Episcopalians, Moravians celebrate 10th anniversary of communion, renew commitment to antiracism

By Egan Millard
Posted Feb 11, 2021

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church celebrated the 10th anniversary of its agreement of full communion with the Northern and Southern provinces of the Moravian Church in America at a virtual ceremony on Feb. 10, featuring remarks from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings and Moravian leaders, in addition to music and prayers from members of both denominations.

“Our relationship as Moravians and Episcopalians could be looked at as just a nice church thing, but it is more than that,” Curry said in his sermon. “It is a sign. It is a witness. It is a yearning for what God yearns, not simply for the church but for the entire human family.”

The 10th anniversary celebration, which was streamed on YouTube, showcased the traditions of both denominations and celebrated the churches’ common efforts, including joint antiracism work guided by the Sacred Ground curriculum and by Catherine Meeks, executive director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing, in the Diocese of Atlanta.

“I have learned so much from our Episcopal siblings about courageous witness in the public square, which has emboldened our witness as Moravians,” the Rev. Betsy Miller, president of the Moravian Church Northern Province, told Episcopal News Service, adding that communion is not a static agreement but a learning process. “Living into full communion is something that is never fully achieved, but remains a journey of discovery, renewal and enrichment,” she said.

The celebratory tone of the evening was tempered by the pandemic and by humble acknowledgments of racism, including a litany of repentance and renewed mission.

“As we celebrate tonight, we also acknowledge that we are in need of healing, not only from the pandemic, but even more from the racism that has characterized our country and our churches for far too long,” said the Rev. Maria Tjeltveit, who represents The Episcopal Church as co-chair of the Moravian-Episcopal Coordinating Committee. “Therefore, our service includes a call to racial reconciliation with repentance and a commissioning, so that in full communion with one another, we can work together to build Christ’s kingdom, where all are welcomed and valued.”

In her remarks, Jennings said unity and collaboration are even more urgent now than they were 10 years ago, and are necessary if the work of antiracism is to succeed.

“In 2011, when the Moravian Church and The Episcopal Church entered into full communion, we celebrated the reconciliation between our denominations. Today, a decade later, God is calling us to heal a different, more difficult division,” Jennings said. “As followers of Jesus in historically white denominations, we must redouble our commitment to work toward racial reconciliation by atoning for our participation in systemic racism and advocating for racial justice. We have much to offer one another on this journey to beloved community.”

The Moravians are one of seven denominations in full communion with The Episcopal Church, the most recent being the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, which established communion in 2019. The Episcopal Church defines full communion as an agreement with a church outside the Anglican Communion “in which each recognizes the other as a catholic and apostolic church holding the essentials of the Christian faith. Within this new relation, churches become interdependent while remaining autonomous. … They are together committed to a visible unity in the church’s mission to proclaim the Word and administer the sacraments.”

The principles of full communion are expressed in the Moravian motto: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.” Churches in full communion do not need to agree on every doctrinal point, but are understood to have enough in common to worship together, Tjeltveit said.

“When we talk about full communion, we’re not talking about a merger,” she told ENS. “To be in full communion with people who think differently than we do and operate differently is a really wonderful gift.”

In practice, this means that members of both denominations can participate in the same sacraments, and clergy of one denomination can serve a congregation of the other denomination, which has happened in a few parishes so far. One church — St. Mark’s in Downey, California – is a combined parish “worshiping in the Episcopal and Moravian traditions.”

The Moravians are one of the oldest Protestant denominations, originating in the present-day Czech Republic in the 15th century, pre-dating Lutheranism and Anglicanism. They have historically emphasized living by Jesus’ example over doctrine and were heavily persecuted in the 16th century. They came to America during the colonial period. Today, the Moravian Church in North America counts 140 congregations in the United States and Canada, mostly in the areas around Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina – the headquarters of its Northern and Southern provinces, respectively.

In 1997, General Convention established an official Episcopal-Moravian dialogue with the Northern Province and the Southern Province, which continued into the 2000s. In 2009, General Convention approved “Finding Our Delight in the Lord,” a proposal for full communion between the two churches. The Moravian Church approved the proposal in 2010 at its provincial synods, and a celebration of full communion was held in February 2011, attended by leaders from both denominations, including the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Curry’s predecessor.

In his sermon, Curry preached on the transformation of suffering into glory in John’s Gospel, pointing to it as an example of how Christians can overcome hateful divisions to achieve beloved community. Relationships like the communion between Moravians and Episcopalians, he said, are a sign to the world that unity is possible.

“Our relationship is a sign of that, of who we are and who God meant us to be,” he said. “May our relationship be a witness, a witness to the world beyond the chaos to community, beyond the nightmare to the dream of God.”

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.