1. Who are the Episcopalians and the United Methodists, and why did we ever split?
In the core beliefs of the Christian faith, we Episcopalians and United Methodists are one. The basis for Full Communion can be found in A Theological Foundation for Full Communion, and the small book That They May Be One is a helpful resource on why Full Communion makes sense.
United Methodists and Episcopalians are “sibling” churches. We are both the children of the 18th-century Church of England. Like all siblings, we are kin, but have our differences. We responded differently to the missionary environment of the United States’ early years. In recent decades, we have begun to rediscover our family resemblances. Many consultations, agreements and concords have been established between international Anglican and Methodist bodies.
The United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church are catholic, reformed, and evangelical. We share the same Scriptures, the same creeds, a historic episcopate, and commitments to the Christian life of holiness and diakonia. The Episcopal Church life is expressed through four orders of ministry: Laity, Deacons, Priests, and Bishops. The United Methodist Church has three orders of ministry, Laity, Deacons, and Elders, with Bishops as consecrated leaders.
2. What is Full Communion?
Full Communion is our faithful determination to be in a relationship that embodies the oneness we are in Christ, and that enables us to be the Body of Christ in ministry to a broken world. The United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church both will maintain their autonomy, while affirming and celebrating one another’s validity and value as full manifestations of Christ’s Body.
We recognize one another as members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church; we echo one another’s teachings and proclamation of the Gospel. Baptism, membership and ordinations are recognized as complete in Christ, and we pledge to learn from our shared and yet distinct traditions of hymnody and liturgy. Members of our churches would be free to participate fully at either of our altars, and ordained clergy may officiate sacramentally in either church. We commit to seek out creative ways to share in learning, missional outreach, and advocacy for justice.
One gift this Full Communion agreement offers is the flexibility to consider Episcopal priests for clergy roles and positions in United Methodist churches, and vice versa. We rejoice in the enrichment that will come in such places. In a United Methodist Church, an Episcopal priest would deploy and abide by United Methodist polity, and vice versa. For clergy disciplinary issues, however, the ordained minister is accountable to her or his home denomination.
The Anglican Communion has been very supportive of these conversations, as has the World Methodist Council.
3. Do Episcopalians and United Methodists worship differently? What will happen in our worship services?
We share the same Scriptures, the same creeds, and the same sacraments. We have long expressed God’s praise through a common hymnody. A Full Communion agreement will give us more gifts to share.
The Book of Common Prayer structures Episcopal worship. The Eucharist is the principal act of Sunday worship in the Episcopal Church. For United Methodists, the Book of Worship is an important liturgical guide, and there is much liturgical flexibility.
4. What about communion?
Since 2006, Episcopalians and United Methodists have enjoyed Interim Eucharistic Sharing with agreed upon guidelines.
Our theologies of Holy Communion differ only in matters of emphasis. A complex set of interwoven images (remembrance, fellowship, foretaste of the heavenly banquet, the sacrifice of Christ) figure into our sense of the Body and Blood of Christ in the holy meal.
Episcopalians believe that the sacrament of Holy Communion (or the Eucharist) is the central act of worship, orienting everything around Christ's death and resurrection. We believe that Christ is Really Present in the Eucharist. All baptized Christians are welcome to receive communion in Episcopal churches. Episcopalians typically have Eucharist every Sunday, some even daily.
United Methodists also believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. John Wesley believed the Eucharist was a “converting ordinance.” Holy Communion is a gift of God to the church and an act of the community of faith. By responding to this invitation we affirm and deepen our personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ and our commitment to membership and mission in the body of Christ. While some United Methodist churches have Communion weekly, others celebrate it less often.
5. What about same sex marriage?
There is, within both the Episcopal and United Methodist denominations, disagreement on this challenging issue.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline contains prohibitive legislation regarding “homosexuality” and same sex marriage. United Methodists are not of one mind, and are engaged in broad discussion on this matter.
The Episcopal Church authorized rites for Christian marriage between persons of the same sex at its General Convention in 2015. Most bishops have authorized its use.
6. How do Episcopalians and United Methodists make decisions?
For both, while a congregation has considerable autonomy, it is always part of a larger ekklesia. For United Methodists, the local church is part of an Annual Conference, which may be part of a state or comprising several states. Similarly for Episcopalians, the Diocese is the primary body, and each parish finds its place within the Diocese. Each Annual Conferences and each Diocese is led by a bishop. But the highest authority is beyond the episcopacy. For United Methodists, denominational policy is set by the General Conference, with clergy and lay delegates who meet every four years. The highest authority for Episcopalians is the General Convention, which meets every three years, and is composed of two houses, deputies (clergy and laity) and Bishops.
In local congregations, there is a shared ministry between ordained and lay leaders. This holy partnership between engaged laity and ordained clergy is the essence of church life.
Decision-making will not change when we are in Full Communion. We will benefit from collaboration, and will choose to speak in concert with and in acknowledgment of one another as often as possible.
7. Why now?
To a world torn by division, mistrust and fear, our witness of Full Communion is a beautiful sign of life and hope. After all, Jesus prayed for his disciples to be one as he and the Father are one, so that the world may know (John 17); Paul also reminds us that we are one Body (1 Corinthians 12).
We are richly blessed by a sharing of resources, as we join forces in crucial mission endeavors and tackle ministry challenges together. We have been in conversations about communion for fifty years. The examples of shared ministry and Christian friendship over many more years are innumerable. In many places, interchangeability and flexibility in ministry are essential. There is in our culture an increasing cynicism about divisions among churches, and a lack of passion for and identity with denominational entities. When we labor for unity, our own identities are clarified and redeemed.
Naming our oneness in Christ will be the fulcrum that will energize new and creative ministries in our communities, and joint activism for the dawning of God’s justice in the world. In passionate outreach to the world, “two are better than one,” for they lift each other up – and with Christ at the heart of this communion we will discover “a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9, 12).