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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.