The May release of a joint Episcopal-United Methodist proposal aims to clear the way, after nearly a century of exploratory talks, for full communion among more than 14 million Christians and sharing of clergy across the two denominations as soon as 2021.

But observers say a cloud hangs over prospects for such a sweeping victory for Christian unity. The United Methodist Church is marching toward a day of reckoning and potential schism centered on sexuality issues in February 2019. That’s when a special General Conference will vote on a Way Forward proposal in the works for a church deeply divided on hot-button issues, including a ban on clergy in same-sex relationships.

Robust debate on sexuality issues could mean the United Methodist Church postpones a full-communion vote until after its next regular General Conference meeting in 2020, said Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer, co-chair of the United Methodist Church-Episcopal Church Full Communion Dialogue. A vote may need to wait until 2024, he said.

“Human sexuality, no more than any other subject, might be a place where there is some slow going” on the path to full communion, said Palmer, Methodists’ Bishop of Western Ohio. “But we’ve already experienced those, and ultimately we found a way to keep going.”

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Whatever the timetable, questions loom large. Will the United Methodist Church split into separate churches? Or will it undergo a radical reorganization that allows for an unprecedented measure of local or regional autonomy? Will full communion with the Episcopal Church appeal to the church’s millions of conservative evangelicals, including more than 5 million Africans, who have been pivotal in defending and retaining the Methodists’ traditional sexual ethics?

The sexuality debate “is a huge detriment to the possibility of full communion,” said Ted Campbell, a church historian at Southern Methodist University and a member of the dialogue group for about six years. “It’s jeopardizing it. Deep down, underlying is the sense that the Episcopalians are allied with this liberal view of sexuality, and that is the overriding issue in the UMC.”

The proposal for full communion comes in a 10-page document, A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness [PDF], capping the work of a bilateral dialogue committee that took up the issue in 2002. It calls for Episcopal priests and ordained Methodist elders to be interchangeable, meaning they could serve in the other denomination’s congregations. No one would need to be consecrated or ordained again because both sides affirm the historic episcopate, a phrase used in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which set parameters for Episcopal ecumenism.

“We recognize the ministries of our bishops as fully valid and authentic,” the joint proposal says. “We lament any ways, whether intentionally or unintentionally, explicitly or implicitly, that Episcopalians may have considered the ministerial orders of the United Methodist Church or its predecessor bodies to be lacking God’s grace.”

Despite the churches’ common ancestral roots in Anglicanism, full communion between United Methodists and Episcopalians has been an elusive goal, even for ecumenists. The Episcopal Church has full-communion agreements with six churches, including the Church of Sweden and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but forging ties with United Methodists has proven more difficult.

Stumbling blocks have not stemmed from theological issues, observers say, as much as from divisions based on class and denominational identity. Those legacies still color ecumenical relationships and cry out for a new agreement, said the Rev. David Simmons, president of Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers.

“If you want to talk about bad will, and if you want to talk about maintaining the class division, the current arrangement is one that does it,” said Simmons, rector of St. Matthias Church in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He cited a property in the Wisconsin Dells where United Methodist and Episcopal congregations share a building, but Methodist clergy are not allowed to serve the Episcopal flock.

“You get to a situation where we have to tell them: Well, you can call one of our ministers, but we can’t call one of yours,” Simmons told TLC. “That calls into question the entire basis of the shared ministry. The Methodists will come back at us and say, Does that mean that you believe that we don’t have the apostolic tradition or that we don’t teach the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Today, practical concerns like filling pulpits, especially in less-affluent regions away from the two coasts, help rekindle the fire for full communion. Forty-eight percent of Episcopal congregations have no full-time paid clergy. United Methodist elders are guaranteed full-time placement, but in some regions the majority of UMC congregations cannot afford full-time clergy. Full communion would allow one cleric to serve in United Methodist and Episcopal congregations in the same area.

If General Convention takes steps in 2018 to suspend rules and clear the way for a vote, it could happen at General Convention in 2021. Meanwhile, advocates hope to persuade their respective brethren that sexuality issues should not scuttle a historic opportunity.

“It is my fervent hope we will do this in order to make progress with racial reconciliation, heal a division within our Anglican family, and increase opportunities for joint mission and ministry,” said the Rev. Tom Ferguson, rector of St. John’s Church in Sandwich, Massachusetts, and a member of the dialogue since 2002.

On the Methodist side, part of the challenge will be letting go of lingering resentments, Campbell said. Some believe Episcopalians do not honor Methodists’ holy orders on the grounds that they lack apostolic succession. But that has never been the official position of the Episcopal Church, he said, and he hopes his fellow Methodists will come to a new perspective.

Dialogue participants say that working with the Episcopal Church will not destabilize Methodist governance or standards. If Methodist clergy were to serve in Episcopal dioceses that permit unauthorized Methodist practices, such as same-sex relationships for clergy or presiding at gay weddings, they would still be bound by the standards of their Methodist jurisdictions. Methodist clergy would be prohibited from such practices unless General Conference authorized them.

“They would not be surrendering their commitments as a United Methodist person even if they were serving a parish where same-gender services were celebrated,” Bishop Palmer told TLC.

Palmer explained that a United Methodist pastor serving in an Episcopal congregation could not block a wedding for a same-sex couple if the diocese has authorized such rites, but the pastor would not have to preside. An Episcopal priest serving in a Methodist church could preside at weddings for same-sex couples if authorized by the diocese, but the priest could not do so in a United Methodist church building.

Advocates for full communion reassure Episcopalians that the agreement would not constitute a merger or require them to adopt Methodist practices. The use of grape juice rather than wine for Communion, for instance, is standard in Methodist congregations, reflecting the church’s involvement in  temperance movements. In a 2010 document on theological foundations for full communion, Methodists are encouraged to offer wine as well as grape juice, and to handle elements reverently. Episcopal practices would be unchanged.

If both churches proceed with full communion, Episcopal bishops will be present at all future consecrations of United Methodist bishops and vice versa. The procedure will mirror practices adopted in Called to Common Mission, the Episcopal Church’s 17-year-old full-communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“Sharing in the historic episcopate is necessary for full communion as outlined in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral,” said Margaret Rose, ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church, via email. “By having three bishops in historic succession lay hands at all future consecrations of United Methodist bishops, we will fulfill this requirement.”

Members of the dialogue say the process should proceed regardless of turmoil and debate. To postpone the matter until current debates are settled would be a mistake, Ferguson said via email.

“When will one or the other of our churches not be in turmoil?” Ferguson asked. “I firmly believe we need to be in dialogue and relationship in the midst of our struggles, not just when we are some idealized version of our best selves.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

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