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Methodists Approve Full Communion

By Douglas LeBlanc and Mark Michael

The United Methodist Church’s General Conference has agreed by a 95 percent majority to accept a proposed full-communion agreement with the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church’s General Convention must also approve the agreement before full communion becomes a reality.

Diocesan ecumenical officers Mariclair Partee Carlsen and David Simmons of the Episcopal Church take a lighthearted pause with cartoon cutouts of Methodist pioneers John Wesley, Susanna Wesley, and Charles Wesley. | Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers/Facebook

Resolution A-049, filed by the Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations for consideration at this summer’s General Convention, affirms the goal of full communion, but does not yet ask for approval of such a relationship.

Approval of the full-communion agreement, “A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers in the Healing of Brokenness,” was part of the General Conference consent calendar, so it was not debated. A United Methodist leader praised the approval after the vote on April 30.

“We wanted to lift up and recognize this moment,” said the Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference. “You adopted the full communion relationship with the Episcopal Church in the United States that has been worked on for many years.”

Hundreds of General Conference delegates gave this step toward greater church unity a standing ovation.

The Rev. Mariclair Partee Carlson, who has been part of the dialogue since 2016, said the discussion would benefit from another three years.

“They need the next three years, and we need the next three years, to see how this will work out,” she said. She expressed surprise at the Methodists’ vote to grant deacons the freedom to celebrate Holy Communion, which is unlike Episcopal practice.

The Rev. Margaret Rose, the Episcopal Church’s Deputy for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations, said General Convention could possibly face a new resolution that approves the proposal, but she did not predict the likelihood of such a resolution.

“This opens the door to your neighbor,” she said of the Methodists’ vote.

Rose said Episcopalians were deliberate about walking alongside Methodists through their church’s debates about sexuality. “We don’t do this alone, ever,” she said.

Like the Episcopal Church’s full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and several smaller churches, this agreement would recognize the validity of the Eucharist in both churches, and would enable the churches to share clergy when approved by the respective bishops.

The United Methodist Church had paused consideration of the agreement until it resolved questions of Methodist teaching on same-sex marriage, and related departures from the United Methodist Church by conservative congregations. Roughly a quarter of conservative congregations have left the United Methodist Church, and most have joined the Global Methodist Church.

Last week, General Conference approved a division of the United Methodist Church into four regions. The full communion agreement with the Episcopal Church would apply only to United Methodist churches in the United States.

A one-page summary about the proposed agreement lists these points of agreement between the churches:

  • A belief in Jesus Christ as Savior
  • A belief in the Holy Trinity as formulated in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds.
  • A belief in Scripture as “containing all things necessary for salvation,” and as the primary rule for the life of the church.
  • The practice of Baptism as the initiation into the life of Christ through the Church.
  • The sacrament of the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion) as a means of divine grace that sustains and deepens our faith and that contains the “Real, personal, living presence of Jesus Christ.” (from This Holy Mystery, 2004)
  • The historic pattern of a three-fold ordained ministry in Bishops, Presbyters and Deacons, open to both women and men.
  • That prayer and holiness of heart and life are ways of growth in the Christian faith.
  • That pursuit of social action and justice is an inherent practice of Christian discipleship.

The Episcopal Church has a long history of seriously pursuing unions with other American Protestant churches that ultimately foundered on questions around sacramental validity and holy orders. A Concordat of Union with the Congregationalist Church was seriously pursued in the 1920s, and unity negotiations with the Presbyterian Church in the United States extended for over a decade in the late 1930s and 1940s before ultimately being abandoned. A unity plan between the Methodist Conference and the Church of England was approved by the Methodists in 1968, but defeated twice in General Synod by the combined opposition of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics.

This latest round of full communion negotiations may find more support, because the agreement stops short of church union. In 2014, the Anglican-Methodist International Commission for Unity in Mission declared in its statement Into All the World: Being and Becoming Apostolic Churches that all serious theological differences have been resolved and that the next step should be full communion between Anglican provinces and their local Methodist churches or conferences.

A full communion agreement has been in place between the Church of Ireland and the small Methodist Church in Ireland for nearly a decade, and Archbishop Richard Clarke of Ireland reported to the Anglican Consultative Council in 2016 that the relationship had been especially helpful for shared rural ministry.

On May 1, General Conference voted 692-51 to lift its 40-year ban on the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” and to lift penalties for conducting same-sex marriages. Both bans were upheld by narrow majorities at a special General Conference in 2019, but have been widely flouted by United Methodists for many years.

The Episcopal Church is a full communion partner of six churches: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Moravian Church — Northern and Southern Provinces, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, the Philippine Independent Church, and the Church of Sweden. Resolution A037, proposed for adoption at General Convention in June, would create a full communion relationship with a seventh partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria.

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