Church of England and Methodism

Ecumenism has been on the rise in Christianity over the last century.  This recent push towards ecumenism was largely initiated by the Church of England.   During the first half of the C20th, as the world was ravaged by two global wars, many started to grow a deeper sense of our common humanity.  Within an environment that was focusing on unity over division, the Anglican church also reflected on its position of Via Media, and felt like it was well positioned to bring forth unity within Christianity.  They have made efforts to reconcile and deepen relationships with many denominations, but none have progressed as far as their relationship with the Methodist church in England.  This relationship has not flourished into full visible unity yet.  The different opinions over ordained ministry and the episcopacy are what stand in the way of full unity.  We will look at the historical development of the relationship between Methodist and Anglicans in order to understand the current situation.  Then we will look at the Methodist reservations and critiques of Anglican episcopacy and ordained ministry.   

Methodism claims John Wesley as its founder.  He had great co-laborers with George Whitefield and his brother Charles Wesley.  John Wesley was an Anglican through and through, and never intended or desired for his Methodist movement to break from the Church of England.  His brother also had similar feelings.  He believed that Methodist and the Church of England held essentially similar beliefs and so breaking with the church would only bring chaos and pain, and would only make things worse for both churches and those who may consider joining either church, 

We mostly think and speak the same Thing. But this would occasion inconceivable Strife and Contention, between those who left, and those who remained in the Church, as well as between those who left us, and those who remained with us: Nay, and between those very Person who remained, as they were variously inclined one Way or the other.[1]

Charles Wesley also feared that a separation with the Church of England would be too much of a distraction, and take away from other things he felt were more important to his work.[2]  However, as history shows, John and Charles’ desire to keep the Methodist and the Church of England together would go unfulfilled.  Shortly after John’s death in 1791, the Methodist movement rapidly broke away from the Church of England.[3]  To be sure, as much as Charles felt there was essentially no disagreement between Anglicans and Methodist, others did not see it that way.  These dissenters even claimed that the reason Charles and John did not want to break from the Church of England was because cowardice and fear of persecution.[4]  Rather than fearing persecution, Charles had great respect for the Church of England.  He recognized how he had been formed and shaped by the Church of England and felt a sense of treachery in leaving the church.[5]

In the early C19th, the relationship between Methodist and mainstream Anglicans started to become more and more hostile.  The source of tension and division was mainly due to how Methodist and Anglicans understood the ordo salutis.  Methodist began to view Anglicans as moralists and Anglicans saw Methodists as antinomians.[6]  This meant that Methodist thought Anglicans emphasized works over grace, making salvation works based to an intolerable degree.  This may have been due to the rise of the Caroline divines and their Anglo-Catholic ‘popery’ that offended reformist sensitivities, which pushed Methodist to ally with nonconformists.[7]  Nonconformists were not always a cozy home for Methodist though as some nonconformists perceived that the Methodist and Anglican separation was not so much a Methodist turning from the Church of England because of theological disagreement, but more of a mutual drifting apart because of different practical concerns.

On the flipside, mainstream Anglicans felt that Methodist put too much emphasis on belief and neglected the role good works play in salvation.  They felt it was dangerous to suggest that faith alone was adequate evidence of one’s relationship to God.[8]  The Anglican concern was that Methodist gave the impression that once one is saved, they can live anyway they would like and disregard Christian morality since they were already saved.  This was a real and heated disagreement, but it was not truly about salvation by grace versus works.  The debate may have taken on that language, but it was really more about assurance, definitions of justification and the question of conversion.[9]  The irony is that once one waded through the technical jargon on both sides, both sides were quite similar theologically.

Nevertheless, the focus on faith or works had a real impact on how well Methodists connected with sermons in Anglican churches.  So much so, that they complained to Charles Wesley saying, “But at the Church we are fed with Chaff, whereas at the Meeting we have wholesome Food:” Charles responded telling them that the Anglican services contained important truths and those with spiritual discernment will be able to easily discern what those are.[10]  This sort of dispute seemed to take on more of a theological tone, but the important disagreements that ended up leading to the separation between the churches were more practical and less doctrinal. 

It was these other non-doctrinal or non-theological conflicts which really pushed Methodist and the Church of England towards separation.  The main areas of contention were the Methodist itinerant ministry, lay ministry, and open worship style.[11]  Disputes like these lead to the further distancing of Methodism and the Church of England.  The distance became so great that by the end of the C19th, it was as if Anglicans and Methodists were inhabiting different worlds.[12] 

Although in different worlds, this was not a reality for too long.  With the destruction that engulfed the world in the first half of the C20th, many were looking for unity rather than division.  Starting in the 1930s, South India had begun to make movements toward church union amongst different denominations.[13]  As a response, Anglicans in England reached out to the Free Churches to work toward ecumenism in England, and the Methodist Church on England was the only one to respond positively.[14]  After over a century of dissention and division, Methodist and Anglicans started conversations in the 1950s and 60s to work toward visible unity.   

After having some time to review the doctrines of each party, Anglicans and Methodist came to believe theology was not their source of division.  In fact, it has been suggested that in a united church, it was unlikely that there would be a wider range of theological views than in either churches separately.[15]  Their disagreements and division were more in pragmatic responses to situations rather than doctrinal differences.[16]  As this began to be realized and affirmed, it caused great excitement for those that were working on a plan to unify the Methodist Church of England and the Church of England in the 1960s and 70s.  However, not all thought the similarities were so spectacular and the differences reconcilable.   

During the various conversations and meetings, a handful of Methodists responded to the reunion with a dissenting paper.[17]  This paper was important because it contributed to the pause and slowing of the reunion.  I also think it is important because it points out key areas where disagreement may lie between the church, but were overlooked or judged not insuperable because of a need to survive.  Franz Hildebrandt in his review of the dissenting view wrote: 

The non-theological factors are not hard to detect. The “dying” Methodist Church in Britain, to judge from membership statistics, seems ready to quit but speaks in terms of the Pauline “dying with Christ.”[18]

If Methodist were really being pushed along in this reunion process because of fear of declining membership and saw this as a life boat, it makes sense why they may be willing to overlook some differences in order to preserve their church.  Despite indications that declining numbers may be the impetus for the churches to merge, it has been declared that the main motivation is that in John, scripture shows that unity and mission belong together.[19]  If this connection between unity and mission is correct, then this is a powerful reason to pursue unity.  Especially when it is suggested that being missional is an inherent and necessary feature of the church.[20]  This understanding of unity, specifically visible unity, was challenged though during the reunion attempt in the 1960s by one of the Methodist representatives, Thomas Jessop.  He argued: 

It is assumed that the Johannine text “that they may all be one” means one institution, and that St. Paul was not using a preacher’s metaphor, vividly helpful in its context, but uttering a divine declaration about institutional form, when he likened the church to Christ’s body. If the physical meaning of “body” be dropped as too crass, and the notion of a “mystical” body be substituted, we have moved away from the idea of any institution to that of a purely spiritual unity.[21]

He is challenging the idea that unity needs to be physical unity, rather than spiritual unity.  He is challenging this because he believes that unity with the Anglican church will actually mean exclusion of all other non-Anglican churches by the Methodist church.[22]  In the 1920s, the insistence upon episcopal ordination is what broke down conversations between the Church of England and other Free Churches in England.[23]  Thomas believed that the episcopal structure and ordained ministry of the Anglican Church was a threat to authentic unity, and motivated him to question whether “true” unity had to be visible or if was actually more authentic if it was spiritual.  He was skeptical that the attempt at unity was not so much about Christian unity, but to bring all the nonconformist churches back under the Church of England.[24]  This brings us to the main area of contention that has yet to be overcome in the present day, and is the cause for the current disunity between Methodist and Anglicans

Thomas Jessop argued that the episcopal structure of the Anglican church, their ecclesiology around ordained ministry and their views on communion were inherently against true unity, but only allowed unity within a particular kind of church.[25]  The dissenting Methodist were protesting against the imposition of Anglican episcopacy and priesthood on them, since they felt the historic episcopacy is not grounded in scripture.[26]  It was not that the dissenting Methodist felt that the Methodist ecclesiastical structure was inherently better.  Thomas comments how he does not think there is any biblically ordained structure to have.[27]  The dissent came when it was insisted that the Anglican episcopacy and ordinal structure would have to be followed by Methodist, suggesting that the Methodist approach was inadequate. 

In accepting the Anglican episcopacy and ordinal structure, it also came with changes in authority.  Taking on the Anglican episcopacy meant Methodist had to accept that only bishops in the historic episcopate had the authority to do ordination and to continue the ministry of the Holy Catholic Church.[28]  This would require that Methodist ministers get re-ordained, implying their Methodist ordination was inadequate.  This set up a tension where Anglicans were bound by their system of ordination, and Methodist ministers felt bound to repudiate the idea that they would need to be ordained again.[29]  The question of authority, re-ordination, and forced adherence to the Anglican episcopal structure and ordination ministry sparked the dissenting papers and highlighted that episcopacy and ordained ministry have always been at the heart of Methodist and Anglican division.    

The original dispute around itinerant preachers which lead to the first separation has not completely gone away, as we find ourselves back to division over the matter of ordained ministry.  The dissenters proved too much during the discussions of unity in the 1970s, and discussion paused for a time.  The history of hurt and disappointment was beginning to be revealed and uncovered on both sides as attempts at reunification picked up again in the last few decades.[30]  As we moved into the 2000s, just like during the discussions in the 1960s and seventies, theology and doctrine were not holding up the reunion.[31]  Since the failed reunion attempt in the 1970s and up through the present time, it has been the area of ordained ministry that has been the most controversial and has prevented the union of the Anglican and Methodist churches in England.   

As we move into the 2000s, we are seeing much more visible unity on a local level, even if it has not been realized at the highest levels of office.  Methodist and Anglicans often work side by side in local missions, advancing a grassroots ecumenism.[32]  Beyond just doing local missions together, local Methodist and Anglican churches would share resources, buildings, and sometimes even ministers. These Local Ecumenical Partnerships serve as a visible representation of what visible unity could look like, even if they still don’t have fully interchangeable ministers or a single focus of oversight and decision making. [33]

Not only were they making progress on the visible and practical level of integrating churches and mission, there was even some progress with issues over ordained ministry and the episcopacy.  It had become agreed that the priesthood and ministry within the Methodist Church met the Anglican standards set by their historic formularies and Anglicans conceded that the historic episcopate was not the only legitimate channel for sacramental grace and true doctrine.[34]  With this development, the ground of disagreement was shrinking.  Theologically speaking, questions of Calvinism and Arminianism,[35] and the doctrine of Christian perfection[36] are still areas of important dispute, but should not stand in the way of reunion.   

Even with these advances, we still find disagreements big enough to maintain division.  These disagreements are still found within the area of ordained ministry.  As before, there is still further discussion needed on the role and authority of bishops, but then also on the matter of women ordination.[37]  The ordination of women has recently become a central topic for churches to wrestle with, as many are beginning to go against traditional understandings that did not allow the ordination of women.  The Methodist church is in full support of ordaining women, and do not see it possible to have full unity with the Church of England unless women are given ordination opportunities.  The Church of England has been diving deeper into this issue in response to the wide movement of ordaining women in other denominations.   

As for the authority of bishops, this is still a disputed matter.  Both Anglicans and Methodist make the connection between ordination and pastoral oversight.[38]  The question is which ordained members have the authority.  For the Anglicans it is bishops who are ordained within the historic succession, for the Methodist Churches in England it is district chairmen and superintendents together with the conference.[39]  Until the question of authority can be resolved, unity will not be possible as it will always be plagued by scuffles and arguments over power and control.   

The Church of England and the Methodist Church of England have had somewhat of a volatile relationship.  Over the centuries they have experienced separation, moments approaching reunion, only to be meet with more separation.  As time moves on though, the prospect of reunion looks more and more promising.  The Anglican and Methodist dialogues confirm that each church holds to the apostolic faith.[40]   There is vast agreement on theological and doctrinal issues, so much so that any disagreement does not seem to be insuperable.  As of now, the source of contention, which has been the case ever since the initial separation, centers around the details of ordained ministry and episcopacy.  It is hard to know what will happen at this point forward, but the trend is suggesting that full visible unity may be a reality for the Church of England and the Methodist Church of England.


[1] Wesley, Charles. “REASONS AGAINST A SEPARATION FROM THE CHURCH of  ENGLAND.” Project          Canterbury, 1758, pp. 1–6., anglicanhistory.org/wesley/reasons1760.html. Accessed 2020. 2.

[2] Wesley, Charles. “REASONS AGAINST A SEPARATION.” 2.

[3] Moorman, John R. H. A History of the Church in England. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Pub., 1994. 315.

[4] Wesley, Charles. “REASONS AGAINST A SEPARATION.” 3.

[5] Wesley, Charles. “REASONS AGAINST A SEPARATION.” 3.

[6] Chamberlain, Jeffrey S. 1993. “Moralism, Justification, and the Controversy over Methodism.” The Journal of        Ecclesiastical History 44 (4): 652–78. 652

[7] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. Methodist Publishing House  and Church House Publishing., 2001. 6.

[8] Chamberlain, Jeffrey S. 1993. “Moralism, Justification, and the Controversy over Methodism.” 670.

[9] Chamberlain, Jeffrey S. 1993. “Moralism, Justification, and the Controversy over Methodism.” 678.

[10] Wesley, Charles. “REASONS AGAINST A SEPARATION.” 4.

[11] Jessop, Thomas Edmund. 1965. “Report of the Conversations between the Church of England and the Methodist   Church of Great Britain: A Dissentient View.” Methodist History 3 (3): 40–52. 41.

[12] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT 3.

[13] Davidson, Leslie. “The History of the Conversations between the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain.” Methodist History 2, no. 4 (July 1964): 44–48. 45.

[14] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 9.

[15] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 20.

[16] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 15.

[17] Hildebrandt, Franz. 1963. “Anglican-Methodist Reconciliation: A Dissenting View.” Theology Today 20 (2):         283–87. 284.

[18] Hildebrandt, Franz. 1963. “Anglican-Methodist Reconciliation: A Dissenting View.” 286.

[19] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 27.

[20] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 30.

[21] Jessop, Thomas Edmund. 1965. “Report of the Conversations”. 44.

[22] Jessop, Thomas Edmund. 1965. “Report of the Conversations”. 44.

[23] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 8.

[24] Jessop, Thomas Edmund. 1965. “Report of the Conversations”. 42.

[25] Jessop, Thomas Edmund. 1965. “Report of the Conversations”. 44.

[26] Hildebrandt, Franz. 1963. “Anglican-Methodist Reconciliation: A Dissenting View.” 284.

[27] Jessop, Thomas Edmund. 1965. “Report of the Conversations”. 49.

[28] Jessop, Thomas Edmund. 1965. “Report of the Conversations”. 46.

[29] Jessop, Thomas Edmund. 1965. “Report of the Conversations”. 51.

[30] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 14.

[31] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 14.

[32] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 16.

[33] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 17.

[34] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 20.

[35] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 38.

[36] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 39.

[37] Haar, Miriam. 2013. “Apostolicity: Unresolved Issues in Anglican-Methodist Dialogue.” Ecclesiology 9 (1): 39    65. 58.

[38] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 53.

[39] Haar, Miriam. 2013. “Apostolicity: Unresolved Issues in Anglican-Methodist Dialogue.” 59.

[40] Taylor, John B, and Barry Rogerson. AN ANGLICAN-METHODIST COVENANT. 36.

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