All the major English churches have recorded a steady decrease in membership over the past decade. Of the two that have suffered most, the Church of England is likely to close a third of its theological colleges because of a serious shortage of candidates; Methodists are dismayed because the number of those accepted for training has dropped from 114 in 1957 to a mere 38 last year. Last summer a scheme to unite the two churches, while passed by the Methodists, failed because the Anglican vote fell short of the required 75 per cent majority.
Despite this discouraging background, two Anglo-Catholics and two evangelicals of the Church of England have collaborated in a book, Growing into Union, which gives “proposals for forming a united Church in England” (see “New English Merger Plan,” July 31 issue, p. 37), not restricted to two denominations. The rejected scheme comes in for the big stick: questions of doctrine had been skimped as the negotiators settled for the minimum “that will disarm the contenders.…”
The four writers point out that the original scheme preempted proper theological discussion also at a local level, where Anglicans were at each stage presented with a “this or nothing” choice. They further deplore the tendency in the Anglican establishment to regard “yes” votes as responsible and mature, “no” votes as uninformed and misguided. But they reserve the biggest hammering for the proposed Service of Reconciliation. Appended to Growing into Union is a devastating critique of this service, which is described with wicked wit and considerable justification as “a bog of illogic.”
The book, divided into three parts, first discusses fundamental questions of theology, dealing squarely with those wherein Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals have hitherto disagreed, notably Scripture and Tradition. Here I would like to have seen “tradition” more clearly delineated for the benefit of non-Anglicans. Elaboration is further called for when the writers, in discussing Church and Sacraments, say: “The unbaptized Christian is not only unprecedented in Scripture—he is also an individual flying in the face of the corporate meaning of the gospel.” This not only kicks Salvationists in the teeth but, because the context is infant baptism, lays itself open to a charge of baptismal regeneration.
Nevertheless trenchant points are made in this section when the authors declare: (1) unity is all of a piece with holiness; (2) unity and holiness are all of a piece with mission; (3) unity in visible terms is to be sought particularly in the local community; (4) unity should exhibit and retain diversity; (5) an organic consensus must be sought if the church is to move in major doctrinal questions, such as are involved in union schemes.
Here and there it becomes apparent why the writers found it necessary at the outset to admit that if treasure was found in their writings the vessels were earthen. On page 94, for example, there is an uncharitable indictment of the majority that had supported the Service of Reconciliation. On page 133, having made what they concede to be a novel proposition, the authors pettishly add: “We strongly hope that this … will not run into pettifogging opposition.” Certain other sections of the book tend to be strident, abrasive, and even unfeeling, though in each case the context shows that such notes stem from burning sincerity and singlemindedness. And much may be forgiven any document prefaced by the engaging admission (one of rare incidence in ecumenical circles): “We have hesitated to ascribe our doings to the Spirit of God.”
Coming to the proposed scheme itself in part two, the authors see that a clear way forward would be in the unconditional “adoption” of existing ministries into the presbyterate of an episcopally structured ministry, though within itself the united church would preserve the invariable practice of episcopal ordination. Ministers entering the united church would be required to declare: “I, A. B., having been ordained to the ministry/priesthood within the Church of God according to the rites of the [e.g. Methodist] Church, do now apply to you, bishop of —— in the united Church, for recognition and acceptance as a presbyter in the Church of God in the presbyterate of the united Church. I solemnly attest my acceptance of the confession of faith and constitution of this Church, and in particular of the threefold structure of the ministry, and I promise that canonical obedience which is due from a presbyter to his bishop according to the constitution of this Church.”
In receiving such a minister, the bishop shall “stretch out his hands towards him” and say: “I, A. B., bishop of——in the united Church, do recognize and accept you as a presbyter in the Church of God, now to serve within the presbyterate of this diocese in the threefold ministry of this Church. I now commit to you authority to exercise your ministry within this Church wherever you may be called and licensed. May God use your ministry to his great glory.”
I quote this in full because it is the nearest thing the new plan has to that service which scuttled the original scheme. It sounds simple, but it bristles with many of those difficulties encountered by the Church of South India—the only union in which Anglicans have hitherto participated. It is depressing to recall that even yet no segment of Anglicanism is in communion with the CSI, and equally depressing to learn that the new united church will not of itself further the cause of intercommunion with outside bodies. It will also bar women ministers.
The third part of the book gives detailed proposals. The united church would start in the new towns that are being built, and by accessions from other churches by congregations, “until the participating denominations finally disappeared and a new English Church had replaced them.” It is anticipated that Methodists, Presbyterians, and most Congregationalists would join, but not “Roman Catholics and Baptists” (sic). In every case the transfer would occur only “when the local Christians were agreed in desiring it.” What majority is needed? The writers are vague. The emphasis on local responsibility, however, is one sadly lacking in the original scheme.
The book is written by Anglicans and comes at problems out of an Anglican situation while purporting to advance a multilateral scheme. There is too much about the Church of England, too little about the churches of England. It will provoke the charge of another Anglican takeover bid from those who resent the Church of England’s easy assumption of ecumenical leadership.
My comments have been necessarily random, and I would strongly recommend a careful reading of this courageous, candid, and profound book. The Anglican establishment will be invulnerable to it and will try again to force through the original scheme; Methodist leadership will not soon forgive its being likened to a wallflower—“ready for offers but receiving none.”
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