By Mark Michael
After decades of ecumenical dialogue, leaders of the Episcopal and United Methodist Churches recently issued a proposal for full communion between our two churches (see the documents, reporting from Jeff MacDonald, and an editorial on the proposal from The Living Church: “Slightly Less Than Full Communion“). The proposal seeks to heal a division that dates to 1784, when two groups of Anglicans sought contradictory solutions to the crisis posed by the collapse of their church in this land during the Revolutionary War. (A related scheme for reunion is on the table in England as well.)
My earlier essay focused on the key decisions made by the zealous John Wesley and the patient Samuel Seabury, whose actions set significant trajectories for the churches they founded. The initial break was not inevitable, nor its persistence necessary, but these trajectories toward Methodist zeal and Episcopalian patience factor significantly in the work that remains unfinished before full reconciliation can come.
In the centuries since 1784, Episcopalians and Methodists have moved much closer together. We Episcopalians have almost certainly never ascended to the fever pitch of zeal (and the rate of membership growth) that marked early Methodism. Still, charismatic leaders like John Henry Hobart, Jackson Kemper, and William Meade inspired a significant push into mission work after two generations of sedate indifference, even as they differed in their willingness to countenance Wesleyan methods. “Jesus Movement” language is all the rage among Episcopalians today, reflecting, as Garwood Anderson has suggested, a Wesleyan-style felt connection with the post-apostolic Church and a taste for charismatic leadership and evangelistic ambition.
Methodists have grown in patience, finding their own churchly charism. They moved fairly quickly from brush arbors to Neo-Gothic sanctuaries, and developed a learned ministry enabled by some of the best American seminaries. They now have a complex set of bureaucratic safeguards, and experienced a significant 20th-century liturgical and sacramental revival.
We may remain, in the words of early Methodist leader Thomas Coke, “a couple of basons” floating down the stream of American religious life, but we increasingly find ourselves in the same boat. We are both shrinking, aging religious communities, led mostly by progressives, racked with conflict over sexuality, struggling to maintain viable congregations in rural areas and inner cities. Many of our clergy have studied for the ministry together, and they are often natural partners in local ecumenical and social justice projects.
Full communion is naturally on the horizon, after decades of ecumenical discussion, and the Anglican-Methodist International Commission for Unity and Mission (AMICUM) gave the green light to such arrangements in its statement Into All the World: Being and Becoming Apostolic Churches, approved in recent years by both the World Methodist Council and the Anglican Consultative Council. At the most recent meeting of the ACC, Richard Clarke, the Archbishop of Armagh, spoke warmly of how smoothly the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland transitioned to full communion and how helpful the new arrangement has been in parts of the Republic of Ireland with tiny Protestant populations.
At least from the perspective of this habitually patient Episcopalian, the current call for full communion between the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church leaves a few matters unresolved. There has been notable progress in developing a workable plan for incorporating Methodists into the historic episcopate (the matter has consumed by far the most attention in past schemes for church unity). But differences that date back to 1784 — concerning the status of the Nicene Creed as a doctrinal summary and in the practice of Holy Communion — continue to pose obstacles, and will continue to do so as long as Anglicans insist on the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral as the standard for full communion.
When Wesley assumed the authority to develop his own liturgy for Methodist congregations in America in 1784, he dropped the Nicene Creed, along with the Athanasian Creed, from liturgical use. Wesley objected to the Athanasian Creed’s closing damnatory clauses. The same sentiment led to its excision from the first American Prayer Book five years later. He never gave clear reasons for eliminating Nicene Creed from the Sunday service, though he probably thought it too long and complex for American congregations. His brother, Charles, clearly saw the move dangerous. He distanced himself from it and criticized its possible implications in a poem, “To the Rev’d”:
We never will renounce our creed,
Because of Three but One you need,
No longer the Nicene approve,
The Athanasian Mound remove,
And out of your New book have thrown
God One in Three & Three in One.
The Nicene Creed has an uncertain place among Methodists. The United Methodist Church’s predecessor bodies did “affirm the apostolic faith of Scripture and Tradition affirmed in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds” as a condition for becoming members of the Consultation on Church Union, a since mostly-forgotten (and renamed) Protestant ecumenical fellowship, in 1962. The Nicene Creed also was included (for the first time) in the current edition of the United Methodist Hymnal, which encourages its regular liturgical use.
The 2016 United Methodist Book of Discipline contains a section “Basic Christian Affirmations,” which clearly affirms belief in the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation (pp. 49-50). “Our Common Heritage as Christians,” a summary, also lists the adoption of the ecumenical creeds as being “of central importance to this consensual process” by which the early Church “sought to specify the core of Christian belief” (p. 48). However, the ancient creeds are not included among the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church, a group of confessional documents that includes Wesley’s Standard Sermons and his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament.
Given this ambiguity, it is interesting that the concordats approved by both AMICUM and the Episcopal-United Methodist dialogues assume that United Methodists assent to the Nicene Creed. Into All the World’s summary of “The Wesleyan Essentials of Faith” notes that “Methodists profess the ancient ecumenical creeds, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds” (p. 8). Similarly, the current full communion draft, A Gift to the World, states of both Episcopalians and United Methodists: “Our churches affirm and use the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds as sufficient summaries of the Christian faith” (pp. 195-96).
But the failure of Resolution 60980 at last summer’s United Methodist General Conference throws this assumption into serious doubt. The resolution, submitted by petition to the Church’s Faith and Order Committee by Joel Watts, a West Virginia layman, would have added the Nicene Creed to the Book of Discipline. It was soundly defeated in committee, on a 47-18 vote.
Methodist theologian Douglas Strong of Seattle Pacific University suggested to me that many of the Faith and Order Committee members may not have been acquainted with the Nicene Creed, as it is used so rarely these days in public worship. Even more seriously, the United Methodist Church’s official statement about creeds says that it is “unlike some churches that require affirmation of a strict list of beliefs as a condition of membership,” and notes, “The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church.” The decision of the General Conference’s Faith and Order Committee, as Michael Cover noted last summer, was highly praised by many Methodist progressives, who saw it as an affirmation of their church’s emphasis on freedom of belief.
A similar uncertainty surrounds the affirmations about our essential unity of belief regarding the Holy Eucharist. It is true that This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion affirms “the real, personal, and living presence of Jesus” in the sacramental elements (though “in temporal and relational terms”). However, assorted practices surrounding the celebration and administration of Holy Communion in United Methodist Churches stand at some tension with this claim, as they deviate so seriously from historical norms.
Much of the online discussion has centered on whether the Methodist requirement that Holy Communion be celebrated with “the pure, unfermented juice of the grape” can be squared with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral’s that the Holy Communion be “ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.” More serious is the nearly universal United Methodist practice of admitting the unbaptized to Communion and the widespread authorization for celebrating Holy Communion by licensed local (unordained) pastors.
Ironically, in adopting these practices, 19th and 20th century pastors outdid Wesley, who rejected all of them in his ministry. Indeed, Wesley’s stated intention behind sending Coke to America to set up an ordained Methodist ministry was to preserve the ancient practice that restricted eucharistic celebration to presbyters. The Methodist practice of “open communion” has been justified since the late 19th century by an appeal to Wesley’s belief that Holy Communion was a “converting ordinance.” However, Methodist liturgical scholar Karen Westerfield-Tucker has conclusively demonstrated that Wesley never communed an unbaptized person and was merely restating common Anglican pastoral wisdom: baptized persons who lacked a strong certainty of God’s grace should seek it in the Sacrament, not drawing back because of their supposed unworthiness.
To return to the theme of my first post, I would like to point out that all three actions I have considered — dispensing with episcopacy, the uncertain status of the historic creeds, and irregular Communion practices — reveal in different ways a foundational Wesleyan willingness to dispense with historic and canonical practice for the sake of a perceived evangelistic need. Each was, in its own time, a zealous undertaking, and firmly resisted by the more patient of Methodist church leaders.
These topics have been treated at some length in the bilateral dialogue’s 2010 document, Theological Foundations for Full Communion. Some “Ways Forward” are suggested there that could bring resolution between the two churches by requiring some adjustment of United Methodist practice. These do not appear to have been taken up in A Gift to the World.
Theological Foundations notably placed significant hopes in the prospect that the United Methodist Church might ordain all lay pastors as elders at its 2012 General Conference, addressing the pastoral need of small parishes while preserving ancient canonical practice (p. 33). Such a move would be similar to the Episcopal Church’s earlier decision to drop the practice of Canon Nine ordinations. That course, however, was not taken in 2012, in part because the practice of lay presidency is highly praised among some United Methodists. Likewise, there is no indication from A Gift to the World that any action has been taken on the “way forward” direction that United Methodist leaders should strive “to make clearer to laity as well as clergy the extraordinary nature of the possibility of communion of the unbaptized” (pp. 26-27).
Full-communion agreements are serious matters in ecumenical work, one step short of church merger. A Gift to the World’s outlining of a process for United Methodists receiving the historic episcopate is a serious step that befits the significance of the arrangement, and is modeled closely on the Called to Common Mission agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has proved fruitful in many ways for both churches.
A similar seriousness and a willingness to accept substantial change for the sake of unity should also be required in creedal affirmation, and there should be a clarification of the implications of historically irregular practices surrounding the administration of Holy Communion. Specifically, before moving to full communion, the Episcopal Church should insist that the United Methodist Church identify the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as doctrinal standards in the Book of Discipline. United Methodist local lay pastors should also be ordained as elders, and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist should be restricted to ordained elders.A formal clarification of the relationship between Baptism and Holy Communion is also important, if enforcing the ancient canonical rule about restricting communion to the baptized has, in fact, become unenforceable among Methodists.
We should also be open to making similar concrete affirmations and changes that are consistent with historic priorities of Methodism. In his 1784 meeting with two Anglican priests in Maryland, Francis Asbury said “that he believed the difference between us lay not so much in doctrines and in forms of worship as in experience and practice.” A canonical requirement for personal evangelistic witness might be desirable to Methodists, or a binding church-wide policy about the use of alcohol, in the aftermath of a scandal surrounding yet another intemperate Maryland bishop.
These kinds of concessions are necessary to preserve the clear meaning and intention of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. The next chapter for ecumenical engagement will almost certainly be more extensive dialogue and cooperation with evangelical and Pentecostal churches. This kind of engagement is exciting precisely because such churches have great zeal to share with us as we work together in service of the gospel. But in important respects, they have closely followed the trajectory pioneered by Wesley, departing significantly from inherited practices and institutions for the sake of mission. Our manner of engagement with this larger and more complex group of believers will be significantly shaped by the way in which we handle the ecumenical challenges presented by Methodism.
The reconciliation of the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church through a careful and unambiguous full-communion agreement would be a good and holy thing, an obedient response to our Lord’s command that we all be one. Our troubled history has blessed us with distinct charisms, which allow us to enrich the ministries that both churches undertake in response to Christ’s grace and for his glory. We will be stronger as churches more deeply filled with both zeal and patience, but only after we have honestly dealt with the full impact of that troubled history.
Progressive Methodist here. From my standpoint, the only point I would (personally) resist would be doing away with our practice of open communion. I’d be OK with only ordained elders blessing the Sacraments, but it is important to me personally that our Church invites ‘everyone seeking a New Life in Christ’ to share our table with us. Regarding your other points, while it is true that we use the shorter Apostle’s Creed in our worship, we are taught the Nicean creed in Confirmation, and the older Disciplines did include it in the doctrinal heritage section, so it would not be… Read more »
United Methodist pastor here. Thank you for a well-written and researched article. However, there is one glaring mistake. You write that, “the United Methodist Church’s official statement about creeds says that it is ‘unlike some churches that require affirmation of a strict list of beliefs as a condition of membership,’ and notes, ‘The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church.’ This is BY NO MEANS AN OFFICIAL STATEMENT. Just because it appears on a United Methodist website, it BY NO MEANS is an official statement of the church. An official statement of the UMC would be something that appears… Read more »
Another progressive UM minister here. One reason neither creed is especially familiar or much used is that they contain no affirmation of the life and ministry of Jesus. The work and teachings of Jesus are central to our belief, and how we live. They are not just a comma in a creed.
Former commissioned elder in the United Methodist Church now postulant in the Episcopal Church here … like Jonathan stated, creeds do matter. Open Baptism is something the Episcopal Church does “undercover” per se. In my opinion, we shouldn’t limit the ability of what God can do in a sacred sacramental moment. As for local pastors administering the sacraments — same problem Wesley had when he made the break. He asked for help by those ordained and the Church of England/evolving Protestant Episcopal Church did not help. Admittedly there were some who did try, but there are only four who get… Read more »