The controversial proposed ordination of Methodist ministers in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral in July has been called off.
On the advice of the Vatican Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool has withdrawn the invitation he gave to the Methodist church last year.
In a statement last week the archbishop said he had always recognised that “the occasion would be a symbol”.
Given “the iconic reality of the Metropolitan Cathedral far beyond Merseyside it would be watched, interpreted, scrutinised quite properly by many. And symbols are dangerous things; they can explode,” he said.
“Every pattern of ordination known to me is at the service of communion and an occasion for profound renewal of the most personal, hidden demands of discipleship. Spotlights, controversy, fear of misinterpretation undermine the prayer and discipleship into which the Spirit would lead us,” Archbishop Kelly said.
The proposed ordination service was roundly attacked by Catholic bloggers earlier this year. One called it “sacrilege”, while others criticised it for the confusion it would bring.
“It might result in people who protest against Catholic truth… conducting a service in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in whose presence they don’t believe,” Ben Trovato wrote on the blog Countercultural Father. He continued: “It might lead people to imagine some equivalence between Methodism and the One True Church founded by Christ.”
Archbishop Kelly gave permission for the ordination service last autumn when he was approached by the Rev James Booth, chairman of the Liverpool Methodist District.
Methodist ordinations take place in conjunction with the annual Methodist Conference. Buildings of other denominations are often used because the Methodist have fewer large churches of their own.
Archbishop Kelly said the event “was not just a question of a large enough venue. It could also be a word about the ecumenical journey to which we have been long committed, which was re-affirmed when Cardinal (Walter) Kasper visited Liverpool at Pentecost in 2010 and yet more powerfully by Pope Benedict during his visit to this island last September.”
But over the last few months, while convalescing following his hip replacement surgery, Archbishop Kelly said he had “time to reflect” on his decision.
“I found myself often wondering if what I had encouraged was inappropriate at this time and a possible scandal in the original meaning of that word, a stumbling block for an ordination and for the ecumenical journey.”
He said he was “not entirely surprised” when learning that “this was the judgment of the Holy Father’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity in their interpretation of the principles set out in the ecumenical directory of that same Pontifical Council”.
Sadly, he said, he would have to withdraw the invitation. “I recognise that this decision will bring pain to some, relief to others, and confusion to many. I am very aware that it gives rise to very practical problems for the Methodists only two months before their ordinations,” he said.
“I can only apologise for any drift for which I am responsible and pledge that I will continue to be as faithful as I have for all the nearly 50 years of my life as a priest to the ecumenical journey to which the Second Vatican Council committed every Roman Catholic,” he said.
Mr Booth said he had been delighted when Archbishop Kelly had agreed to the ordination “in the glorious building that is the Metropolitan Cathedral”.
“There had been careful conversation about how the Methodist ordination service could appropriately and properly be held in the cathedral, honouring and respecting both Roman Catholic and Methodist tradition and understanding, while at the same time affirming the ecumenical journey that we share and the fact that the destination of that journey is not yet reached,” he said.
“To say that I am disappointed that this decision has had to be taken would be an understatement, but it is a decision that I, and the Methodist church, must respect and understand,” he continued.
Referring to Archbishop Kelly as “a colleague and friend” he said he knew it was “a decision he has not taken lightly, but under that discipline of belonging that, as Methodists, I hope we understand”.
The Methodist ordinations will now take place in the Anglican cathedral in Chester.
One of those who had been due to be ordained in the Metropolitan Cathedral, Mark Rowland, said in his blog that the withdrawal of the invitation “reflects the rather colder wind that is now blowing for our ecumenical dialogues and relationships”.
He said: “The 21st century will look very different to the 20th in that regard and it is perhaps regrettable that we did not seize more fully the opportunities that were then available but are now fast slipping away, if they have not already gone.
“If this can be a wake-up call to us all as to the urgency of the ecumenical task then it has the possibility to be a blessing, but I suspect it may simply be a sign of what is to come.”