By Woody Woodrick
In communities across Mississippi, United Methodists and Episcopalians have worked together on a variety of projects, ranging from battling racism to serving the homeless.
Now, those collaborations won’t just be matters of practicality, but of intention.
In a service held March 3 at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in downtown Jackson, the Right Rev. Duncan M. Gray III and Bishop Hope Morgan Ward signed “A Covenant for Common Life Between the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and The United Methodist Conference of Mississippi.” The service featured a sermon by Ward, episcopal leader of the Mississippi Conference, an ecumenical choir and shared communion.
The Very Rev. Edward O’Connor, Dean of St. Andrew’s Cathedral believes the covenant at its basis seeks to carry on the Christian work of reconciliation between the two denominations as well as to the community at large.
“I see this very outward, visible and growing relationship as an opportunity to live into our common mission. Galloway (United Methodist) and St. Andrew’s both have long and excellent histories of providing for least of these in our community. We believe that these historic churches can and should unite to have a stronger voice in the ongoing social and economic issues that face us. Ultimately we are committed to reconciling all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” said O’Connor.
Some of those who attended the service expressed their delight with the covenant. Tom Welch (right), who grew up at First United Methodist Church in Brookhaven and regularly attended Galloway for years, found the moment significant. “It’s about time,” he said. “I like to see God’s hand at work in unconventional ways.”
Welch is now a parishioner at St. Phillips Episcopal Church in Jackson.
George Burdell, a member of the St. Andrews choir, and Brenda McIntyre, a long-time member of Galloway, both want to continue the fellowship between the two downtown congregations. McIntyre, whose husband Jim was born and raised at St. Andrews, particularly hopes the two churches can continue to participate in worship services more regularly. “This is just wonderful,” she said. “We have so many friends in both churches.”
“In our lives together, we have tended to make more of differences than the great center of our shared life,” Ward told the gathering of clergy and laity of both denominations. “Tonight is a night when we celebrate this grand center of our shared life.”
Gray, who has long had a working relationship with Ward, agreed. “We’ve gathered to do a remarkable thing. We’ve gathered to claim our unity in Christ,” Gray said. “Our divisions within the body of Christ are a scandal. We’ve gathered together to say one very important thing: We need each other to be the church.”
The agreement urges members of both denominations to visit a worship service of the other during the next 12 months and to engage in the six-week study Make Us One With Christ together and complete it within 24 months. The document recognizes that many churches have already developed relationships and encourages the strengthening of those by planning joint programming including religious education, mission, evangelism, social action and the joint use of facilities. Groups are encouraged to meet monthly.
The agreement seeks for “our physical unity in the world will proclaim Christ’s message of good news to all people,” Ward said.
The event began with a shared meal at Galloway Memorial UMC, located just two blocks from St. Andrew’s in downtown Jackson. Laity and clergy, wearing full vestments, then proceeded from Galloway down Congress Street to Capital Street where St. Andrew’s is located. Clergy from both denominations took part in the service, and the choir included singers from both churches.
The denominations have a shared history. Brothers John and Charles Wesley were sons of an Anglican priest and both were devoted to the church. Although both remained in the Church of England throughout their lives, they are credited, especially John Wesley, with starting the Methodist movement in England in the 1700s.
Gray said that the covenant is a local outgrowth of a decades-long ecumenical national study between the two denominations to seek ways to connect in areas of worship and common ministry. Also, the existing close relationship between the Methodist, Roman Catholic and Episcopal bishops in Mississippi for the last 30 years facilitated the covenant’s formation.
In 2005, the United Methodist Church approved a scholarly agreement called “Joint Interim Eucharistic Sharing.” The agreement was later approved by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2006 and is the foundation of the newly formed Mississippi covenant. Gray and other Episcopal clergy took part in a joint communion service at the 2007 Mississippi Annual Conference.
The covenant was first proposed to Gray by Diocesan Ecumenical Officer the Rev. Michael Nation. Nation based his idea on similar agreements being forged around the country that were consistent with the Joint Interim Eucharistic Sharing guidelines. Gray and Ward were taken with the proposal and representatives from both churches refined the covenant based on Nation’s initial draft.
“As United Methodists and Episcopalians together we rejoice in the ministries we share. We have the same challenges as Christ’s faithful people in the world,” said Ward. “We long for stronger leadership within our congregations, for more younger clergy, for more younger people and more diverse people to be gathered in for the work of the people of God.
“We long for our state and nation to be a kinder, gentler more compassionate place. We’re working together to do that.”
The Rev. Scott Lenoir, editor of the “The Mississippi Episcopalian,” and Jim Woodrick contributed to this article.