Proposed changes at United Church of Canada might ease co-operation with Anglicans

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Members of the Anglican Church of Canada-United Church of Canada Dialogue gather during their November 27-30, 2017 meeting. Photo: Contributed

Changes now being considered to the structure of the United Church of Canada could conceivably ease clergy-sharing and other forms of co-operation between that church and the Anglican Church of Canada, say some leaders from the two churches.

One challenge now facing merged Anglican and United congregations, as noted in a report issued following the conclusion of the most recently completed round of dialogue between the two denominations, is that they lack an agreement allowing the interchangeability of ministries. Clergy of one church have been allowed to serve as clergy for the other generally only in circumstances regarded as exceptional, such as in ecumenical shared ministries, for which special permission needs to be granted by the authorities of each denomination.

Much of the reason for this lack of agreement, the report says, has to do with differences between the two churches on the meaning of the ministry of episkopé, or oversight. Whereas in the tradition of the United Church, episkopé is seen as mostly vested in the church councils, Anglicans see it as residing primarily in the person of the bishop. Simply put, for Anglicans, it’s important that clergy are ordained by bishops, says The Rev. Lynne McNaughton, Anglican co-chair of the dialogue between the two denominations.

But there are no bishops in the United Church, and United Church ministers cannot preside at an Anglican Eucharist. “A United Church minister cannot currently celebrate the Eucharist for Anglicans according to the Anglican liturgical Rites for the Eucharist,” explains the Rev. Scott Sharman, the Anglican Church of Canada’s animator for ecumenical and interfaith relations, and a member of the dialogue. “But, a United Church minister who is serving as the pastor of an ecumenical shared ministry, which includes an Anglican parish, can celebrate Communion according to the United Church liturgical Rites for Communion, and Anglicans can receive that Communion from them.”

The collapse of the talks between the two churches over formal union in 1975, the report notes, was “significantly due to different understandings of historic episcopacy,” and episkopé has continued to be an important topic of the dialogue since it restarted in 2003.

With the United Church now in the process of a major reorganization, however, it’s possible there might be “some openness and some possibilities” for the creation of “a place for personal oversight, or personal episkopé as they call it,” in the United Church of Canada, says the Rev. Sandra Beardsall, United Church of Canada co-chair of the dialogue.

Under a plan now before General Council, the United Church’s national governing body, the church’s four levels of governance—pastoral charge or congregation, presbytery, conference and General Council—would be reduced to three. The idea is that presbyteries and conferences would be replaced with regional councils.

Beardsall says it’s her personal opinion—and not an official position of the United Church—that regional councils, which would correspond roughly to the diocesan level in the Anglican Church of Canada, could conceivably include an ordained staff member bearing at least some resemblance to a bishop.

“I think there could be some opportunity, as they create these regions, to say ‘What would a regional minister look like?’ ” she said. “What if at least one of the people that was going to staff one of these regional bodies was actually set apart more like a bishop would be…a minister of oversight who would have some role that was like a personal oversight role?”

Sharman says that on the one hand, it’s difficult to speculate on the outcome of the United Church’s restructuring, and that differences in how the two churches understand episkopé are likely to persist, regardless. On the other hand, he says, “the result of the [restructuring] process, whatever happens, will definitely have a bearing on our dialogue, and on the relationship of our churches.”

The possible impact of the restructuring, he said, was one of the areas dialogue members discussed when they last met November 27-30, 2017.

“We’ve already been…looking for ways of being creative in how we understand how we might be able to bridge some of those differences, and this conversation around the restructuring—it could open up some new doors there for sure,” he says.

The United Church’s General Council is expected to make a final decision on the proposal to introduce regional councils when it next meets this July. The proposal to create a single grouping is now before the church’s pastoral charges and presbyteries, and, if approved by them, will also go before General Council in July.

Last November’s meeting was the first gathering in the third round of dialogue between the churches since ecumenical talks between them recommenced in 2003. It’s expected, McNaughton said, that the current round will last until 2019, in time for another report to be produced by the time the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod meets that summer.

Discussion on episkopé, she said, will continue to be one of the priorities for the dialogue group. But the most important outcome of the November meeting, dialogue members say, is a resolve to look at where co-operation is already happening between the two churches at the grassroots level, and to examine how it can be further encouraged, by putting together a resource of practices and guidelines that have worked successfully.

“We thought that our work would be better done modelling and helping people see how currently we can co-operate and go about some of this work…how we can encourage people to see that they have a ministry that’s bigger than either of our denominations,” Beardsall said.

Sharman says there are upwards of 44 Anglican Church of Canada-United Church of Canada ecumenical shared ministries, or joint congregations, in Canada.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

2 COMMENTS

  1. What do we have in common with a Church that has a pastor who is an atheist in belief in a theist organisation? Is it a marriage of convenience with no principles except disappearing congregations ? Perhaps the churches have to look at the basic system of belief – is it going to be according to the original teachings of CHRIST or the values of the secular world we live in as in ROMAN days. Is the CHURCH going to join the world OR be separate from worldly views.

  2. Re: discussion on episkopé: There are quite a number of church “movements” and denominations that think that episkopé, requires an office of bishop (the United not being one of them). Amongst churches that are not Roman Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican, there are probably a dozen or more than take a strong stand about the office of bishop, and which see the office as Biblically-mandated. Yet, these various groups describe the duties and responsibilities and privileges of a bishop differently. Perhaps it’s time to learn from these others.

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