By Robert Price
Back in October, ecumenists from the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church released A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness, which invites the two denominations to formally share in Communion and interchangeability of ordained ministry. It also commits TEC to recognize the UMC’s episcopate as possessing equal apostolicity. This follows an agreement reached with the Moravian Church, and of course Called to Common Mission, the pioneering ecumenical achievement signed with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 2000.
Although some within the Anglo-Catholic tribe voiced concerns about the suspension of the Ordinal required by Called to Common Mission, I remember the headiness of the moment as Lutheran bishops came to speak at my seminary (Berkeley Divinity School at Yale) and dreams were dreamed of fulfilling Jesus’ imperative in John 17 that his followers would be one. Institutional union was not an important goal, we were told: eucharistic sharing was the Main Thing, along with sharing resources in the mission field, especially in rural and urban settings, and all that. Clouds of Catholic concerns were to spit no rain on that parade of Christian unity.
Another historic agreement that was celebrated when I was in seminary was the Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith. Walter Cardinal Kasper’s visit to Yale was one of my most memorable experiences there, and Lutherans and Roman Catholics putting aside the polemical anathemas of the Reformation (at least those regarding justification by faith) was certainly an extraordinary development for Christian unity.
Even at the time of the Joint Declaration and Called to Common Mission, however, I felt underwhelmed by the achievements of these very thoughtful, prayerful, and learned Christians who had devoted so much energy to the ecumenical cause. I think part of it had to do with my month-long mission trip in southern Sudan during the summer before I left seminary.
I served the church amid the Dinka people, who lived as nomadic cattle herders with automatic weapons while a genocide was being perpetrated against them. I experienced a profound Christian unity across a veritable chasm of cultural difference, bridged by a shared and fervent devotion to a scriptural faith in the living Jesus. In many ways, I returned from Sudan sharing a deeper communion in Christ with my Anglican Dinka brothers and sisters than with most of my fellow seminarians at Berkeley. Conversely, I found solidarity and solace in prayer with charismatics and evangelicals at YDS, especially a seminarian from the AME Zion church to whom I give personal credit for teaching me how to pray extemporaneously. These feelings of dislocation only intensified when African Anglicans were patronized and vilified during the events of 2003 and afterward as the Anglican Communion began to fracture.
Finally, through the “ecumenism of the neighborhood” I’ve been involved in a prayer group of local pastors, after which I sometimes wryly observe that I share a faith with those with whom I do not share an denomination, and I share a denomination with those with whom I do not share a faith.
Let me return to my disappointment with the last two decades of TEC’s ecumenism by sharing some photos that can tell the tale:
What is missing — or rather, whom — in these pictures? What kind of person would be unlike the others? Hint: the dialogue group with the Methodists gets some credit.
From my perspective, TEC’s ecumenical agreements, both consummated and proposed, seem a little like liberal white people of mostly English heritage and liberal white people of mostly German heritage (okay, with some Swedes and Norwegians thrown in) agreeing that their doctrinal differences aren’t really important and that Jesus is okay with them not sharing what is, in fact, most important to them (institutional power, assets). Whether it’s TEC and the ELCA or UMC, it’s essentially white people agreeing to be nice to and occasionally play well with other white people — or in the case of the Joint Declaration, Germans agreeing that other Germans aren’t going to hell.
But the election of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry brings us to a new ecumenical moment. We are blessed with a leader who is winsome, good for the brand, eloquent, erudite (Teilhard de Chardin at a wedding? Really?), and focused on racial reconciliation as a primary concern of his nine-year ministry. And, well, he’s black. Is this not the acceptable time, the auspicious hour, the ecumenical moment for TEC to form binding, unitive agreements with historically black denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME Zion, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church? If not now, when? If not Michael Curry, who?
We have bilateral ecumenical contacts with the Roman Catholic church, the UMC, the ELCA, the PCUSA, and the Moravian Church. We are in contact with historically black Methodism only through the 11-member Churches Uniting in Christ.
Why have we not expended the same level of energy to reach the same kind of agreements and offer the same kind of ecclesial affirmations with black denominations that are just as similar to the Episcopal Church in so many ways? In the denominations I mentioned, there are often bishops who wear Anglican collars and purple shirts. They have seminary-trained clergy and a venerable, robust theological tradition that branches off from ours. What would the argument against interchangeability be? What about full visible union?
Surely these denominations have assets and complementary gifts to ours: physical (particularly churches in neighborhoods with exactly zero TEC presence), spiritual (an emphasis on justice and a deep hymnody that embraces the reality of suffering, unlike the pablum offered by some white evangelicals), and missional (they were “engaging the community” before the organizers of Missional Voices’ grandparents were gleams in their great-grandparents’ eyes).
And we have an asset that we can share: money.
We could leverage the Church Pension Fund (CPF) for the cause of racial reconciliation. It is an open secret that CPF has massive uncommitted reserves (assets in excess of what even a liberal estimate of the fund’s liabilities would require to cover them). TEC could offer to include clergy of the historically black denominations in Churches United in Christ on equal terms in the pension plan. Credit for years served in the pre-uniate denomination would be automatic, and all new entrants to CPF would be instantly awarded a HAC (Highest Average Compensation) equal to their current salary or the highest they’ve earned within the last seven years (instead of an average of the last seven).
Their congregations would contribute, and they would accumulate time served at the same rate as TEC parishes and clergy. Assets in their denominational pension plan would be rolled into CPF to be their “ante” in. Representation on the CPF board would be provided. This assimilation of clergy from historically black denominations into TEC’s pension plan would be symbolically powerful, eminently practical, fairly costly, and would appropriately benefit real people instead of diverse foundations.
Of course, there might be other costs to a full union — costs that might give pause to those in the upper echelons of TEC. I imagine the resolutions at diocesan councils and General Convention might shift from what some folks would label “First World problems” (the issues that most concern liberal, affluent, educated religious progressives) to justice issues that have more resonance with African Americans. The spiritual, if not necessarily theological, center of gravity might shift in a more Christocentric and pneumatological direction.
Progressives in TEC might be discomfited to be confronted with conservative views from their African-American brethren who are supposed to be liberal about everything of importance, and whose spirituality they consider more admirable from a distance. Grumblings that TEC should take back Gift to the World in response to the UMC Special General Conference’s vote on marriage and sexuality underscore this progressive ecumenical sore spot. White TEC bishops and clergy prone to social activism might have to yield the microphone to those whom they are marching with, rather than for. Finally, a significantly larger proportion of African-American clergy would of necessity upset the equilibrium of identity groups and their relative power within TEC. I think Bishop Curry is uniquely positioned and personally and spiritually resourced to address these challenges with persuasive credibility.
A frequently mentioned stumbling block in TEC’s ecumenical endeavors has been a perceived “Anglican arrogance,” especially on “Faith and Order” issues. When it comes to white denominations such the ELCA, UMC, and PCUSA, I’ll admit to it, and I think it’s justified. Nevertheless, as an Anglo-Catholic I can truly say — with God as my witness, I do not lie — that if being called Pastor Price instead of Fr. Price would achieve real union with my African-American brothers and sisters in Christ in another denomination, then I would never allow someone to call me Father again. And that goes for a suspension of the Ordinal and the three-legged stool and everything else. It’s that important to me. I don’t know if that makes me a liberal or a conservative in other people’s perception: it’s simply where I am. I would truly love for someone among the decision-makers in TEC to call everyone’s bluff in our racial conversation with something this real.
I can think of no greater practical, concrete, costly act of racial reconciliation than for TEC and a historically black denomination to reach an agreement leading to full, visible, sacramental, and hierarchical union. I recognize that this would go far beyond the goals of TEC’s current ecumenical paradigm. I think racial reconciliation is worth it. If Called to Common Mission was an achievement, what I propose would be the biggest house party the kingdom of God has seen in a long time. And our presiding bishop is precisely the leader who could make credible overtures and apply the kind of pressure a real effort in this direction would require.
Precious Lord, take Bishop Michael by the hand and lead us on!