THE Methodist Conference
-Iopens at Plymouth today when the Presidential address will be delivered by the Rev. W. Walker Lee. The following week it will get down to the topic which has already caused it to be regarded as the most momentous Methodist conference of the century—steps towards Anglican Methodist unity.
The Conference will have before it a monumental agenda of 639 pages. Seventeen of these pages deal with AnglicanMethodist relations. The key issue before the Conference will be to decide, yes or no, whether to go ahead, as the Church of England has agreed to do, with negotiations aimed at an eventual union of the two churches.
The Anglican Convocation's vote to go ahead with negotiations with the Methodists was overwhelming—which re _a n s it was almost unanimous. The Methodists will also meet at Plymouth fortified by the fact that their synods throughout the country have voted overwhelmingly for closer relations with the Church of England.
A great majority of districts also voted support for the proposals contained in the 1963 Report of Conversa';ons as, in broad outline, a way forward. These votes represented merely expressions of opinion, the Plymouth Conference being left to take the ultimate decision.
No one at this stage, however, expects a unanimous vote at Plymouth, for in the last few weeks a spate of Methodist criticism has appeared in the daily lay Press.
Early in June a north-west of England Methodist, Mr. A. A. Johnston, wrote to the Guardian that opposition to the proposals for union with the Anglican Church "is assuming serious proportions in the North of England . . . Throughout the country ministers and lay members who are opposed to the proposals are now talking openly of a breakaway movement embodying what they believe is essential Methodism. Money and land have already been offered in the event of a clear decision to form a breakaway Church".
In this letter, Mr. Johnston said that if the Plymouth Conference approved the Conversations Proposals it would be contrary to the will of the Methodist people, "who have voted 43 per cent for (with numerous reservations) and 57 per cent against".
This was immediately challenged by Mr. Tom Goodall, the Methodist Information Officer in London, who said the figure of 57 per cent was a false assumption based on imperfect information.
Possibly an even more forceful sign that everything will not go smoothly at Plymouth came on June 24 when a spokesman for the Voice of Methodist Association, which has consistently opposed reunion on the basis of the Conversations Report, said the synodical voting could not be regarded as a mandate for the present scheme. The spokesman, the Rev. B. J.
Coggle, of the Ebbw Vale, South Wales, circuit, said in a statement: "It remains to be seen whether the Methodist Conference will attempt to override the expressed desires of their own quarterly meetings and synods." He then quoted figures of voting at the quarterly meetings on the vital question : Do you consider that the main proposals of the report point the right way forward to full communion?
A total of 26,031, or 52.9 per cent, replied For, 21,482 or 43.6 per cent Against, and 1,726 or 3.5 per cent were neutral.
A Methodist official spokesman said later that the figures quoted by Mr. Coggle were correct, though they were not being published officially for a few days.
There have been, and are, other critics. The Methodist Recorder newspaper summed up the situation when it wrote: "Whatever it [the Plymouth Conference] decides must have momentous effects. A positive decision will urge on a movement which will alter Church relations in Great Britain as they have not been changed for generations. A negative vote would bring such disappointments as would not be likely to leave either Methodism or the Ecumenical movement just as they were. A decision to continue the dialogue would equally have incalculable consequences. So whatever is done the Conference has to face its responsibilities of being the supreme governing body of Methodism."