leadership of the denomination, while the Church of England still sanctions "no-go areas" for women priests and has no women serving as bishops.

During more than four hours of debate leading up to the vote, one Methodist clergywoman, Christine Jones reported that local Anglican colleagues recently told her they believed her ordination was invalid and said they would not recognize her ministry.

"These differences are not merely academic," explained Jones. "They are affecting the practice, structures and the nature of (the church's) pastoral care."

The Rev. John Walker, co-chairman of the Methodist/Anglican Joint Liaison Group, told delegates the covenant is "realistic" about the differences between the traditions.

"This covenant will further open up the real possibility of working together in mission and service locally, regionally and nationally. It will put us together to do further joint work on obstacles that remain," Walker said.

Across Britain, Methodists and Anglicans already share buildings, clergy and resources in what are known as local ecumenical partnerships. For these churches, the Methodist Conference vote officially recognizes what has already been going on, in some cases, for years.

Efforts to create closer relationships between Methodists and Anglicans are not new. A proposal in 1972 notably found Methodists voting "yes" to unity with Anglicans only to discover the Church of England saying "no" at the last minute.

But those leading the covenant process this time around say things are different. Walker, and his Anglican counterpart, Bishop Ian Cundy, reassured delegates that the covenant is not a takeover scheme but an equal partnership, and that to try and solve all the problems of difference in advance is a mistake.

Conference delegate Richard Vautry reminded Methodists that these discussions were of little interest to people outside of the church and that "failure to take these next tentative steps forward will only reinforce society's view of our irrelevance."

Vautry said it was time to stop teetering on the edge of the dance floor, grab a partner by the waist and start dancing.

"Practice makes perfect," he concluded.

British Methodists are betting on it. They approved the next stage of covenant discussion in a vote of 277 to 86.

The Rev. Bruce Robbins, the top staff executive of the United Methodist Church's ecumenical relations agency in New York, welcomed word of the vote and expressed hope that more would be accomplished.

"As an ecumenically minded United Methodist, I am happy to see the covenant between Anglicans and Methodists in England proceeding," said Robbins, with the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. "The only disappointment is that is seeks to accomplish so little: the covenant will not move us far enough to enable recognition of ministry or shared Eucharist. But 'patience' has been an ecumenical watchword and a perpetual challenge in the ecumenical movement. Small steps are better than no steps!

In the United States, the United Methodist Church has begun a first dialogue with the Episcopal Church USA, he said. "We hope that our bishops will meet together in 2005 and that we might find ways to full recognition of each other's churches and ministries by 2008."
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*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in England.

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