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March 2009

British Methodist Church to join Anglicans?

Despite some press reports to the contrary, the British Methodist Church is not set to join the Church of England and go out of existence.

On February 11th British Methodist Conference president Rev David Gamble and vice-president Dr Richard Vautrey addressed the Church of England’s General Synod. During their talk they reconfirmed the Methodist Church's loyalty to the covenant it shares with the Church of England.

They said the Covenant is a serious, deeply committed relationship and not an irrelevant extra.

At the end of the talk David posed the question of how the two Churches could respond to the challenges of the 21st century and work together in a society of different faiths, cultures and histories.

He concluded, “We are prepared to go out of existence not because we are declining or failing in mission, but for the sake of mission. In other words we are prepared to be changed and even to cease having a separate existence as a Church if that will serve the needs of the Kingdom.”

Newspaper reports of the General Synod sensationalised their statements and implied a merger of the two churches was imminent.

Under the headline ‘Methodists declare “we're ready to merge” with Church of England’, the Times newspaper reported that the Methodist Church “is headed for extinction within a few generations” and “is prepared to be absorbed by the Church of England”.

The Independent newspaper ran a similar story under the headline ‘Leader signals end of Methodism’. It stated, “The leader of Britain's Methodists made the astonishing suggestion that he would be willing to sacrifice his church's existence and forge an alliance with the Anglican Church if it was best way to continue spreading the Gospel.”

British Methodist Church media spokesperson Karen Burke says what David expressed was the longer view of the Anglican-Methodist covenant signed seven years ago.

“The final commitment of the covenant with the Anglican Church, is to achieve shared oversight, including shared consultation and decision-making, on the way to a fully united ministry.

“This is an expression of two bodies coming together and becoming one; not the sacrifice of a subordinate to a dominant. The real story isn't about Methodist self-immolation or throwing in the towel; it's about Christians moving forward, growing and seeking new ways of being,” Karen says.

British Anglicans and Methodists work closely together in some areas such as the Fresh Expressions initiative to create new forms of ministry and in work to safeguard children and vulnerable adults. However, David Gamble says, at the local level cooperation among Anglican and Methodist congregations is patchy. Some work together enthusiastically, others have reservations.

After their address caused a brouhaha, David and Richard wrote a pastoral letter in which they said they are convinced God is not finished with the people called Methodist yet.

They said Methodism began as discipleship movement engaged in worship and mission within the wider church. Since then Methodists have adapted to circumstances to fulfil that calling.

“It is still Our Calling today. And mission has never been more needed than it is now. We live in a world ravaged by war and poverty, and torn apart by questions of how we care for the natural environment and the morality of financial systems.”

The pastoral letter also stated that to create and be part of a wider expression of the universal church will require the Methodist Church and other churches to move forward together and to leave some things behind.

“It is not a question of Methodists being submerged or absorbed in the Church of England or any of our other partners. It is not a matter of Methodists returning to the Anglican fold, but of seeing whether together we are prepared to become a ‘new fold’.”

Methodist Church of NZ general secretary Rev David Bush says while there is no proposal on the table for formal union between Anglicans and Methodists in the UK, if something like it occurred, it would have flow on effects here.

“The NZ Methodist Church has also signed a covenant with the Anglican Church. Such a move in the UK would cause us to think very seriously about our covenant,” David says.