A Puzzling Editorial

United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer, left, joins Bishop Samuel Peni of South Sudan and Alan Scarfe, Bishop of Iowa, in a procession in 2017. | The Rev. Meg Wagner | Diocese of Iowa


As committed ecumenists, we would like to thank The Living Church for its attention to the proposed full communion agreement between the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church [“Slightly Less than Full Communion,” June 18]. Faith and Order ecumenism is a part of our churches’ lives that continues in obscurity most of the time, but then becomes prominent when a particular fruit of the work reaches the time for harvest. As noted in your editorial, formal discussions between Episcopalians and Methodists have been in process for over 50 years. The timing of this agreement has nothing to do with theological struggles going on in either church, but rather with the maturity of the discussion into its final documentary and emerging relational form.

Some have questioned if the timing is proper, considering how our denominational bodies currently have different policies regarding LGBTQ inclusion. It bears remembering that at the time Called to Common Mission was agreed with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), our churches were in different places with respect to LGBTQ inclusion. Others have worried about what the United Methodist Church may look like after a 2019 special convention on these matters. Yet if the churches were to wait for a time in which neither was facing a matter of division or conflict — and this is the case with all ecumenical conversations between and across churches — no movement forward into shared life of any kind would be possible.

As you note in the editorial, Episcopalians and United Methodists have differing views on issues like lay presidency, baptismal regeneration, etc. In Sharing in the Apostolic Communion: Report of the Anglican-Methodist International Commission to the World Methodist Council and the Lambeth Conference (1996), the commission writes, “Provided agreement remains firm on central or core doctrines, it is important that we do not demand of each other a greater uniformity of interpretation than we experience in our own separate communions.” Since the agreement is a full communion agreement and not a merger, both churches will be able to maintain their doctrinal particularities while further enabling combined mission.

While ordained clergy are made interchangeable according to the agreement, each clergyperson can only serve in the other church with the approval of the local judicatory on an individual basis. No changes in worship or practice occur in either church due to this agreement — other than the mutual participation of laying on of hands in consecrations of bishops. This allows us to engage in the kinds of mission and ministry that interchangeable ministries can facilitate. It also assures a sustained incorporation of the experience of our leaders at important moments in one another’s lives.

The basis of this agreement is the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, in which we have shared agreement in all the salient points. The point of discussion, of course, is that of “The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.”

The question of validity is not part of these discussions because it has not been an explicit part of Anglican ecumenical dialogues. Anglicans have spoken of recognition and reconciliation of ordained ministries, not validity. We can recognize another church’s ministries, and many Anglican churches have done so. We recognize the ministry of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England and other Anglican churches recognized the ministries of the Scandinavian Lutheran churches. The Church of Ireland recognized the ministries of the Methodist Church in Ireland.

But in addition to recognition, there needs to be reconciliation — sharing in the historic episcopate — in order to fulfill all elements of the Quadrilateral. This dialogue speaks of recognition and reconciliation through sharing in the historic episcopate, building on decades of Anglican ecumenical dialogues, including proposing the exact same process to reconcile ordained ministries as with the ELCA.

This is not an attempt to resolve differences about ordained ministry with a “wave of the hand.” It follows the 1955 and 1970 examples of the Church of North India in which Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Anglicans acknowledged the apostolicity of one another’s ministries and moved into new, permanent configurations of reconciliation, acknowledgment, mutuality, and cooperation that have been incorporated into the Anglican Communion as active member provinces.

We would like to call attention to three puzzling aspects of the editorial.

One is the assertion that we should “cleav[e] to the restrained solution of Called to Common Mission” (CCM). This is difficult to understand because the method proposed for reconciliation of ministries is exactly the same as the one used in CCM: namely, a constitutional change to allow current United Methodist clergy to serve, and then sharing in the historic episcopate with the participation of three bishops in historic succession present and laying on hands at all future consecrations of United Methodist bishops

We are further puzzled by the concern over “Episcopal noblesse oblige.” The 15 years of the current dialogue have included approaches of common repentance for schism, racism, power disparity, and failure in mission. A common experience heard from Methodists is that they are “looked down upon” by Episcopalians. This reflects the reality of a historic general class division in American churches — a well-known phenomenon documented by sociologists. When the document laments any “chauvinism regarding Methodist ministry,” it is being done by a combined team of Episcopalians and Methodists coming to terms with generations of class division. In the spirit of truth and reconciliation, that history cannot be ignored.

Further, you write that “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.” This multilateral work had been the focus of the Consultation on Church Union between 1962 and 2002; it has been taken up the successor body, Churches Uniting in Christ, since 2002. The choice between bilateral and multilateral dialogues is a false dichotomy. The insights from bilateral dialogues often inform the multilateral relationships. They are able to resolve particular bilateral issues that are difficult to address in a larger group, in which those particulars may not signify.

We believe the pursuit of this full-communion agreement is one of the most important endeavors the Episcopal Church is currently involved in. Our Presiding Bishop is rightly fond of calling us “the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.” It remains to be seen whether we as a denomination will emphasize the “Episcopal Branch” or the “Jesus Movement” part of that statement. If we are truly committed to the Jesus Movement, then tearing down these barriers that have no basis in core doctrine as set forth in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral are what we as disciples should be about. We cannot continue to allow divisions created primarily by American history and social class continue to impede our progress towards fulfilling Jesus’ high priestly prayer that we all may be one.

The Rev. David Simmons
President, Episcopal Diocesan
Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers

The Rev. Jordan Haynie Ware
Episcopal Church-United Methodist Dialogue

The Rev. Daniell Hamby (retired)
Immediate Past President of EDEIO

The Rev. Mike Wernick
Rector, the Church of the Holy Cross
Pastor, Ascension Lutheran Church (ELCA)

The Rev. William C. Bergmann, ThD
EDEIO, Diocese of Western Massachusetts

♦ ♦ ♦

Christopher Wells responds

Sincere and hearty thanks to Fr. Simmons and his colleagues for their continued hard work and for the opportunity to delve a bit more deeply into these important matters.

It may be time for the Episcopal and United Methodist churches to take the step of full communion, though I cannot say that I am persuaded this is so. Certainly, trying to dot every theological i and cross every ecclesiological t is a fool’s errand, when we are all long since weakened by division, incapable of grasping the fullness of truth on our own. Looking back at Called to Common Mission (hereafter Called), the full-communion agreement between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church in 2000, some may be surprised to discover how much latitude was left concerning, for instance, the necessity of bishops (§§13, 18), or again the “doctrinal formulations of the other” church (§22); and one notes Called’s apparent permission (since it was not ruled out) of the practice of the ELCA regarding, for instance, the occasional licensing of lay persons to administer baptism and Holy Communion.

In this case, however, our churches would benefit from further study regarding a few neuralgic matters, especially concerning the creeds and practices of Holy Communion. Let more patience enrich the work, as our colleague Mark Michael urged in several subsequent online pieces. For this reason, the editorial commended Called’s “restraint” and “prudence,” placeholder terms that understandably caused frustration, for which apologies. Several amplifications may be helpful, to advance the conversation.

1. Being nearly fifty percent longer than Gift to the World (hereafter Gift), Called may seem less restrained. Its length, however, served its carefully constructed theological argument, which inspired confidence, the more as both sides were challenged to look beyond business as usual. Following a long demonstration of shared faith (reproducing ten paragraphs from The Niagara Report [1989]), Called defended the proposed actions to be taken by each party (§§15-21) before coming to “actions of both churches” (§22 and following). In the Episcopal case, the introduction of Called’s creative ordinal-preface-suspension device (happily borrowed by Gift) ascends to an impressive commitment to receiving “the gifts of the Lutheran tradition” regarding the gospel as a norm on the “historic catholic episcopate” itself, citing the Augsburg Confession as an authority on the matter (§17, building on §§8 and 12). In the Lutheran case, the historic episcopate is freely accepted — not as “necessary” for full communion (§§13, 18), as the Quadrilateral urges, but importantly and impressively — as “in keeping with the collegiality and continuity of ordained ministry attested as early as Canon 4 of the First Ecumenical Council (Nicaea I, a.d. 325),” in light of which the ELCA also pledged to make appropriate liturgical revisions regarding the laying-on-of-hands (§§18-20). Sustained parity, therefore, in service of serious sacrifices and proposed developments, drawn from the gospel and the catholic tradition themselves and explained directly in those terms as grasping both churches: something more along these lines would aid the argument of Gift as a pedagogy, and elevate both the Episcopal and United Methodist churches as common — and more than that, equal — stakeholders, with decisions to make before one another, under God. Gift doesn’t so much err in this regard as move too quickly, which can only create obstacles to understanding, especially when so few church leaders are accustomed to reading technical texts of ecclesiology.

2. On the question of validity, Called prudently avoids the word when discussing orders, saying simply that the Episcopal Church “recognizes the ministers ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or its predecessor bodies as fully authentic” (§15). Gift similarly proposes Episcopal recognition of the authenticity of Methodist elders and deacons, but more expansively introduces the phrase “fully valid and authentic” with respect to Methodist bishops (§§8-9). This last insinuates unnecessary confusion, since the ordinal-preface-suspending proposal and exception, “in this case only” (Gift §9), in effect deals with validity by other means — but precisely, as Called noted, “in order to secure the future implementation of the ordinals’ same principle in the sharing of ordained ministries” (§16); as, that is, a sharing that extends beyond mere recognition to reconciliation, as you rightly urge in your letter. In Gift as in Called, breaking the rule is permissible because we trust, with all the dialogues and with the catholic tradition, that validity, while important, does not exhaust sacramental efficacy; we celebrate the sacraments as best we can, and attempt to heal divisions not of our making. If a commonly accepted verdict of validity need not condition ecumenical advance, however, because it cannot, it remains a critical category in sacramental theology — here concerning the licitness of clerical activity, incorporating commonly held episcopal pedigree (in turn, validity arises with respect to liturgical form and priestly intention). Thus, Gift includes a United Methodist pledge that future Methodist consecrations will include a shared laying on of hands by at least one Episcopal bishop (§9).

Even if and as we recognize episcopal authenticity in other churches, validity provides a “doctrinal formulation” (Called §22) — a technical tool of theology — that may usefully be taken up after full communion on the way to a common episcopate over time, what Called helpfully described as “an evangelical, historic succession” (§8; cf. §§12, 14). In this way, distinct churches may come to a “full realization” of shared ministry and sacraments (Called §14) as the fruit of hard-won recognition; as a dividend worth waiting for, and worth commending to other partners, to help spur, please God, universal, visible reconciliation.

3. Which leads, lastly, to the already-not-yet of Christian unity and the proper ends for which to work. Our editorial challenged Gift’s simple statement that Episcopalians and Methodists “are already united in the catholic church of Christ Jesus” (Gift §1; cf. §12) and invoked a wider ecumenical accountability. Of course, bilateral and multilateral work are not in competition; the end of both is the same and they necessarily complement one another, as do all bilateral conversations, one with another. Progress anywhere marks progress everywhere. We need, however, to keep the destination in view. An important methodological motivator of ecumenical work has been the insight that the unity of the Church is both a gift and a task, God’s own work completed and a call that must grasp the would-be faithful. “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). No. And yet, as Paul records later, “I hear that there are divisions among you” (1 Cor. 11:18). Where Called explicitly lays claim to this both/and (§28), Gift could be read as letting one end of the rope drop.

The churches of the Church share now a communion in Christ that is both real and imperfect; we are his members within a single wounded body. Even full-communion agreements, critical as they are, do not eo ipso repair this damage, which goes deeper and will require more sustained attention: if the end to which all are called is full, visible unity, full stop, as Anglicans have long held.

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