[Episcopal News Service] St. Matthias, about a half hour west of Milwaukee in Waukesha, Wisconsin, is an Episcopal church. It also is a Presbyterian church, at least by current practice.
Services held in the downtown church are attended by worshipers from both denominations and draw from both liturgical traditions. The two congregations remain officially separate, one Episcopal and one Presbyterian, but those denominational distinctions are not sharply drawn at St. Matthias. For the past year, First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha has “nested” itself at St. Matthias Episcopal Church, a unique arrangement that church leaders say has brought new energy to both congregations.
“It feels like the church is alive again, after COVID,” the Rev. David Simmons, rector of St. Matthias, told Episcopal News Service, and he attributes much of the new energy to the arrival of the Presbyterians. “I really feel like they’ve added a completely different dynamic to the way we think about ourselves as part of Christ’s church.”
First Presbyterian had dwindled in recent years to about 75 members, with about 35 regularly attending services. Though the small congregation was still able to cover the costs of maintaining its aging church building, its long-term viability was in doubt. It had not had a permanent pastor since 2016, and fewer members were volunteering to serve in lay leadership positions, according to Andrew Byshenk, First Presbyterian’s session clerk, the equivalent of an Episcopal church’s senior warden.
“We have absolutely felt welcomed” at St. Matthias, Byshenk told ENS. “They are a very, very welcoming congregation.”
Blended congregations are not unusual for Christian denominations, particularly those that have ratified full communion agreements. For example, The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are in full communion, allowing for greater interchangeability and sharing of clergy in leadership positions and sacramental roles.
The nesting arrangement at St. Matthias, however, required church leaders to navigate the more limited ecumenical relationship between the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, which share some historical roots but do not yet have a full communion agreement. Rather than serve as pastor of a combined congregation, Simmons essentially is wearing two hats. While remaining the rector of St. Mathias Episcopal Church, he was allowed to join the presbytery in Milwaukee – the equivalent of an Episcopal diocese – and serve as pastor to First Presbyterian Church of Waukesha.
The two congregations continue to maintain distinct governing boards, an Episcopal vestry and a Presbyterian session. For the 10 a.m. Sunday service, the liturgy alternates week to week, one Sunday following the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and on the next following the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Common Worship.
It has been a particularly exciting ecumenical experiment for Simmons, who also serves as vice chair of The Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. He sees the Waukesha church as an example of the possibilities to be found in closer relations between the two Protestant denominations.
“This is the kind of thing that we’ve been talking about for years, in terms of finding ways for congregations to work together,” Simmons said.
The Episcopal Church’s General Convention authorized a formal dialogue with the Presbyterian Church in 2000. Recent talks between the two denominations are rooted in a 2008 agreement, which allowed their ministers to “carry out the tasks of their own office in congregations of the other churches when requested and approved by the diocesan bishop and local presbytery.”
The agreement also encouraged “Eucharistic hospitality,” inviting Episcopalians to share Communion with Presbyterians and Presbyterians to share Communion with Episcopalians, as well as “possibilities for new church development and redevelopment together.”
“Historically, Anglicanism and Presbyterianism grew up as cousins, if not siblings, in England, Scotland, and later in Ireland and Wales, and these traditions were transplanted into the American context during the colonial period,” the 2008 agreement noted as context.
The agreement, however, did not establish the full interchangeability of ministers, meaning that the invitation to serve in each other’s churches remained conditional. It could be approved on a case-by-case basis and did not extend to all liturgical roles. A Presbyterian pastor, for example, cannot preside at an Episcopal liturgy.
That said, some elements of the two denominations’ ecumenical prayers bear some similarities, and the primary divide between Episcopalians and Presbyterians is one of polity. The Episcopal Church invests much of its governing authority in diocesan bishops, while members of each presbytery share collective authority in those governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church.
In the case of the Waukesha churches, it helped that the Presbyterian congregation was nesting in the Episcopal one, led by an Episcopal priest. In a reverse scenario, it would not have been possible for a Presbyterian pastor to lead an Episcopal congregation, Simmons said, because of how The Episcopal Church authorizes such roles. He conferred with Bishop Jeffrey Lee, the bishop provisional of the Diocese of Milwaukee at the time, and received permission to add the second role of First Presbyterian’s pastor and to incorporate Presbyterian liturgies at St. Matthias.
The arrangement and other shared Episcopal-Presbyterian ministries around the United States have been welcomed by churchwide leaders who are involved in building ecumenical relations.
“We are increasingly in a time when our ecumenical partnerships are very important because we are changing so rapidly,” said the Rev. Elise Johnstone, co-chair of the Presbyterian-Episcopal Dialogue. Numerical decline in membership across mainline Protestant denominations is forcing congregations to come together around new ways to “faithfully embody the body of Christ in this time and place of change.”
Johnstone sees the Holy Spirit moving in Waukesha through the two partnering congregations under Simmons’ leadership. “I feel like David is helping us to understand that we can do things like this responsibly,” she said.
She also noted that the 80th General Convention approved a resolution in 2022 that authorized the study of a proposed new agreement between the two denominations. Though it wouldn’t go as far as a full communion agreement, the new proposal aims to encourage greater sharing of local ministries with oversight by diocesan bishops.
“For me, the Waukesha church as well as the proposal from the Presbyterian-Episcopal Committee offer new possibilities for churches in the years and decades ahead,” the Rev. Margaret Rose, the deputy to the presiding bishop for ecumenical and interreligious relations, told ENS. “Amid the statistics of ‘decline,’ here we have opportunities for sharing resources, worship and Gospel witness of unity.”
With the two Waukesha congregations worshiping together, turnout for St. Matthias’ Sunday services ranges from 50 to 70, with a few dozen more watching the livestream. Simmons always celebrates at least one Holy Eucharist from the Book of Common Prayer – the 8 a.m. service always follows Rite I.
Byshenk said he and most of the other Presbyterians typically attend the 10 a.m. services that alternate between Episcopal and Presbyterian liturgies. “The distinctions between the two liturgical traditions are not that significant,” he said. “I don’t even know that most people know the difference.” The two churches’ hymnals overlap quite a bit, too.
And though the congregations are not researching the possibility of formally merging at this time, Simmons said they are happy to be moving forward together. Several Presbyterian members who are talented musicians have joined the choir or begun playing handbells. Another Presbyterian member expressed an interest in helping lead Christian education at St. Matthias, which Simmons said was a welcome surprise.
The Presbyterian church’s session was invited to attend an Episcopal vestry meeting for the first time recently, and Simmons at times has called on Byshenk to preach.
Simmons also has begun changing some references to the church’s name. Instead of St. Matthias Episcopal Church, he now tends to refer to it simply as St. Matthias.
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.