Methodists revive talks on merger

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The Methodist Church and the Church of England yesterday announced plans to resume their progress towards union, twice derailed in the last 30 years by deep disagreements within and between the churches about the nature and function of priesthood.

The new proposals have emerged from "talks about talks" which included representatives of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, which has twice successfully scuppered attempts at unity.

This factor, obeservers say, explains why the new plans are much less ambitious in scope and speed than previous attempts. The Church of England's General Synod will not consider the report of the informal talks until November next year; and the Methodist conference will not debate them until the following summer. This is delay is to give all parties concerned, and the other Christian churches in this country, time to make their views known.

The central difficulty holding up previous attempts at union has been the belief of some Anglicans that Methodist ministers are not priests in the same sense as Anglicans are, having failed to preserve the apostolic succession.

In 1972, the most ambitious attempt to reunite the two churches foundered when the Church of England's General Synod rejected a formula for mutual reordination in which both churches would supply whatever graces might be lacking in the other: the evangelicals objected to it because it suggested that Methodist ministers might lack some grace available to Anglo-Catholics, while the Catholics objected because it did not state this lack clearly enough. Since then both churches have declined in membership, influence and confidence.

The new proposals suggest that candidates coming forward for ordination in either church should in future be ordaed into both, though this would not be obligatory. Many candidates from both churches already train together.

Ordination into the other church would also be offered to serving ministers who wanted it. However, the Methodists, who ordain women both as priests and as their equivalent of bishops, have agreed not to interfere in the Church of England's special arrangements for bishops and priests who cannot accept women priests.

Formal talks about unity will not start until the autumn of 1998 at the earliest. Considerable difficulties, however, will remain. For example, Methodists are governed by their annual conference. The Church of England is governed partly by bishops and partly by the General Synod. Women may rise to the highest ranks of Methodism, and have done so; women cannot be ordained as bishops in the Church of England.

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