Resolution would allow ‘local ecumenical partnerships’ between Episcopal, Presbyterian churches

By Melodie Woerman
Posted May 6, 2024

The Rev. Elise Johnstone speaks in favor of Resolution A042 during a May 4 hearing of the Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations legislative committees. Photo: Zoom screenshot

[Episcopal News Service] The legislative committees on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations on May 4 heard testimony on Resolution A042, which would allow for local ecumenical partnerships between The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at the local level of dioceses and presbyteries, with the approval of bishops and moderators.

The Rev. Elise Johnstone, who has been co-chair of the Episcopal-Presbyterian Dialogue since 2022, told committee members that the proposal would help places like the Diocese of Lexington, where she served as canon to the ordinary from 2014-2021. The diocese has many small congregations but a shortage of clergy to serve them. There were “few to no” churches nearby with which The Episcopal Church is in full communion, she said, but there are many congregations of the Louisville, Kentucky-based Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), also known as PCUSA.

PCUSA is the largest Presbyterian body in the United States, with more than 1.1 million members in more than 8,700 congregations, as reported in 2023. The Episcopal Church has 1.4 million members.

The existing agreement between The Episcopal Church and PCUSA, which was adopted by General Convention in 2009, encourages cooperation and joint ministry between the two denominations. One example of that is between St. Matthias Episcopal Church and First Presbyterian Church in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The two churches share one building, and the Rev. David Simmons, an Episcopal priest who also is vice chair of The Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations, serves both congregations.

The new proposal, outlined in a document entitled “Episcopal-Presbyterian Agreement on Sharing of Ministries,” would allow for what is called a “limited, orderly exchange of ministers.” It defines how the bishop of an Episcopal diocese, or the moderator of a Presbyterian presbytery, could identify a presbyter/priest from the other denomination who could fill a particular ministry need and then establishes how that person would function.

Partnerships like this between Anglicans and Presbyterians already exist in the Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, Johnstone told the committees. She noted that this resolution does not establish any form of full communion between the two churches and added, “full communion may not be feasible for some time.”

From her experience in Kentucky, she said this new agreement would be especially helpful in providing leadership in rural areas and for college chaplaincies.

Legislative committee member the Rt. Rev. William Franklin, retired bishop of Western New York and chair of the standing commission, said sharing between churches already is happening in some parts of The Episcopal Church with bishops’ blessing, and this resolution would provide “the kinds of pathways that will assure there is some consistency” in how it takes place with PCUSA.

Two other resolutions, A043 and A047, would amend The Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons to provide the needed structure to govern local ecumenical partnerships. Because constitutional changes require votes at two successive General Conventions — in this case, 2024 and 2027 — local ecumenical partnerships could begin after that.

The bishops’ and deputies’ legislative committees will vote on this resolution at a later meeting before it is considered by the 81st General Convention when it meets in Louisville, Kentucky, June 23-28.

—Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.