A major controversy in recent weeks in British Methodism has involved the case of the Revd Dr Stephen Plant, who was appointed Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Unfortunately, ancient rules mean that appointment is only open to ordained Anglicans, therefore Dr Plant was ordained into the Church of England. Subsequently and inevitably, he had to resign from the Methodist ministry.
This has produced a lot of agony in Methodist circles, with criticisms of both the Anglican and Methodist establishments. I have followed it on the UK Methodists page of Facebook. What, not the Methodist Recorder? Funny you should mention that, because in today’s Recorder, Dr Plant’s friend, the Revd the Lord Griffiths, Superintendent Minister of Wesley’s Chapel in London, has had a potentially explosive letter published in the Recorder, in which he says he is so fed up with much of Methodism that he will effectively resign from it when he retires.
Now, how do you debate that? Look at the Recorder’s own website, to which I linked above. It is primitive. It has been the same for years. It might just have been acceptable in the 1990s, but that website is now an embarrassment. It gives you little more than an outline of this week’s headlines. It is stuck in an age before broadband, where debates would happen on the letters page. And I can tell you from personal experience, even that was slow. The gap between writing a letter and having it published could be four weeks. Press releases suffered a similar time lag. (And the one where I noticed that? It was about a New Media conference!) Four or five years ago, in frustration at this, I gave up subscribing. It coincided with a time when our household finances were tight, and so when they phoned me to ask why I wasn’t renewing my sub, I’m afraid I chickened out of giving them the kind of customer feedback I should have done.
Of course the Recorder is entitled to limit what it publishes online. It seems in this to be allied to Rupert Murdoch’s way of thinking, that if you publish content online you will lose the customer sales on which you depend. However, rather than either setting up online subscriptions as News Corporation have, or publishing interesting material when the print edition had expired a week earlier, it does nothing. Either you shell out for a weekly paper that hasn’t had a significant redesign or even change of font in thirty or forty years, or – well, nothing. It isn’t realistic in an always-on, Internet-everywhere age. You have to offer something.
Take a computing magazine like PC Pro. It reports news items on its website in a timely manner – after all, they will be discussed all over the Internet. However, it only publishes major articles online after the monthly magazine has gone out of date. That seems to be a sensible balance to me. And if using a tech mag as an example seems unrealistic for this debate, just look at how the premier Anglican publication, the Church Times, combines the PC Pro and News Corporation approaches, with some articles available to all surfers and others limited to subscribers.
So I can understand the frustration that controversial Methodist blogger David Hallam must have felt today, knowing this debate was going on, leading to his decision this evening to publish Leslie Griffiths’ letter on his blog. David has been taken to task on Facebook for breaching copyright, and the breach has been reported to the Recorder. Legally, I’m sure that’s quite correct. But it still begs the question about how people expect controversies will be debated today. We have people on Methodism’s Connexional Team who are well versed in contemporary communications methods. But our one and only newspaper is doing a fine impression of the music industry around the time downloading and file sharing became widespread. It’s hoping all this new-fangled stuff will go away. But that isn’t what will disappear. Luddite approaches to technology are what will die.
One thing is for sure in my mind. I’m not about to resubscribe to the Recorder in the foreseeable future. As things stand, the paper is part of Methodism’s past, not her future, and I’ll stick with Facebook, blogs and official emails to get my Methodist news.
Unless, of course, it can change …
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.
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.