This morning, the leader of the Methodist Church in Great Britian, Rev David Gamble, addressed the General Synod of the Church of England. At the end of the address, he said these words:
"Methodists approach the Covenant with the Church of England in the spirituality of the Covenant prayer,” said Revd David Gamble. “So when we say to God ‘let me have all things let me have nothing’, we say it by extension to our partners in the Church of England as well. We are prepared to go out of existence not because we are declining or failing in mission, but for the sake of mission. In other words we are prepared to be changed and even to cease having a separate existence as a Church if that will serve the needs of the Kingdom.”
David seems to have set the cat among the pigeons here. A press release was issued from Methodist Church House almost immediately and there have been some interesting twitter posts from the floor of Synod (such liberty!) about this - one read: Stop the clocks! Did I just hear the Chairman say that Methodism was prepared to lose its own identity in Covenant? #synod; another read: Methodists prepared to cease to be distinct church to serve the needs of the kingdom" Huh? Wot?; whilst a bishop countered with: What they say about the covenant sounds like a sort of spiritual blackmail. Why not carry on as 2 denominations? Stronger separate.
(By the way - you can follow any and every twitter from the Synod floor by searching for the hashtag #synod on google or twitter - they don't seem to be keeping to the Chatham House Rule or anything remotely like the Social Media Guidelines which Methodist Council is keen for our Conference to adopt - but that is another story...)
But David Gamble isn't saying anything which hasn't been said before within Methodist Reports and anything which isn't at the heart of the Anglican-Methodist Covenant itself. The very first commitment within the Covenant document says:
We commit ourselves, as a priority, to work to overcome the remaining obstacles to the organic unity of our two churches, on the way to the full visible unity of Christ's Church. In particular, we look forward to the time when the fuller visible unity of our churches makes possible a united, interchangeable ministry.
The Covenant process is, after all, a process towards visible unity. To get from where we are now to where we want to be in the future means that the church needs to change - in the end every church will have to cease to exist because they are only human constructs compared to the Great Church which Jesus prays for in John 17. John Paul II talks about that great church as an almost universal ecumenical aspiration in Ut unum sint:
"And yet almost everyone, though in different ways, longs that there may be one visible Church of God, a Church truly universal and sent forth to the whole world that the world may be converted to the Gospel and so be saved, to the glory of God"
It's reaffirmed in the 2006 WCC document from Porto Alegre, Called to be One Church:
"We reaffirm that "the primary purpose of the fellowship of churches in the World Council of Churches is to call one another to visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, through witness and service to the world, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe"
And the implications of the ecumenical movement for the Methodist Church in Great Britian are set out in Methodism's core ecclesiological document, Called to Love and Praise (1999). That document clearly states (5.4):
"The Church for which this Statement is primarily written, the British Methodist Church, may cease to exist as a separate Church entity during the twenty-first century, if continuing progress towards Christian unity is made. If that happens, it is to be hoped that Methodism will be able to contribute some of the riches of its own distinctive history to any future Church. Whatever the future holds, it is vital that a vision for the Church – and for each local church – should be inspired and maintained by Scripture and tradition, by contemporary experience and need, and, not least, by the Holy Spirit firing imagination,mind and heart."
The point about ecumenism is not a striving for eternal existence but a striving towards the kingdom of God. It's about mission! I don't think David is saying let's merge right now. I don't think he's saying, "Please put us out of our misery". I think what he is saying is an affirmation of Methodism's commitment to ecumenism in a real and authentic way - if we could agree that the gifts which Methodism has to offer to the wider Church could be safeguarded, then why not talk about full visible unity now? Some people think those gifts can be cherished through a different kind of unity (organic unity) and that is also part of the debate - that we try and work together as much as we can but as two distinct organisms, trying not to compete over territory, resources, doctrine; working together as much as we can to further the Kingdom of God. But what David is talking about is a much more radical form of visible unity which surely can still be on the table for discussion?
The problem, of course, is that that is only one view of Ecumenism. Being open to full visible unity also means being open to being swallowed wholesale into the welcoming tradition - one of the issues which Anglicans of many hues are currently having over the Newman Ordinariate and the Apostolic Constitution recently announced by the Pope Benedict. But back to what David is saying - true ecumenism (receptive ecumenism?) would be about both churches being dissolved and re-found as they discover the gifts which each tradition brings to the table and cherishes these in a new way of being Church. Some of course will think that is just pie in the sky!
So, calm down, everyone! What David said is absolutely in line with our doctrines and the statements of Conference (but being David Gamble who would have thought otherwise???). It is also in line with the agenda of the ecumenical movement. It might even be an opening into a promising encounter...
p.s. In this post I come closer than ever in this blog to speaking as Secretary of the Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church. But the views expressed are my own and should not be attributed to the Methodist Church.