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The Church of England should welcome Methodists into the fold of the historic episcopacy

This is a guest post by the Rev’d Marcus Walker, who was Deputy Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome until January 2018. He is to be Rector of the parish of Great St Bartholomew in the City of London from this Sunday.


The Methodist Episcopacy Controversy

As the General Synod of the Church of England prepares to meet this week, one issue has emerged from the mire as a matter of intense controversy, and for once it doesn’t involve sex or sexuality. The public disputation follows proposals in Mission and Ministry in Covenant, a report intending to lead to the mutual recognition of orders between the Church of England and the Methodist Church in Britain, the inclusion of the office of President of the Methodist Conference as a form of episcopacy within the Apostolic Succession, and the possibility of presbyters of either church ministering within either church.

It is, and should have been, no surprise that this proposal has attracted such controversy. The identity of the Church of England (and, by extension, the Anglican Communion) as an episcopal church, with an historic episcopate within the Apostolic Succession, has been essential (in both senses of the word) to our apologetics and self-identity since, certainly, the Restoration and, arguably, the controversies of Elizabeth I’s reign. It is, said William Cecil, what marked the Church of England out from Geneva and Wittenberg. An almost unprecedented unity of purpose has been shown by catholic Anglicans of both traditionalist and liberal theologies, eminent theologians such as Dr Andrew Davison have come out against it, and furious debates have lit up the (albeit small) online Anglican world.

The main thrust of the objections seem to be these:

1) That without an episcopacy, it is impossible to ordain presbyters;
2) Consequently, to allow those not ordained by bishops to minister in Church of England parishes is to leave our parishioners in the potential position of having shared bread and wine together, but having partaken in no greater mystery on a Sunday: in short, to deprive them of the Eucharist;
3) That the Methodist understanding of an episcope as expressed by the President of the Methodist Conference is insufficient;
4) That we are selling the pass, that our claims to being a full member of the Church Catholic with an episcopacy within the Apostolic Succession would be weakened fatally and destroy what limited chances there still are of reunion with the other churches of the historic episcopate (most especially Rome).

Having spent three and a half years at the Anglican Centre in Rome, at the coal-face of our international relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, these are not arguments that I am unfamiliar with (although they tend to come from those challenging the validity of Anglican orders not defending them). Questions of validity of orders are not hypothetical and they should not be ignored for fear of causing offence (even though offence is almost certain to be caused – vocation and priestly identity running to the core of our identity as priests). Perhaps, being in transition between the Anglican Centre and a parish, I can offer some thoughts and, hopefully, illumination.

At the heart of all of this is the question of valid ordination. Dr Davison puts this most clearly in his article ‘An intolerable departure from order‘ in last week’s Church Times:

The intolerable departure from that order, proposed in this report, would be to invite ministers who have not been ordained by bishops to serve in the place of Anglican priests. This would last beyond the lifetimes of those reading this article. Implemented as the report stands, Methodist presbyters who have not received episcopal ordination will preside at the eucharist in parish churches, chaplaincies, and fresh expressions for decades to come. That would not be as ecumenical guests, but as the celebrants of C of E services.

For the C of E to accept that would be to say at least one of the following: (1) that nothing significant distinguishes ordination by a bishop from ordination without…

This is the core of the dispute. The problem is that it rests on a misunderstanding. When it comes to the authority and capacity to confer sacramental grace, since the Act of Uniformity 1662 the English Church prefigured the British state in its response to directives from the continent: we have gold-plated them.

While it is reasonably well-known to Anglicans that in the Roman Catholic Church the sacrament of confirmation may be conferred by a priest on behalf of the bishop, what is almost unknown is that there is also a significant tradition of holy orders being conferred by those only in presbyterial orders. Gianfranco Ghirlanda SJ, a professor in Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University, lays out the examples:

Regarding the administration of Holy Orders by presbyters, there is more than one historical testimony to the fact: the Council of Ancyra (314); the writings of Cassian; various cases in Germany in the Eighth Century; the Bulls Sacrae religionis, 1st February 1400 and Apostolicae Sedis, 6th February 1403 of Boniface IX; Gerentes ad vos, 6th February 1427 of Martin V; and Exposcit tuae devotionis, 9th April 1489 of Innocent VIII, which conferred to abbots, and not to bishops, the faculty of ordaining their subjects subdeacons, deacons and priests, a faculty not revoked by the Council of Trent; the Rituale Cistercense of 1949; the privilege of Benedictine abbots, Franciscan missionaries in India and Apostolic Administrators in Poland in 1906 to ordain subdeacons.1

The bull Sacrae religionis gives the pre-Reformation Church of England its own example, and it is worth reading:

We… grant … [to] the same abbot [of the Monastery of SS. Peter and Paul the Apostles and of St.Osith the Virgin and Martyr, of the Order of Canons Regular of St. Augustine, in Essex in the diocese of London], and [to] the abbots of the same monastery who are his successors for the time being in perpetuity, to have the power freely and licitly to confer on all professed canons, present and future, all minor orders, as well as the subdiaconate, the diaconate, and the presbyterate, at the times established by the law, and that the said canons promoted in this way by the said abbots are able to serve freely and licitly in the orders so received, notwithstanding any conflicting constitutions, apostolic and others, whatsoever, put forth to the contrary and reinforced with any degree whatever of firmness.2

Although three years later, under pressure from the Bishop of London (who resented the abbot being able to conduct ordinations in his diocese), the privilege was withdrawn, the bull of withdrawal Apostolicae Sedis only ended the privilege, it did not renounce the theological principle which was, in fact, specifically reiterated.

Not all of the examples are of privileges exercised by Abbots. This example is used in the article on Orders and Ordination in Karl Rahner’s Encyclopedia of Theology: “G. Vázquez mentions similar privileges accorded by the Pope in the 16th century of… Franciscan missionaries, [in India] but has not preserved for us the official text of the papal bulls.”3

Examining the legal position of these ordinations, Ghirlanda says,

Code 951 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law distinguished between the ordinary minister, the bishop, and the extraordinary minister, a priest who by a special indult could have received the power to confer some orders; Lumen Gentium 26c meanwhile, considering these facts listed above, affirms simply that bishops are the dispensers of Holy Orders. Code 1012 of the 1983 Code says only that the minister of sacred ordination is an ordained bishop. But here as well, if we are not to contradict the Council of Trent, we can say that the bishop has the faculty of validly ordaining by his own office, whereas the priest could have it, but only by force of a special indult from the supreme ecclesiastical authority otherwise the ordination would be invalid.

Ghirlanda’s conclusion is that “between the episcopate and the presbyterate a difference cannot be affirmed at the level of participation in the sacramental power of sanctification or governance, but only in its exercise; in fact, no cultic function can be considered by divine law the exclusive role of a bishop.”4

To the question “can a person be ordained to holy orders by a person in presbyteral orders?”, the answer is – by clear historic precedent of the church universal – “yes”. Has it often happened? No. But ontologically it clearly can happen and that is key.

The question then must shift to one of church order. Is the ordination as conducted by the Methodist Church what we as Anglicans see it as being and should those ordinations have taken place at all? It is, perhaps worth considering John Wesley’s motivations and considerations at this point.

Wesley’s reading of Stillingfleet’s Irenicum (1659) and Peter, Lord King’s Enquiry into the Constitution, Discipline, Unity, and Worship of the Primitive Church (1691) (Oh for the days when Lord High Chancellors of England published tomes on ecclesiastical polity) led him to conclude that “bishops and presbyters are essentially of one order”,5 essentially the same position as that of contemporary Roman Catholic jurists.

When he decided on September 1, 1784 to administer the sacrament of ordination himself, this was in response to the urgent pastoral needs of the Americas for more presbyters. He did this by the laying on of hands (exercising his role as holding personal episcope in his leadership of the Methodist movement), and was assisted by two clergymen of the Church of England. Two of his Methodist preachers were ordained as deacons and then as elders, with one of them also ordained ‘superintendent’ for the work in America on his behalf. He did so reluctantly, saying later “I asked the bishops and they would not help”. Wesley’s own reluctance also to use the title Bishop reflected his reluctance to cause a formal schism or to claim that he could create an episcopal hierarchy, and was repeated for Scotland and later on for England. He preferred the term ‘Superintendent’, to call them “the persons that exercise the episcopal office in the Methodist Church”.6

To the question, “should these ordinations have happened?”, the clear answer is no – but the fault for this lies with us Anglicans. The refusal of the bishops of the Church of England to engage with the pastoral need for priests in America – and, indeed, to engage positively with the Methodist movement at all – can reasonably be seen to have left Wesley with no choice but to administer the sacrament of ordination himself leading to the situation where the ministers of the Methodist Church in this century can claim the authority and validity of their orders through the imposition of the hands of a presbyter.

(While, from the perspective of Roman Canon Law, the lack of a “special indult” or other permission questions the validity of these ordinations, from a non-Roman Catholic perspective this will always be a circular argument.)

Considering, therefore, that there is historic precedent for the ordination of presbyters by presbyters, that the intention was to do so, that the need was urgent, that the intention was to avoid schism, it seems to me that Methodist ministers in Great Britain are, in fact, ordained and that they can, consequently, celebrate the holy mysteries at the altar were the church to permit them.

The third question focuses on the flip side of this proposal: that each incoming President of the Methodist Conference is consecrated as a bishop in the historic succession and that all subsequent ordinations in the Methodist Church be carried out by the President-Bishop or a Past-President who is a bishop.

The report is undergirded by a profoundly catholic principle – that the communion of churches is signified by bishops in communion. The Church is the fount of sacramental life, guaranteed by communion with its bishop. When the Church of England talks about recognising (or not) holy orders it talks about recognising the orders of churches, not those of individuals. There are many examples of individuals who can claim a flawless ‘pedigree’ of ordination but are outside any recognisable church structures and not able to exercise their ministry in the Church of England. It is a properly catholic thing to say that there is already episcope at work in the Methodist Church, but that it currently lacks the personal and sacramental ‘signifier’ or guarantor of that identity. The consecration of the Methodist President would increase the ecclesiological ‘density’ to such an extent that the Methodist Church gains an intensity of relationship with the wider Church (historic and contemporary) that has previously not been quite so visible, even if it has been implicit. A new depth of communion is ‘activated’, new relationships of mutual recognisability and belonging become possible. Given the essential relational component of sacramental ministry, there is therefore a new richness in all ministries which find their locus on this episkopos.

Dr Davison says in his article:

In that history, as in the C of E today, episcopal authority is closely associated with a lifelong consecration to a particular function in the Church, and with place, being the principal teacher and pastor to the pastors, and — in short — with being the person in whom responsibility for leading the Church ultimately dwells.

That the President-Bishop would be a different sort of bishop to the geographically-based diocesan bishop is true, but it is also safely within the bounds of catholic ecclesiology. The ordering of local churches has always had a certain degree of diversity. Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have a variety of vehicles of episcopacy – based both on territory and groups of people (e.g. bishops to the armed forces, prisons or language groups) and consequential overlap of jurisdiction. Within the Church of England there is overlapping or complementary episcopacy, with suffragan bishops, provincial episcopal visitors and the different jurisdictions in continental Europe as examples.

On the question of whether the Methodist understanding of the episcopacy is sufficient for us, as Anglicans, to welcome their adoption of the historic episcopate, the answer should be a warm “yes”. It may not be the diocesan episcopacy as we commonly use it, but it conforms in action and legal nature to our broader understanding of it. We should welcome this entrant into the fold of the historic episcopacy.

Are we selling the pass? Do we, by this, accept our status as a reformed, but not catholic, church. Would we be declaring to our ecumenical partners in the East and in Rome that our understandings of orders and episcopacy are so far from theirs that we should no longer expect such words as these (in Unitatis Redintegratio [para 13]) to be used again?

Among those in which Catholic traditions and institutions in part continue to exist, the Anglican Communion occupies a special place.

Following clear Roman Catholic precedent regarding the imposition of holy orders and working to draw more Christians within the fold of the historic episcopate, this should not be the case. Were the Church of England to agree to this measure, we should take pride in helping to end a painful historic schism while maintaining the catholic understandings of the historic episcopate and the three-fold order of ministry. Rather than selling the pass we would be planting a flag on the high ground of ecumenical unity and responded with intellectual rigour and generous ecclesiology to Our Lord’s prayer at the Last Supper: that they should all be one.


[1] Ghirlanda, G., Il diritto nella Chiesa mistero di comunione – Compendio di diritto ecclesiale quinta edizione riveduta ed aggiornata: Roma 2014 Cap. X, para. 280 (my translation).
[2] “Nos … ut idem abbas et successores sui in perpetuum abbates eiusdem monasterii pro tempore elcistentes omnibus et singulis canonicis praesentibus et futuris professis eiusdem monasterii omnes minores necnon subdiaconatus, diaconatus et presbyteratus ordines statutis a iure temporibus conferre libere et licite valeant et quod dicti canonici sic per dictos abbates promoti in sic susceptis ordinibus libere et licite ministrare possint, quibuscumque constitutionibus apostolicis et aliis contrariis in contrarium editis quibuscumque quacumque firmitate roboratis nequaquam obstantibus . . . indulgemus” Henry Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, 32nd edition by Adolf Schiinmetzer (Herder, 1963) no. 1145.
[3] Rahner, K., ed Encyclopedia of Theology: A concise Sacramentum Mundi (St Paul’s, 1975) p. 1136.
[4] Ghirlanda, Il diritto nella Chiesa Cap. X, para. 280.
[5] Baker, F., John Wesley and the Church of England, `Ordination is Separation`, (Epworth Press, 1970) pp. 145-147.
[6] Baker, Wesley & the Church of England p. 271.