By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
g.jeffrey.macdonald@gmail.com

When the Episcopal–United Methodist Dialogue resumes April 25 in Charlotte, North Carolina, delegates will have their eyes on both a prize and a date: full communion between the churches by 2021.

The possibility that General Convention could vote on this agreement in five years is real, said Margaret Rose, deputy for ecumenical and interfaith collaboration. The United Methodist Church could vote on it in 2020, when the denomination holds its quadrennial General Conference. Rose did not identify any other timetable as a consideration.

If full communion occurs in 2021, the partnership will mark the fruit of nearly two decades of concerted ecumenical effort. Distinguishing between apostolic succession and the historic episcopate has been important to the discussion, Rose said.

“Using those distinctions has allowed us to move closer to full communion,” she said.

First, though, the Episcopal–United Methodist Dialogue Committee on Full Communion needs to iron out the details. An agreement would need to honor both a grand vision for Christian unity and centuries of history as separate churches.

“We are working on various drafts that will eventually become resolutions in both of our general assemblies,” Rose said.

The Rt. Rev. C. Franklin Brookhart, Jr., Bishop of Montana, is co-chairman of the committee.

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, ecumenical officer for the UMC’s Council of Bishops, did not respond to requests for comment on the status of talks between the churches.

In a full-communion agreement, the churches recognize in one another “the wholeness of the Church in doctrine, ministry and sacrament,” according to the Episcopal Church’s definition. In practice, it would provide for closer cooperation in areas from administration to mission, including ordained leaders.

Methodist clergy would be able to administer sacraments and otherwise lead Episcopal parishes, and vice versa. The Episcopal Church has full-communion partnerships with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Moravian Church, and the Philippine Independent Church.

In Charlotte, committee members are expected to build on the panel’s work from a year ago in Washington, D.C., where the committee received a full-communion proposal. It reaffirmed a predecessor committee’s assessment that “no church-dividing obstacles” stand in the way of full communion.

With no theological points to navigate, the committee will focus largely on what Rose calls “life and work” issues. Among the issues that could arise: what both churches need to do in healing wounds caused by racism in their respective histories.

“What we’re really trying to ensure, in the next few years, is that real partnership and ministry is taking place between our two churches,” Rose said.

This current round of talks aims to go beyond the Interim Eucharistic Sharing Agreement of 2006 [PDF], which capped four years of dialogue and remains in place today. It also builds on progress made during the 40-year Consultation on Church Union, which fell short of goals to forge a multilateral agreement among several denominations and dissolved in 2002, but nonetheless spawned bilateral efforts including this one between Methodists and Episcopalians.

“There have been many iterations of this work,” Rose said. “I don’t think there was a breakthrough. This is just a follow-through to all that we have done before.”

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