Shared DNA: Moravians and United Methodists
Throughout the Rt. Rev. J. Christian Giesler’s life, there has always been a United Methodist church — and a community partner — close by.
So it made perfect sense to Giesler, a Moravian bishop and pastor of Emmaus (Pennsylvania) Moravian Church, that the two denominations follow a closer path to unity through the full communion agreement approved in May by General Conference 2016, The United Methodist Church’s top legislative body.
“I find this agreement to be making official what has been a reality all along,” said Giesler, who was present for the vote in Portland, Oregon. “We are brothers and sisters, and we do share so much.”
Now, it’s his turn to help finish the process as the Northern and Southern Provinces of the Moravian Church in North America take their own votes on the agreement in 2018.
As with similar agreements the Moravians have established with the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Moravian congregations will be encouraged to establish or strengthen relationships with their nearby United Methodist counterparts.
Giesler expects this relationship to be somewhat different. “We do share a significant piece between both of our histories,” he noted. “To me, it adds something a little bit extra.”
A practical application
The Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships of the United Methodist Council of Bishops organized the dialogue on behalf of the denomination.
The joint committee that worked on the agreement had a tremendous interest in making “the full communion agreement mean something in practical terms. That emphasis was there from the very beginning,” said Glen Messer, associate ecumenical staff officer for theology and dialogue.
A Centuries-Old Connection
The Moravian movement had an enormous influence on the ministry of John Wesley and the Methodist movement he started.
Both traditions “have a real focus upon mission and upon practical Christian life within the communities,” said Glen Messer, of the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, United Methodist Council of Bishops.
Not everything is the same. With a strong influence from the Lutheran faith, Moravians practice a quieter former of piety, something that Wesley reacted strongly against, Messer said. Methodists are “much less inclined to pause, much less inclined to wait in silence to hear God’s voice.”
But that difference could be a potential resource, he added, as Moravians learn from United Methodist activism and United Methodists learn from Moravians the quiet contemplation needed to hear God’s voice.
Both denominations may have drifted a bit from spiritual disciplines like self-reflection, Messer noted. “As we explore our common root of history together, one of the challenges we face…is what do we do about our unique kinds of spirituality that have tremendous similarities?”
On a more practical level, the biggest difference in episcopal leadership is that the function of Moravian bishops is purely spiritual, without the administrative duties of their United Methodist counterparts.
"My main function is to be an intercessor on behalf of the church, to serve as a pastor to pastors,” explained the Rt. Rev. J. Christian Giesler, who also serves his own local congregation.
But the bilateral dialogue committee, which met four times between March 2013 and September 2014, also wants members of each denomination to recognize a spiritual and theological closeness that dates back to the time of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
The Moravians had a significant impact on early Methodism. “We were struck, as a committee … with how similar their church life in the 18th century was to our life as a movement in the 18th century,” Messer explained.
“The metaphor we sometimes use is that we share a lot of DNA, which is really borrowed from them (the Moravians),” he added. “They are a part of our family tree.”
The Rev. Lynnette Delbridge, currently a pastor at Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and a member of the dialogue committee, said she embraced the committee’s task with an open mind.
As a student at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, she visited several churches of other faiths, including a United Methodist congregation, and United Methodists were among her classmates. Her realization? “This is a Protestant denomination that feels pretty much like ours.”
United Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, the denomination’s ecumenical officer, has had Moravian connections within the National Council of Churches, World Council of Churches and Christian Churches Together. In the latter organization, the Rev. David Guthrie of the Moravian Southern Province chaired the last steering committee meeting, she noted. He “demonstrated the wonderful gifts the Moravian community brings to the whole ecumenical table,” Swenson added.
Swenson said she finds great joy in the new Moravian-United Methodist relationship. “As we would say in the ecumenical world, this is a way of making visible our unity that, in a sense, already exists without talking about it.”
Size, geographic differences
Because of a difference in size and geography — the Moravian Church in America has about 37,000 members in 17 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces compared to around 7 million United Methodists in every state — “most United Methodist congregations will never have an interaction with the Moravians directly,” Messer noted.
He expects the focus of the agreement will be much more local, “developing the partnerships between the pastors and the congregations in the local areas.”
Both denominations share a desire to draw upon resources related to spirituality and mission to “see the ways in which God may be calling us into a relevant ministry for today,” Messer said, and, at the same time, struggle with potentially divisive issues such as human sexuality.
The Northern Province of the Moravian Church in America, for example, has opened the way for ordained, openly gay pastors, Messer said, but the Southern Province has not. “Those two provinces have been in partnership for over 200 years and it puts stresses on them, so they’re dealing with some of the same issues we’re dealing with.
“When we look at these issues of our common roots, there may be ways in which we can help one another to pray and think and feel our way through the struggles that we have with internal unity within our own traditions.”
Swenson believes the Moravians have had success in determining what is essential to their faith. Learning more about that, she said, “could really help United Methodists, to open us up to that part of our history … and how we could work together in thoughtful, careful ways to find a way forward.”
Looking to 2018 and beyond
Since Moravian provinces around the world are all somewhat autonomous, the U.S. northern and southern provinces “will vote independently of each other” in 2018 on the full communion agreement with The United Methodist Church, Giesler explained.
The Rev. Gary Harke, who co-chaired the joint dialogue team on behalf of the Moravians, will submit a resolution to both synods, which will forward them to the committee that deals with ecumenical relationships and can amend or change the resolution before sending it to the full body.
“I’ve never seen any one of these (full communion agreements) fail,” Giesler said. “I expect this will be affirmed with open arms.”
Delbridge already has put the spirit of the agreement into practice.
When the joint dialogue team had its final meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, she and Giesler visited two United Methodist congregations. One was Green Street — a small, revitalized church just a block away from a Moravian church that she found to be crackling with energy.
Delbridge said she felt “blessed” to see a congregation that had come from the brink of closure to a place of vibrant ministry. When she planned a Moravian retreat in September 2015, she invited the Rev. Kelly Carpenter, Green Street’s pastor, to lead the gathering.
“It was a wonderful example of what sharing resources and knowledge and energy back and forth might mean,” Delbridge said.