Early in 1963, the Church of England/Methodist report on church unity set out to heal a breach now about 230 years old. It suggested a period of “some years” during which there would be intercommunion while each body retained its distinct life and identity, to be followed by an organic union. To embark on stage one, however, would involve an obligation to achieve stage two. The Anglican signatories were unanimous, but a “Dissentient View” was entered by four (of twelve) Methodists: three distinguished university professors and a college principal.

This weighty minority objected: that the report’s section on Scripture and tradition did not recognize adequately the primacy of Scripture; that its understanding of “episcopacy” differed from the scriptural meaning; that the proposed Service of Reconciliation could be interpreted as reordination of Methodist ministers; that the report’s use of “priest” was expressly connected with sacrificial views of the Eucharist and with the power to pronounce absolution; and that full union would strengthen the grip of “the exclusiveness which would bar the Lord’s people from the Lord’s Table.” An open letter from thirty-nine leading Anglican clergy to the archbishops substantially echoed such misgivings.

But the establishment on both sides warmly espoused the scheme, seeing it as an irresistible summons to obey Christ’s will for his Church, and believing that difficulties could be ironed out. A year later came the founding of The Voice of Methodism, a movement implacably opposed to certain aspects of the scheme. Some people spoke loudly about reunion as the will of God, said Dr. Leslie Newman, one of the movement’s influential spokesmen, but “this age was not conspicuous for its concern for God’s will.” Dissent grew, and even the Methodist Recorder, a self-styled “completely independent newspaper,” showed its teeth by refusing to accept advertising from the dissentients.

Meanwhile the (Anglo-Catholic) Church Union, perhaps alarmed at the determination of the big boys to push the project through, pointed out that “some important theological questions are left unresolved.” In March, 1965, the Anglican House of Laity approved in principle the proposed merger, though the “studied ambiguity” of the proposed Service came in for a hammering.

Growing Methodist opposition could be seen that summer, despite Conference’s general approval by 488 to 137 of the report’s main proposals. Among “the inarticulate masses of Methodism” it was a different story: 26,440 in the quarterly meetings in favor, 22,236 against. A joint commission was set up to deal with points of difficulty, but by September, 1965, the report had been attacked by Anglican evangelicals, the Voice of Methodism, the Methodist Revival Fellowship, the Church Union, the (Anglo-Roman) Society of the Holy Cross—and by Lord Fisher of Lambeth, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. (A religious columnist later suggested that Lord Fisher “may be the front man of a considerable number of prominent Anglicans whose official positions require them to be favorably disposed toward union.”) By the summer of 1966 one heard more frequently the insistence on a “conscience clause” that would allow clergy of both churches to opt out.

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The original report has now been in existence for five and a half years, during which time Methodists, now numbering around 666,000, have decreased by about 55,000 (they will tell you Anglicans have done proportionately no better). In February, 1968, there appeared the first part of the final report of the joint commission. Dealing with “The Ordinal,” it (inter alia) concedes that “presbyter” could be a reconciling word where “priest” would be divisive, but adds that “we neither expect nor desire that ‘priest’ should go out of use in other contexts, at any rate in the Church of England.” On absolution there is apparent withdrawal of the interpretation evangelicals find offensive, coupled with an apparent misinterpretation of Scripture; the former upset the Anglos, the latter the evangelicals.

Part two of the final report then appeared, incorporating discussions of doctrine, proposals for the united church, practical suggestions for stage one of the merger, and details about working toward full communion. This report had one dissentient: Dr. J. I. Packer of Oxford, probably the ablest of modern Anglican evangelical scholars (none of the original Methodist dissentients was on the commission).

Presenting his viewpoint in a symposium that he also edited (Fellowship in the Gospel, Marcham Manor Press, 15s. 6d), Packer says “the report is rooted in a bygone era of thought”; times have changed and “the historic episcopate cannot be defended … as being necessary, in the sense of divinely required and commanded, for either the ‘being’ or the ‘well-being’ or the ‘full being’ of the universal church.” While stage two of the merger will “abolish, once for all, episcopalian exclusiveness at Holy Communion,” it proposes to reach that laudable end by a procedure in stage one that would buttress that very exclusiveness.

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Then also, says Packer, after discussing the validity of ambiguity in theological utterances, those statements “which by careful framing leave open the issues between ‘catholic’ and ‘protestant’ on church and ministry, will look very different if riveted into the context of procedures which find their ultimate rationale and defense in the ‘catholic’ principle … of exclusive episcopacy.” The latter Packer sees as “the one systematically distorting feature which threatens” the whole scheme.

The end of the matter is not yet. A decision was due this summer, but back-stage trouble has delayed the curtain-rising on this last act of the preliminaries. The inane reason given was that no printer could produce the final report in time for unhurried consideration to be given it before the summer meetings. As a result, the decision has been shelved for a whole year, tradition reigning so supreme that there must be no coming together before the appointed annual interval has elapsed.

It is clear that an epidemic of cold feet is raging in high places. A referendum is being held among Church of England clergy (which is significant), but has been refused to Methodists (which is even more significant). The certainty that the merger would split Methodism was a factor that body’s leaders were evidently prepared to accept. The rock on which the ship is likely to founder is that “historic episcopate” so beloved by Anglicans of the higher sort. I’m guessing, of course. Maybe that columnist was right; maybe the frontmanship of Lord Fisher has been more effective than we thought.

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