In the run up to the 2004 Methodist Conference at Loughborough University, a report on ecumenical relationships is being prepared for discussion. Being one of the closet brothers of the Methodist Church, the Church of England is urged to loosen its relationship with the State if the two churches are to move towards closer unity, the report suggests.
It is believed that the Methodist’s proposal is triggered by the appointment of a gay canon as the Dean of St Albans in the Church of England in late April. The report points out a particularly contentious point - the appointment is actually made by the Crown.
“This means that the Prime Minister actually makes the appointment. Thus, the announcement of new Episcopal appointments comes from No 10 Downing Street, not from the Church,” the report, which was prepared by a Working Group who also consulted with Church of England member Paul Avis and Graham Blount of the Church of Scotland, states.
The Church of England, being the established church of England since the Reformation, has a special legal position within the state and is not simply a voluntary society in the eyes of the law. Officially, the King or Queen has the title of "Supreme Governor of the Church of England". The government did not however incorporate the Church directly into the State's bureaucracy; instead it set up procedures for monitoring and commanding the Church's administration.
In the appointment of Bishops, a Church committee forwards two names in order of preference to the Prime Minister, who normally accepts the choice but is not bound to. The Monarch would choose who was appointed, by sending a legally binding order as to who should be elected. Therefore usually, the unusual situation arises whereby it is the Church that tells the Prime Minister to tell the Queen to tell the Church who to appoint.
The Methodist Conference has highlighted critically on evaluating the relationship between the Methodist Church and the State since the appointment of the gay bishop. Therefore, it expects its ecumenical partner, the Church of England, which is far more “closely woven into the British constitutional system”, to do the same.
The Working Group of the report calls for the clarification about “the role of the monarch as Supreme Governor of that Church”.
The role of bishops in the House of Lords of the Parliament emerges as another obstacle. The report criticized them as “too part-time” and says fewer bishops would make for “more effective representatives”.
The Methodist Church and the Church of England have become close ecumenical partners since the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, signed the Anglican-Methodist Covenant in Westminster Abbey at a service attended by the Queen last November. “If nothing changes (in Anglican establishment) it limits the potential for union,” a spokesperson for the Methodist Church warned.
The ecumenical journey between the Church of England and the Methodist Church has been eventful in history. Even though the founders of Methodism, the Wesley Brothers, were clergyman in the Church of England, the two churches split in the 19th century in a dispute over ordinations. The last attempts to reunite them in 1969 and 1972 failed. Fate of their relationships will not be known until late June. But some comment that the changing fortunes of both churches have left the Methodist Church in a stronger position to make demands.
About the viewpoint of the Methodist Church on Establishment, the church has not proposed a complete severance of the ties between the Church of England and the State so far, but the report is expected to come closer to proposing disestablishing the Anglican Church in England.