As I write, the current BBC series of Poldark tells the story of the Methodist movement’s growth in 18th Century Cornwall. At this time John Wesley is travelling on preaching tours of Cornwall and planting 18th Century fresh expressions of church ‘Societies’. So far, we have seen Methodists banned from the local Anglican parish church, due to the snobbery of George Warleggan (patron and new squire of the parish and sworn enemy of Ross Poldark) assuming Anglican privilege. The local Methodist leaders are the brothers of Demelza Poldark, Ross’s wife. Having been banned from Parish Communion they try to use the dissenters’ chapel previously provided by the Poldarks, but now on Warleggan land and this is also closed to them. So, whilst Ross Poldark is away, Demelza gives the Methodists permission to convert the old barn on the Poldark farmstead into a Methodist Chapel. In the last episode, these imperfect labourers are feeding the poor alongside Ross and Demelza.
Knowing Methodist history, I know this portrayal of early Methodist Anglican relationships reflects what happened. Revd. John Wesley was an Anglican clergyman, his itinerant preachers, were a mixture of Anglican, Methodist and non-conformist lay and ordained, but united in ‘connexion with Mr. Wesley’ the evangelist. The societies they founded sometimes found a welcome in the local parish church, but very often many found rejection and persecution. The Methodists’ one driving force was the desire to save souls.
Recently, people have asked me ‘Are we about to join with the Anglican Church?’ This follows reports from this Summer’s Methodist Conference. Well, it is important to say that things today are not as they were in the 18th Century, but the short answer to the question is ‘no’. Following the 2003 Anglican-Methodist Covenant there are moves towards fuller visible unity, but the place of bishops has proven difficult. At Conference, District and Circuit level we will be invited to consult on mission, ministry and bishops.
What we call ‘ministers’ and Anglicans call ‘priests’ are biblically known as ‘presbyters’, people ordained to Word and Sacrament. For Anglicans to accept Methodist ordination in the past it was suggested that all Methodist presbyter ministers be re-ordained, something many consider inappropriate and unnecessary. So, we are discussing whether we can accommodate ordination by bishops (‘episcopal ordination’) another way. The proposal from Methodist Conference is that the role of President of Conference be adapted, to the office of a President-bishop. This would express, in a personal form, the Conference’s ministry of oversight. Initially the President-bishops would be consecrated by both Methodist Presbyters and Anglican bishops. Then all future ordinations of Methodist Presbyters would be recognised by the Anglican Church and Minister Presbyters ordained before this time, would be treated as if they were recognised. As the Church Times comments: ‘The plans involve challenges for each Church: the adoption of episcopal ordination by the Methodists, and the temporary acceptance of non-episcopally ordained presbyters by the Anglicans.’ Personally, I believe that the hall mark of healthy ecumenical relationships is that we treat each other as equals, with no one assuming privilege! It is hoped that these discussions may allow a decision to be made in 2020.
2017 is the 25th Anniversary of my Ordination as a Presbyter, however, earlier that day I was ‘Received into Full Connexion’, so becoming one of Mr. Wesley’s itinerant preachers and part of the ‘Apostolic Succession’, this I find deeply significant. Regarding the future of Methodism, I commend Revd. Tom Stuckey’s new book: ‘Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land – The Future of the Church in Britain, A Methodist Perspective’ (£10, I have copies for sale). About ecumenism in the past, Tom observes: ‘Some advocates of ecumenism believed that renewal would come when the traditional churches accepted each other and pooled their resources. This has proved to be a fantasy.’ His book contains much wisdom. Wesley emphasised, we have ‘nothing to do, but to save souls’, so as long as we share the Gospel in the Meon Valley Circuit, people will be converted, lives changed and the church renewed. In the midst of our various ecumenical discussions we must keep the main thing, as the main thing!