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On Religion: Union possible on Episcopal, United Methodist left

Terry Mattingly

Terry Mattingly

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Next year, delegates at the United Methodist Church's General Conference are supposed to consider a full-communion plan with the United States Episcopal Church.

"We seek to draw closer in mission and ministry, grounded in sufficient agreement in the essentials of Christian faith and order and assisted by interchangeability of ordained ministries," states the current text for "A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness."

This is not a merger proposal, but: "We see this relationship of full communion as a step on the journey. ... We are blessed in that neither of our churches, or their predecessor bodies, have officially condemned one another, nor have they formally called into question the faith, the ministerial orders, or the sacraments of the other church."

However, events in the United Methodist Church have given some members of that flock — especially LGBTQ clergy and laity — a strong incentive to go ahead and investigate nearby Episcopal parishes.

A special General Conference recently voted to reaffirm current doctrine that marriage is the "union of one man and one woman" and "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." The historic gathering also passed pieces of a "Traditionalist Plan" requiring UMC clergy to follow those laws in their Book of Discipline.

So far, leaders on the United Methodist left haven't announced plans to leave. But that doesn't mean that Episcopal clergy and other liberal Protestant leaders shouldn't be prepared to help United Methodists who come their way, said the Rev. David Simmons of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a leader in several regional and national ecumenical efforts.

"We have to start with the fact that lots of United Methodists are really hurting," he said in a telephone interview. "What we should be doing is providing a safe harbor. Our primary motivation shouldn't be to grab members from other churches. ... If we do that, then we're not being a safe harbor. We can't go around saying, 'United Methodists are having trouble, so let's recruit them.'"

Simmons recently posted an online essay entitled, "How to Deal With Methodists at Your Red Church Doors" — referring to the front doors at most Episcopal parishes. His subtitle was even more blunt: "Spoiler: Don't Be a Jerk." His suggestions to Episcopal leaders included:

■ Remember that Methodists have their own traditions and history. It's wrong to hand them a Book of Common Prayer and try to instantly "make them Episcopalians. ... ANY language about 'Coming Home' or 'Returning to the Mother Church' is harmful, insensitive and historically inaccurate, since American Methodism and the Episcopal Church are both technically equal children of the Church of England."

■ "Lay off the smugness!" Episcopalians, for example, should not brag about "how much further ahead we are" on LGBTQ issues, noted Simmons. Some United Methodist congregations have "been way ahead of us in this in spite of the discipline of the UMC. ... Don't attempt to score cheap points."

The global Anglican Communion remains divided on many sexuality issues. For example, the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops recently passed a resolution protesting the Archbishop of Canterbury's decision to exclude the same-sex spouses of bishops from participation in Anglicanism's Lambeth Conference in 2020.

■ Understand that full communion is not yet a reality. Thus, Simmons noted, Episcopalians recognize United Methodist clergy "as Ministers of the Gospel, but we haven't achieved interchangeability." In particular, the churches have not agreed on the role of bishops — which means United Methodist clergy still need to be ordained in the Episcopal Church before serving as priests.

Also, both denominations face real challenges. Episcopal Church membership has declined from 3.6 million in 1966 to 1.7 million last year. In the United States, UMC membership has fallen from 11 million to 6.8 million in roughly the same timeframe.

At some point in the future, said Simmons, it might be possible to discuss combining churches. But, right now, what "we need is a safe space in which we can get to know each other. ... In America, we still have the luxury of being able to afford parallel church structures."

Combining two churches would be incredibly complex, he added. "We might be able to unite churches someday, but I'm not sure we could unite our pension plans."

Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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