Time and tide wait for no man, nor do ecumenical agreements. The May 17 letter from Episcopal and Methodist bishops, commending a draft document for a “formal, full communion relationship” between the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church, surprised many around the world, although the proposal has been public for more than two months. Numerous national and international dialogues press on despite widespread apathy, hostility, and other sundry forces of division.
We are without excuse, however, when it comes to the full visible unity of the Church, for which our Lord Jesus prayed on the night he was betrayed into the hands of sinners. Because all are called to unity, this new proposal is welcome, and deserves our attention and prayers.
In one sense, the proposal reflects quick progress; the official dialogue between Episcopalians and Methodists only began in 2002. It builds on a 2006 agreement of “interim eucharistic sharing,” and on two draft theological documents: “A Theological Foundation for Full Communion between The Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church” (2010) [PDF] and “That They May Be One?” (2014). In another sense, the proposal is long overdue, given the churches’ common origin as the variously patient children of the Church of England; and Episcopalians and the predecessors to the United Methodist Church have been in dialogue for over 50 years.
Already, concerns have bubbled up. Like Anglicans, Methodists have been struggling with human sexuality, and some expect the UMC to split at its special convention in 2018. Will the UMC as we know it exist in 2021, the proposed time by which each church should have considered and voted on the prospect of further union? Such fears may appear plausible, and the 2010 document mentioned them, but they are presumptuous. We do not pretend to know the future of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, and the same must be true for other churches, the more when we factor in divine providence. Moreover, movement toward Christian unity will entail unexpected effects, and the cultivation of greater charity is always in season. Who knows where the Lord will take us?
Some concerns are more serious. First, the 2010 document noted potential obstacles to unity involving the two churches’ internal and external theological differences on issues like racism, baptismal regeneration, beliefs and practices surrounding the Eucharist (including Communion for the unbaptized and lay presidency), the national and international character of our churches, and much else. The new proposal does little to address these issues, and here misses an opportunity. Perhaps it could do no better, given endemic fractiousness. At the same time, many of the issues identified in this document ought not be barriers to deeper unity, since we will likely only overcome them as we grow closer together. In the words of the international Anglican-Methodist dialogue, quoted approvingly in this proposal, Anglicans and Methodists need offer one another “no further doctrinal assurances.” Episcopalians, at least, are already in communion with Anglicans (and others) who hold varying views on nearly all of the issues in question. Yes, theological disagreements matter, and work should be done to bring about greater consensus, both within and between the churches. Let part of the proposed joint commission’s brief include establishing, encouraging, and monitoring deliberate theological dialogue at all levels.
A second concern: the report’s one-sided lamenting of Episcopal chauvinism regarding Methodist ministry, and concomitant attempt to resolve complex questions about holy orders with a wave of the hand. We welcome the lamentation, and the attempt to defend legitimate variation in forms of episcopal oversight is admirable. We worry, however, that Episcopal noblesse oblige in this instance may only underwrite longstanding disparities in power between our churches. A better approach would urge common repentance, with our long, shared history of illegitimate division in view. At the same time, simply setting aside validity, for instance, as traditionally understood, hardly sheds light on the rationale for historically ordered episcopal ministry, which we all say we would seek to attain and otherwise preserve. The remaining work to be done must be pursued multilaterally with other traditions and churches “not of this fold” (John 10:16), in a maximally comprehensive and cooperative context. Meanwhile, cleaving to the restrained solution of Called to Common Mission (1999), the Episcopal Church’s full communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, sans amendment, would mark the better part of prudence.
Finally, the report struggles to describe the imperfection of Christian communion-in-division, thence the deeper unity that is sought, short of subsuming merger. It claims “that we are already united in the catholic church of Christ Jesus.” Yes and no. Continuing differences must be placed at the foot of the cross, on the way to deepening degrees of communion, in God’s time. Unity in diversity may be an admirable goal, but it must be hard won and pass the test of evangelical coherence.