Full communion with Moravians proposed

General Convention set to address key ecumenical issues
June 2, 2009

Deepening relationships between the Episcopal Church and its ecumenical partners, including a proposal for full communion with the Moravian Church, will be the focus of draft legislation presented to General Convention when it meets July 8-17 in Anaheim, California.

General Convention also will welcome ecumenical and interfaith guests to participate, observe and learn about the Episcopal Church and its governance.


The Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations spent the last triennium working on recommendations concerning interchurch cooperation and interreligious dialogue and action.


"All our ecumenical dialogues are important as we patiently seek to restore the wholeness of the visible body of Christ," said commission Vice Chair Roderick B. Dugliss, a lay deputy from the Diocese of California. "We know from long experience that the fractured church confounds our efforts to 'proclaim by word and example the Good News.'"


Among the standing commission's proposals are a resolution to begin formal dialogue between the Episcopal Church and the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden with the ultimate goal of reaching full communion.


"Our history with the Church of Sweden goes back to the first moments of the Episcopal Church's existence as an autonomous Anglican church," said Bishop Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe. "It is our oldest ecumenical relationship. For various reasons, we have never entered into an official full communion partnership with this great church, even though they put several 'Old Swedes' churches under our jurisdiction back in the 18th century."


The Church of Sweden, along with the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran churches, is in full communion with the British and Irish Anglican churches through the 1992 Porvoo Agreement. The Episcopal Church, although part of the Anglican Communion, has not yet made any such formal agreements with those Lutheran churches.


"A fruitful dialogue with the Church of Sweden might also serve eventually as a way to full communion with the other Scandinavian Lutheran churches," said Whalon, an SCEIR member.


Theological statement
General Convention also will be asked to endorse a theological statement to serve as "the foundation upon which [the Episcopal Church] engages in interreligious dialogue," the standing commission's report says.


While the Episcopal Church has been involved in interreligious cooperation and dialogue for many years, "we have never really had a clear theological rationale as to why we should be doing this in the first place," said Bishop Christopher Epting, ecumenical and interreligious officer for the Episcopal Church. "Some people wonder what the goal actually is. There are reasons why Christians specifically should be involved in such conversations, and this document is an attempt to make that clear."


Moravian relationship
Perhaps the most significant resolution asks General Convention to endorse a full-communion relationship with the Northern Province and Southern Province of the Moravian Church, which would include sharing in the historic episcopate and interchangeability of ministries between the two churches. The relationship would be similar to the one between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which entered into full communion in 2001 through the Call to Common Mission agreement.


A dialogue team has developed an agreement, titled Finding Our Delight in the Lord, as the basis for the relationship as well as creating programs to facilitate congregation-to-congregation conversation and missional activity between Episcopalians and Moravians. The Moravian Church will consider an identical proposal at its Provincial Synods in 2010.


Given that the Moravian Church in America is relatively small and concentrated in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin, "only a dozen Episcopal dioceses will have the opportunity to live directly into this full-communion relationship," said Dugliss, dean of the School for Deacons in Berkeley, California. "My concern is that, because of lack of familiarity or immediate impact, the full-communion concordat will be lost in the shuffle at General Convention."


General Convention authorized a dialogue with the Moravian Church in 1997 and established interim eucharistic sharing between the churches in 2003.


Moravians in America are part of a worldwide Christian communion formally known as the Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of the Brethren, which was founded in 1457 as part of the movement for reform of 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 proposed full-communion partnership "is a unique opportunity to restore unity with the oldest church of the 'first reformation,'" says the commission report. "Moravians are intensely missional, highly relational, have a rich musical and liturgical heritage and are led by a deeply pastoral episcopate."


The Moravians' formation over "two centuries of persecution yields a freedom to witness and serve anywhere, anytime," Dugliss said. "They have embraced the call of one of their seminal leaders – Nicholas Von Zinzendorf – to seek and serve 'the last, the least and the lost.' In all this they offer to the Episcopal Church an antidote to our DNA of establishment and our hesitation in mission. While they have a limited presence in the United States, there are opportunities for significant collaboration in mission and witness here and globally."


Presbyterian agreement
General Convention also will be asked to adopt a 10-point agreement between the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) acknowledging recognition between the churches and marking "an important step in moving toward the full, visible unity of the church," the commission report says.


The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved the agreement in 2008.


"While not a proposal for full communion like with the Moravians, this agreement summarizes the significant theological convergence reached with the Presbyterian Church (USA), while at the same time frankly acknowledging those things which still divide us," said Tom Ferguson, the Episcopal Church's associate deputy for ecumenical and interreligious relations.