By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Nearly a century of ecumenical dialogue between Episcopalians and Methodists is approaching a crossroad. In May, United Methodist bishops cleared the way for a 2020 General Conference vote on a full communion agreement that would allow the two churches to share clergy. If the Methodists approve the proposal, the Episcopal Church could take it up at General Convention in 2021.
But the proposal faces new obstacles in the wake of the Methodists’ bitterly contested Special Conference in St. Louis in late February. At that meeting, the UMC reaffirmed its stance barring “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from ordained ministry and toughened sanctions for clergy who officiate at same-sex weddings.
Some now worry full communion could become a casualty of tense, politically charged times in churches at risk of breaking apart. But others say it is time to keep building on ecumenical momentum and not let sexuality debates interfere with a larger witness.
“There will have to be a great educational plan for people to understand it and to not let the one discussion derail the other discussion,” said Bishop Gregory Palmer, cochair of the Episcopal Church–United Methodist Dialogue Committee, which moved full communion forward at an April meeting in Austin.
Efforts to break up the United Methodist Church are already underway, and not just from progressives whose agenda was defeated in St. Louis. Conservatives are now drafting proposals to divide the United Methodist Church into two or more separate bodies at next year’s General Conference in Minneapolis. For example, the Wesleyan Covenant Association has chartering documents ready for a new denomination that would affirm Methodists’ traditional sexuality standards, said its president, Keith Boyette.
Some conservatives are apt to have less interest in forging closer ties with a church that blesses same-sex relationships, said Rob Renfroe, publisher of Good News magazine, which supported the Traditional Plan that prevailed at Special Conference.
Some want to form new bodies even though they prevailed in the General Conference in February.
“Some people do want to leave because theirs are evangelical churches in very liberal areas,” said Renfroe, pastor of discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church in Texas. “It’s hard to say These are my colleagues in ministry, this is my family, when you’re looked down upon and dismissed at every meeting that you go to.”
Boyette said he would like to see partnership of some type emerge, but he warned that such an effort might backfire and stymie the ecumenical project.
“Those kinds of conversations are important,” Boyette said. “I would hate for the issue to be forced in an environment that is not conducive to the conversation and consideration that ought to occur.”
Episcopalians have lit up social media with fresh concerns that Methodists might not share Episcopal Church values. Among those calling for a new degree of caution is Jon Rania, a two-time deputy to General Convention from the Diocese of Delaware.
“If the United Methodist Church splits and there’s a schism there, who are we going to be in communion with?” said Rania, a lay ministry associate at Christ Church in Dover. “Would it be with the conservative folks that remain or the break-off churches? … There are a lot of unknowns here, and we really need to wait and see.”
For its part, the dialogue committee expects the road to have new bumps ahead, but considers the effort worthwhile.
“We acknowledge that the decisions of the 2019 Special Session of the United Methodist General Conference have deepened divisions within the UMC and introduced sharp and as yet unanswered questions about the prospects for full communion between our churches,” the committee said in a written statement. “The road map to unity between our denominations looks different now.”
Deirdre Good, the committee’s Episcopal cochair, declined to comment. Staff members Richard Mammana and the Rev. Margaret Rose said the Episcopal members of the committee wanted to send a message of support for United Methodists as they work through a hard time marked by an uncertain future.
If the agreement is adopted, “what it would say to the world is that we are committed to a really robust vision of Christian unity,” said Mammana, the Episcopal Church’s associate for ecumenical and interreligious relations.
The proposed 10-page agreement, called A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers in the Healing of Brokenness, marks the culmination of full communion talks that began in 2002. The hope is for healing a rift that dates to the 18th century. After the Revolutionary War, Anglicans in North America parted ways to found the Protestant Episcopal Church and Methodist Episcopal Church. Proponents stress that what is proposed is not a merger but rather an agreement to guide a closer partnership.
Issues of race and class have long contributed to dynamics between the churches, Rose said. Divergent beliefs about alcohol have also deepened cultural differences. But common ground in a shared Church of England heritage and episcopal polity gives ecumenists hope that today’s differences on culture and sexual ethics will not be insurmountable.
Precedent provides ecumenists a basis for hope that sexuality does not have to be a deal-breaker. The United Methodist Church is already in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which ordains openly gay clergy and authorizes same-sex weddings. The Episcopal Church has full communion with the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, which does not celebrate same-sex weddings.
“Our history with our full communion partners has never depended on whether we’ve made the same choices around particular issues,” said Rose, ecumenical and interreligious deputy to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
The agreement could have practical applications, especially in rural areas that struggle to attract qualified clergy: a remote Episcopal congregation could have an ordained United Methodist elder serve as its cleric and administer sacraments. At least one Episcopal bishop would need to be present whenever a Methodist bishop is consecrated.
Palmer said United Methodists need not fear that the agreement would open a door to openly gay, sexually active clergy serving without repercussions in the United Methodist Church.
“It’s not intended to create an end run for clergy or for congregations,” Palmer said.
Southern Methodist University historian Ted Campbell, who served on the TEC-UMC Dialogue Committee in the early 2000s, is among those glad to see a full communion proposal on track for a vote. Although he believes it is apt to fail in the Methodists’ politically charged climate, he believes the worse risk would be abandoning the effort or enabling further delay.
“The boards and agencies have largely been led by more liberal people up to this point and still are, but I see a turnover coming,” Campbell said. “Whoever has been heading the push for unity with the Episcopal Church — I wouldn’t be surprised if that person was replaced by someone who takes a much more traditionalist view … and might even say, We really ought to be talking to [the Anglican Church in North America] and not the Episcopal Church.”
Episcopalians might also be ready to add a litmus test that their predecessors did not use.
“I’m willing to look at full communion with any church that allows for the kind of options that our church allows with anything: sexuality issues, our stance toward migrants, social justice, the death penalty, female clergy,” Rania said. “They need to be willing to let people be people and let them love and worship the Lord in the way that they see fit in a safe environment.”