29 June 2004

New district will be home to 23,000 members and 252 churches

The Methodist Church, at its annual Conference in Loughborough, has approved a report laying out some of the issues about churches, the state and establishment. The Church hopes that it will spark a debate among its own members and in other denominations on the topic.

The Rev Jane Craske, of the Faith and Order Committee that produced the report, told Conference that "this report has an ecumenical context, but it is not an ecumenical report. Covenant affects us and we have to expect it to affect Anglican actions and attitudes. We are expected to speak openly to our sister church."

Craske added, "we have to understand what establishment means to Anglicans. If we are to discuss establishment, we cannot discuss it in the abstract. We have to know what it means now, and how it has changed over the last 30 years."

Craske said "there are no easy answers in this debate. Neither complete disengagement between church and state, nor complete identification of church with the state, will work for Methodists. Neither extreme position works, but nor is everything fine. This report recommends some changes to produce better ecumenical relationships in order to provide better for the faith of the nation."

The Rev Dr. Paul Avis, Anglican Associate Member of the 2004 Methodist Conference and Anglican co-secretary of the Covenant Joint Implementation Committee, told Conference that he welcomed the report as "a courteous, informed and responsible approach to a set of difficult issues. A question we might ask is: how can we engage together as churches with local communities, civil and with the structures of the state itself?"

The 2003 Anglican-Methodist Covenant brought some of the questions about church and state to the front of Methodist thinking for the first time. Using examples from the Bible, Methodist history and current experiences, the report concludes with reflections and recommendations, rather than demands. In approving it, the Methodist Conference commends the report for study and consultation throughout the Church.

The report contains questions rather than answers: "This report aims to map the ground around this topic and does not claim to be the final word on the subject. Rather, we hope that it will help Methodists understand what some of the issues are, and encourage discussion and debate about relationships between churches and states."

The report adds: "This is a necessary preliminary step that we hope will lead to joint conversations between The Methodist Church and the Church of England. This is a broad and complex subject, and this report only aims to discuss some of the issues. But we hope that having raised some points we can enlarge the debate in future."

The report notes that the nature of the state itself is changing, with some functions either privatised or passed to regulators or agencies that operate at arms length from the traditional instruments of state. At the same time, Britain is an increasingly multicultural and multifaith society, while the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament emphasise that the Methodist Church in Great Britain relates to three nations.

Although there are no current moves to bring the Church of England and The Methodist Church closer together than agreed in the Covenant, Conference accepted that the time is right to look at establishment issues. Conference agreed with the report's authors that it "cannot wait forever on a situation that will probably continue to change in significant ways over the next few years."

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