Methodists cool over unity

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The Independent Online

Religious Affairs Correspondent

The Methodist Church and the Church of England will today issue a bulletin on the latest in a series of discussions on unification which have proceeded with fluctuating enthusiasm since 1955. But none of the participants hopes for much concrete progress from these talks about talks.

Two earlier schemes for reunion foundered in the Church of England's General Synod, largely as a result of Anglo-Catholic fears that Anglican bishops would be devalued if Methodists were recognised as their equals. The Methodists emerged as a separate denomination from the Church of England gradually and almost by accident towards the end of the 18th century, though their founder, John Wesley, remained an Anglican priest.

The organised Anglo-Catholic party in Synod has now been weakened by the ordination of Anglican women priests. The battle against women priests was led in Synod by the then Bishop of London, Dr Graham Leonard, who, as Bishop of Truro, had led the fight against earlier schemes for union with the Methodists. However, the Methodist Church, which had been the more enthusiastic suitor, seems to have lost some of the passion it once brought to the cause.

In common with the Roman Catholics, both churches have been losing members since the most serious unity discussions were under way: the Church of England, with 176,060 people on its electoral rolls, is now down to 70 per cent of its 1975 membership, and the Methodists, with 420,836 members, are at 73 per cent of the 1975 strength.

But in both churches there is considerable enthusiasm for informal co- operation at local level, especially in the countryside. The growth in such informal co-operation is probably the greatest success of the ecumenical movement, which is otherwise in retreat all around the world at the moment.

Hopes of reconciliation between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, which Anglican opponents of union with the Methodists would have preferred, have been blasted by the way in which the ordination of women exposed completely irreconcilable attitudes to authority between the churches.