PERHAPS the most important aspect of the Report on the Conversations between the, Church of England and the Methodist Church is that it postulates for the future what, in fact, exists in the present.
By the official Anglican recognition of the Church of South India Ott July 5, 1455, inter communion between Anglicans and Methodists is already established. From that date a Methodist from Madras has been able to receive Holy Communion at any Anglican elle: in London and it was inevitable that, sooner or later. the privileges of Madras should be visibly extended to Manchester,
As if to emphasise this new order of things, on July 5, 1956a year to the day after the crucial decisionat Si. George's, Leeds, 150 Methodist ministers and laymen participated in Holy Communion celebrated according to the rite of the Church of South India. Now, in the Report. it is recommended that the ordinals of
the Church of England and the Methodist Church should be "revised", with the recommendation: "The Ordinal of the Church of South India offers an example of what might be done."
It is not only predicsable but logical. Logic, however, has not been strong enough to lay at rest the ghosts of intensely-held convictions. To the Anglican, Holy Orders (and, consequently, valid Communions) depend on the Episcopal succession. To the Methodist (since it was the point at issue in Wesley's original secession), it does not.
The Anglicans see and state that "the Book of Common Prayer rules that episcopal ordination is necessary" and point out that "thc Anglican Reformers carefully guarded the episcopal succession". The Methodist signatories, on the other hand, draw particular attention to the declaration of the Methodist Conference of 1939, which stated .that "the Methodist Church . . would not be able to accept episcopacy or episcopal ordination if such acceptance involved the admission that either of these is indispensable to the Church."
The method by which the Report suggests that these irreconcilables should be reconciled is that, in a Service of Reconciliation. Anglican Bishops should lay their hands on Methodist heads and say: "Take authority to exercise the office of a priest" and, afterwards, Methodist dignitaries should lay their hands on Anglican heads and say: "Take authority to exercise the office of a minister".
This idea was first proposed in 1920 by Anglican authorities seeking a measure of reunion with Nonconformists and provoked one Congregational Moderator to the memorable analysis: "Either they are dishonest or they think that I am. They suggest that I should lay my hands on their men. who would not believe, any more than I believe, that they were getting anything from me and that, in return, they should lay their hands on my men, who do not believe that they could get anything from them."
It is on the rock of a similar obstinate honesty that the present edition of the old proposals is likely to founder. Indeed, the Methodist signatories of the Minority Report (which is 'a breath of theological fresh air among the pious ambiguities) point out unequivocally that "it has been explicitly stated that, whatever valuable gifts Methodist ordination may confer, it does not, and in the nature of things cannot, confer that which is conferred only by episcopal ordination within the historic succession". (It is also worth quoting their statement: "If the hope of further union, on the basis of the historic episcopate, is canvassed, it must be recalled that the largest episcopal Church in the world believes that the Church of England does not have, and therefore cannot impart, the historic ministry.")
But if the Methodists are to abandon one of their most tenaciously-held beliefs and submit to an ordination which casts an intolerable (though certainly unintended) slur on Methodist ordinations and ministries in the past, what are the Anglicans sacrificing? Apparently the Establishment, since "if it is desired that the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other Anglican Bishop should take part in the consecration of the Methodist bishops, there will have to be consultation with the Home Office and the Crown Office with the view to the issuing of a Royal Mandate for the consecration and it is possible that some parliamentary legislation may be required."
But no details have been worked out here and it is quite possible that some other way than Disestablishment (which would leave the Catholic Church in England as numerically a larger body of practising Christians than all the other bodies combined) might be considered more convenient.
In any case, one result of the Report may well be, by forcing the underlying theological questions to the fore, to make those Anglo Catholics who found Madras a long way off re-examine the claims of the Catholic Church.