From our partners: Moravians and the gift and challenge of unity

By Betsy Miller, President and Head of Communion
March 19, 2020

The Moravian Church is a worldwide body known as the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren). We are a loose federation of semi-autonomous provinces that are self-governing and choose to associate with one another and share common work and witness. 

Each province determines its own leadership and organization and is governed by its own Book of Order. Some features of the Provincial Book of Order must include and adhere to the Church Order of the Unitas Fratrum (COUF), a living document that contains set positions and changeable positions.

The President, or Chair, represents his/her particular province at a bi-annual gathering known as the Unity Board, which meets in rotating locations around the Unity. The Unity Board functions in the years between a Unity Synod.

Every seven years, three members of each province gather at a Unity Synod. 

The Unity is guided by two principles: “Our Lamb Has Conquered; Let Us Follow Him” functions as a sort of theological statement about our identity and purpose. “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In all Things Love” guides how we live and make decisions. 

Essentials are matters of doctrine

Non-Essentials serve to point us to doctrine

In all Things Love guides how we treat one another – both in agreements and disagreements. 

As one might expect, the challenge is when there is disagreement about what is an Essential. Currently, one matter under consideration is the place of the Bible. Is a literal understanding of the Bible an essential? Are there ways to understand the Bible within culture and context? Is it a living, or rigid document? There were, to be sure, prior disagreements that may have, but did not, divide the worldwide church. The ordination of women, and the matter of holding slaves are two examples. 

Since its inception in 1457 and 1727, the Moravian Church has not suffered a church-dividing split. Through Slavery in the US, two World Wars, and Apartheid the church has weathered the challenges. There is concern today that the matter of the ordination and marriage of same-gender persons may threaten this unity. Embedded in this question is the understanding of what “semi-autonomous provinces” means. Might one province allow for the ordination of gay and lesbian persons and another province not allow it? Might one province prohibit the ordination of women and another province allow it? Might one province hold differing views on the role and function of bishops than other provinces? 

Currently, there are various provinces throughout the Unity that are not in compliance with COUF for different reasons. One province allows for the ordination and marriage of same-gender persons when COUF states that marriage is between a man and a woman. Other provinces allow bishops to serve as Presidents of their provinces, which is prohibited in COUF. How will these digressions from COUF be handled by the Unity? 

At the most recent Unity Synod, held in 2016, language was added to COUF to state that marriage is between and man and a woman. The Northern Province (in the US and Canada) allows for same-gender marriage and the ordination of married same-gender persons. As a result of this position, the Northern Province was placed “under observation” with the expectation that a report and/or action be brought to the next Unity Synod, in 2023. Since 2016, another province has allowed for the marriage and ordination of same-gender persons. Will this portion of COUF be enforced as “essential” but other portions allowed to fall into the “non-essential” category? Time will tell. 

Through it all, theological historians of the Moravian Church invite us to ponder this statement: The Unity is a gift, a task, and a witness. That is, we believe that the Unity is a gift that has been given to us by God – not just the church but our unity as a church. Maintaining both the Unity and our unity is a task to which we must give faithful and persistent attention. We must work at being unified and find agreement in that which unites us.  Finally, the Unity – and our unity – is a witness to a world that watches how Christians care for one another, all people and all of creation. 

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