The need for renewed dialogue between the Anglican Church of Canada and The United Church of Canada was widely recognized among members of both churches following the failure of the Plan of Union in 1975. In its first phase from 2003 to 2009, the Anglican-United Church dialogue focused on ecumenical shared ministries, other areas of ministry such as chaplaincy, and common work in groups such as KAIROS, ultimately presenting its findings in the St. Brigid Report.
Following a renewed mandate in 2012, a second phase of the dialogue began—this time concerned specifically with the theological and ecclesial understandings of creeds, sacraments, and orders of ministry within the two churches.
Now, members of the dialogue have presented the fruits of their second phase of discussion from 2012 to 2016 in a new report. Available free online, Called to Unity in Mission compares views and approaches of each church to spur further discussion and presents opportunities for shared engagement in ministry and mission.
Driven by a common interest in theology as well as the faith and vibrancy of their faith communities, members of the Anglican-United Church dialogue represented a broad cross-section of clergy and lay leaders from each church, including both pastors and scholars. The membership included one Aboriginal representative from each church as well as a Lutheran representative on the Anglican side, reflecting the full communion partnership between the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).
The Rev. Dr. William Harrison, who served as Anglican co-chair, praised what he called a “remarkably capable and productive dialogue team.”
“Both denominations made constant efforts to understand the other, while always seeking to reflect their own views honestly … From the Anglican perspective, this has been a particularly felicitous time to discuss these issues because the United Church is going through an important time of decision about the nature of ministry and ordination, and is rethinking the whole ecclesiastical structure.”
‘There is much more in common between us than different’
In comparing practices and concepts of their respective churches, members of the dialogue found it helpful to adopt the common ecumenical language of ‘gift’—as explained by United Church co-chair, the Rev. Dr. Andrew O’Neill, “receiving the presence, words and practices of another denomination as a gift of the Holy Spirit” that allowed Anglicans and United Church members to reflect on their deeply held assumptions.
Overall, he said, the commonalities between the churches in the areas of study far outweigh the differences.
“There is much more in common between us than different,” O’Neill said, pointing to the practice of baptism and Holy Communion as well as the affirmation that both churches are committed to retaining historic creeds as foundational to their beliefs, and to using contemporary statements of faith within worship and teaching.
“On creeds and sacraments, our stated positions are remarkably similar,” Harrison said, noting that differences in this area “tend to be more a matter of flavour” than of any formal theological stance.
“The Anglican insistence upon common liturgies is distinct from the United Church freedom around liturgical forms,” he added. “However, the liturgical training that United Church clergy receive and the forms they generally use tend to match Anglican expectations.”
Divergence in ministry and episkopé
Major differences between the two churches lie in approach to ministry and in the concept of episkopé or episcopal authority, literally the ministry of oversight.
Harrison described episcopacy as a challenge for both groups. Where the Anglican Church of Canada exercises episkopé through its bishops, albeit in synod, the United Church shares this authority among its committees of Presbytery and Conference.
“The United Church finds the model of one permanent bishop leading a diocese to be less evidently democratic than preferred … Anglicans find the dispersal of episcopal symbols and roles in United Church polity difficult to understand and wonder whether important aspects of this central ministry are lost,” Harrison said, noting that further discussion in these areas would be useful.
The Rev. Dr. Gordon Jensen, who served as an official observer for the ELCIC during the first phase of dialogue leading to the St. Brigid Report, provided a Lutheran perspective in the second phase as a member of the Anglican team.
For Jensen, the discussion reinforced that the ELCIC has more in common with the Anglican Church of Canada than the United in terms of its episcopal structure, understanding of the sacraments such as the Eucharist, and view of the creeds.
“The only thing that stuck with me in the end was we could get close to an agreement … on orders of ministry,” Jensen said. “But there seemed also a fairly firm wall at the current time between a Presbyteral episcopal structure that the United Church has, and that which the Anglican Church has. I think that’s going to be in some ways—at least for recognition and a mutual recognition of ministry—the most difficult thing.”
Though Called to Unity in Mission has been reported to the ELCIC National Church Council, which will make recommendations for any further Lutheran participation, Jensen surmises that the ELCIC would continue to be strongly supportive of continued dialogue between the Anglican and United churches.
Both the Anglican and United churches have received the report and been asked to consider its recommendations. Chief among these are co-ordinating mission activities more closely, sharing resources, and ongoing conversation about ministry including episcopacy.
While the report makes clear that organic union between the two churches is not a priority, it draws attention to many areas in which Anglicans and United Churches may engage together, in particular the churches’ shared accountability to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and supporting the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Ven. Dr. Lynne McNaughton, an Anglican member of the dialogue, highlighted the recommendation to renew the Ecumenical Shared Ministries Task Force.
“We did a lot of the good theological ground of where our agreement is and where our disagreement is on mutual ministry recognition,” McNaughton said. “But now it’s time to go back to the practical level of that.”
She added, “I think it’s a tragedy that in some small communities across Canada, there’s a United Church with a half-time minister and an Anglican church with a half-time ministry, and as numbers diminish, both churches close … Both churches want to offer the gospel, the Word and sacraments to nourish those communities. And sometimes we can do it together.”
For O’Neill, continued dialogue between the Anglican and United churches is essential.
“We need each other,” he said. “We fulfill a part of God’s kingdom vision for this world when we seek that vision together, as friends, neighbours and as disciples in the way of Christ.”
Membership applications are currently being accepted for the Anglican-United Church Dialogue of Canada, 2016-2019, with the deadline recently extended by an additional month. Applications will be accepted until November 30, 2016. For a list of criteria, qualifications, and how to apply, view the application information online. Additional queries may be directed via email to Eileen Scully.
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