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Full communion plans with Episcopalians on hold (UM News)

April 8, 2022

The third postponement of The United Methodist Church’s legislative assembly not only has disrupted plans for a formal denominational separation but also for an interdenominational accord. 

With so much uncertainty within the United Methodist fold, a proposed full-communion partnership between the denomination and The Episcopal Church remains on hold.

The Episcopal Church has no plans to vote on full communion when it gathers for its General Convention this July in Baltimore. 

Instead, Episcopalians are considering a resolution that commends the ongoing work of the Episcopal Church-United Methodist Dialogue Committee and its proposal for full communion, “A Gift to the World, Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness.”

Ecumenical leaders in both denominations agree: United Methodists should be the first to vote on the proposal itself.

“It was viewed as appropriate that the future direction of the UMC be clarified and hence its attitude toward the full-communion agreement be decided before it was voted on by The Episcopal Church’s General Convention,” said David N. Field, ecumenical staff officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops. 

Field added that significant parts of The Episcopal Church would not support full communion if United Methodist bans on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy remain in effect. 

Rising debate and defiance of those bans has led to multiple submissions to the coming General Conference for some kind of separation. But with The United Methodist Church’s top legislative assembly now postponed until 2024, a theologically conservative group that seeks to maintain those restrictions has decided not to wait for General Conference action. The group has moved up the launch date of a breakaway denomination, the Global Methodist Church, to May 1. 

Whatever comes next will take some time to shake out. The United Methodist Church has a method for most things, including disaffiliations.

The General Conference postponement also has delayed consideration of the proposed Christmas Covenant — legislation that would give more autonomy to different regions of The United Methodist Church and potentially leave questions related to LGBTQ ministry up to each region. 

The Rev. Margaret Rose, deputy for ecumenical and interreligious relations for The Episcopal Church, told Episcopal News Service that any plan for full communion would be with the portion of The United Methodist Church that is LGBTQ-affirming. For now, she sees The Episcopal Church’s resolution submitted to this summer’s General Convention as an assurance to those United Methodists “that we want to continue in the struggle for justice with you.”

As it stands, the proposal for full communion between Episcopalians and United Methodists makes no mention of LGBTQ inclusion. The document describes itself as “an effort to bring our churches into closer partnership in mission and witness to the love of God and thus labor together for the healing of divisions among Christians and for the well-being of all.”

Full communion is not a merger where denominations become one, such as what happened when The United Methodist Church formed in 1968. Rather, full communion means each church acknowledges the other as a partner in the Christian faith, recognizes the validity of each other’s baptism and Eucharist, and commits to work together in ministry. Such an agreement also means Episcopalians and United Methodists can share clergy.

The United Methodist Church already has full-communion agreements with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Uniting Church in Sweden, five historically Black Pan-Methodist denominations and the Moravian Church in North America. Each of these full-communion partners has varied teachings related to homosexuality.

The United Methodist-Episcopal dialogue, which dates to 2002, aims at drawing together two churches with historic ties to John Wesley’s Church of England.

A full-communion agreement between the two also would complete a sort of ecumenical square. Like United Methodists, Episcopalians already have full communion with the Lutherans and Moravians. The only line missing in this church quadrangle is between the two denominations with arguably the most shared heritage.

The two churches owe their separation less to theological differences than to the disruption of the American Revolution.