The Effortless Superiority Of The Church Of England

I use that title for this blog post, being a version of what we in the free churches sometimes label ‘Anglican imperialism’. It is that unequal relationship which the Church of England maintains with us, despite protestations to the contrary.

I encountered it again last Sunday. My Methodist church in Broomfield is in covenant with the local parish church, St Mary’s. We share a very warm relationship.

Recently, their vicar retired, but before he stepped down he booked me to preach a farewell sermon there prior to our looming departure. It was fixed for last Sunday. Here’s the thing: when Methodist and Anglican churches are in formal LEPs (Local Ecumenical Partnerships) I can preside at a communion service. When we are only in covenants, I cannot. So I was expecting that a visiting Anglican priest would preside at the sacrament while I preached.

In fact, no priest was available for that 10:30 am service, so the church wardens had to ask the visiting priest at the 8 am communion to consecrate enough bread and wine for the later service, too. The Reader who led the service with me had to use a newly authorised liturgy called Public Worship with Communion by Extension. (And every time this comes up, she has to apply for permission to use it. Imagine how often that will be during a vacancy.) Strictly no-one must stand behind the communion table.

My Anglican friends were upset that I was not allowed to preside. Their support was touching, and came through very Anglican lenses. “Why can’t you exercise your priestly ministry with us?” Er – because I’m not a priest? The C of E would say I’m not a priest, because I haven’t had hands laid on me by a bishop who is part of that theological fiction known as the ‘historic succession’. (However, we did smuggle into the service me pronouncing what I would call ‘assurance of forgiveness’ and my Anglican friends with their priestly language would call ‘absolution’. And yes, I do normally use ‘you’ language rather than ‘us’ language in those prayers  – not for ‘priestly’ reasons, but because people need to hear ‘you are forgiven’.)

Methodism would say I’m a priest in the same way that every Christian is a priest, and that I am not ordained to a separate priesthood. It still smuggles ordained presidency at the sacraments into our practice as the norm, on the grounds that good order should be kept at Holy Communion. And of course, I agree that the Lord’s Table is a place for good order, I just point to 1 Corinthians 11 where there is a massive problem of disorder at the Lord’s Supper, which Paul solves not with trained clergy but apostolic teaching.

So I’m not about to want to claim a separate priesthood for myself – I believe that is contrary to the New Testament. But Sunday’s experience reminded me of the institutional inequality between our traditions, and the way in which the grassroots are often ahead of the hierarchy in Christian work. I get angry at the legacy of Anglo-Catholic domination in past centuries that has led to this institutionalisation of inequality, where some are more equal than others. I recall an article in the Church Times in the late 1980s which pointed out that a nominal Catholic who finds living faith in Christ in an Anglican church can be received by transfer, because his or her Catholic confirmation is regarded as valid, since it has been administered by a bishop in the ‘historic succession’. However, should a free church Christian with an existing live faith who joins the Church of England must be confirmed as if they had never been received into the Christian church at all. Their prior Christian experience is effectively trashed in the so-called name of church order.

Anglicans refer to a triad of sources in determining Christian truth: Scripture, tradition and reason. Methodists add a fourth to make a quadrilateral: experience. To me, this is one area where adding that fourth source makes the difference. It exposes the ‘historic succession’ for the theological sham that it is. People’s experience of Christ must be allowed as a valid contribution to understanding Christian life and doctrine, just as in Acts 10 the Gentile reception of the Holy Spirit changed the church, as when Peter cited it at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. Experience cannot trump everything else, but it must be allowed a place at the table. For too long, the rigid insistence on the ‘historic succession’ (and yes, I continue to put it in quote marks because I don’t accept its reality) has caused pastoral and ecumenical damage.

Not that I think there is any hope of the Church of England listening, mind you.


  1. I guess the above is why you’re not an Anglican, Dave! I think if you agree to preach in an Anglican setting then you need to accept their “ways”. If you find you really don’t agree with them on an issue, then a polite decline of the invitation would be acceptable, I’m sure. There are lots of things I disagree with in my church (Sydney Anglican) but I concentrate on my relationship with my minister, and the fellow members of my congregation and express my views (which aren’t always warmly welcomed, but I am shown respect). Maybe you could show respect by listening and answering this, or will you do the easier thing and delete it. It’s all experience, I guess, which seems to be important to Methodists!


    1. Pam, I won’t delete your comment – of course not! In one sense I did ‘accept their ways’, because I had to work within the framework I described. However, it is painful to do so, and I don’t believe that at an ‘official’ level this is seriously recognised. The relationships we have with the parish church are particularly good, and I am working with them on one last project before I leave. I accepted the preaching invitation because of those good relationships and didn’t say anything in the sermon that contradicted their doctrines – just as I would expect if I invited someone of another tradition to occupy a Methodist pulpit. Yet there is this unavoidable institutionalised inequality.


      1. I’m not actually in total agreement with everything you say, Dave. Yet I’m still puzzled as to what you did that Pam thinks to be disrespectful. It seems to me that you DID actually put the relationship first before your own theology. And I also agree that Methodist theology is often brushed aside as irrelevant by the C of E. British Methodists and the C of E have signed a covenant to explore a deeper unity but from the Anglican side this seems to mean that we Methodists finally come to our senses and give up our Methodist distinctive and become Anglican. Kind of like we’ll all be Anglican when we put aside our childish ways.


  2. Hi Dave, Thanks for replying. I guess I became a little irritated because I live every day with what I see as “inequalities” in the doctrine of the Sydney Anglicans, and yet I love the people in my congregation. And I think people (believers and non-believers alike) are more important than any doctrine (you can tell I’m not a theologian!). Hope you understand what I mean. There is much I admire about Methodism so keep on doing your good work!


    1. Hmm, I used to know an Australian evangelical Anglican priest who – despite coming from NSW – wanted little or nothing to do with the ‘Sydney Anglicans’. I didn’t understand then, but I’ve begun to understand since.


  3. I am so strongly in agreement with your latest posting, Dave, that I actually felt compelled to comment in public to totally support your views! Nothing frustrates me more than when the heirarchy/legalisms of the Anglican church get in the way of being able to a) worship God or b) follow what Jesus did and told us to do. I should say I always considered myself a lapsed Anglican Christian until I started attending an ecumenical Methodist/Anglican church nearly 18years ago. I was confirmed there as a joint Methodist/Anglican member age 36 and still consider myself to be one, despite the fact that we amicably broke off our ecumenical status and reverted to solely being an Anglican church. Since becoming so, I won’t list the many examples I could give, but suffice to say my sanity is often sorely tested and is only saved by the knowledge that Jesus had similar problems with the Pharisees!


  4. Just to clarify – there is a distinction between the historic episcopate and the apostolic succession. The historic episcopate exists, and can be shown to exist as far back as the early church. But it proves nothing – several of the great heretics were bishops in teh historic episcopate. The Anglican heresy is to argue that the historic episcopate is a guarantee of the apostolic succession, and thus the true church. Utter bilge.


  5. Pam vs. The Ministers – I’m not going to win that one. All I can say is sometimes personal circumstances are complicated and not every situation fits the “ideal”. I come to God in the circumstances of my own life.


      1. Thanks Pam BG. I can see I was unreasonable to Dave – it’s his blog he’s allowed to say whatever he wants. I guess I’m a bit prickly over Sydney Anglicanism – I can see their faults (my faults) but they’re my people. It hurt a bit to have Dave say he can understand why other Anglicans may not want to have anything to do with their Sydney branch – I take that as a personal rejection (too sensitive?) There are a broad spectrum of views in my congregation. An evangelical Minister who is true blue Sydney Anglican but is always there for me, encouraging not tearing me down. I’m truly the sinner who says “Lord, have mercy on me”.


        1. Oh dear, Pam, I’m sorry. I thought I was sympathising with your own misgivings about Sydney Anglicanism. I never meant to hurt you. If your minister is always there for you, I have only praise and admiration for that. My original post was trying to express the pain felt in free churches by some (in my opinion, imperialist) C of E policies.


  6. “Not that I think there is any hope of the Church of England listening, mind you.”

    … but some of us are reading you, Dave, and I thank you for what you’ve written, too. In the Catholic tradition myself I nonetheless delight in the reality that things ARE changing in practice, quietly, from the “bottom up” as well as from the “top down”. There are those of us, in all the Christian traditions, whose “breaking open of the Word” in “the power of the Spirit” can sense a unifying work in the air, a broadening of horizons, a more widely inclusive theology, new ‘translation’ … and like it or not we’re all in that work together. Actually, I do like it. And I thank you again for your honest reflections. I shall make more of an effort to notice when I’m being an Anglican imperialist!


  7. I thank you for your apology, Dave. And I hope you can accept mine. Even though I am a Sydney Anglican I still have moments of sanity (joke!).


  8. Actually, Dave, you could very easily have been allowed to preside at communion in that church. The rules are that you can do so under the terms of the Ecumenical Canons, but that the communion will therefore be a Methodist communion. It may be done using Anglican liturgy, wearing Anglican vestments, using wafers and alcoholic wine, but it will be a Methodist service and must be publicised as such. Not that I think God will notice the difference…

    I have taken part in Christmas Eve communion in our local parish church for the last 4 years, and presided at 3 of them. We have no formal relationship, other than the national Covenant – there is a good friendly working relationship between the clergy, and that is probably what counts most.


    1. Tell the liberal Catholic bishop that, Tony! I have operated under ecumenical canons elsewhere, but there is little sympathy for low church Christianity from the acting bishop. I could tell other tales, but I would be breaking confidences.


      1. The middle-of-the-road but evangelical-leaning bishop in the Diocese where I was wasn’t much better, Dave! He would speak all the right words and talk about being brothers and sisters in Christ but treated the Methodist ministers as if we were definitely not the real deal. (I’d actually rather that people just spoke straight about what they believe.) This is in contrast to the middle-of-the-road but catholic-leaning parish priest who let me preside and just didn’t say anything.

        I’m not claiming to be an expert on Anglican canonical law, but what we were told, Tony, was that the provision you cited was for LEPs. I was told that if a Methodist and an Anglican congregation were in an LEP, the Methodist minister would preside using a Methodist liturgy and it would be a “Methodist communion”. I was never supposed to use an Anglican liturgy, according to the diocesan rules. If the two congregations were not in an LEP, then I was strictly not to preside at all in an Anglican church.


        1. I must admit I had thought the position was as you stated it, Pam, but I thought Tony was (older and) wiser than me! (Well, he is … ) For the record, I’ve also had problems with an evangelical bishop in a previous circuit. He would tell us that privately he totally recognised our ministries, but so strongly did he believe in collegiality he could only operate the ‘official’ position. Whether that was reason or occasion for his decisions, I don’t know. All I do know is that he so insisted on canon law in LEPs that at one church, grapes had to be trodden immediately before every communion service so he could believe they had begun to ferment and the Methodists could believe it was just straight grape juice. Whatever he would have made of the situation in Lincoln a few years ago where a Methodist minister was given the ‘cure of souls’, I don’t know.


          1. All of which illustrates the point that there is no such thing as “the Church of England”, but 39 independent dioceses all of which do exactly what they want – which usually means what the bishop wants!

            As far as communion is concerned, I can only go on what I was told. All that is necessary is for the PCC to agree that a Methodist minister be invited to lead a Methodist service, and that’s what it is – despite the fact that the use of alcoholic wine makes it NOT a Methodist service. This was most definitely not a provision for LEPs, as far as I understand it. (Well, we aren’t a LEP, and we do it!)

            As far as LEPs are concerned, the constitution of the LEP supersedes the regulations of the participating denominations. In an Anglican-Mehodist LEP, it should be so worded as to allow for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic wine to be used as desired. The bishop does not have the authority to over-rule that constitution – should he insist on doing so, the matter should be referred to the Sponsoring Body. If a participating denomination is not honouring the constitution, it could lead to the break-up of the LEP, which could in turn lead to a court case and heavy financial compensation being paid to the denominations which are ‘made homeless’.

            Again, this brings us back to the heart of the problem – the Anglican attitude that bishops are all-powerful. Or should that be the attitude of some bishops… In fact, the vast amount of Anglican power rests in the parish – hence the powerlessness of a Northern diocese when faced with a quasi-independent large evangelical parish which defies the authority of the bishop and behaves like a sect. The bishop can’t do a thing to reign them in without setting off WW3.

            I still reckon your liberal catholic bishop was out of line. But if the folk in his diocese give him the power he thinks he has, then he has it.


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