Bishop opens talks on link with State

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SENIOR FIGURES in the Church of England have begun crucial discussions about its links with the State following its search for greater unity with other denominations.

The chairman of the talks said last night that since the House of Lords was being reformed, it was important for the Church to review its relationship with the State.

Although senior Church figures stressed that the low-profile meeting did not mean that the Church was about to sever its historic link with the State, the discussions will prompt speculation about possible future reforms.

The Bishop of Winchester, the Right Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, who chaired the private meeting on 30 November, said: "It seems to me only responsible, given the present stage of ecumenical discussion in this country and the fact that the reform of the Lords is in the air, to discuss Establishment.

"I anticipate that, as is the way of difficult and complex and many layered issues, there will be a good deal more discussion. First of all there is simply the need to inform each other. It's a sharing of opinion, conviction and reading of history."

The meeting was convened by Philip Mawer, the Church of England's secretary general, at the request of the Churches Together in England group. He said that the Church was not abandoning its historic position but added: "Establishment in England has evolved over the years and will no doubt evolve further." Further discussion about the theological and practical aspects of Establishment was "desirable", he said.

At the gathering 30 Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics, and members of the Free Churches, examined alternative national church models such as those in Scotland, where senior clergy are not appointed by the goverment.

Dr Christina Baxter, a member of the newly-formed Archbishop's Council, attended the exploratory meeting. She commented: "All the churches in the UK face some very interesting questions by virtue of the fact that some, like the Church of Wales, had disestablishment forced upon them, others have chosen to be independent and others, like the Church of England are established.

"When we come together in our cause of the gospel it's very clear that we're starting from different places. I think there are some conversations to be had, and that day on 30 November was the beginning of those conversations."

Of the meeting Mr Mawer said: "The consultation looked at the nature of Establishment today; at perceptions of it within the churches and wider society; and at other models of established churches such as those in Scotland and Norway. The object was to try to clarify the facts surrounding both the reality and perception of the Church of England's established status, and to tease out some of the implications as the churches seek to move closer towards unity."

The first formal conversations between the Methodist Church and the Church of England begin next month. A report looking into their possible content, entitled "Commitment to Mission and Unity" was compiled by the Bishop of Grimsby in 1997.