Current Religious Thought

Now and then i have an impish resolve to produce an article on “The Intolerance of Liberalism,” usually when some particularly chuckleheaded views are trotted out masquerading as honest opinion. No one can be more intolerant than the liberal in his attitude to those less liberal theologically than he—many of us can testify feelingly to the fact. His criticisms often tend to be criticisms of an evangelicalism of yesteryear, or of extreme examples (assiduously sought out) of an obtuseness that could find parallels in other traditions. The fallacious process generally continues with good liberals being contrasted with bad evangelicals. Somewhere along the line that blessed word “fundamentalism” is flung in for good measure—a law should be passed decreeing that all such terms must be scrupulously defined—and all evangelicals are expediently lumped together under that dubious banner. No account is taken, for example, of the fact that not all of us are such militant Protestants as the lady who noted with black disapproval that a Roman Catholic bishop entered my office a few months ago. When he came out half an hour later, she discharged her bounden duty by saying to me: “I hope you had a good go at him.” Thirty golden minutes of lost opportunity, and I call myself an evangelical!

When a beguiling ecumenical tune is piped to us, some of us don’t dance, tiresome children that we are, and so another batch of wrong conclusions is glibly drawn and we are dismissed as incorrigible. We went through it all in Britain after the Faith and Order Conference at Nottingham last fall; now we’re getting it again because of evangelical opposition to the Anglican-Methodist merger proposals approved this summer by British Methodists (see “Plymouth: Scrutiny of Unity,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, July 30, 1965). The unionists have spent a lot of time trying to convince evangelical dissentients that unity matters. It is not always realized that the evangelical appreciates that fact so much that he is always out in front asking two questions: unity on what basis? unity to what end? Such a consideration of structure and purpose is seen to be vital, to avoid emulation of Edward Lear’s impetuous characters who, disregarding bad weather and good friends, went to sea in a sieve.

The proposed Service of Reconciliation came under renewed attack at the Plymouth conference. Both the nature and the effect of this service are obscure. Lord Fisher of Lambeth, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says it does not involve episcopal ordination of Methodist ministers; so does Dr. Harold Roberts, chairman of the Methodist negotiating committee. The Bishops of Exeter and Ripon take the contrary view, as does the influential Church Times. Many approve what they regard as studied ambiguity in the procedure to be followed, thus: “Then shall the Bishop lay his hands on the head of each of the Methodist ministers in silence. After he has laid hands upon all of them the Bishop shall say: ‘We receive you into the fellowship of the ministry in the Church of England. Take authority to exercise the office of priest, to preach the Word of God and to minister the Holy Sacraments among us as need shall arise and you shall be licensed to do.’ ”

Article continues below

In an open letter to the archbishops and bishops some time ago, thirty-nine leading evangelicals described the suggested service as unacceptable in its present form and averred that they could not with a good conscience participate in it, because it implied “the ordination to a priesthood not hitherto exercised of Methodist ministers who are already true ministers of God’s word and sacraments.” The writers called for mutual recognition of ministries, with episcopal ordination the regular practice thereafter, as in the Church of South India. To this end they requested that full communion with the CSI be at once established. Nothing came of the open letter; the CSI is still on the wrong side of the ecclesiastical Iron Curtain with not a single Anglican province in communion with it.

Apart from the opposition of a large majority of Anglican evangelicals, the report generally has been attacked by the Voice of Methodism movement, the Methodist Revival Fellowship, the Anglo-Catholic Church Union, the Anglo-Roman Society of the Holy Cross, and many prominent individuals with no “party allegiance.” Professor Franz Hildebrandt of Drew University, one of the Methodist observers at the Second Vatican Council, has written in a widely distributed Church of England parish supplement: “If the scheme is accepted, the Methodist ministry (at Stage I, before full organic union) will be divided into newly-made priests, in communion with the Church of England, and inferior non-priests who refused to submit. The split in our ranks is already evident; we are headed for a new open schism.”

Needless to say, during all the discussions much has been made of that durable question-begger, the need for concerted action against the menace of atheism and materialism. The implication is, of course, that the formation of a great united church would not only present a formidable front against such forces but would also necessarily produce an increased quality of Christian witness. It may be true that nothing so unites people as a common enemy, but as Professor Norman Snaith once said, “A union that comes from the need to ‘close one’s ranks’ means a retraction of evangelistic effort, and a generation of consolidation.” The call for a closing of ranks might be not irrelevant also to the fact that the Methodist Church in Britain (present membership about 700,000) has lost 150,000 members since 1932.

Article continues below

Two years ago the then president of the Methodist Conference wrote in the Church Times that for proposals that “deeply affect the life of our two Churches we need the good will of a substantial majority of our members and especially (in the case of Methodism) of our synods and quarterly meetings.” Such a majority was not obtained, according to figures reported to the conference this year. In synods where votes were reported, 5,090 voted to give the “general approval” sought, 2,848 were against, and 117 were neutral. The respective figures for quarterly meetings were 26,440, 22,236, and 1,835. These statistics from the real core of Methodism should be set against the widely publicized 78 per cent majority vote of the members of this year’s conference. Final acceptance of the report is still made dependent on the solution of many difficulties. When the latter were listed, it was evident that we yet await the solution of a single basic problem between the two churches. Everything that is fundamental has been shelved for the moment. I disagree with the London vicar who wrote knowingly, “The devil is presumably very angry about the Anglican-Methodist Report.” Instead of making the devil a party to the transaction, I’d rather go to Lewis Carroll for the mot juste on the present state of the parties: “Curtsey while you’re thinking what to say. It saves time.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.