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Moravian Church's Southern Province enters full communion with Episcopal Church

Vote echoes similar decision by Northern Province

[Episcopal News Service] The Southern Province of the Moravian Church voted Sept. 10 to enter into full communion with the Episcopal Church.

The 121-74 vote came after two hours of debate during an afternoon session on the second day of the church's Sept. 9-12 quadrennial Provincial Synod at Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said after learning of the decision, "I am delighted that the Southern Province has discerned the rightness of a full communion agreement with The Episcopal Church. Together we will be better able to serve Christ our chief Elder and all God's people."

"This is an important action for our churches, both Moravian and Episcopal," the Rt. Rev. Wayne Burkette, Moravian bishop and outgoing Provincial Elders' Conference president, said in a press release. "Full communion acknowledges our essential unity as disciples of Jesus Christ and enhances our witness to the world."

Diocese of Milwaukee Bishop Steven Miller told Episcopal News Service by telephone shortly after the vote that he hopes the decision, paired with a similar agreement made in June with the Moravian Northern Province, "will mean that we can really support one another's ministries in some new and exciting ways and deepen the learnings from one another through some real experiences of each other's tradition and gifts."

Miller, co-chair of the Moravian Episcopal Dialogue, addressed the synod before the vote. He said he told the participants "we were given an opportunity today to witness that disagreement doesn't mean division and to witness to our common unity in Christ."

During the ensuing debate, members voted 129-65 against an amendment to table the issue indefinitely. Earlier in the synod, a legislative committee rejected as out of order a substitute resolution that was critical of what it called the Episcopal Church's "rejection of the authority of the scriptures" and other theological standards, and noted the tension between parts of the church and the Anglican Communion. The substitute resolution would have postponed any decision until the 2014 synod.

The resolution passed by the synod noted that "the purpose from the beginning of our dialogue with the Episcopalians was clearly stated and remains that together we might work to further the witness and mission of Christ's Church."

The Rev. Thomas Ferguson, the Episcopal Church's officer for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, also spoke to ENS after the vote and said that the Episcopal Church is "not of one mind" on certain theological issues.

"I firmly believe that this is something that we can struggle with together," he said. "We can move ahead despite our disagreements. In fact, I think we're called to move ahead with disagreements. I appreciated the honesty and clarity with which the debate went on here -- the fact that people were clear and honest about where they feel there are some disagreements. I don't think full communion requires us to reach unanimity on those [disagreements]"

The Moravian Church does not allow service by openly gay and lesbian members, but the church's international body, the Unitas Fratrum, has said the issue is not a doctrinal matter, Ferguson has noted.

Ferguson said that a liturgical service to inaugurate the agreements will no doubt be held late this year or early in 2011 and that the two denominations will soon begin "the process of working together in mission and ministry."

The Northern Province of the Moravian Church on June 18 agreed by a nearly unanimous voice vote to enter into full communion with the Episcopal Church. Each province can independently enter into full-communion relationships.

The Southern Province is also due to vote on whether to enter into a "covenant relationship" with the Presbyterian Church USA outlined here. The Episcopal Church agreed during its 2009 General Convention to enter into a partnership with the Presbyterian church to work together in common mission and witness within the currently permissible bounds of the two churches' polities.

In June, the Northern Province's vote ended a day that began with the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, telling the Episcopal Church's Executive Council that the communion's ecumenical dialogues "are at the point of collapse" because of the church's decision to ordain as bishop an openly gay and partnered priest for the second time.

The Episcopal Church agreed during the 2009 General Convention to enter into a full-communion relationship with both the Northern and Southern provinces of the Moravian Church. The agreement officially is known as "Finding Our Delight in the Lord: A Proposal for Full Communion Between The Episcopal Church; the Moravian Church-Northern Province; and the Moravian Church-Southern Province." Other documents pertaining to the agreement can be found here and here.

The Moravian Church is relatively small and concentrated in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin, although a footnote in the full-communion document notes that there are Moravian congregations in Canada that are structurally part of the Northern Province of the Moravian Church in America.

Moravians in America are part of the worldwide Christian communion formally known as the Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of the Brethren, which was founded in 1457 as part of the movement to reform the church in what is now the Czech Republic. Persecuted almost to extinction, members of the Unitas Fratrum eventually found refuge on the estate of  German nobleman Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf. In the 1700s, they went through a rebirth under Zinzendorf's protection and grew into a global communion.

The Episcopal Church says that it understands full communion to mean "a relation between distinct churches in which each recognizes the other as a catholic and apostolic church holding the essentials of the Christian faith." The churches "become interdependent while remaining autonomous," the church has said.

The Episcopal Church is also in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, the Philippine Independent Church and the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is a national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and editor of Episcopal News Monthly and Episcopal News Quarterly.

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