Moravian Church's Northern Province enters full communion with Episcopal Church

Vote is independent of similar consideration by Southern Province
June 17, 2010

The Northern Province of the Moravian Church voted June 18 to enter into full communion with the Episcopal Church.

The nearly unanimous voice vote came during an evening session on the second day of the church's June 17-21 quadrennial Provincial Synod at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

"This is an important day in the life of our churches," said David L. Wickmann, president of the Provincial Elders' Conference, Moravian Church North America. "This communion means our church has the opportunity to engage with one of our historic partners in a more complete and meaningful way."

"I am abundantly delighted, and look forward to growth in mutual relationship and mission," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said after learning of the decision. "I believe we have much to learn from the Moravian tradition."

Diocese of Milwaukee Bishop Steven Miller told ENS by phone shortly after the vote that "at a time when so many people are trying to divide, this is a witness to our church's commitment to Christ, who wants to make us all one."

Miller, co-chair of the Moravian Episcopal Dialogue, addressed the synod just after the vote and he said he told the participants "that there's much that we can share with one another in terms of mission and ministry and that it was as exciting and moving a moment for the Episcopal Church as it was for them."

The Rev. Thomas Ferguson, interim deputy to the Presiding Bishop for ecumenical and interreligious relations, told ENS after the vote that "this is a sign that the Episcopal Church is committed to ecumenical conversations."

"Apart from our Orthodox dialogues, we haven't had any setbacks in our ecumenical work here," he said. "We have found a way to continue to be in ecumenical dialogue with other churches in this country."

Ferguson noted, for instance, that a dialogue between the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has been ongoing for 44 years and continues to meet.

The Moravian vote ended a day that began with the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, telling the Episcopal Church's Executive Council that the communion's ecumenical dialogues "are at the point of collapse" because of the church's decision to ordain as bishop an openly gay and partnered priest for the second time.

Ferguson said "this dialogue with the Moravian Church shows that we can continue to move forward when our focus is on mission and ministry together, and agreeing to disagree on things that we don't believe are church-dividing."

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

"In this dialogue we have just agreed to disagree on that and we have further said that we do not believe this is an obstacle to full communion between our two churches," Ferguson said. "We can have different polity on this matter and still move forward because of the opportunities for joint mission and ministry that we see."

Miller said that "the Moravian church is another episcopal church that has a long, rich tradition and history that focuses on essentials and not on minor details, and is as committed as we have been in the Episcopal Church to unity among all Christians."

Miller suggested that the full communion relationship will have both a "global mission focus and a local witness focus."

He said he hoped that the Episcopal dioceses in Wisconsin "will make a concerted effort to nurture this new relationship and learn from one another." And he said that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has proposed that the Moravian Church "join with us in our work as we seek to rebuild the church in Haiti, which they're very concerned about as well."

The Episcopal Church agreed during the 76th General Convention in the summer of 2009 to enter into a full communion relationship with the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church. The agreement (text is here) is 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." Other documents pertaining to the agreement can be found here.

The Moravian Church's Southern Province is expected to vote on full communion during its synod Sept. 9-12 at the Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Each province can independently enter into full communion relationships.

The Moravian Church is relatively small and concentrated in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin; although a footnote in the full communion document notes that there are Moravian congregations in Canada that are structurally part of the Northern Province of the Moravian Church in America.

"Thus passage of this agreement would be effective for those congregations which are part of the Northern Province. Honduras, Alaska and the Eastern West Indies are separate provinces of the Unitas Fratrum while the dioceses of Alaska and the Virgin Islands are structurally part of the Episcopal Church," the footnote says.

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 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 Episcopal Church says that it understands 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 is also 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.

The agreement with the Northern Province of the Moravian Church marks the first time in U.S. history that three churches -- the Moravian Church, the Episcopal Church and the ELCA -- have formed full-communion relationships with each other by separately negotiated agreements, according to Ferguson.