On the afternoon of Sunday, June 5, at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Madison, Wis., a service celebrated the covenant partnership between the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)— a relationship that was approved by synods of both provinces in 2010.
Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk and head of the Presbyterian Church preached, and Parsons, together with David Guthrie, president of the Southern Province Provincial Elders’ Conference, and Betsy Miller, president of the Northern Province Provincial Elders’ Conference, officiated at communion.
Regional officials, including Western District president Bruce Nelson, also had part, along with local pastors, including Staci Marrese-Wheeler of Madison. The Glenwood Moravian trombone choir of Madison played before the service. An offering supported the antipoverty work of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. The fellowship time afterward had lots of Moravian sugarcake.
Presbyterians feel strongly that the preaching and communion belong together. The Moravian preaching at this service came not from the pulpit but in the hymns of the communion service, prepared for this occasion by Nola Reed Knouse of the Moravian Music Foundation.
Moravians in full communion
The Moravian Church has official full-communion relationships with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church. In addition, the Northern and Southern Provinces will vote to approve a full communion relationship with the United Methodist Church at their 2018 provincial synods.
Such relationships are like a contract, in that two persons or businesses may have a good relationship without a contract, and a contract does not guarantee a good relationship. Rather, a contract or covenant is a reminder of our best intentions, and a challenge to try to achieve them.
In reaching an agreement with the Presbyterian Church USA, a dialogue team from the two denominations met between 2002 and 2007, usually twice a year. Worth Green, pastor of New Philadelphia Church in Winston-Salem, and Daniel Crews, provincial archivist, represented the Southern Province. Marian Shatto, a layperson from Lititz, Pennsylvania, and Hermann Weinlick, provincial ecumenical officer, represented the Northern Province.
The dialogue found no significant doctrinal conflicts, but did discover ways in which the denominations differ. Moravian elders are strictly local, congregational leaders; Presbyterian elders are ordained and then may be elders in any Presbyterian congregation. Moravian bishops are unique, in that they have no administrative responsibilities as bishops. Moravians have put more stress on personal devotion, Presbyterians on social witness and advocacy; here we may each learn from the other.
In the dialogue, we talked about tables: the table of conversation, the table of fellowship as in potlucks and lovefeasts, and the table of the Eucharist or communion. Moravians and Presbyterians both observe open communion; anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord is invited to partake. We chose to talk of “covenant partnership” rather than “full communion” to remind us that this is an incomplete, growing relationship.
Moravians and Presbyterians alike are part of older denominations, with roots in Europe, that have declined in numbers in recent decades. In both, pastors, traditionally prepared at denominational seminaries, now come from many different seminaries. Both have in recent years struggled with the place of LGBT persons in their membership and leadership.
The oldest Moravian full-communion relationship, dating from 1999, is with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Keith Harke and Andy Meckstroth have served or are serving as interim pastors in Lutheran congregations. Lutheran Rachel Connelly serves Lutheran and Moravian congregations in Wilmington, North Carolina. Iglesia Esperanza for Bethlehem (Pennsylvania), a Moravian Hispanic ministry led by Rhonda and Tracy Robinson, works out of a Lutheran church. Tricklebee Café, a new Moravian ministry in Milwaukee led by Christie Melby-Gibbons, works with a Lutheran congregation. Our full communion relationship with the Episcopal Church, dating from 2010, finds Moravian Carl Southerland serving a North Carolina Episcopal congregation.
The best of intentions have to deal with messy details. So church leaders have met to figure how to deal with pensions and health insurance when pastors serve across denominational lines. A Presbyterian pastor serving a Moravian congregation still has to be approved by the Moravian Church, and vice versa. The boards of a congregation still have to approve any pastor.
Perhaps this official relationship will be an incentive to look more closely at a nearby Presbyterian congregation. Might pastors cover for each other when one is on vacation? Might we have a Vacation Church School together? Might we share a church secretary? Might we work together on a Habitat for Humanity house? Might we sponsor a Syrian refugee family together? Might we work together on youth ministry?
Amid the divisions and wars of the world, Jesus called together the church to be a fellowship of differing people—Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female—working together in his service. We have often failed to be that. May our full-communion relationships and covenant partnerships invite us to be faithful to the Lamb who has called us to follow him.
Hermann Weinlick is a retired Moravian pastor and serves as the Northern Province Ecumenical Officer.
From the July 2016 Moravian Magazine