The Very Rev. Dr. John P. Downey, Province 3 Ecumenical Coordinator
“Real, but imperfect communion,” is the concept from Vatican 2 that helpfully expresses the relationship among Christian communions which are not in full unity. Based on the “communion ecclesiology” (koinonia) which informs the ecumenical movement, it recognizes that the fundamental communion among divided Christians is “real.” Yet as long as ordained ministers are not reciprocally accepted and members are not able to celebrate and receive Holy Communion together, the communion is “imperfect.” The goal then is to move toward “full communion.”
The Episcopal Church currently has several full communion agreements, most notably, for Province 3, with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Moravians. One ecumenical leader in the Episcopal Church has suggested that full communion agreements are the life boats waiting as our denominational ships sink. Whatever one thinks of that stark image, it is indeed the case that there are many vital full communion relationships taking place in Province 3 and throughout the wider Episcopal Church, particularly with Lutherans. Clergy and congregations are finding various forms of shared life and mission, from partnership to functioning as one congregation. No doubt there will be much more of this in the future.
Ecumenical theology and reflection is probing the question of how far the idea of “historic episcopate, locally adapted,” from the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (Prayer Book p.876) can be stretched. It was an early insight of the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue to differentiate the ministry of “apostolic succession” and “episcope” (oversight) from the “historic episcopate,” understood at the time as the historic succession of bishops. Full communion could be achieved by recognizing the “apostolic faith” and “episcope” in a church and then finding a way to incorporate it into the historic succession of bishops. This was the method of “Called to Common Mission” with the ELCA.
But can “historic episcopate locally adapted” be further differentiated from “historic succession of bishops”? This could open the way to full communion with churches who have “episcope” without strictly requiring them to receive a succession of bishops which they may not, in conscience, believe is necessary or even appropriate. Consideration of this possibility is part of current ecumenical work.
In addition to the full communion agreement with the ELCA, the 80th General Convention in 2022 endorsed full communion with the Church of Sweden. This was relatively easy as there were no obstacles in this relationship and so the agreement was a matter of making official something that had been long assumed.
What was more interesting was the General Convention’s vote to enter into full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC). It was widely and easily recognized that this made sense so that the four Anglican and Lutheran bodies in Canada and the USA could be in full communion with each other. What was not as widely recognized was that the full communion agreement between the ELCIC and the Anglican Church of Canada (Waterloo Declaration 2001) did not require the ELCIC to incorporate the historic succession of bishops. The Canadian Lutheran bishops were accepted as a “local adaptation” of the historic episcopate without the succession of bishops. Most likely Anglican/Lutheran participation in each other’s episcopal ordinations since 2001 would now satisfy the strictest interpretation of “historic episcopate,” but this decision of the 2022 General Convention did recognize, in however small a way, that there could be another way forward on the road to full communion. This has been explicitly proposed, with extensive historical and theological argument, in the proposed full communion agreement between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria (Augsburg Agreement), which will likely come before the 81st General Convention in 2024. This really does bear close consideration as it would clearly represent a new step in the understanding of “historic episcopate locally adapted,” and could have major implications for other dialogues.
A full communion agreement between the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church (UMC) was ready to go a few years ago and likely would have been approved by both bodies. The agreement is very much like that with the ELCA. However, Covid, along with the tensions within the UMC put the agreement on hold. This year the UMC is going through what is hoped to be an amicable (legally speaking) separation process. After this there will no doubt need to be a time of grieving and regaining bearings for the UMC. This, along with developments in ecumenical thinking and practice, means that we cannot be sure when and in what form a full communion proposal will reemerge, but it is most likely that some form of it, perhaps revised, will be before us again in the not-too-distant future.
While it may not be widely known, a ministry sharing agreement was authorized in 2009 between the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). This is not full communion but provides for shared ministry, including ordained ministry with certain limitations. While not as widely implemented as the ECLA agreement, there are some examples to be found in Province 3 and beyond, with more likely to come. An expansion of this agreement is currently under consideration and may come before the General Convention in 2024.
Beyond such a ministry sharing agreement, there seem to be two possible outcomes:
+The Presbyterian polity and practice of ordination will somehow find a way to incorporate the historic succession of bishops. This has so far eluded us since the core understanding of Presbyterianism does not allow bishops as Anglicans understand them.
+The concept of “historic episcopate locally adapted” may be capable of being stretched in such a way that Presbyterian ordinations could be fully recognized “as is” and full communion would be possible without requiring Presbyterians to have bishops. This may be possible given current ecumenical explorations but it is by no means certain in any near future.
That They May be One
The well-worn text of Jesus’s prayer, “that they all may be one…so that the world may believe” (John 17:21) remains the charter and motive of the ecumenical movement toward full unity among Christians. We live in a time when it is tempting to give priority attention to other matters in our churches, but the connection in this prayer between unity and “that the world may believe” can be heard as inspiration to keep the ecumenical movement moving.
Full information about the ecumenical work of the Episcopal Church can be found at https://www.episcopalchurch.org/ministries/ecumenical-interreligious/
Please feel free to contact me at [email protected] if you have any specific questions about ecumenical relationships.