WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- More than 200 years after their divorce, the Church of England and the Methodist Church of Great Britain have embarked on the road to remarriage, spokesmen for both denominations told United Press International Monday.
Suffering from a dramatic decline in active membership, the two churches have been in "formal conversations" for almost four years. The result, published Friday, has been the proposal of a national Covenant.
Should the Church of England's General Synod and the Methodist Conference approve this agreement, it "will bring the two churches into a new relationship at every level," its authors wrote,
In a statement to the media, they said, "It (the Covenant) could be likened to an engagement to be married."
Representatives of other denominations, such as the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Moravian Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the United Reformed Church participated in the formal conversations.
Methodist media relations officer Murray White expressed the hope that other denominations eventually will participate in the Covenant, whose ultimate aim was visible church unity.
It will be proposed to the General Synod and the Methodist Conference next July and voted on a year later.
The proposal to link two communions with common Anglican roots follows an alarming descent of Christianity in Britain to almost a minority status, prompting the triumphant announcement by radical Muslim organizations, "We will replace the Bible in England with the Koran."
In a nation whose head of state, the Queen, bears the title Defender of Faith, only half the citizens are baptized, according to Christian Research, which monitors religious developments in that country.
Since 1979, the number of regular Sunday worshipers in the Church of England has slipped from almost 1.7 million to 980,000, a spokeswoman for the research organization told UPI.
While in 1979, some 621,000 people went to one of the 6,000 Methodist churches each Sunday, only 379,000 did so in 1998. By now, the figure has gone further down to 300,000, and of those many are non-Methodists, said White.
Even the Roman Catholics have become lax in the last 20 years. The number of communicants per Sunday has gone down from almost 2 million to 1.2 million.
Meanwhile, the number of Muslims in Britain has risen from 600,000 to 1.4 million since 1980, and of those almost half attend mosque regularly.
Under these circumstances, the once bitter recriminations between Methodism, which started out as a reform movement within the Church of England, and Anglicans have long become a thing of the past.
It was Methodism's aim to bring the Gospel to the general population, a goal now embraced by both denominations. Though Methodism's founder, John Wesley (1703-91), was never expelled from the state church, the two wings of Anglicanism had grown apart well before his death.
However, said Murray White, the current Covenant proposal had long been preceded by "Local Parish Partnerships." According to the Covenant's authors, many of these 861 LEPs involved the merger of Methodists and Anglicans into single congregations, worshiping together in a shared sanctuary.
Other Protestant denominations, especially the United Reformed Church, also participated in such ventures anticipating the fuller visible church unity that is the goal of the Covenant.
The participants in the formal conversations pointed to the various features of that visible unity they seek:
* First, a common profession of the fundamental Christian faith grounded in Scripture and expressed in the ecumenical creeds of the Church;
* Second, the sharing of one baptism and the celebrating of one Eucharist;
* Third, a common ministry of World and Sacraments;
* Fourth, a common ministry of oversight.
Although Anglicans, Methodists and other denominations have merged into a single church in other parts of the world, especially in India and Pakistan, there are still outstanding differences between them in Britain.
While both denominations have long practiced Eucharistic hospitality that allows other baptized Christians to commune at their altars, they have not resolved the issue of the episcopacy.
Like the Roman Catholics, Anglicans insist on a church polity headed by bishops in a "historic succession" reaching back to the days of the apostles.
In Britain, unlike in the United States, Methodists have no bishops at all, only chairmen of ecclesiastical districts. On the other hand, the Church of England does not consecrate women as bishops, whereas the Methodists do elect women as top leaders.
Indeed, the current President of the Methodist Conference and thus the voice of the entire denomination is a female minister, the Rev. Christina LeMoignan.
However, the Rev. Prebendary Paul Avis, General Secretary of the Church of England's Council for Church Unity, does not see the question of ecclesial oversight as an insuperable one.
"The Methodists have stated some time ago that they are not against returning to the historic episcopate," he told UPI.