Church history made as Church of Ireland and Methodist Church enter new ministerial relationship
The passing at last week’s General Synod of Bill No. 1 – ‘To provide for interchangeability of ministry between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland’ – was a moment of Church history in the making, and will be of relevance to ecumenical dialogue the world over.
The proposer of the Bill, the Dean of Cork, the Very Revd Nigel Dunne, stated that the Bill did not represent a ‘merger’ between the two Churches but allowed each to retain its own polity. While providing for ministerial interchangeability between the two Churches, the threefold order of ordained ministry remained fundamental in the Church of Ireland, he added.
When the Bill passed its final stage, and was overwhelmingly passed, the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd Richard Clarke, and the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Revd Dr Heather Morris, addressed the Synod.
In his remarks, the Archbishop said that the arrangements did “no damage to our Catholic heritage”, but assured respect in the Church for any who differed. He paid particular tribute to Dean Dunne, to the Director of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and to the Covenant Council.
Dr Clarke spoke warmly about Irish Methodism and referred to the contribution of Methodists to the dialogue which had led to the agreement. He said a “sufficient consonance” in thinking between the two Churches had been found, Church history made as Church of Ireland and Methodist Church enter new ministerial relationship thus enabling progress.
Dr Morris said: “I want to add my voice to that of the Primate as he thanked those who have worked so hard to bring us to this day. I want to thank God for the Church of Ireland. There are so many reasons to be thankful – for theological rigour and grace filled conversations. We thank God who has brought us to this point.”
The Methodist President echoed the Archbishop’s remarks in his Presidential Address on the theme of ‘gift’, adding: “As he pointed out, the theology of gift clearly applies here; each of our traditions brings gifts to this relationship. My plea, however, is that we each have the grace to receive as well as give. As we work this legislation out in real life, this may be where one of the challenges lies.”
Dr Morris said that both Methodists and members of the Church of Ireland “cherish and are appropriately proud of our traditions”, and continued: “This legislation does not change or undermine that in any way”. She said the challenge was “to allow our traditions to enrich and help each other as we partner together in the Gospel”.
For that reason, she said, she was “deeply grateful to those who have voiced questions and hesitations with this legislation, and grateful for the depth of relationships in which we can voice difference and remain in relationship with each other and love each other and work together”.
Dr Morris also said it was important to remember “why we are doing this”, adding: “It is all about mission, choosing to have relationships which echo the love and grace of God, choosing to live generously with each other, and doing this because we are serious about asking what is the best shape for us to be in order to partner with what God is doing in the world.”
The General Synod
During the first two days of last week’s General Synod meeting in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, many of those attending remarked on how uneventful the proceedings were – but then came the final day when a most historic decision was taken in entering a new relationship with the Methodist Church in Ireland through a scheme allowing for the interchangeability of ministry (report, page 1; Bill, page 8). The word ‘historic’ is not an over-statement because the step has been so carefully worked out that it is already being considered in the context of other ecumenical dialogues around the world.
Some have expressed reservations about this development for various reasons but the Church of Ireland certainly knew its mind when it came to final decision time. However, in their addresses after the final decision, both the Archbishop of Armagh and the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland took the opportunity of reaching out in spirit to those who continued to have concerns, assuring them of respect and acceptance. Those words of both the Archbishop and the President were generous-hearted and no one could doubt that the two Church leaders really felt for those who were opposed to the development. That said, proceeding was seen to be undoubtedly the clear and considered mind and will of the Church.
The Synod gave more time for both the Commission on Episcopal Ministry and Structures and the Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief to do their work. These are huge areas and it is understandable that they could not complete their tasks within the timeframes originally envisaged. However, the debate that followed the motion proposed by Dr Alan Acheson (report, page 3) showed that, in relation to the latter, without doubt very deep feelings remain in the background. In relation to the former, the Commission has rightly taken the view that in making what could be quite momentous changes in the area of episcopal ministry, it is important to consult as widely as possible and to establish the right principles, as well as giving them due consideration, before making specific recommendations.
For a range of reasons, the Synod decided that it would not return to Christ Church but nonetheless expressed appreciation to the Dean for having hosted the meeting, alternately with Armagh, over recent years. Whatever about negative aspects which some may feel about the Cathedral as a venue, at least one positive aspect has been the real and unmistakable sense of ‘Church’ that has been conveyed into the synodical deliberations by the very building, a sacred environment. That is something that a hotel just cannot communicate and it is something that will surely be missed in future.
General Synod Reports
- Archbishop of Armagh stresses long-term thinking for a ‘long-term Church’
- Motion on pride in Church’s past stirs unexpected debate
- ‘Financially we are in a much better place than a few years ago’ – RCB Report proposer
- Commission on episcopal ministry given two more years to report
- Bishops’ Appeal presentation
- Standing Committee report raises broad range of issues
- Select Committee facing ‘difficult task’ on sexuality issue
The work of the Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief is still at a very early stage, according to its Chair, the Dean of Belfast, the Very Revd John Mann (Connor).
Dean Mann, who was proposing the report of the select committee, said it was “only an interim report” and outlined the approach of the committee to a “difficult task”, encouraging constructive discussion and informed views.
“We are conscious that all that we are talking about affects individuals; chiefly those within the LGBT community”, and others are “seeking to relate, within the fellowship of the Church, to those of a different sexual orientation to themselves – or who may, in fact, be struggling to understand their own attractions, or lack of them, within ordinary daily life and the normal joys and sorrows of their practical Christian discipleship.” He said committee members entered the debate with “an openness to receive and a willingness to give”. This involved vulnerability, time and building trust. The committee listened to biblical scholars and members of Changing Attitude Ireland, and plans to listen to theologians and group representatives.
The committee also hopes to produce a working document as a straightforward guide to the debate. “It needs to … encourage substantive engagement with the issues, even by those who have made up their minds already, or alternatively, want to walk away from a debate that they do not feel is their concern,” the Dean said. He added that this should “prompt prayerful and careful thought, and not lead its readers on to a prejudged path”.
The committee hoped to produce the document by the autumn of this year, and later to examine other aspects of human sexuality. The report was seconded by Helen McClenagahan (Armagh).
The Revd Colin Hall- Thompson (Down) said his attitudes to same-gender marriage did not stop him from pastorally caring for people with sensitivity. He said the starting point must be our common humanity and he spoke of the need for compassion and risk-taking.
“Despite my views, I must be open to change,” he said. Joc Sanders (Killaloe) said he detected a “tendency to cherry pick” the three-part motion passed by the General Synod in 2012, which not only reaffirmed the traditional view of marriage but also affirmed a continuing commitment to love of neighbour and opposing bigotry and hurtful and damaging language.
Alan Templeton (Down) urged Dean Mann and the committee members to get ahead with their work, to meet timetables, and “not to take their eye off the ball”. He was concerned that the committee was straying into areas that were appropriate for other councils and committees.
Wendy Donaghy (Raphoe) said sexuality was not a choice but a gift from God. “It is people we are talking about,” she said, and she recalled the words of the Franciscan prayer used earlier in the morning by Bishop Pat Storey: “And may God bless you with enough foolishness … to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.” The report was adopted.
- Marriage Council’s work continues unchanged
- General Synod Bills
Bill No. 1
This Special Bill – in the names of the Very Revd Nigel Dunne(Cork) and the Bishop of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory – was brought forward at the request of the General Synod. It sought to provide for interchangeability of ministry between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland.
In proposing the Bill, Dean Dunne saw it as “the culmination of many years of dialogue … now ready for historic endorsement”. When the Bill was presented for its third reading on the final morning of Synod, the Bishop of Down and Dromore described the occasion as “the first sign of an ecumenical spring”.
The Bill was, he said, was “a potential template for other parts of the Anglican Communion”, representing “a wonderful moment in the history of our Church and in what we have to offer the worldwide Church”.
However, George Woodman (Connor) proved a dissenting voice, expressing “serious reservations about how the Bill was drafted”.
“If we are to offer a template, we must be sure that we offer the Anglican Communion the right template,” Mr Woodman asserted, questioning the use and lack of definition of the words ‘presbyter’ and ‘minister’.
In reply, Dean Dunne reiterated his belief that it was “an historic moment of joy and rejoicing in our journey of faith”.
The Bill was passed overwhelmingly (Report, page 1; Editorial, page 2).
- Press conference
- Restructuring of Youth Department highlighted
- Council for Mission’s conference highlighted
- Liturgical Advisory Committee’s work considered
- Commission on Ministry
- Petition received
- Diversity stressed in Synod’s ecumenical discussion
- Covenant Council
- Private Members’ Motion
- Education concerns, North and South, aired
- Magazine and Website competition results
- Morning devotions
- General Synod Eucharist
- Synod attendances
- Rethinking Church – Stephen Neil – It’s the small things that matter
- Lifelines – Ron Elsdon – Snuffed out