Amid music and prayer, Episcopalians, Moravians inaugurate full communion

Relationship called a 'visible witness of the possibility of reconciliation'
February 10, 2011

With an evening Eucharist Feb. 10 that blended elements of the liturgical and musical practices of both traditions, representatives of the Episcopal Church and the two provinces of the Moravian Church in North America formally inaugurated a full-communion relationship between the denominations.

The service at Central Moravian Church in downtown Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the seat of the Moravian Church's Northern Province, included a newly written Liturgy for Christian Unity from the Moravian Book of Worship and an Eucharistic prayer adapted from the 4th century liturgy attributed to St. Basil the Great (The Book of Common Prayer's Eucharistic Prayer D). Most of the hymns came from the Moravian Book of Worship and while some hymns are also found in the Episcopal Church's 1982 hymnal, many were unique to the Moravian tradition.

For a video report from the inaugural Eucharist, click here. A photo gallery is here.

Close to a dozen Episcopal bishops, bishops of the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church, members of the Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations and the Moravian-Episcopal Dialogue (the group that guided the development of the full-communion proposal), and representatives from ecumenical partners and from the Anglican Church of Canada participated in the Eucharist. A near-capacity congregation filled Central Moravian Church.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Moravian Provincial Elders Conference presidents, the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth D. Miller (Northern Province) and the Rev. David Guthrie (Southern Province) officiated at the service.

The service opened with the Liturgy for Christian Unity led by President of the Episcopal Church House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson and the Rev. Dr. William McElveen, co-chair of the Southern Province, who was part of the Moravian Episcopal Dialogue. The prayers, which according to the order of service conform to classical Moravian ecumenical theology, focused on the unity of faith, hope and love that exists among all Christians.

In addition to the Eucharist itself, a focal point of the service came when the Episcopal Church bishops knelt before the participating Moravian bishops, who laid hands on them and prayed. The prayer, from the Episcopal Church's "Enriching Our Worship," was repeated by the Episcopal Church bishops as they laid hands on the kneeling Moravian bishops.

The prayers over the bishops were meant to symbolize the two denominations' recognition and reconciliation of each other's ordained ministers. Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem Bishop Paul Marshall and Southern Province Bishop Graham Rights led that part of the liturgy, which began with the congregation reciting the Nicene Creed.


Living in full communion

For the Rev. Lisa Green, the Rev. Peter Skelly, the Rev. Lynnette Delbridge and the Rev. Catherine Delbridge Hicks the Eucharist formally recognized a reality that all four are already living.


Green and Skelly recently began ministering together at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, New Jersey, where Green is interim rector and Skelly, formerly on the Central Moravian Church staff, is now affiliated. Skelly presided at Redeemer on Feb. 6 for the second time, an action made possible by the full-communion agreement which recognizes the validity of each other's ordinations. He first presided at a Redeemer Eucharist on the September Sunday after the Moravian Southern Province agreed to enter into full communion with the Episcopal Church.

Skelly told Episcopal News Service that it was "a dream come true to be able to celebrate in an Episcopal church." His introduction to the Episcopal Church came while he was an associate pastor for social action at Central Moravian Church, he said, when he worked closely with Trinity Episcopal Church three blocks from Central Moravian. He said he grew to love his connection with the parish and jokingly referred to himself as "a closet Episcopalian"

For Delbridge and Delbridge Hicks, the bond goes even deeper. The sisters, who were raised Baptist and became Moravians during college, told ENS before the service that full communion means they can each be, in Delbridge's words, "fully and completely who we are." That sense, Delbridge says, stands in contrast to the years in the mid-1990s when she was attending Union Theological Seminary in New York as an ordained Moravian and worshipping at the nearby Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She could only serve as an acolyte and later a chalice bearer, which she noted was "a big deal." Delbridge said she felt there was always a wall between who she was and who she could be in the Episcopal congregation.

Still, Delbridge said, her time at St. John the Divine cemented her love of Episcopal liturgy.

Delbridge Hicks became an Episcopalian after moving to Virginia with her husband. They could not find a Moravian congregation and so began worshipping in an Episcopal church. Her love of liturgy began in the Moravian church, she said, and she found that love continued and deepened as she became an Episcopalian.

Today Delbridge Hicks is rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Port Royal, Virginia. She said she tells the people of St. Peter's that the full-communion relationship forged between the two denominations shows that congregations can be united despite differences in theology and practices.

"It helps them to see this coming together in the midst of our diversity," she said.

More than a document

The "coming together" experienced by the four clergy people are just what the full-communion arrangement envisions.

"We know that the strength of this full-communion relationship depends not on the document and the synodical resolutions that have made this day possible, but upon our continuing to discover what God is calling us to as his people, allowing God's uniting spirit to work in us, not just those gathered here but every member of our communions," Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee Bishop Steven Miller, co-chair of the Moravian Episcopal Dialogue, said during his sermon at the inaugural Eucharist.

"We say in our full communion document that full communion is not merger. And so it is. But can it not be something more than advancing the ecumenical ball a little bit further down the field?" Miller asked, noting that denominational identities "matter very little to those who are outside them."

Churches in full communion formally recognize that they share essential doctrines, including baptism and Eucharist; agree to accept the service of each other's clergy; and pledge to work together in evangelism and mission. The churches become interdependent while remaining autonomous.

In an explanation read during the Eucharist, the two denominations said that full communion is a "significant expression of the full visible unity of all Christians, which we do not yet discern but for which we pray."

"We commit to consult and communicate with one another, seeking to express and strengthen our fellowship and enable common witness, life, and service. Striving to end our divisions but to preserve our diversity, neither of our churches seeks to remake the other in its own image," the explanation said, adding that "each church shall be open to the encouragement and admonition of the other church for the sake of the gospel."

During a press conference before the service, Moravian provincial president Miller said that many people ask why there are so many different churches and "why are they always fighting about this or that or the other thing?"

"When we offer a united witness, I think that starts to alter some of the culture that is skeptical of church in general," she said, adding that the act of witness is already being played out in "very tangible ways" such as Episcopalians and Moravians in Watertown, Wisconsin, having worked jointly for years to combat domestic abuse in their community. "I think there's nothing bad that can come out of working together."

Jefferts Schori said the "visible witness of two different traditions coming together is a profound sign of the possibility of reconciliation to the world around us."


A relationship years in the making

The two churches began talking about full communion in 1997 and have had interim Eucharistic sharing since 2003, allowing joint celebrations of the Eucharist using the liturgy of the host church with ministers of both denominations at the altar.


The northern and southern Moravian provinces agreed in 2010 to enter into full communion with the Episcopal Church. The 76th General Convention voted in the summer of 2009 to be in such relationship.

Each Moravian province voted on the proposal separately, with debate in the two provincial synods colored to differing degrees by the Episcopal Church's stance on the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons in the life and ministry of the church. The Northern Province synod agreed in June to the proposal by a nearly unanimous vote and in September the Southern Province synod followed in a 121-74 vote. The southern vote came after a legislative committee rejected as out of order a substitute resolution that was critical of what it called the Episcopal Church's "rejection of the authority of the scriptures" and other theological standards, and noted the tension between parts of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

The Moravian Church does not allow ordained service by openly gay and lesbian members, but the church's international body, the Unitas Fratrum, has said the issue is not a doctrinal matter.

The text of the full-communion agreement, officially known as "Finding Our Delight in the Lord: A Proposal for Full Communion Between The Episcopal Church; the Moravian Church-Northern Province; and the Moravian Church-Southern Province," is here.

Clergy and laity play central roles in the governance of the two churches, although there are differences in the way each understands the orders of ordained ministry. While Episcopalians look upon deacons as ministers of word and service, Moravians understand deacons as ministers of word and sacrament, and the diaconate as a time of preparation for ordination as presbyter. Moravian deacons normally are active in their order for three to five years before being consecrated presbyter. All Episcopal priests are first ordained as deacons as well, but there is no equivalent in the Moravian Church to the Episcopal Church's office of permanent or vocational deacon. Both churches have similar understanding the office of presbyter/priest.

Bishops in the Moravian Church trace their succession back to their founding in 1457 while Episcopal Church bishops trace theirs through the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of England. Episcopal bishops are elected by a diocese and have oversight of that specific geographic region. Moravians elect bishops on a province-wide basis for a special ministry of pastoral care and oversight, but Moravian bishops do not have administrative duties unless elected to those offices.

Moravians in America are part of the worldwide Christian communion formally known as the Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of the Brethren, which was founded in 1457 as part of the movement to reform the church in what is now the Czech Republic. Persecuted almost to extinction, members of the Unitas Fratrum eventually found refuge on the estate of German nobleman Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf. In the 1700s, they went through a rebirth under Zinzendorf's protection and grew into a global communion. The Moravian Church now has more than 900,000 members in 19 different provinces.

The Moravian Church in North America is relatively small and concentrated in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Some Moravian congregations in Canada are structurally part of the Northern Province.

The full-communion agreement with the Moravians is the newest of the Episcopal Church's five such commitments. The Episcopal Church also is in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, the Philippine Independent Church and the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India.