Full communion plans with Episcopalians on hold

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United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer (right) and The Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, Michael Curry, discuss full communion between the two denominations in 2019. The proposed agreement is on hold for now after the postponement of the United Methodist General Conference to 2024. File screenshot from video courtesy of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church. 
United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer (right) and The Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, Michael Curry, discuss full communion between the two denominations in 2019. The proposed agreement is on hold for now after the postponement of the United Methodist General Conference to 2024. File screenshot from video courtesy of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church.

Key points:

  • General Conference’s postponement means a delay on a vote on full communion between United Methodists and Episcopalians. 
  • The Episcopal Church plans to wait on a vote until after United Methodists get first crack.
  • One concern among Episcopalians is where the future United Methodist Church will stand on LGBTQ inclusion. 

The third postponement of The United Methodist Church’s legislative assembly not only has disrupted plans for a formal denominational separation but also for an interdenominational accord. 

With so much uncertainty within the United Methodist fold, a proposed full-communion partnership between the denomination and The Episcopal Church remains on hold.

The Episcopal Church has no plans to vote on full communion when it gathers for its General Convention this July in Baltimore. 

Instead, Episcopalians are considering a resolution that commends the ongoing work of the Episcopal Church-United Methodist Dialogue Committee and its proposal for full communion, “A Gift to the World, Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness.”

Ecumenical leaders in both denominations agree: United Methodists should be the first to vote on the proposal itself.

“It was viewed as appropriate that the future direction of the UMC be clarified and hence its attitude toward the full-communion agreement be decided before it was voted on by The Episcopal Church’s General Convention,” said David N. Field, ecumenical staff officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops. 

Field added that significant parts of The Episcopal Church would not support full communion if United Methodist bans on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy remain in effect. 

Work toward full communion

The full-communion proposal, “A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness,” has been submitted as General Conference legislation. It is on Pages 834-841 in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate.

In a video recorded in 2019, United Methodist Bishop Gregory V. Palmer (co-chair of the dialogue committee and leader of the West Ohio Conference) chatted with the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, Michael Curry, about the relationship between the two denominations.

The two denominations also have an Interim Eucharistic Sharing Agreement that encourages joint celebrations of the Lord’s Supper.

Rising debate and defiance of those bans has led to multiple submissions to the coming General Conference for some kind of separation. But with The United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly now postponed until 2024, a theologically conservative group that seeks to maintain those restrictions has decided not to wait for General Conference action. The group has moved up the launch date of a breakaway denomination, the Global Methodist Church, to May 1. 

Whatever comes next will take some time to shake out. The United Methodist Church has a method for most things, including disaffiliations.

The General Conference postponement also has delayed consideration of the proposed Christmas Covenant — legislation that would give more autonomy to different regions of The United Methodist Church and potentially leave questions related to LGBTQ ministry up to each region. 

What The United Methodist Church will look like in the next few years remains to be seen. 

Field noted that it will be up to the Global Methodist Church to develop its own ecumenical relations in accordance with its teachings.  

The Rev. Margaret Rose, deputy for ecumenical and interreligious relations for The Episcopal Church, told Episcopal News Service that any plan for full communion would be with the portion of The United Methodist Church that is LGBTQ-affirming. For now, she sees The Episcopal Church’s resolution submitted to this summer’s General Convention as an assurance to those United Methodists “that we want to continue in the struggle for justice with you.”

As it stands, the proposal for full communion between Episcopalians and United Methodists makes no mention of LGBTQ inclusion. The document describes itself as “an effort to bring our churches into closer partnership in mission and witness to the love of God and thus labor together for the healing of divisions among Christians and for the well-being of all.”

Full communion is not a merger where denominations become one, such as what happened when The United Methodist Church formed in 1968.

Rather, full communion means each church acknowledges the other as a partner in the Christian faith, recognizes the validity of each other’s baptism and Eucharist, and commits to work together in ministry. Such an agreement also means Episcopalians and United Methodists can share clergy.

The United Methodist Church already has full-communion agreements with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Uniting Church in Sweden, five historically Black Pan-Methodist denominations and the Moravian Church in North America. Each of these full-communion partners has varied teachings related to homosexuality.

The United Methodist-Episcopal dialogue, which dates to 2002, aims at drawing together two churches with historic ties to John Wesley’s Church of England.

A full-communion agreement between the two also would complete a sort of ecumenical square. Like United Methodists, Episcopalians already have full communion with the Lutherans and Moravians. The only line missing in this church quadrangle is between the two denominations with arguably the most shared heritage.

The two churches owe their separation less to theological differences than to the disruption of the American Revolution.

John Wesley remained a Church of England priest until the end of his days. But in the aftermath of the war, he took the momentous step of appointing clergy leaders to serve in the new nation just as many Church of England priests in the U.S. were heading to Britain. Wesley’s efforts led to the 1784 birth of a new U.S. denomination that eventually would become The United Methodist Church, with nearly 13 million members across four continents.

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The Episcopal Church, which retains its close ties to the Church of England, officially got started in the U.S. five years later. Today, The Episcopal Church has about 1.8 million members — mostly in the United States but also in the Caribbean and parts of Latin America.

At this point, there is no set timeline for when each denomination’s ecumenical leaders expect to see full communion finally approved. The Episcopal Church’s General Convention typically meets every three years and the United Methodist General Conference typically meets every four. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown off the schedules of both big meetings.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops submitted the proposed full-communion agreement to the coming General Conference, then scheduled for 2020. What legislation will still be before the postponed General Conference, now set for 2024, remains uncertain. 

General Conference organizers expect to ask the Judicial Council, The United Methodist Church’s top court, for clarity about what can be carried over since the commission considers this a postponement instead of a new assembly. 

One question is whether the legislative submission process starts over completely or whether General Conference organizers just need to accept additional submissions that meet the new deadlines. Another is whether delegates elected to the 2020 General Conference can serve in 2024.

But even amid uncertainty, ministry continues. That includes opportunities for United Methodists and Episcopalians to cooperate more fully in serving God and neighbor.

“We would encourage local UMC congregations and annual conferences to continue to develop and deepen relationships with their Episcopal counterparts in this interim,” Field said. 

“We are planning to continue our dialogue discussions with our Episcopal counterparts to deepen our relationships and plan for the future in the time between now and GC2024.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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