Communion service to strength churches' bond


By Woody Woodrick

Advocate Editor


Two Christian denominations will celebrate their common history and goals in a communion service at the 19th session of the Mississippi Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.


The Right Rev. Duncan Gray III, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi, will deliver the sermon at the 8:30 a.m. Service of Eucharistic Sharing Monday. Several Episcopal clergy and laity are expected to attend.


Service planners say they kept the common history of the two denominations in mind. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, considered himself a member of the Anglican Church, which spread to the United States as the Episcopal Church.


The service will have a strong Celtic flavor, including UM pastor the Rev. Rachel Benefield-Pfaff playing the bagpipes.


“One of the things we talked about was to use the oldest language of the Celtic liturgy that can be authenticated,” said the Rev. Rwth Ashton, a United Methodist pastor who helped plan the service. 


Ashton and the Rev. Richard Robbins of Parkway Hills United Methodist Church in Madison both noted the beauty of the language of the Celtic liturgies.


“A lot of the language is highly trinitarian,” said Robbins. “The text itself is beautifully written. Our current service and Anglican services come out of common language. Methodists used a lot of language from the Book of Common Prayer. You get the same sort of ideas but put in language that in some ways is even older than the Book of Common Prayer.”


“Our actual liturgies are very similar,” agreed Ashton. “Many of the liturgical elements were already there. Our biggest challenge was the difference between using wine and grape juice.”


Episcopal communion uses wine, while United Methodists use grape juice to represent wine and the blood of Christ. Both will be offered at the service.


Ashton said the Celtic liturgy reveals “a deep, intimate relationship with Christ.”

The joint service is not unique to Mississippi. It is part of an initiative to strengthen bonds between the two denominations.


In May 2005, the United Methodist Council of Bishops approved an interim shared communion plan, an interim step toward full communion, in which The United Methodist Church and other denominations recognize the authenticity of each other’s ministries and agree that their ministries are reconciled.


The goal is to enter full communion with Lutherans at the 2008 General Conference and the Episcopal Church by 2012.


The Mississippi Conference already has a strong bond with the Episcopal Diocese. Gray noted that “two or three generations” of Episcopal bishops and four or five United Methodist bishops have worked together closely. The bishops of the denominations, along with bishops of the Roman Catholic dioceses in Mississippi, have worked together on various projects for several years and meet regularly. The three groups are co-sponsors of Congregations for Children, an advocacy ministry.


“Our two churches have spent the better part of 20 years working on these things,” Gray said. “It has infused both with a sense of common mission.”


The Rev. Tom Slawson, who handles liturgical matters for the diocese and pastors St. Philip Episcopal Church in Jackson, said the cooperation between the denominations is positive. “Anytime churches can work together across lines it’s all to the good,” he said.