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Working as Well as Pray for Church Unity

Jan 22, 2003 01:02 PM EST

In the days leading up to this year's celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity January 18-25, two teams of Episcopalians joined representatives of other Christian communions at an interdenominational seminary on the campus of a Baptist university in Birmingham, Alabama, in the continuing search for the unity of the church.

The ministry task force of Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC) had been invited to hold its January meeting at Beeson Divinity School on the Samford University campus by Dr. Patricia Outlaw of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a faculty member at Beeson and a member of the task force.

Because of the importance of the Episcopal-Presbyterian bilateral conversation, authorized by the last General Convention, to the CUIC partnership, that dialogue was scheduled to precede the CUIC meeting--and in the same location--in order to provide some continuity and even overlap.

Neither the Episcopal Church nor the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) found themselves able to move forward with the Consultation on Church Union's (COCU) plans for "covenant communion" in the 1990s, but both churches agreed to engage in the on-going process of Churches Uniting in Christ. That process includes both anti-racism initiatives undertaken together and a serious dialogue on "ministry," which was the stumbling block for Presbyterians and Episcopalians.

The issue of ministry

"It is understandable," pointed out Bishop Douglas Theuner of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, co-convenor of the Episcopal-Presbyterian dialogue, "that two communions which take their very names from their polity around ordained ministry would take those issues very seriously. They go to the heart of our self-understanding. Our two communions form the 'bookends' in the CUIC dialogue with respect to ordained ministry. Therefore, some intentional time in bilateral conversation can serve the overall CUIC process well," he said.

In this spirit, 14 Episcopalians and Presbyterians spent January 13-14 reviewing the chapter on "Ministry" from the 1984 "COCU Consensus" and sharing their denominational responses. Points of convergence include the fact that both churches have "a form of three-fold ministry," that each makes decisions in councils of clergy and laity together, and that both value the ministry of episcope or "oversight," although in somewhat different ways. The two communions diverge in their understanding of the "personalized" nature of that oversight, in the understanding of the necessity of the historic episcopate for full communion, and over the specific issue of the Presbyterian elder being fully understood as a "presbyter."

The next meeting of the dialogue, scheduled for June 5-7, 2003, will include the presentation of several papers from both partners: "The Theory and Practice of Episcope"; "Ministry: Ordained and Unordained"; and a survey of Episcopal-Presbyterian conversations from the 19th century up to the present day.

Unfinished tasks

Bishop Stacy Sauls of the Diocese of Lexington and Prof. J. Robert Wright of the General Theological Seminary in New York represented the Episcopal Church at the CUIC's ministry task force meeting which followed on January 15-17. Both said they were encouraged as they heard the report of the Episcopal-Presbyterian dialogue from Bishop Christopher Epting, the church's deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations. They were also encouraged as the agenda unfolded -- an agenda that also included discussion of the Ministry chapter of "The COCU Consensus," as well as specific insights now available from "Called To Common Mission" (the full communion agreement between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and the "Formula of Agreement" (the full communion agreement between the ELCA and the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Reformed Church in America).

The ELCA is now a "partner in mission and dialogue," though not a full member of Churches Uniting in Christ. The nine member churches of CUIC are the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, the International Council of Community Churches, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.

The next meeting of the CUIC ministry task force will be June 3-5, 2003 and will tackle some unfinished tasks in the search for unity. Wright has been named as one of the members of a writing team whose task it will be to bring the first draft of a document pointing the way toward full communion for the nine member churches and a process for the recognition and reconciliation of ministries necessary for such a relationship.

By Albert H. Lee
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