Episcopalians, Methodists propose full-communion agreement

Proposal needs approval of denominations’ governing bodies

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted May 17, 2017

The Episcopal Church-United Methodist Dialogue Committee met in April in Charlotte, North Carolina.

[Episcopal News Service] A group of Episcopalians and Methodists has released its proposal for full communion between the two denominations.

Full implementation of the proposal will take at least three years. The Episcopal Church General Convention and the United Methodist Church General Conference must approve the agreement, which culminates 15 years of exploration and more than 50 years of formal dialogue between the two churches. General Convention next meets in July 2018 in Austin, Texas. The General Conference’s next meeting is in 2020.

The 10-page proposal, titled “A Gift to the World, Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness,” says it “is an effort to bring our churches into closer partnership in the 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.”

Montana Bishop Frank Brookhart, Episcopal co-chair of the dialogue, and Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, United Methodist co-chair, wrote in a recent letter that “the relationship formed over these years of dialogue, and the recognition that there are no theological impediments to unity, pave the way for this current draft proposal.”

In the coming months, there will be opportunities for feedback, regional gatherings and discussions on the proposal, according to a May 17 press release.

“We encourage you to reach across denominational lines to establish new relationships and deepen existing relationships by shared study of these materials and mutual prayer for the unity our churches,” Brookhart and Palmer wrote. “We believe that this proposal represents a significant witness of unity and reconciliation in an increasingly divided world and pray that you will join us in carrying this work.”

Additional related information, including historical documents, is available here.

The Episcopal Church defines “full communion” to mean “a relation between distinct churches in which each recognizes the other as a catholic and apostolic church holding the essentials of the Christian faith.” The churches “become interdependent while remaining autonomous,” the church has said.

The Episcopal Church-United Methodist Dialogue Committee, which developed the proposed agreement, says the two denominations are not seeking a merger but that they are “grounded in sufficient agreement in the essentials of Christian faith and order” to allow for the interchangeability of ordained ministries, among other aspects of the proposed agreement.

“We are blessed in that neither of our churches, or their predecessor bodies, have officially condemned one another, nor have they formally called into question the faith, the ministerial orders, or the sacraments of the other church,” the group said.

The Episcopal-Methodist proposal also benefited from the fact that Anglicans across the Communion and Methodists elsewhere in the world have an on-going dialogue, the group said. The dialogue launched a report in 2015, “Into All the World: Being and Becoming Apostolic Churches”, describing its progress. The launch highlighted a then-new new relationship of full communion between Irish Anglican and Methodists churches, and the historic concrete steps towards an inter-changeable ministry.

The Episcopal-United Methodist full-communion proposal acknowledges that the United Methodist Church “is one of several expressions of Methodism” and notes that both denominations have been in dialogue with the historically African American Methodist churches for nearly 40 years. They have also worked with African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion, (AME Zion) and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) in various ecumenical groups.

The Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church have taken some interim steps toward full communion in recent years. In 2006, they entered into Interim Eucharistic Sharing, a step that allowed for clergy of the two churches to share in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper under certain guidelines.  In 2010, the dialogue group issued a summary of its theological work called “A Theological Foundation for Full Communion between The Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church”.

The proposal for full communion outlines agreements on the understanding of each order of ministry. The ministries of lay people, deacons Episcopal priests and United Methodist elders or presbyters (elder is the English translation of presbyter) would all be seen as interchangeable yet governed by the “standards and polity of each church.”

Both churches have somewhat similar understandings of bishops, according to the proposal.

“We affirm the ministry of bishops in The United Methodist Church and The Episcopal Church to be adaptations of the historic episcopate to the needs and concerns of the post-[American] Revolutionary missional context,” the dialogue says in the proposal. “We recognize the ministries of our bishops as fully valid and authentic.”

The Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church would pledge that future consecrations of bishops would include participation and laying on of hands by at least three bishops drawn from each other’s church and from the full-communion partners they hold in common, the Moravian Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Episcopal Church currently is in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India; Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht; the Philippine Independent Church; the Church of Sweden and the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church. It is also engaged in formal bilateral talks with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Roman Catholic Church via the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

More information about the Episcopal Church’s dialogue with the United Methodist Church is here.

The work of the Episcopal-United Methodist Dialogue is enabled by two General Convention resolutions: 2015-A107 and 2006-A055.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is senior editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.



Comments (54)

  1. E. Mpanga says:

    “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:21-22

    Therefore, good move!

  2. Steve West says:

    I think this is marvelous. Yes, there are differences in the two denominations, but full communion does not mean any kind of dilution of either church’s polity, theology, or sacramental practice. On the contrary, it is meant as partnership in ministry, not as obliteration of the unique gifts of either church in the body of Christ. I agree with an above post’s reminder that there is diversity within the Episcopal Church between Anglo-Catholics and Protestants over the theology of the table, and I admire you for being able to keep with each other in creative tension. Likewise, as a Methodist I can tell you we have diversity between more sacramental Methodists (like myself) and more evangelical Methodists. I realize from the posts above that many are simply unaware of this because they have not experienced the breadth of Methodist practice. My church has a contemporary service, which serves not only to reach new people but also to keep the other two more Liturgical services thriving … this is a reflection of our both sacramental and evangelical roots. Our sacramental practice is profoundly faithful to our own tradition and almost indistinguishable from “low church” Anglicans. We believe something indeed happens at the table and pray that the elements would become for us the body and blood of Christ, that we might become for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. We are faithful to the entire liturgy. I am a United Methodist elder working on my DMin at Sewanee, and was recently honored with the invitation to preside at the table at the seminary chapel due to this move toward full communion. I was assisted by an Anglo-Catholic priest who helped me with my page numbers and stood by me, as is the appropriate requirement. I faithfully observed the beautiful Episcopal liturgy. This is a good thing, folks. Regarding our internal divisions over social issues, they are not unlike yours though the timing and details are different, so that need not sway us from steps toward full communion. The Methodist Churches believe ourselves to ordain through apostolic succession. Let us explore this together and see where the Spirit leads us.

  3. Larry Brooks says:

    As a sacramental Methodist lay person, I was surprised to learn that the Episcopal Church believes in transubstantiation, and the grace I thought I was receiving, is not valid. And I mistakenly thought the current Eucharist Liturgy was, if not exactly the same, very similar. And I was surprised to learn that Methodist don’t believe in the Real Presence either. I’m learning a lot here.

    It’s true that Asbury dropped the liturgy that Wesley wanted. Why? What good was a prayer book for laity who couldn’t read. It’s true that Communion was only held quarterly. Why? Because that was when the ordained Presiding Elder visited the congregations. The lay Circuit Riders didn’t preside at Communion. But least we forget, the Anglican Church in the 18th Century only served Communion at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, and they had “real priests” to boot, apparently ordained by St. Peter himself.

    And where were the Episcopalians when the Methodist lay circuit riders were converting America? Sitting back patiently waiting for the hordes of unchurched people to come to them?

    It appears from the comments here that they prefer to continue waiting.

  4. Franklin Dobbins says:

    You can already take the communion at both churches if you’re a baptized Christian, and they would probably give communion to anyone. From a Catholic perspective, the Episcopalian and Methodist Churches are the same because the Catholic Church does not recognize the Holy Orders or Priests of the Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Church doesn’t have Holy Orders for its ministers because the church was founded by an Anglican Priest, which the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize anyway. It would take a Catholic Bishop to ordain a Priest in the “Catholic” sense, and so there are no priests in the Episcopal or Methodist Churches. All their clergy could be more accurately defined as “ministers,” and whatever qualifications these church bodies have come up with to prepare one to be such a minister is arbitrary. Also, the gender and marriage issues create too much of a problem for this kind of proposed arrangement. In historic Christianity, the highest office a woman can hold is Deacon. Also, the issue of gay marriage is too decisive, and even if you love gay people, the church should just stick to tradition and not attempt to add gay marriage to the liturgy. The Episcopal Church needs to back out of gay marriage, and both churches need to limit the leadership of women to official roles, which more closely correspond to the Catholic role of deacon. THEN, it would be possibly to make some sort of inter-communion statement. The only thing that could be done now is to describe the points where the churches agree and the points where they disagree, all in the spirit of mutual respect, but the denominations should remain separate. If they tried to do this inter-communion, it would just cause more debate on controversial issues. And as I stated firstly, there is already de facto inter-communion between the two denominations as is without such an agreement because they basically give communion to anyone.

    1. Larry Brooks says:

      Regarding ….. ” From a Catholic perspective, the Episcopalian and Methodist Churches are the same because the Catholic Church does not recognize the Holy Orders or Priests of the Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Church doesn’t have Holy Orders for its ministers because the church was founded by an Anglican Priest, which the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize anyway…”

      Google “Apostolicae Curae on the Nullity of Anglican Orders”, Pope Leo XIII, 1896, for documentation.

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