Resolution calling for more dialogue with United Methodist Church generates much testimony

By Melodie Woerman
Posted May 13, 2024

The Rev. David Simmons (top right) testifies in favor of resolution A049 during the May 11 hearing of the Ecumenical & Interreligious Relations legislative committees, as Northern Indiana Bishop Douglas Sparks (top left), chair of the bishops’ committee watches, and a member of technical support staff (bottom) keeps time. Photo: Zoom screenshot

[Episcopal News Service] A proposed resolution commending the goal of full communion between The Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church drew 15 people to testify during a May 11 hearing of the deputies’ and bishops’ committees on Ecumenical & Interreligious Relations.

Resolution A049 reiterates General Convention endorsements in 2006 and 2018 of continuing dialogue with the Methodists, and it encourages Episcopalians to learn more about this effort.

Full-communion partnerships allow members of each church to receive the sacraments in the other church’s services, and it also provides for interchangeability of clergy, allowing them to officiate at services and celebrate the sacraments with equal authority in either church.

Proposed resolution A009, on which the committees already had heard testimony, would establish full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria.

The Episcopal Church currently is in full communion with seven churches: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada; the Moravian Church-Northern and Southern Provinces; the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India; the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht; the Philippine Independent Church, and the Church of Sweden.

On April 30, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to establish full communion with The Episcopal Church. On May 1, delegates removed the denomination’s ban on ordaining gay clergy, and on May 3, they redefined marriage and ended official church condemnation of homosexuality.

The Episcopal Church’s 81st General Convention will convene June 23-28 in Louisville, Kentucky. At the in-person meeting, the full House of Bishops and House of Deputies will consider the resolutions that now are being discussed in online meetings by the Ecumenical & Interreligious Relations committees.

Among those testifying in support of General Convention’s Resolution A049 were two United Methodist Church officials – the Rev. Gregory Palmer, resident bishop of the Ohio West Area and co-chair of the United Methodist-Episcopal Church dialogue; and David Field, the United Methodist Church’s ecumenical staff officer, who participated from his home in Basel, Switzerland.

Palmer said because of decisions made during its General Conference, the United Methodist Church is “experiencing a new spirit in more way than one, that helps us move forward and focus on mission and ministry.” Field added that sharing ministry and mission with The Episcopal Church really is the purpose of full communion, noting opportunities especially in smaller churches or places where it’s hard to place clergy.

Also supporting the resolution was the Rev. David Simmons, ecumenical officer for the Diocese of Milwaukee and vice-chair of the Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. He noted that the Methodists’ recent General Conference was the first one since 2019 and the first since a fourth of its congregations in the United States left the denomination. He added that delegates were able to move more quickly than expected to remove anti-LGBTQ+ language and to endorse full communion with The Episcopal Church, and “we rejoice with them,” he said. He also provided the committees with suggested amendments to the resolution to recognize the recent actions taken by the Methodists.

The four people who spoke against the resolution cited sacramental differences between the two churches, most especially the practice of UMC local pastors, who are not ordained as clergy, consecrating elements of Holy Communion. They also had concerns about Methodist bishops not having been ordained in the historic episcopate, described by The Episcopal Church as “the succession of bishops in the history of the church from the apostles until the present.”

Many of those in favor said the resolution’s call for additional dialogue and the goal of full communion had benefits even if some questions remain between the two churches.

The Rev. Kirsten Guidero, a member of the Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations and a deputy from Northern Indiana, said the movement for more ecumenical sharing and recognition doesn’t collapse each church’s “distinctive charisms and identities into an undifferentiated mess” but rather asks each body “to receive each other’s gifts.”

The Rev. Jason Poling, ecumenical officer for the Diocese of Maryland, said he believes The Episcopal Church eventually will reach full communion with the United Methodist Church, but he cautioned against acting too quickly. Doing so, he said, would “manifest such visible disunity that it would be counterproductive.”

Two people supporting the resolution said they would like it to go further and establish full communion now. The Rev. Mariah Tjelveit, a retired priest from the Diocese of Bethlehem and co-chair of the Moravian-Episcopal Dialogue, said she has seen the gifts that full communion can bring to churches. The Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church have been engaged in dialogue for more than 20 years, she said, and “what is to be gained by waiting another three years?”

Scott Haight, a lay deputy from the Diocese of West Tennessee and a member of Executive Council, agreed. “The Holy Spirit moved [the Methodists] to act faster” than we thought they would, and he urged the committees to amend the resolution “to approve full communion and send it to the floor of convention, where the Holy Spirit may move us as well.”

Committee members asked questions about the United Methodist’s adoption of regionalization during its conference. Palmer said it allowed each of the four regions – Africa, Europe, Philippines and the U.S. – to make decisions that affect only them, such as matters of pensions and church finances in the U.S. that aren’t shared elsewhere. In a question about lay presidency, Palmer also affirmed that Methodist lay pastors who are allowed to celebrate Communion in Methodists churches would not be able to do that in Episcopal churches.

Simmons responded to questions about the historic episcopate by noting that suspending that requirement to reach full communion with the United Methodist Church, as was done in 2003 for full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, would become a moot point within a few years. Because the UMC and the ELCA are in full communion, the presence of ELCA bishops at UMC bishop ordinations means that many Methodist bishops already have had hands laid on them by bishops in apostolic succession. In addition, Episcopal bishops would participate in future ordinations of Methodist bishops, just as they currently do for ELCA bishops.

Northern Indiana Bishop Douglas Sparks, chair of the bishops’ committee, noted that as co-chair of the Lutheran Episcopal Coordinating Committee, he could attest that every bishop in the ELCA who currently is active has been ordained into the historic episcopate.

The committees are slated to begin deliberating on the eight resolutions assigned to them at their May 24 meeting and then will make recommendations on each one.

—Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.