Methodists on road to Anglican unity

London, England - The Methodist Church paved the way for its first bishops yesterday, accelerating its move towards unity with the Church of England.

The Church's annual conference in Torquay voted overwhelmingly for the reform in theory, although a final endorsement will not be made until 2007.

The reform could see the first British Methodist bishop consecrated by 2012, giving the Methodists a parallel order of ministry to the Anglican Church.

But speakers warned that if the Methodists had bishops, they did not want them to be associated with "palaces and patronage".

Since the Methodists separated from the Church of England more than 200 years ago, they have preferred a less hierarchical structure.

At the moment, district chairmen, the Methodist equivalent to bishops, are appointed for only limited periods. They revert to the status of minister when their time in office ends.

But with their numbers declining, Methodists are preparing to unite with the Church of England.

However, not all speakers at the conference were convinced that linking their fortunes with another struggling Church was the answer to their problems.

The details of which ministers or officials in the Methodist Church will be consecrated as bishops will not be decided for another two years.

The two Churches signed a "covenant" in 2003 designed to heal the rift between them.

Under the covenant, the Churches will move towards sharing services, clergy and resources at all levels.

However, many in the Church of England are wary of unity until the Methodists have properly consecrated bishops. In turn, many Methodists are reluctant to move forward until the Church of England consecrates women as bishops, something it is expected to agree to at its General Synod next month.