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United Methodists refine ecumenical relations process

Bishop Mark Hanson (left) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and United Methodist Bishop William Oden sing a hymn during the April 29 worship at the 2008 United Methodist General Conference. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.

By Linda Green*
May 21, 2008 | FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)

Prior to the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, the church's Council of Bishops was authorized to work in cooperation with its ecumenical agency to engage in formal relations with other denominations or ecclesial bodies. The bishops' ecumenical officer coordinated the relationships.

Delegates to the 2008 General Conference added language to give the bishops authority to enter into "interim and provisional ecumenical agreements" with other Christian bodies, following consultation with and concurrence of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. However, all agreements of full communion and permanent membership in ecumenical organizations must be ratified by General Conference.

Clare Chapman, National Council of Churches; Bishop Philip Duncan,
Episcopal Church; and the Rev. Daryl Coleman, Pan-Methodist Commission
are presented to the delegates.

By a General Conference vote, The United Methodist Church entered into full relationship with The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on April 28. The denomination also has an interim Eucharist-sharing covenant relationship with The Episcopal Church and agreements with five historically black Methodist denominations that make up the Pan-Methodist Commission.

"The nature of our ecumenical relationships is evolving, changing and growing," said Doug Mills, a staff member of the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. "The Discipline was silent on full communion and to keep up with our evolving relationships, we needed to give a structure to allow the church to move forward in its ecumenical commitments."

In approving the petition submitted by the Council of Bishops, General Conference delegates described full communion as two or more Christian churches that recognize the:

  • One, holy, catholic and apostolic faith as expressed in the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the church's historic creeds
  • Authenticity of each other's baptism and Eucharist and extend sacramental hospitality to each other's members;
  • Validity of their respective ministries; and
  • Full interchangeability and reciprocity of all ordained ministers in each of the churches.

Full communion does not presume that there are no differences in rites or doctrines between churches, but that these differences provide no barrier to affirming each other as full expressions of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, according to legislation passed by the assembly. The relationship commits the churches to working together as partners in mission.

"This is a positive step and it provides steps for further conversation with Christian bodies," said West Virginia Bishop Ernest Lyght, who submitted the petition on behalf of the Council of Bishops. "Historically, The United Methodist Church has not functioned in isolation. Going back decades, it has always sought to be in relationships with Christian communities and non-Christian communities."

Prior to the 2008 General Conference, the Book of Discipline did not define full communion but did define covenanting, said Bishop William Oden, the outgoing ecumenical officer for the Council of Bishops. "The understanding of covenanting has been expanded by the use of full communion," he said.

Oden said the church is in a new era in which the term "full communion" will be used more and more in ecumenical relationships.

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, e-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

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