By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
With a collegial relationship dating to the 18th century, the Episcopal Church and the Church of Sweden have long acted like churches in full communion as they have shared sacraments, clergy, and mission work in Christ’s name.
Now these Anglican and Lutheran churches are formally acknowledging their ties, even without a formal agreement on the sacrament of Communion. What they have is lived experience of Christian life together and a chance to make it deeper.
“We don’t need to sign an accord, an agreement in the formal sense, because the reality is already there,” said the Rev. Christopher Meakin, chief ecumenical officer for the Church of Sweden, in a TLC interview during General Convention. Meakin, accompanied by Archbishop Emeritus Anders Wejryd, marked the first time an official delegation from the Church of Sweden had attended General Convention.
“What we’re doing is saying, We want to be together,” Meakin said. “We have been together, we want to be together, and we want to make it clear.”
Episcopalians and Swedish Lutherans have long felt at home in each other’s churches, according to a 24-page report adopted by this year’s General Convention. Their liturgies are remarkably similar in an intentional preservation of Catholic elements, including liturgical vestments for ordained ministers throughout the year. Both churches trace their roots through the historic episcopate, and neither ever had a monarch as its head. Even during America’s colonial era, Swedish priests and laypeople took part in the life of Episcopal congregations in the mid-Atlantic region.
More recently, church leaders have noticed that in Europe members of the Episcopal Church and the Church of Sweden routinely attend each other’s churches. That reality gave rise to a 2009 General Convention resolution, which led to this year’s report and General Convention’s urging Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry in a new resolution to “deepen the relationship.” Proposing the resolution was the Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon, Bishop-in-Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe.
“It is a natural development for the Church of Sweden and the Episcopal Church to recognize that they are in full communion with one another,” says the explanation in Resolution B004: Commend Report on Relations with Church of Sweden. “The recognition of this relationship will better equip each international church to minister in presence, mission, and advocacy throughout the world.”
Despite much common ground to build upon, the Church of Sweden has a reason for not making formal its full communion with the Episcopal Church. Doing so might have sent an unfortunate signal to the Church of England after its recent appointments of women to the episcopate, according to the Swedish delegation to General Convention.
“It would have seemed like we were jumping the gun a bit and putting them on the spot,” Meakin said. “We said, Let’s not upset the process in Church of England, when they are now discussing opening up the office of bishop for women. We will still be close with the Episcopalians, and we’ll give it some time.”
The Episcopal Church and the Church of Sweden have gone through similar challenges in recent years, according to Archbishop Emeritus Wejryd. Both are called liberal churches, he said. Both ordain gays and lesbians as bishops and permit same-sex marriage ceremonies.
“We have been looked upon as being ecumenically dangerous, or that we have gone too far without consulting others,” Archbishop Wejryd said. “We have shared that experience.”
Now the Church of Sweden hopes to share lessons learned. Most important, in Meakin’s view, is to maintain open communication channels with churches that disagree on theological issues, including matters of sexuality.
For the Church of Sweden, joint efforts on development projects still allow for modest, informal relations with Ethiopian Lutherans, who severed ties with the Church of Sweden because of teachings on homosexuality. What’s more, Church of Sweden bishops will join their Evangelical Church of Tanzania counterparts for a week of Bible study later this year.
“We are facing the new times together, and we have to trust each other,” Wejryd said.
As for deepening ties with the Episcopal Church, the Church of Sweden sees particular opportunity in international missions work, including in development assistance and climate change. Wejryd hopes the two churches will find ways to cooperate and leverage influence together.
“We can build on each other’s experience and competence,” Wejryd said.
Image of Archbishop Anders Wejryd by Magnus Aronson/Church of Sweden