Episcopal-Moravian full communion could offer mission 'riches'

Presiding Bishop joins in dialogue of possibilities
November 11, 2009

The process for building a closer relationship between the Episcopal and Moravian churches is taking place in the denominations' decision-making bodies, but the realities of that work will bear fruit in their congregations and beyond.

That was the consensus of a morning's worth of conversation and worship Nov. 11 at the Moravian Theological Seminary here.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Rev. Thomas Ferguson, associate deputy to the Presiding Bishop for ecumenical and interreligious relations, and the Rev. David Bennett, president of the Moravian Church's Eastern District Executive Board talked for an hour with a group of about 50 Episcopalians, Moravians and seminary students of other denominations.

After a conversation that ranged from envisioning mission partnerships to how members of both churches could get to know each other, Jefferts Schori said, "We have only scratched the surface of the riches of this possibility."

The nature of a full communion relationship "will play out in different ways," Ferguson said. The possibilities range from specific outreach opportunities in the parts of the country where Moravians and Episcopalians are concentrated to other places where, he suggested, the partnership may center on sharing resources such as theological education.

In the first case, Jefferts Schori said that during her concurrent pastoral visit to the Diocese of Bethlehem, she learned that Moravians and Episcopalians were already working together at Trinity Episcopal Church's soup kitchen and at the diocese's New Bethany Ministries, which serves the poor, homeless, hungry and mentally ill.

Across much of rest of the church, the Presiding Bishop said, "the sad reality" is that Episcopalians don't know any Moravians "or don't know that they know Moravians, so it's an opportunity to discover another part of the body of Christ with whom we share a great deal."

The Rev. T. Scott Allen, priest-in-charge at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania, told the gathering that as a General Convention deputy from the Diocese of Bethlehem he helped educate the triennial meeting about the Moravian Church.

"We did have to answer questions," he said. "People were confusing you with Mormons and Mennonites."

Jefferts Schori later met with a small group of seminarians and then preached during Eucharist at which Bishop Hopeton Clennon, chaplain to the seminary and near-by Moravian College, presided.

(Click here for the full text of Jefferts Schori's sermon.)

Clennon was present at the July meeting of General Convention in Anaheim, California, when deputies and bishops agreed to enter into a full communion relationship with the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church.

The two provinces' synods are expected to act on the proposal in June and September of 2010, respectively. Each province votes on the agreement individually and can enter into a full communion partnership independent of the other.

Some participants in the Nov. 11 conversations suggested that the votes in both provincial synods will be 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 Rt. Rev. M. Blair Couch of Allentown, Pennsylvania, one of two female bishops in the Moravian Church, predicted that some Moravians will organize opposition "because of what they perceive the Episcopal Church to be." Couch, who attended an Episcopal Church House of Bishops meeting where she said she experienced "mission-, Christ-centered faith and beauty and worship and wonderful fellowship," promised "to do my part to say that [full communion] will be a blessing."

Ferguson, acknowledging differences in understanding human sexuality, said "the key question is whether these are church-dividing or not … can we live in diversity with one another the way we live internally [with difference] within our own communions?" He noted that the Episcopal Church has been in full communion relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for nearly nine years and that it was not until this past summer that the ELCA decided to allow partnered gay clergy.

Bennett of the Northern Province's Eastern District said that the Moravian Church, which "has not yet had those hard conversations," can learn from the Episcopal-Lutheran experience and will be asking both denominations for advice. The Moravian Church has a full communion relationship with the ELCA.

Allen, who told the gathering that he is gay, asked Moravians if his ordained ministry would be welcomed in their church. Bennett said that both provinces agreed in 2002 to affirm “the presence and ministry of gays and lesbians within the congregation but fell short of affirming their ministry in an ordained way" if they are in committed relationships. He predicted that the issue will return to the synods, if not in their next meeting cycle then in the following one.

The two churches began talking in 1997 about full communion, a relationship in which churches 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. Episcopalians and Moravians 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 proposed full communion agreement was presented to General Convention via "Finding Our Delight in the Lord" from the Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations' report.

Both churches are already in full communion with the ELCA and the Episcopal Church also has such relationships with the Old Catholic Churches of Europe, Philippine Independent Church and the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India.

The Northern Province has 28,000 members in 102 congregations in 13 states in the U.S. and two Canadian provinces. The Southern Province includes nearly 20,000 members in 58 congregations, which are located primarily throughout the Southeast U.S.

Information about the Moravian Church's history is available here. A summary of Moravian belief is available here and a synopsis of its ministries is here.