The Methodists, the most democratic of the Free Churches, may soon have bishops, a move which would have wide implications for Christian unity.
The President's Council, the Methodist Church's most influmtial body, has appointed a working party of theologians and senior members to sutdy the various episcopal forms that exist throughout the world.
It is believed to be the first time that a non-episcopal Church has considered the possibility of introducing bishops without it being part of a wider plan for Christian unity.
At present the Methodist Church has what it likes to call a "corporate episcopacy" and is governed by an elected council. Other Methodist churches, such as that in Nigeria, have appointed bishops but these arefundamentally administrative posts and do not carry the ecclesial authority associated with the Catholic or Anglican hierarchies.
The question of bishops has often been a stumbling block to Christian unity and the Methodists latest initiative, although it is unlikely to be hurried through, may well smooth the path to new negotiations with Anglicans and Catholics.